Capturing the Diversity – Where The Atlantic comes ashore

The next stage was to traverses one of these lava flows.  I was getting used to crossing these but this one was remarkable.  We had to climb a considerable way to get up on top of it – obviously it had been a thick coating of molten rock which had come down the mountainside at some stage.  It was relatively thin, but as I paused atop it, and looked first up and down, I was astonished to see it looked black in one direction and white in the other.  The lava field had been used as a nesting colony for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, but the birds sheltered on the uphill side of the outcrops of rock, giving them some shelter from the punishing south easterly winds.  So as you looked down, you saw all the guano from the ghost colony, looking uphill all the guano was hidden and you saw the true colour of the rock.

We were trying to make our way to South East Bay now, but again the most direct route was not the easiest, and we instead started heading north west.  I could see how much we had descended from our starting point.  I could not see the NASA site, but you could see the massive lump of earth that it sat on; and it towered above us.  While we plodded along on the surface , it did cross my mind that whatever more walking we did down here, we still had to somehow climb all the way back up there.

South East Bay is one of the most dramatic places on Ascension Island and can only really be seen in its true glory from the top of the cliffs.  From the NASA site, it appears a beautiful collection of coloured rocks and a sweeping bay of frothing water, but only from down here do you get the full impact of just how superlative the terrain is, and how dramatic the full force of the Atlantic Ocean coming into contact with the cliffs really is.

The first thing to strike me was a curious hill on the far side of the bay.  It had a steep white cliff, which had a funny little promontory of white rock sticking out the front.  The white rock was capped by a carpet of lava, this time a deep rusty red colour.  The lava coated the whole backside of a rounded hill.  The effect was to make you think you were looking at a giant white hedgehog with red spines.  It was not a surprise to hear that it was called Wig Hill.  In the centre of the bay, where it more or less turned right angles from the south coast onto the extended peninsula of the Letterbox, another lava flow, another black one, poured down into the sea.  It was obviously  relatively recent and the sea had yet to erode it back to a natural coastline; instead black rocks extended well out into the bay.  But the sea was having a good go.  Massive rolling waves came into the bay at high speed, bashed against the solid rock and sprayed up, some coming higher than the cliffs themselves.  Time after time these waves would crash in, and the spray and froth would fizz and shimmer for many seconds after the undertow had sucked the water back out of the bay.  I certainly would not want to be in a boat down there – you would be smashed to smithereens hundreds of times.  Death would be a mercy.

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Stedson, Simon and Tara monitoring the noddy nests on the cliffside

The main reason for coming to this cliff edge on the western side of the Letterbox was to monitor its noddy colonies.  I was still feeling a bit tender on my ribs, and I had already seen noddy nests, so I volunteered to look after their bags while Simon, Tara and Stedson went down in amongst the nests.  I got another sense of vertigo as I looked down.  Tara said – once you are down there it is not so bad, but I watched those big waves crashing below us, and did not want to chance having more mishaps.  So for about ten minutes I just sat there mesmerized by the strength and beauty of the ocean as it came ashore.

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The Letterbox on The Letterbox

We were on an almost flat surface, a red billiard table of fine gravel.  Stedson pointed out a number of small depressions.  These were not some volcanic features from centuries back but in fact the result years of target practice by the military.

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The curious crater

I looked around nervously in case a fighter jet came screaming over the horizon.  Stedson laughed -” it’s not done now”, he said.  On the edge of the cliff we came across more military hardware, this time in the shape of three frigate birds.  They were not animals but wooden decoys and apparently the navy would sail around this side of the island and crew would shoot at them to improve their aim.  Nearby , Stedson had some of his spurges that he had planted out and he checked them as we passed.  They were kept in cages to reduce the amount of cropping any passing herbivore might attempt.  Why a rabbit would head all the way out to this desert when there were rich pickings up on the mountainside was beyond me.

The weather had turned gorgeous as the morning had progressed and as we reached a real live Royal Mail letterbox that is the end of the “Letterbox” walk for Letterbox, we dug into our sandwiches, soaked up the sun, and eased our aching feet, and in my case, my aching rib cage.

I had to sign the book in the letterbox.  The aim of these walks is to allow people to have a target; you open the box to reveal a plastic bag containing pencil and paper so you can log your achievement and read the comments from other visitors.  There is also a little rubber stamp that you can put in a tourist guide to prove you reached the destination.  Most letterboxes are simple sealed boxes or even pipes, but this one was grand.  A proper UK style rectangular shaped red post box.  Like all post-boxes they are stamped with the initials of the monarch of the time.  This one was Edward VII Rex.  Considering he only reigned for about ten years, this is a fairly rare example.  The only other one I have ever seen was in …. Georgetown here on Ascension Island too.

After lunch we ambled over to the western side of Letterbox.  The land here was no longer a billiard table as lava flows had spilled over the underlying geology. But this was the area where the most successful colonies of nesting birds on the mainland of Ascension, save for the Wideawake Fairs.  Several species together flocked together in around 6 colonies, and Tara, Simon and Stedson estimated the number of birds individually and averaged out their findings.  Mostly masked boobies were present here although a few brown boobies were also mixed in.  The rocks around were white with guano and the smell was overpowering.

Capturing the Diversity – The missed step

After we had studied the spurge, I though walking was relatively easy on this ridge, and I was able to look around me as I stepped.  Big mistake.  I was looking at Boatswainbird Island as I tucked my boot tip under a piece of rock .  I  went forward, my foot stayed behind, and I was tripped.  But it did not stop there.  I went head over heels , my hands stopped my head from getting a gash from the ground, but instead the palms were badly grazed.  It must have only lasted a couple of seconds but I felt I would never stop turning; I think I somersaulted three times.  I came to a halt when my ribcage bashed against the ground.   I looked up and saw the other three looking at me helplessly.  Stedson shouted “Are you all right?”  I shouted back “Yes”, then stood up ….and winced.  I looked at my hands covered in blood and bits of grit.  I tried to move and my rib cage shrieked back at me.  But we were miles from the car, there was no way to just call a halt, so I had to put up with the pain and walk on.  As I moved more the first pain started to ease.  It would come back a day or so later, just as I was getting ready to head off to St Helena on a rolling rocking ship.

The Letterbox looked temptingly close, but to get there we still had to drop down into a wide ravine and up the other side.  We had several individual nests to check out as we progressed.  The masked boobies were not particularly perturbed by our presence.  One or two would move away from the nest as we approached, but hung around just out of arms reach.  Some would defiantly sit on the nest and it was quite difficult to determine what was underneath.

We could not take the straight route onto Letterbox which would drop us too low and make us reach a dead end against a cliff.  The Letterbox appeared like a fortress with sheer sides even on the landward side; our approach to it would be from the north west corner, which was a considerable hike from where we were.  Eventually we did climb on top and the unevenness and raggedness of the lava fields disappeared.

Capturing the Diversity – Stedson’s Spurge

This ridge was proving to be a marker for nesting success.  Over the last few years, there seemed to have been a expansion of nesting from the Letterbox area itself up this slope  We recorded the data and moved on.  Stedson started to get more interested and wanted to show me a little gut in the ridge.  Running steeply downhill, the gut cut a gully only a few feet deep, and at first sight was scouring away at the volcanic rubble here, but through a series of terraced steps some of the smaller washed material had been trapped.  This thin grey gritty soil had become the habitat for tiny plants, more or less the only greenery around this area.  This was a type of Euphorbia, or spurge, endemic to Ascension Island.  Stedson had been instrumental in both identifying it and building up its population.  He took out some polythene bags and collected the tiny seeds.  As well as a small number of very small natural populations over this part of the island, he was trying to find where to introduce them elsewhere.  Probably the only native which ever managed to colonise the dry lowlands of Ascension where there was hardly any soil or water and oodles of scorching sunlight and drying winds, this was a tough little plant.  Other more widely spread spurges do exist on Ascension Island, but this one has a gorgeous reddy stem, with the little bulbous leaves, storing away all that precious water it needs to survive within a thick plastic like skin.  And the tiny flowers are so pretty with their little white heads.  But all on a minute scale and unless there was a large carpet colony of them, most people would never even notice they were there.

Stedson was different.  He had an eye for spotting individual plants in amongst others or the empty terrain like here, and he had built up his own knowledge of their environmental niches, so much so he could more or less predict where you might find one of his precious endemics. I remember a tour he took around one of the uppermost paths on Green Mountain, Elliot’s.  While we were happy to see the mix of vegetation at different stages of the trail, he could spot the tiny collections of endemic ferns in a rockface or on a ledge.

Capturing the Diversity – two hours in and finally some birds

As we turned the corner I got the first glimpse of Boatswainbird Island.  Too many times I have heard people refer to the Ascension Islands, as if this was an archipelago.  In actual fact it is really only one lonely island.  OK , so there are two, but Boatswainbird is really just an oversize stack, a fragment of volcanic rock which became detached from the main land and is gradually eroding back to sea level.  It has been the lifesaver of the breeding birds, though, a Noah’s Ark against the flood of cats, rats and humans.  The Conservation team travel over there at least once a year to check up on the breeding, particularly the frigates who rarely breed anywhere else.  It has sheer cliffs on four sides good for noddies but a relatively flat top perfect for thousands of other birds to nest.

Where we were heading had a similar make up – a nice flat surface that probably once was coated in bird nests.  But to get there we had to negotiate some difficult terrain.  We were still clinging to the side of White Hill, but that now dropped straight down to the sea and unless we could find a way to drop elevation we would just come full circle and be back at the Devil’s Ashpit.  A gash in the hillside opened up – you could hardly call it a valley.  It was just where when rain fell, water scoured the soft volcanic rock and had dug out a channel. But it was enough for us and we dropped down with it for  a couple of hundred metres.  It continued down over a cliff edge, but here we turned right, climbed up out of it and were on a ridge.  And after an hour of walking, we saw our first bird nests.

Contrasting sharply with the black lava, a bright white Masked Booby sat guarding a nest.  I keep writing that word but hope you have not got the wrong idea.  This nest is no picturesque collection of twigs, leaves and moss; it is not some great architectural structure that would make a stork or a weaver bird proud.  It is a small scrape in the surface of the rock, enough of a depression to stop eggs from rolling too far away.  Nest sites are obviously used time and again, as the rock might be ground down to a thin greyish soil – a little bit more of a cushion for an egg or chick than bedrock.  But what mainly marks these places is the guano all around.  I’ve always had mixed emotions about the smell of shit.  There are theories that the smell of one’s own faeces is in some way comforting and maybe animals feel less disturbed when sitting in amongst their own droppings.  But I would imagine its use was more to deter others to come near as it is so disgusting.  Creatures which rely on the sea in particular have a certain odour to them.  When I travelled through New Zealand on holiday one time, I could always tell when a seal was about by the overpowering pungency of rotten fish coming from its orifices.  And here the guano smell had a similarly acidic aroma.

Capturing the Diversity – Starting the longest walk

It was a good job that Ian did not accompany us the next day.  I’d signed up for the longest of the bird monitoring walks, to an area called Letterbox.  I am not sure it was the worst; apparently the scree run down to Spire Bay and the long steep climb back was the most challenging but it was relatively short.  At the time of this visit, the closest road to the Letterbox was at the NASA tracking station.  From here we were to make a sweep of most of the south east coast of Ascension.  We arrived as early as we could, and the day started out misty with a drizzly rain blown in from the south east.  From the car park you could just about make out most of our route, although it was obscured behind hills or down in dips in a few places.  With Tara and Simon, Stedson had come with us.  He helped out with the bird monitoring if he had to but he also wanted to check up on one of his plant restoration projects down on Letterbox itself.

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A good view of where we were to walk (from the NASA site) – looks easy from up here

We started just back from the NASA station opposite the Devil’s Ash Pit, a very easy track which ran along the edge of a crater called Cricket Valley, which was deep and coated with a unique ecology of dense scrubby plants.  After about five minutes we turned off onto a narrow path, and that was the end of the easy walking for the day.  This trail passed underneath White Hill and down a steep valley that would eventually drop into the ocean at Spire Beach.  There was a path here but it was one foot wide, i.e. the width of my foot.  The ground rose at a 75 degree angle above the footpath, and dropped sharply away on the other side; indeed the path itself was often at an angle.  Now I do not suffer much with vertigo but I did get a nasty giddy feeling as I went on down.  I had to control it because there was no room to sway around here.  I was glad that the mist was quite thick as it meant I could not see much of the valley below, and my hand kept touching the wall of hill to my right just to reassure me I was still upright. Stedson pointed out another path which dropped away steeply from ours – this was the route down to Spire Beach.  I saw what they meant about this being the most difficult walk and was glad in a way I didn’t have to head that way.

Our path curved around the north side of White Hill and eventually reaches much flatter land with more room to spread out.  The mist was beginning to clear and I could see down to Spire Beach below – a beautiful bay cut off on all landward sides by steep cliffs.  You could see why birds and turtles would think it safe to leave their eggs down there.

Capturing the Diversity – Time for a fag

We continued our walk and covered maybe a hundred individual nests and counted the colonies on at least seven stacks.  We were so busy in amongst the cliffs and the lava field that I barely looked up to see our progress.  When I did the BBC transmitters still seemed to be the same distance away, but then I triangulated with the gold balls behind us and estimated we were about two thirds of the  way along.   At last I could see the large oil storage tanks that was our final destination.  It still took a good half hour to reach them.  There was no footpath, you just had to pick your way from rock to rock, and try not to trip up or get your ankle twisted in any holes you came across.

As we kept on stepping close to the cliffs and stacks to do the monitoring, I was grateful I did not yet have the knowledge that Ascension Island is shaped like a mushroom. Underwater surveys have revealed that the waves and water have eroded away significant amounts of the submarine rock, and that large chunks of the cliff are overhangs into the ocean.  Well most of it has lasted a few hundred years, I expect another couple of hundred won’t hurt, but Ascension may end up with a lot more stacks in future, although the older ones wash into the sea, and some of the island’s precious infrastructure could either get isolated, or tumble in to the sea when the rock breaks.

I caught up with Simon, Anselmo and Ray just as they reached the gravel surface of the little car park at the end of the track.  I looked back, and could see Ian struggling on behind.  It was a good ten minutes before he finally reached us, lobster red face and barely able to breathe, let alone talk.  Ray grinned at him and released the pipe from the water bottle stored in his backpack and Ian took as big a suck as he could muster.  Then he had a cigarette.  We all laughed so hard and Ian grinned from behind the smoke, “Not doing that again, no way” he wheezed.