Capturing the Diversity – The long slog back

Next goal was the top of Wig Hill and again we were clambering up and down multicoloured rocks – another noddy colony in the cliffs above us at one stage, several more booby nests.  We must have covered 40 or 50 individual nests that day as well as all the cliff monitoring and  colony counts.  But when you get down this way you make sure you do the maximum amount. It would be wasteful to have to make two trips.

From the peak of Wig Hill we could spy more noddies along the cliffs to the west.  This south coast was one of the key areas for several species; Tara told me they tried to count more from the sea when they were on their way to their Boatswainbird Island trips as some of the colonies were so well tucked in to the cliffs.

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A real sense of isolation

Then the time had come to return to the Land Rover.  Wig Hill had already been a climb, but ahead of us was a massif that towered three times the height, and to rub salt in the wound, we had to go down this hill first before tackling it.  We had been walking for over seven hours now, tired and footsore.  But we had to get back. So it was one foot in front of the other, no heroics, sheer stupidity to put on a spurt of speed, but just slow, slow, steady progress.

I stopped looking upwards as it would just demoralize me.  But looking back from time to time was useful.  I’d make sure I would stop before turning.  Wig Hill looked even more like a hedgehog from this angle, and I could see the western part of the Letterbox in all its glory. And each time I looked back these features were indeed getting smaller.

Stedson, a good 15 years older than the rest of us, struggled up that hill.  But he had the stamina of a pack horse and just kept a steady if slow pace.  It was clear that stop start was unhelpful – if you stopped both your mind and body told you that that was the end, and it was a tough job to tell them to start again.

Eventually we reached a col just near where our original path this morning would have taken us off the track round Cricket Valley.  Simon, Tara and myself paused there to let Stedson catch up.  I looked at Simon.  He could not say a word, he was so shattered, but he did permit himself one of those smiles of achievement .  My clothes had been drenched in sweat, and blown dry again by the wind.  It was all worth it for the recovery of the bird populations.

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A shattered tiredness but a sense of achievement

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.