The lack of lighting in the evenings was mesmerizing. The pin pricks of light from the phones just about lit up the chests and chins of the people walking by with them. One or two houses might have a Coleman lamp, but most of the domestic light came from the fires and was both a dim orange and constantly fluctuating. Then the odd headlight from a car or a dimmer front light on some of the bikes. That was it. The ground around was dark, the trees only just discernible against the night sky. And of course the night sky itself was intense; whether it be from the myriad stars of the Milky Way when we arrived to the first slivers of the new moon on subsequent nights.
One other light would make an impact on us. Some nights we would look out and the silhouette of the nearby hill was clearer than usual – a red glow behind gave away that a fire was burning up in the distance. The glow would burn quite intensely, pulsating for many minutes. It was difficult to gauge how far away the fire front was, but one night, we had been watching the glow getting stronger and could then hear crackling. The active fire must have been several kilometres across and it was having an effect on the air around us. First we noticed that we were being rained upon by black cinders, then there was a whoosh from the west and a rush of wind blew straight out of the forest, down the road and out to the east, taking with it a huge swirl of cloud and ash. The air around us was being fiercely sucked up into the fire front. We had to hold on to our papers on the table to stop them joining the wind. It blew for a couple of minutes, the trees violently tugging at their own roots in the maelstrom, before something happened which turned off the wind. The fire never reached the village but it was another reminder of how vulnerable these places were. As part of the project, the village had been encouraged to have fire wardens that kept watch for fires in the dry season, and a store of beaters and other equipment was kept in the community centre in case there was a need to protect the properties in the village itself.
Fire became an increasing hazard as the dry season went on. Not only was there little water on or in the ground to dampen any sparks, but the luxurious growth of understory that built up over the wet season dried out to be perfect tinder. The scrunching noise you hear as a fire whips around a forest is all caused by it catching a frond of dry grass and exploding along the parched stems and into the dry undergrowth.
It was good that we split the day up into field work in the mornings and other activities in the afternoon. We were all more productive when fresh and relatively cool, and the afternoons gave Kofi and I a chance to catch up on other work. Our biggest problem was that most of our work was computer based and our guest house had no electricity. So daily we would hike up the road to the project office and call on the caretaker there to unlock the building and turn on the generator. We would settle ourselves at the table on the back veranda there and get our maps and laptops out while he would run off to find the fuel in a storehouse at the back of the compound, fill the generator, prime the pump, and switch it on. It took a couple of pulls before it would whirr in to life. Only then would we connect our laptops to the plugs – we took no chances with spikes in supply. The generator was linked to a whole bunch of plugs around the building and also powered the satellite dish. This meant we could get a little connectivity with the outside world and I was able to quick download emails and reply to the most essential ones. I felt a little bit of a cheat here; in theory I did not need to keep up to date and there was little I could do with such limited connectivity but my western mind had grown too used to not being out of touch with my life back home. We would stay at the office only as long as it took to power up our laptop batteries, then we would walk back down the hill.
Longwood village sits at the end of a long road out of Jamestown (long by St Helena standards at about 7 miles) and is the gateway to some of the flattest land on the island. To the north of the village is a large pastureland called Deadwood Plain, the biggest area of grass on the whole island. Stuck on the edge of this plateau on a windy spot were three wind turbines, which marked St Helena’s first attempt at renewable energy. In theory there were enough windy spots across the island that it could be self sufficient in this form, instead of from the oil powered generation done from Rupert’s Bay. The problem was that being so small and so far away from the mainland, if you needed to replace parts or do maintenance, there was a limited amount that could be done quickly. Bigger jobs took more specialist parts or expertise which could take weeks to deliver.
One of the wind turbines
Deadwood was also a location where you had one of the best chances of seeing the only endemic land bird. The wirebird is a type of lapwing and prefers the open spaces of grassland. It thus tends to avoids the dense vegetation in the highlands, and hated the stony ground round the coast, so its habitats were quite restricted. One time I parked the car close to Longwood Gate and walked along a track across the plain towards one of the most iconic hills in St Helena. Although not very tall in comparison with other peaks, it’s separation from other high ground and conical shape made Flagstaff a distinct peak that was an obvious navigation mark from the sea. I assume its name derived from a practice of planting the union flag there in case the French ever decided to invade. Once past the line of houses which sit just below the ridge of Deadwood Plain, I was exposed to the full force of the wind coming up from Rupert’s Valley. No wonder the turbines had been placed here. A couple of wirebirds fluttered up from the grass in front of me, but instead of flying to one side they came to rest just ahead of me, and within a few seconds were up in the air again. Like many lapwings, they have a curious defence mechanism which I saw later on that day on the plain as I was returning. Instead of flying away, the wirebird would run in an agitated manner, one wing held out from the body as if it were injured. It would continue to do this for quite some distance before suddenly becoming fit and healthy again and flying back to its original position. They use this ploy to distract any potential predator away from their nests which, since there are no trees or shrubs, has to be on the ground.
As we walked back, I was staring right into the eastern array of the World Service transmitters. Five huge Faraday cages supported a network of wires from which the BBC World Service pumped out its content over the Short Wave. Peter Gillies, the manager of the power station, had given Edsel and myself a tour of the facilities earlier on our first trip in return for us talking to him about mapping all the amenities on the island. This oil fired station at the time created most of the electricity on the whole island, save for a few smaller generators at the airfield and US Base, and the small wind farm near Travellers Hill. Of all the electricity generated by the power station, up to 70 % went into powering the BBC transmitters. I was gobsmacked by the sheer quantity of power throbbing through those wires. The position of Ascension slap, bang in the centre of the ocean meant it could beam radio to both western Africa and South America. Originally it would use tapes of programmes shipped down from London, nowadays the live World Service feed is directly downloaded through a satellite dish near the power station and broadcast out through the transmitters. A big chunk of the power stations other use was to produce desalinated water for most of the island. Peter showed us the drawings of the electricity poles and the water pipes, and in the centre of Georgetown and Two Boats we got maps of where the streetlights were and the sewage pipes leading to the small treatment plant next to Long Beach.
The BBC transmitters behind the BBC Klinka Club
The BBC transmitters
He also dug out some very old maps of Ascension Island. I loved these as it showed how different elements of the island had changed. One map, barely 100 years past, showed that the roads went different routes to get across the island – and I wondered why they had been abandoned. I also saw the pipeline that came down from the water catchments. Ash and I had walked past these catchments on our route around the Bishop’s Path. Large concrete surfaces had been pasted onto the south east facing mountain side to catch the prevailing rain and cloud mist that were often covering this area. The water was channelled down to small hole at the bottom, and from this a pipe connected under the ridge, through a series of holding tanks where the flow could be controlled a lot better; and then dropped past Two Boats to Georgetown and the main storage tank opposite the church.