Capturing the Diversity – Farewell to Ascension

What the future holds for Ascension is not certain; the airport on St Helena is changing the dynamics already.  But through the hard sweaty work of many dedicated people over the years, the future of the special plants, animals and environments on Ascension Island have improved, and it is hoped it will continue that way for many years to come.

Leaving Ascension is an emotional wrench.  And you get a sense of just how fragile its connection with the outside world is. I’ve either been taken down by the Conservation staff or bussed down by the Obsidian’s driver, Mervin.  You queue out in the open for the initial check in, then through all the usual checks and out stamps in the passport, but after all that you usually have a couple of hours wait for the plane from the Falklands.  You read, you watch the BFBS or you chat to people you know.  So many conversations start with “I didn’t know you were leaving”.  It is one big happy family until the time draws near for the plane to arrive.

The waiting room is relatively small, but there is a square patch outside set out with picnic tables which is lovingly called the cage.  It certainly does have the feel of a prison exercise ground.  If it is warm, it is worth getting your patch early on.  The cups of pallid coffee and tea or soft drinks from the NAAFI counter keep coming (no alcohol allowed).  And then you start getting twitchy.  The activity out on the apron is increasing.  The fuel truck is repositioning itself.  A bus is set up nearby for the fresh air crew to board.  A fire engine, lights flashings, heads down the runway to check there is no debris.  Often I have positioned myself in the far corner of the cage next to the apron.  From this position you can see past the terminal building towards the sea.  You look and look and look and nothing happens.  And then, and this surprised me several times, a light comes in not directly towards the runway but at an angle, then turns and faces you full on.  No sound, just this light.  The very first time I went home, after the two days delay on the way out, the two and a half weeks on Ascension, the three weeks on St Helena, the time on the boat, and a further delay waiting for a plane…. this was the first aeroplane I had seen for over six weeks.  And I choked a little to see that light.

The light grows brighter, and others in the cage have sensed the atmosphere changing around them and come up to the cage to nose through the chains. Still no noise, but you can see the other lights on the plane now, and it is dropping, tilting slightly in the wind, then sweeping through the runway , bouncing on the tarmac, a sudden shockwave as the engine noise reaches you, and the roar as the flaps go up and the plane is braking, then it all goes quiet as the aircraft disappears behind Command Hill almost to the other end of the runway.  This great long runway that could take space shuttles.  It takes maybe five minutes more for the plane to come into view and finally come to a halt a hundred metres from the cage.

Then a hoard of overdressed Falkland Islanders descend the steps, fill up the cage, draw desperately on their fags and make a queue for the beverages and snacks.  And all at once the Ascension Islanders are not alone in the ocean any more.  The outside world has come to collect them, and soon you are aboard the flight and this little rock, with its quirky livelihoods and extra special geography, fauna and flora, is left far behind.

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