On the RMS – Navigating round Ascension

St Helena is to the south east but the anchorage next to Georgetown is on the north west side of the Ascension.  So it makes little difference which way you head out.  I’ve been both ways.  If you travel down the west coast you get to see the fuel depot and the American air base before turning the corner round by the airstrip and all the weird and wonderful masts which make up Mars Bay.  But I much preferred going round the east side of the island.  You leave Georgetown behind and pass the golf balls near Comfortless Cove but then have a superb vista of the BBC World Service Transmitters and power station.  The backdrop of the taller mountains in the centre of the island is incredible here, the colours so vivid in the sun, but it only gets better and you come turn southbound.  As I’ve already explored in other places, there are only a few places you come down to the coast on this eastern side of Ascension Island, and although it is good to see North East Bay from the sea side, it was much more revealing to see the low coast beyond the firing range, and then the dramatic cliffs of Spire Bay, White Horse and on to Boatswainbird Island and the Letterbox, all of these unreachable by vehicle under normal circumstances.  The sea bird colonies were a hive of activity, the sun was starting to set behind Green Mountain making that even more dramatic than usual, a fiery cauldron of light and cloud against the dark silhouette.

I stayed on deck as we passed by, but I could see as we turned the north east corner of the island that we were not going to stay close inshore and the island started to retreat into the distance.  As an escort to the departing ship, a pod of pantropical spotted dolphins leaped about in the RMS’ bow wave.

As it went dark I headed on inside and back to the cabin.  It was getting to dinner time and I needed to get changed.

Life on Mars – Heading out of Georgetown

Georgetown was where Edsel and I worked, slept, ate and for most of the time partied.  I even exercised around its environs.  Despite Ascension’s tiny size there is still more to it than just its capital.  You just had to be very careful if you were walking not to stumble, but there were also a few scenic roads away from the usual ones between the settlements that you could drive along to look at the views and soak in the atmosphere.  These roads were constructed when some installation or facility had been built – the golf balls of Comfortless Cove, the power station at English Bay, or the two roads, one to NE Bay where the European Space Agency had built a tracking station, and the NASA Road, which as the name suggests, led to a similar facility for the American Space Agency.

A nasty hump on the direct road out of Georgetown to the east meant that it was made one way, downhill only into town.  So Georgetown was effectively at a dead end of the main road system and you had to head south first before going anywhere else.  This road was of incredible quality, and I found out from a Director of the Technical Services for Government, Roy Drinkwater, that it was made from left over tarmac from the airport.  American Contractors had come in to resurface the runway and had so much material left over that they offered to resurface the road from the airhead to Georgetown, and indeed the excess allowed them to go right through town and up to Long Beach.  I invented a road numbering scheme for Ascension Island, in my nerdy way.  This route was of course the A1.  I was pleased several years later to see a map with the road numbers on them pinned up to the departures lounge at the airhead, but I am not sure it has been widely adopted.

Turning left at a road called Hogan’s Bypass you keep climbing as you arch round to meet the old main road by which, if you had nothing better to do, could return to Georgetown.  But most turn right here and head up the hill.  Two Boats Village can be seen perched on its little ridge nestled in amongst the mountains above, but this is a long even gradient and the distance is deceptive.

There is a sort of industrial feel to this area.  A cluster of containers called Hobby Park are strewn around the plain behind the thorn bushes are where several islanders have small storage or business units.  Then there is Birdies Filling Station, and further up on the right the road to the land fill site.

But there are three other quirky features in this area, which most people call One Boat.  For some reason, shelter or shade related no doubt, somebody upended an old row boat in the gravel. Now it sits there in case a bus service ever starts. On the left is the world’s most challenging golf course.  Eighteen holes where the fairway is rock, the tees and greens sand and you really don’t want to negotiate the rough.


One Boat -does what it says on the tin.

Life on Mars – Fishing with Noddy

The other use for the Pier Head is as the focus of the island’s fishing industry.  On our first full day Edsel and I were looking around Georgetown and ended up at the Pier Head just as a couple of boats were bringing back their catches.  Trays of fish were being hauled up, and on a stone slab to one side of the quay, the fishermen were skinning, gutting and filleting the fish, mainly yellow fin tuna.  We watched them for several minutes; for me it was interesting to see the skill, but for Edsel it tugged at his heartstrings.  Like most West Indians, fishing is inbred into your culture, and he was obviously reminiscing about trips in boats, or dangling a rod off the rocks.

He made up his mind there and then that we needed to go out fishing.  After making a few inquiries, he found out that one old Saint, a guy called Noddy, was happy to take tourists out for an afternoon’s fishing.  We persuaded Anselmo, Tara’s husband, to come with us, and a young American guy from the base was keen on it too.  We turned up in our shorts and t shirts and met this old small wizened guy dressed in green overalls.  We were taken out in a small launch to his fishing boat just off from the pier and sat back and watched the preparations by him and his assistants  First we gathered up some bait from the inshore waters, and then chugged off under the stern of the US supply ship.  Immediately we headed out from the Pier Head we were targeted by a flock of frigate birds who circled overhead like vultures.  Noddy set up a few rods and handed them over to his four paying guests.  I had never fished in my life but had watched so many films and TV programmes which had fishing involved – how hard could it be?  We got to put on the support belts for the rod round our waist.   He showed me how to let the reel out gently, and simulated a fish being caught and showed me how to reel in and lock the wheel so once you pulled in it was not pulled out again. Nothing too it, the mechanism worked with ease and was no trouble.

Eventually Noddy decided this was the best place to hold position.  Nothing appeared to us as particularly favourable, but he must have known that at this time of the afternoon (about 4pm) the tuna were coming into the shallower waters to feed on the shoals of juvenile fish in the area.

Nothing happened for a while then Edsel got a bite.  I was watching from my limp rod position (no sniggers) as he pulled hard back into the boat to lift his rod upwards but he struggled to wind in the reel.  He repeated this several times but the strain was telling.  With a fag nonchalantly hanging out of his mouth, Noddy reached forward and tried to assist Edsel keep hold.  He motioned for me to take over and help Edsel and we pulled with all our might.  Our American friend had also got a fish and was similarly struggling.  After what seemed like ages the shimmering silver body of a yellow fin tuna broke the surface, but the fish was still not giving up.  He tried to head for the stern of the boat and we had to change angle to bring him back close to our side. Noddy reached for a boat hook and hauled the creature in.  I was amazed to see how easily he manipulated the huge fish, flinging it down into the boat,  but when his overalls were unbuttoned you saw the sinewy hard muscle that has come from 40 years fishing in these waters.

Once aboard I had a quick chance to assimilate the beauty of the creature we had brought aboard.  Forty pounds of sheer muscle, tightly packed into an aerodynamic sleek body.  Long thin tail and dorsal fins, couple of other fins, anal and pectoral, also sleek on the lower side.  and the perfect coloration for a ocean hunter – deep blue above to stop predators from the sky, silvery underneath to confuse the prey.  And little yellow features on the fins and along the centre of the trunk.  And at its head a huge pair of eyes to see in the gloom and the most vicious set of jaws for a creature this size.

There was little time to take this all in , as Noddy moved the fish around on the end of his fishhook then bashed it over the brains with a cosh.  In my naivety  I had always thought bringing a fish out of water was enough to kill it but when I saw these tuna bash around in the well of the boat with brutal force, I realised you had to take more affirmative action.



With a bit of help from Noddy, we managed to haul out a few more fish.  It was all a bit of an act.  I posed for photos with the rod bent right over; the American guy asking me “Face the camera”, and “Where’s the flash” and all I can say is “Take the fucking photo” through gritted teeth.  In about an hour we had six heavyset tuna in the bottom of the boat.  Noddy was getting bored with us though, and flung a load of bait into the water.  The tuna started jumping immediately – we were slap bang in the middle of a school of them, Noddy waved a fishhook over the water like a lance, one tuna jumped up and Noddy speared it and with the tuna still moving forward, he used its momentum to bring it into the boat.  I was astonished.  He did it with one arm.  In the space of the next fifteen minutes he matched the catch that four of us had managed to achieve in two hours.  Bait in the air, tuna jump, fishhook in, tuna somersaulted into the boat.  He was not always so lucky; when he threw the bait in the air, it was a competition between the tuna and the frigate birds as to who got there first.


Noddy’s simpler method

With twelve huge fish in our catch, we headed back to land.  It was nearly dark as the catch was hauled on to the hard.  While Noddy and his crew cleaned up the boat, we posed with our catches.  I could barely lift mine for more than a few seconds.  We weighed them, the heaviest was 55lbs. That is a lot of cans of tuna.  But we did not give them all up to Noddy.  We paid him to fillet one for us and Tara agreed to cook it up for us at her house.  An hour later we were sitting down to barely seared tuna steaks, so moist and fresh.  Edsel arranged to have some of his catch frozen.  Somehow he managed to get it back not just to the UK but also through US customs to his house in Nashville.


Some of the catch

Life on Mars – Consumers and Customer Relations


BIRDIES FUEL STATION – The only place to fill up

Attend any of the events and you would get a slice of island life.  Often you saw the same partygoers at any event.  The exception to this was the Volcano Club.  Some of the contract workers in the US saw Ascension as a godforsaken hell hole, a hardship posting, and dared not go outside the fences that the commander put up to keep out the donkeys, the only threat to US sovereignty.  So they did their job, ate in the mess, pumped up in the gym or on the basketball court, then drunk away their sorrows in the Volcano Club.  How much were they missing?

The Saints and Two Boats Clubs had skittle alleys and most nights you could hear the shouts and cheers as different teams played out in a league.  I learnt to love St Helena Fishcakes (and try to make an inferior version back home now) and on a Friday,  if you headed round the back of the Saint’s Club as the sun went down you could join a hundred people getting their fill of the cakes and relaxing in the open air.

For a time, there was even a coffee shop in Georgetown.  In the old Conservation Office, more or less a shed at the northern end of town, a couple of entrepreneurs got hold of the equipment and beans from St Helena itself , served up some tasty biscuits and cakes and immediately got a clientele.  It seemed people working in Georgetown were desperate for such a service.


Georgetown’s temporary Coffee Shop

And this was a problem, people wanted many of the trappings of life they may have got elsewhere, even the Saints for whom it was second nature to make do and mend; if they had seen these services when on holiday away from the islands, they were keen to have the same at home.  But with a population of barely a 1000 people, it was hard to sustain a large enough market to have so much choice.  Some of these little businesses would open with a big flourish but the realities of rent, costs of supplies, services and lack of footfall would often do for them in a few months.

So it was with shopping.  If you were on the island a long time you made your own arrangements.  You could pre-order goods through shippers and it would be brought in on the next RMS or one of the other little ships that once in a while passed through.  With a bit more money, you could order in food through the RAF flights.  Shipping from Tesco in Bristol became quite a frequent event, if you could afford it. But for the rest you had to depend upon the couple of shops.  As a visitor, unless you were able to bring your own supplies on the plane, you had to make use of the two Solomon’s shops, one in Georgetown, one in Two Boats.  In recent years the one up in Two Boats was not doing enough business to stay open.  And the choice was small and the prices big.

Next door someone had established a bakery and there was much enthusiasm about the chance to get fresh bread and cakes every day.  Queues would form outside his little hatch throughout the morning and if you were a little late you were bound to disappointed.

Most of the businesses had weird opening hours, weird to an outsider of course.  The sole filling station up at One Boat would be open only a few days a week at certain hours.  This was mainly because the people who manned it doubled up on jobs elsewhere and could not sit there waiting for custom on the off chance.  People did tend to do more than one job, and often volunteered for a bunch of other things to keep it all going.

Life on Mars – Getting into the Nightlife

For a bit more money, attending one of the Tasty Tucker Wednesday Food Nights was a treat.  A set three course menu was put out, with everyone sitting down together and proper table cloths and napkins, nice so.  They tended to theme an Indian, or Mexican, or Chinese night; one time we had a fantastic Lancashire Hotpot. Sometimes they had to improvise with the ingredients – chick peas turned into frozen broad beans at one Indian Night.  But it was nice to see a bit of sophistication on an island that generally just made do.

On our first night in Georgetown, Edsel and I decided to head out for a night on the tiles.  The Obsidian more or less closed up after dinner, Tasty Tucker already shut up shop for the night, but we heard some noise coming from the centre of town and wandered over.  About a hundred people were crammed into an old stone building right in the centre of town.  This was the Saints Club – and was the focus of many a Saint, many of whom worked in Georgetown or on one of the bases.  That night the bar was packed out and a disco was in full flow in an adjoining room – it was like a cross between a village hall and a working men’s club.  We had a drink there and started chatting to each other but it was not long before several of the Saints started to introduce themselves.  One of the refuse collectors, a fireman, and someone who was an administrator in the government building. Before long we were the centre of attention and everyone wanted to know what we were up to.  When I said I was going to go on to St Helena in a few weeks time, I was bombarded with loads of suggestions of what to do there.

There were three other night spots on Ascension, although you had to know when they operated and how to get transport to them.  The liveliest was the Volcano club.  Situated in the heart of the US Airbase, it had a totally different feel from anywhere else.  While the Americans had leasehold over quite a chunk of land in Ascension , including the airfield, the US Air Base is the only place which does not feel British.  As you approach on the road from Georgetown you see the welcome sign, go over a cattle grid and it is like you have flown over the pond.  The look of the buildings, the street lights and of course the vehicles all look different.  I thought we might have to change sides of the road as we passed through.  And in the Volcano Club and the adjoining fast food restaurant, you had to pay in US currency.  Edsel was pleased to be back in the US, mainly as the attachment on his electric razor had US low voltage and the only place he could find to take a shave was in the restrooms of the Volcano Club.  In the bar were all the American beers, Budweiser ads, pictures from back home , neon signs, and on the big TV screens all the Baseball and American Football you would ever want to access.  While BFBS was being broadcast to the rest of the island, the US equivalent was pushed out here.  If the conditions were right, I could just about receive one of the US channels in my hotel room in Georgetown, if I could stand watching through a fog of interference.

Up the road in Travellers Hill was the NAAFI.  I rarely ate there, although the Volcano Club food was all fast and greasy at least it reminded you of a McDonalds.  The pizza at the NAAFI was like cardboard covered in tomato sauce that some squaddie had been sick on.  But there were a few good parties up there.  Finally there was the Two Boats Club perched on the ridge below the village of the same name.  Again this had a different air.  While the Volcano Club and NAAFI were pointed at the young vigorous and often single base workers, and the Saints too was a hangout for the single male government workers – the families in Georgetown tending to go to events in the early evening or daytime, Two Boats was much more about family entertainment.  Here you would have the bingo sessions, the line dancing, the quiz nights.  The Saints club had a similar set of events but was less skewed towards the families.  And the advantage of the Two Boats club was that the bar opened out on to a large deck area where open air barbecues and parties could be held, and below you was a swimming pool where you could dump the kids for a couple of hours.  It had a perfect setting close to the lowest point in the village, but perched on a ridge that looked down towards Georgetown to the west.

Life on Mars – The Obsidian and Tasty Tucker

We were booked into the Obsidian Hotel,  the only true hotel on the whole island.  It was once an Officer’s Mess and, apart from the RAF commander’s house and the Administration Complex, the only two storey building in Georgetown still in use.  Through some misunderstanding in Conservation, we were put in the plush VIP rooms up top on my first visit – and I felt very comfortable with my views over the town and the spacious suite.  Since then most of my visits have put me in Hayes House which has much smaller rooms in a prefabricated building, still comfortable enough but not really hotel like.  The Obsidian have a series of accommodation blocks spread across the centre of town and Hayes, as Tara put it “is handy for the Conservation Office”, but was a hike to the restaurant and bar in the Obsidian.

Sometimes I felt that at the Obsidian you had to know their routines and fit in with them.  Over time I have got used to it, but I found the reception a bit frosty to start with.  Being the only hotel there gave them perhaps no drive to go out of the way to please guests, ’cause where else were you going to go?  But on the whole I enjoyed the quiet ambience of the place and their had to be the appreciation that you could not expect all the normal mod cons and comforts of a hotel on a rock 1000 miles from the next country.  In the corner of the outside restaurant was the Anchor Inn, a mixture of English pub and tropical beach bar, and it was a great place to perch on a stool and catch up with everyone coming through – the tourists and travellers or the locals popping in for an after work slurp.  The courtyard out front would occasionally be full of people at a barbecue but more often than not, all you could hear was the wind breezing through the occasional trees or the shriek of a mynah bird. There was something about the silence of Ascension, so unlike anywhere else in the world.  The only birds in Georgetown were the introduced sparrows and mynahs, maybe one of the feral donkeys or sheep would pass through.  Peak hour traffic would be three cars passing by.  Every vehicle noise could be discerned individually, there was no background hum. Every action by anyone was immediately picked up because there was nothing else distracting you – the creaking of a gate, a cough, footsteps crunching on gravel. And in between, long periods of nothing but the wind.


Tasty Tucker in its heyday

Through necessity, ordering meals at the Obsidian was a strict affair.  If you fell in to the habit you could just say yes at breakfast and turn up for dinner.  But there was not a massive choice on the menu and it was a bit pricy for what you got.  Fortunately an alternative was available.  Just across the way from Hayes House was an amazing little cafe called Tasty Tucker.  It had been a canteen for the AIG workers once, but a lady from Formby near Liverpool had decided to run it commercially.  It served a set of basic meals, but the options were far more than the Obsidian and you could just turn up and eat.  St Helena Fish Cakes were their speciality but there were burgers and soups, fish and chips.  In the daytime it would be busy.  They provided guys (they were mainly guys) from the single quarters with their meals on a commission basis for AIG, but others would pop in and the few tourists who were there would often visit.  Being on the main strip most of the island would pass by at some time of the day.  It was a great place to go for coffee, and Edsel and I also would get our evening meals there.  Being a cafe style it was not open late but it was OK to get in the habit at eating by 6pm each night.  Best of all they did a cracking Sunday Roast takeaway.  You had to remember to preorder it and pick it up by 5.30 but it was the kind of wholesome cooking that a single guy away from home would relish.  Through repeated custom, the Tasty Tucker staff got to know us pretty well, apart from the owner there was another middle aged  lady (she will love me for describing her that way!) , who I forget her name now, but it may have been Fran. She and I chatted a lot.  She was a Saint and was keen to hear about my travels down on her home island.  She also had children who had set up families in the south of England.  She was so good to me.  On a couple of occasions I might have forgotten to warn them I would like a meal, and she would look at me sadly and say sorry there was not much she could do, but then still do me egg and chips.  Once when I was about to leave she and I were chatting about luxuries, particularly food.  She had a craving for Marks and Spencer’s biscuits.  I often brought little gifts to people in Ascension and St Helena and quality food parcels were always appreciated. So next time I went down, I tucked a big box of chocolate biscuits from Marks and Sparks in my luggage and presented it to her on my first day there.  She was made up, asked how much she owed me, to which I just shook my head.  It was this kind of friendship you got from the Saints that made any trip to the islands something to look forward to and relish.


Main St, Georgetown – with Hayes House Compound on the right

Life on Mars – Welcome to Georgetown

30 minutes later we repeated out taxi to the runway.  Every single person had their fingers crossed and were daring to hope we might leave.  It was now about 70 hours since Edsel and I had first left Kent and we had only achieved about 100 miles of our 4000 mile trip.  The engines revved up, then roared then we powered almost interminably along the 10,000ft runway.  We lifted, slowly, and rose into the air and the relief amongst everyone on board was palpable as we got to our cruising altitude, leaving the sunshine and harvesting of southern England below us and heading out towards Iberia and the West African coast.

The age of the plane meant that the only entertainment was from large screens at the front of each cabin and it turned out that only children’s films were shown.  I read a lot of my book that day.  We were served “dinner” about 11 am-  a ham sandwich which Edsel would not touch, and breakfast about 6pm – pork sausage and scrambled egg and  again Edsel had to pick out the pork.  No flexibility to the time of day – the catering reflected the original night time flight plan.

Over several trips to Ascension Island I have never been so delayed, and very little changed over the service.  Different charter airlines have undertaken the contract for the RAF, including an American firm who shipped over their own cabin staff who called you honey and chassed up and down the aisle in their tight uniforms.  The planes changed to , including a DC10 and an Airbus.  And the last time the entertainment did change and iPads were handed round from which you could select your movie or music.  But those two meals of ham sandwich and sausage and egg have never been altered.

The sun was set by the time we came into land at Ascension and all we saw was the red lights of obstacles around the airfield and the huge floodlights on the airport apron.  I’d met our host, Tara once before in London, and once the introductions to Edsel were made, we were taken the few miles to the capital city – Georgetown.  I’d not bothered to call Tara to tell her about the delays – she knew far more through the network on island and what was the point when the only option was to wait for the plane to depart and pick us up when we arrived.

I joke when I say we headed to the capital city.  True it is the administrative centre of the island, but in fact it was a town of barely 250 souls, in a country of about 1000 people.  The make up of the island was a mixture of military staff and workers supporting the functioning of the island, and one or two private businesses.  There are actually very few military ranks there.  Around the airport is the American Air Force base but apart from the commander and a couple of others they tend to be contract workers keeping the place oiled and greased in case it is needed.  The RAF base is up the hill about a mile away from the airfield.  It holds a few military staff but again has more contractors keeping the place going and a host of visitors including military people on rest and recuperation or R&R from the Falkland Islands.  What a shock it must be to them to feel the tropical heat of Ascension Island after the windswept cold of the Falklands.