Over the course of the next couple of days we spent training the guys in the techniques and discussing the issues around land ownership in this part of Sierra Leone. We would start early in the morning and we tried out different types of plot. After the initial trial in the small open clearing opposite the house, we ramped up the difficulty. I realised there were different types of land use in many Sierra Leone villages and Fintonia was a classic model. In the centre of the village were most of the buildings. The immediate surrounds, particularly at the back of the houses, were store houses, latrines and a hard pan of land used for most domestic activities – cooking, washing, laundry, fixing bits and pieces. In the plots behind this there was usually a kitchen garden where high value and small crops were grown. I’d seen maps the previous year of villages in Guinea where the word “Peppiniere” was used. I was a little confused at first but comparing that to where I was in Sierra Leone I now saw it was the same kitchen gardens, predominantly where higher value chillies and other peppers, herbs or spices were grown. The big cereal crops were grown much further away; I suppose since land was at such a premium close to the housing. Two types of this agriculture existed. Sierra Leone was riddled with little river valleys; the humpy bumpy nature of the terrain here meant you were likely to cross one of these every kilometre or two. While some dried out on the surface every season, they still contained a high water table of wet, organic soil that was vital for good yields. Irrigated rice cropping occurred here but also vegetables and some fruits would be grown. On surrounding hillsides land was much poorer quality and drier. Here other cereal crops such as maize and dryland rice could be grown. The scrub was being extensively slashed and burnt to make new fields for this kind of cropping. In between the dryland and the wetland Fintonia had conserved a wedge of high value forest. Yes some agroforestry went on here, but the forest was also used for beekeeping and the clay extraction, and other activities; there were pools for bathing – women in one area, men in another.
Fintonia – with thanks to Google Earth
If I felt even more energetic, I would not divert along to the end of the beach, but follow the track up into the lava fields at the back. You head up a small hill and enter a valley containing a few Mexican thorn trees, then rising further you are on Mars itself. More than anywhere else on Ascension, all you see is rock. It is the familiar objects which looks alien here, a green shrub, footsteps or tyre tracks. The base natural environment here is of another planet.
Bouncing along this uneven surface, the track forks several times and it takes a bit of orientation to reach a recognisable landmark. But I got to know the route to Comfortless Cove. If you walked this route it would be about 2 miles, if you took the tarred road it was over five. This curiously named bay is in fact one of the most comfortable beaches on Ascension being one of the few places where you can swim safely and not be ripped out into the ocean. From a small sun trapping sandy beach, there is about fifteen metres of sea you can swim out to; a rope marks the boundary of safety and provides a life line as a last resort.
Up the back of the beach a well defined footpath curves up through the rocks. Hidden in a cleft in the lava flows is the Bonetta Cemetery. A collection of well preserved graves mark where fever patients were buried. Fever in the 18th century caused panic, especially in small communities and on ships. Any ship arriving to Ascension with fever onboard was not allowed to come into the main roads at Clarence Bay, but were diverted up to Comfortless Cove to keep them at arm’s length from the populace. Victims of whatever fever it was would be discharged and buried up in this inhospitable final resting ground. The Bonetta itself was a ship with Yellow Fever but it was more common for other diseases to cause the mass fatalities – things we think of as relatively benign diseases like dysentery or measles.
Out here in the black lava fields you are set back from the mountains so you see their complete shape in one magnificent panorama. Equally impressive is the size of the lava fields themselves covered with guano in the foreground. This is not guano of recent bird activity but from “ghost colonies” showing just how much this was an island dominated by sea birds in the past. You see white topped rocks stretching as far as the eye can see . How many birds were here; a million, two, ten?
The Ghost Colonies