Life on Mars – The Space Station

Back on the NASA road, having negotiated the battalions of crabs we had the weather to contend with.  The mist came rolling back in, but as the road twisted and turned its way around the back of Green Mountain, we went higher and the vegetation was greener – plenty of spots for a picnic but don’t put the rug down on the “grass” as it covers the knobbliest set of rocks you can ever twist your ankle on.

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The Old NASA tracking Station

One last stop before our destination.  Out on the right is the Devil’s Ashpit; like our visit to its namesake Riding School, the fog gave it an eerie cold hell like feel. Deep pits in lightly consolidated lava coloured in oranges, blacks and greys made me sure the Devil had only recently put the furnace out.  We could not determine how far the pits went on in the fog, and given there were likely to be steep cliffs or precipitous screes at the coast we did not venture too far. I’ve since been back and in the sunshine they looked quite innocuous but on that day the closest it came to charm was the colour of the crabs foraging around its edge.

And so to a car park at the very end of the NASA road, and the run down NASA tracking station looking grey and lonely in the mist.  Edsel and i found the door open and took a look around inside.  It was a peculiar sensation to be in a building that was probably alive with activity in the 1960’s, but now stood largely derelict.  There was enough furniture, bits of crockery and pots and pans, to give the idea of the Marie Celeste.  You could see where the wiring had been, but apart from some rooms used by the Ascension Island Scouts, it was hauntingly empty.  In one corridor we found a picture of a space shuttle, crudely drawn with the American and British flags as a background.  The station had been more active as part of the Apollo missions, again Ascension’s convenient location in between the continents made it ideal to pick up gaps in coverage as spacecraft orbited the earth, or the earth itself blocked out Houston’s contact with the moon missions.  We went out and down to the housing for the dish which must have picked up all the signals.  The wind was blowing in from the south east with nothing to stop it, and we caught glimpses of the south east corner of the island. I have been back here many times since and on a clear day it is one of the most magnificent tapestries of geological rocks you could imagine.

White ash rock on the mountains, black and red lava flows and orange plateaux, all surrounded by deep blue sea crashing bright white breakers onto the cliffs.  The road stopped at the NASA site at that time and the only way down there was to walk.  Fortunately, working with the Conservation Group there were many opportunities to go to the quieter, less accessible corners of Ascension Island, and immerse oneself in their amazing work to monitor its unique fauna and flora, but I leave that for another chapter.

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Letterbox- the less accessible reaches of Ascension Island

Life on Mars – an exotic menagerie

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Feral Sheep

The crabs are one of several strange species which exist on the land but are most probably endemic and evolved from a sister species being washed up from the oceans. The others were all introduced.  I’ve mentioned sparrows and mynah birds; the only other land bird species is a curious partridge like creature called a francolin. These are common enough fowl in southern Africa but somebody must have brought a breeding community here. Possibly the navy officers shot them and ate them.  Anything to increase the variety of food.  They tend to hang around Donkey Plain and similar flattish ground with enough cover. They neither thrive nor wither in this environment and it is rare on a drive or walk in the right areas when you do not see them.

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Donkey Fest

The larger creatures were introduced as work or farm animals.  Up until a few years ago there was a small herd of semi wild cattle up near the water catchments – the remnants of the farm herd from years back.  The sheep fare better and there are a number of wild ones that you can still spook up the back of Cricket Valley and some make their way in to Georgetown from time to time to see what they can grab from people’s gardens.

 

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Feral Donkey!

And then there are the feral donkeys. Yes, feral donkeys.  Originally pack animals, they were released when more mechanised transport became available, and there has been enough of a breeding population to keep going on.  They cause a lot of controversy amongst the residents.  To be honest  they are quite manky creatures, inbred with the occasional malformity on the outside, and not so clever on the inside.  But donkeys despite their stubborn natures are part of childhood stories and sentimentality has taken over amongst some of the residents.  Suggestions to have a cull of them  once and for all, in a similar way that goats were eradicated years back, cause uproar. I was asked by Stedson to do some analysis to propose a fenced off area on , yes, Donkey Plain, to allow them a place where they could be alone and stop pestering other features.

They occasionally would get themselves blown up by ordinance on the firing range, or be subjected to near lethal doses of  radiation near the BBC transmitters or, worse, damage the infrastructure and cause a water leak or power out.  And they did like to hang around the settlements.  One US Base commander had enough and ordered a fence to be put up all round and cattle grids laid at every entrance.  At first people thought it might be a reaction to the 9/11 terrorist acts, but then they saw the cattle grids.  I remember working away one day on a table on the little shaded terrace in front of Hayes House.  When I looked up from my laptop I was confronted by one of the donkeys staring me full in the face barely a metre away.  It was unnerving how silently he had turned up and how he just vacantly stared for a full five minutes before heading off to upset someone else.

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Hello there!

Life on Mars – The Yellow (and Purple) Peril

Back in the Land Rover we drove over a ridge and dropped into Breakneck Valley.  The vegetation increases here and the geology softens into the background for the first time.  But it does so with a struggle – a number of caves in a black ash cliff strike you right in the eyeballs as you go over the ridge.  I wanted a closer look so we shut off the engine and took a walk across the valley.  Edsel asked if we were going to do this everywhere.  I retorted  – why not – the end of the road is barely 5 miles away.  It won’t take us long.

The caves varied in size and shape and it would be easier to describe them as ash that had fallen down over lava flows and frozen in situ, leaving fangs of rock hanging down over the spaces they had consumed. So many times Ascension looks like a geological text book.  As much as the biodiversity, the volcanic features should be preserved.  We did document in our mapping what others have noted as key geological features, things like the fumaroles that are long tubes where lava flows hollowed out previous deposits, or the most likely areas to find the hard black pieces of obsidian after which the hotel was named.  And the colour of the rock changes frequently , greys, oranges , reds , blacks and whites to make a geological tapestry that rarely gets covered by anything else.

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The Weird and Wonderful Geology

 

Passing the island’s motorcycle scrambling track where kids and machines get bright red every weekend, you rise up out of Breakneck Valley and for the first time feel the full force of the south easterly winds on the south coast.  I noticed that along the road there were a series of yellow emergency telephone stands – I wondered how often there had been the need to report a break down or report that the road had been blocked by a landslide when the NASA station had been in operation.

A long grey scree ran off the side of Green Mountain coated in low growing ginger and guava plants, and also the healthiest lichens I have ever seen.  Their growths were almost the size of the flowering vegetation and must have represented hundreds of years of growth in this pristine air.  The air is moister this side of the island and as we progressed eastwards the vegetation started to grow larger, the odd tree here or there.  But our way was impeded by, horror of horror, ferocious yellow and purple warriors.

We were in a Land Rover several hundred times larger than our foe, but these sentries set up along the road were fearless and waved their weaponry purposefully at our tyres.  Just in case, we made sure we swerved and avoided them.  We stopped and got out; still they poked their armoury at us in an aggressive fashion, as if they were saying “Come on, I’ll ‘ave you”.  They were giant yellow land crabs.  That is their official common names although, as I say, there were also purple versions of supposedly the same species.  Their bodies were 8-10 inches across, and their legs extended a similar distance out.  For all the famous animals on the island, these have been the most  understudied until recently.  One lone scientist had done some work on them, logging their presence along the NASA and NE Bay Roads which we had been able to map as a sort of imprecise transect of sightings, but it did not really tell the whole picture.  More recent work had allowed tags to be implanted and the crabs monitored more extensively.  They seemed not to travel much further than from Green Mountain down to the sea in the south and east sides of the island.  They obviously preferred the richer vegetation over here.  I assumed either the pickings were too slim down the western and northern sides, or else they did not much relish too much of an insectivorous or mammalian diet.

I’ve watched them at many locations but find land crabs a bit incongruous.  I am used to crabs swimming about in the sea, but to be at such elevations juxtaposed in amongst twigs and leaf litter or climbing trees, and to be these vivid colours, was just ostentatious.

  Over the years more studies have been made and progress has discovered that they have a few key routes off the mountain, the NE Bay Ghut being the main one, to reach the sea for the inevitable release of eggs and spawning that needs sea water to be a success.  It is odd to see that turtles spend their life at sea and come ashore once to lay eggs, while the crabs do almost the complete reverse.

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Life on Mars – The Devil’s Riding School

The road reaches a T junction and most would turn right here down to the US Base, but if you turned left you were on the NASA Road (or A4 as I called it). The road passes by the Cable and Wireless Ground Station, and bends round the base of a hill.  Almost immediately there is a place to stop.  A walk up the hill to the right leads you to the Devil’s Riding School. Edsel and I first went up here in the mist.  The land is still volcanic but the south eastern quadrant of the island, right up to Green Mountain and beyond, tends to be of older origin. This hillside did not have the “fresh” black clinker of the lava fields, the rocks were consolidated ash, white and easy to turn to powder.  They had solidified into layers and when eroded formed plates.  As you walked over them too you felt there was crockery beneath your feet, they tinkled and rang like a nice piece of porcelain.

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The approach to the Devil’s Riding School

As you rose up the sides you realised much of these flat plates were a scree coming off heavily eroded hard rock.  It appeared that the outsides of the deposits hardened more than the subsurface due to weathering (the exposure to the rain and heat chemically reacting with the rock and forming a crust).  When the wind erosion etched through this crust it could suck out the softer material beneath much more quickly leaving very curious shapes and forms.  The pathway heads through a narrow gully between all these rocks and in the mist, the effect was eerie and chilling.  Shapes came out of the fog which looked like ogres or trolls, dragons and demons.  Was this why it was called Devil’s Riding School – did the Devil ride a horse through this hell hole?

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Platelets of rock

Eventually we reached the top, a plateau which at first sight appeared like a contorted limestone pavement of clints and grykes, but this was the ash version of such a geomorphological feature.  The mist was clearing and we could see over the airhead and US Base, some wind turbines whizzing around on the next ridge.

Orange lichens softened the greyness of the rocks, and the odd fern was finding a niche in a damp hollow here and there, but this was still a hostile environment.  Looking up to the east you could see where the vegetation on Green Mountain was reaching down into the valleys.  And then I looked down and finally realised why this hill had such a strange name.

We were at the rim of an old volcanic crater, mostly filled in with soft ash, and round the edge there was a ring of orangish ash, with curious lines tracing concentric circles round the crater.  It was like  all those sandy tracks laid out at horse riding schools with jodhpurful teachers barking out instructions from the centre.

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Life on Mars – A claim to fame?

If you are back in Two Boats, you can get access to the other scenic road, the NASA road by continuing out up the hill towards Green Mountain and turning right.  Hidden away to the left in the Mexican thorn bushes are  The Two Boats which give the village its name.  These again are row boats stuck in the ground, and gave shade or shelter to naval crew carrying water down the mountain to Georgetown.  The only school on the island, also called Two Boats, is tucked round the back here and some of the only bus services ferry kids from the other settlements to here and back again each day.  The only other regular bus services are on a Friday and Saturday night to ferry drunk residents back from the clubs.

The main roads on Ascension are well maintained and relatively straight and this had given the opportunity for drunk drivers to race around after a drinking session, and then hit a donkey, another car or just miss that crucial bend and end up a wreck in the lava fields.  I got to know a lot about the road traffic accidents (or RTA) on Ascension.  On the first visit Edsel and I found out that visitor numbers were monitored by the Police Force as they were the ones stamping the passports of  people in an out of the country.  Knowing how many visitors were on island were good for the conservation questionnaires and surveys which monitored usages of footpaths, beaches or sites of interest.  So, as a bit of a bargaining tool to get hold of this information, I offered to help the police with their other data.  Police on Ascension generally only have minor offences to deal with and RTAs were the ones which took up the most time.  I managed to create a little database from their RTA spreadsheet and worked out how to map the information.  I struck up a good relationship with one of the constables there, Johnny Thomas, and we made some maps.  There was a patch of accidents happening on the main road between the US Base and Georgetown not far from the junction of Hogan’s Bypass.  I was partly proud that due to the mapping some road traffic calming methods we introduced.  I was also partly embarrassed because it was quite the topic of conversation.  Speed limit signs had gone up everywhere and close to the accident hotspot a whole series of signs told you to slow down, bend coming up, left turn, and wild animals.  Maybe a bit of overkill but these measures and the introduction of the bus service did bring down what had been a worryingly high incidence of accidents.  I did notice that on one stretch of road the speed limit in one direction was different from the limit the other way, but maybe that was intentional?

Getting back to the tour of the main roads, dropping down from Two Boats you find Travellers Hill.  I have spent much less time here than the other settlements; most of the accommodation and the NAAFI club  are around a semi circular road, similar to Two Boats laid out on a low density housing estate style, or perhaps a low rise hospital.  There were many more single person accommodations here, many of the Saints working for the base complained that the units were not really homely.  But so much of this accommodation was for temporary billets.

Life on Mars – Out of town

Ray Benjamin, one of the Conservation Office team, lived up here with his wife, Sandra, and Edsel and I were regularly invited up for Sunday lunch.  We’d grab a few beers from Solomon’s shop if we were given enough notice, but it was no problem if we didn’t; the Benjamins were so welcoming and if there were not some of their family around, they just invited a host of other people along.  The best food I ever tasted in Ascension came out of Sandra’s kitchen.  Considering the difficulties of getting good quality food to the island, it was the most succulent chicken roast, and always a big hearty pudding.  Then we would sit around on the deck, maybe wander a few steps over to the house of  another of the Conservation crew, Stedson, to marvel at his tomatoes, or watch as one of the Benjamin clan would tinker with their car.  I know this is meant to be travel writing, but sometimes you just revel in soaking up the routine family weekend activities when you are miles from your own home.

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Ray Benjamin

Pass in front of the Two Boats Club and keep going and you cross a cattle grid, or more correctly, a donkey grid, and drop steeply.  The road hugs the foot of Green Mountain, to the left a large plain spotted with little volcanic craters is often off limits as it is used as a military firing range.  You cross a North East Ghut, a dry river valley, which I once calculated was the second longest on the island and has recently been discovered to be a major faunal feature, but more of that later.

Soon you reach North East Bay which is a handsome sweep of triangular sand wedged between two lava flows, The sand clogs up what might have been a small estuary if the North East Ghut flowed more regularly than once every three years.  It is the largest of the remote beaches and there is such a lovely sense of solitude when you are the first set of footprints to wander across its wave-washed sand.  North East Bay is famed as a crab spawning site, and as a turtle beach, but I’ve also seen it as a fish graveyard.  Every so often, islanders start reporting hundreds of reasonably sized fish ending up stranded on the beach, and North East Bay is one of the places where large concentrations have occurred.  The reason for the mass death is uncertain, some speculate some virus or fungus passes through the ocean, possibly deadly gas from the many volcanic events in the Mid Atlantic Ridge poison the oceans for miles around.

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Ariane Rocket Tracking Station

The tarmac road does not come to NE Bay, but turns to the right and heads down the east coast to the ESA Ariane rocket tracking station.  Apart from the receiver looking more modern than many on the island, there is nothing particularly striking about the site, but a scramble over the rocks takes you to one of the best blowholes on the island.

Life on Mars – One Boat, Two Boats

Weirdest of all is a rock on the roadside before you reach One Boat itself.  Its origins lost in the mists of transience and forgetfulness, although some claim it was a cairn built in the naval period, a tradition has grown up that if you are about to leave Ascension Island and you never want to come back, you paint it.  There was apparently a lizard carving atop the cairn, and originally you just “painted the lizard”, but nowadays the ceremony is just to throw a tin of garish paint over it.  Over the years the lizard has merged in with the rest of the cairn with so many coats.  Some emigrants are less accurate in their paint throwing than others and much of the ground around is smattered like a Jackson Pollock painting.  Many people obviously still do not like being stationed on the island, maybe homesick for their families or not used to the limiting factor of its size and options, as I have seen the colour change several times over ten years.  I, I must point out, have never ever considered painting the lizard.

Beyond One Boat the road runs straight and parallel to the old pipe that fed water from Green Mountain to Georgetown.  On the left is the “Chicken Coop”, a set of old wooden sheds where Conservation keep some of their hardware for maintaining the footpaths and vegetation. The road gradually becomes steeper and you bend up a hairpin and enter Two Boats itself.

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Two Boats to Two Sisters

There is an air about Two Boats that I love.  Compared to Georgetown it is a very modern settlement, built primarily to house workers at the BBC facilities at English Bay.  The site was chosen because the climate is fresher than on the coast, and much more hospitable than the north of the island, and it nestles pleasantly in amongst a set of hills.  Green Mountain towers over the east, but the perfect shapes of the Two Sisters and other scoria cones help shelter the village from the worst of the wind.  Low density housing set around a series of gently curving roads with regular open spaces for play areas and sports fields; it has the feel of a nicely constructed 1960’s English housing estate.  Which to all intents and purposes, it is.  I often get  a twinge of nostalgia when in Two Boats as it has hints of some of the nicer housing estates of my childhood in south Liverpool, right down to the style of the little street lights. Curiously Two Boats has a hint of the ranks like Georgetown, with separate social clubs for managers and workers.