Capturing the Diversity – Counting Birds -while waiting for a plane

Over the years, I went on several of the bird monitoring walks that the conservation group had to do.  The RSPB programme was intense; because apart from the wideawakes,the number of birds was so low, almost every nest was being counted regularly.  They not only looked for evidence of nesting, but needed somehow to monitor the progress and success rate of the laying.  Over a period of 6-12 weeks, dependent on the species, they would have to visit the same nest 3 to 5 times. Where a new pair had set up a nest, they looked first for evidence of eggs, then the chicks at various stages of development, up to the point where they get their flight feathers and fledge (i.e. fly away).  This sounds like a simple progression to monitor, but the reality was much more complicated.  The species monitored might have up to three chicks at different stages of development, some eggs may never hatch and the nests were still susceptible to predation by rats and frigate birds, or the chicks would die because of some clumsy accident or neglect from the parents.  Evidence of seeing a fledgling one time and an empty nest the next was generally seen as a success, but almost any other combination of results – empty nests too early in the cycle, or evidence that a second egg laying has happened (by the same pair or another pair of parents) were all counted as failures.


Graham and Margaret – Third and fourth from right – with the other Conservation team members – 2005

Almost all the nests were on secluded coastlines a tough walk away from any vehicular access.  So the effort to monitor the birds was immense, and the conservation staff were few and pressed into many other activities.  Fortunately, there were a merry band of volunteers who also helped out at the Conservation Office.  Two of my favourites from all the trips were the Cripps family.  Graham was the Legal Secretary for the Government and had an office just along the corridor from the Conservation Office.  His wife, Margaret, was a keen volunteer for Conservation and helped out on tours, at the little display room and shop, and on the bird monitoring side.  On my way back from St Helena on the first trip, I was delayed several days.  On arrival on the RMS, I had already been expecting three days wait for the next plane home.  The schedules were not synchronized in any way and you had to build that in.  But worse was to come.  I was totally phlegmatic about the air bridge having been delayed nearly two days on the way down.  My fellow passengers from the RMS were not so relaxed.  They were mostly billeted in the Obsidian Hotel with me, and even if I did not eat at the restaurant every night, I would usually end up there for a sundowner at the Anchor Inn there.  Most had rushed round the island trying to pack in all the sights while they had the three days, and were pretty much ready to board the flight and head to the UK.  The rumours came in on the second day we were there that the southbound flight to the Falklands had not come in that morning.  More rumours started circulating that the jumbo jet had been involved in an accident on the apron at Brize Norton.  Someone driving the air stairs up to the door had missed and driven into the fuselage, making a hole right through it.  The jumbo would be out of action for over a week while it was repaired.

Calculations started going on in my head – I had been away already for over six weeks, one of my longer work trips.  The Obsidian Hotel was the best place to get the most up to date picture, although you realised mostly they were getting it from the same rumour mill as everyone else, just more efficiently.  They told us that an RAF Tri-Star was being laid on to do the route, but it still had to go all the way to the Falklands and back before picking us up for the UK leg.  That added another four days to our stay in Georgetown.

Life On Mars – Business and Rights


The Conservation Office Block


The Conservation Office where Edsel and I would work was on the main strip coming into town, so very little escaped us unless it came down the hill from Two Boats Village down the one way road off Cross Hill.  We shared the same building with the Legal Secretary and the Drawing Office of Technical Services.  Behind was the Cable and Wireless building.  Apart from the military importance of Ascension Island, it was also a useful communication hub.  Cable And Wireless had been operating on the island since the days of the telegraph and now had relay stations here, as well as being the only telephone and internet supplier.  Next door to them was the Administrators Complex.  This smart building contained many of the offices for most of the small government, including the Administrator himself and a conference room, and a proud union jack flying from the flagpole outside on the “black grass”, the loose black chippings that seemed to cover the whole of Georgetown.  The Government was small; the big organisations on the island dealt with many of their own services, contracts and other issues, but the AIG pulled it all together.  This is after all a working island.  Apart from the RAF and USAF, there were a small number of companies as well as Cable And Wireless.  There were contractors for the British Broadcasting Corporation who kept a set of transmitters at the northern end of the island for their World Service broadcasts to both Africa and South America.  And then there was CSO.  An arm of the UK intelligence service, part of GCHQ, a small office was housed in Two Boats. They heard of Edsel and our presence on the island and were alarmed to find out that we had purchased satellite imagery of the island.  We were dragged up to the office and gently interrogated about our proposed activities.  We were told we were not allowed to map the radar stations, dishes and transmitters that pepper the island.  We said we had not intended to do anything of the sort, but might spot the thorn bushes and a few turtle nests.


The Huge BBC World Service Transmitters

The implications of the island being run for a few businesses are not explicit at first sight – after all businesses and institutions exist everywhere.  But here in Ascension Island, if you are not working or connected with someone who is working, you are not allowed to stay on the island.  That means if you are made redundant from one contract, if you cannot find another job quickly you will most likely be asked to leave.  And then forced to leave.  And nobody can retire.  Apart from the odd white haired tourist, you do not see anyone over the age of 65 on Ascension Island.  Thus there are a lot of single people working on temporary contracts around the bases or in government, or maybe contracted out to work down the power station.  Then there are key critical posts, and people come down from the UK to work on short 2-3 year contracts, bringing their families with them.  A few have become long term residents but often end up doubling up on roles – the dentist also owns the Obsidian business.  Some of the government posts have become long term, many of the Saints we worked with in Conservation had been there many years, a few born there as their parents had come over as contractors and stayed.

One upshot of this is that the hospital is a very quiet place. Apart from maternity clinics and quick fixes for children or the odd industrial or sporting injury, it does not see a massive amount of activity.  And there is a morgue on the island out at the north end near Long Beach, but it, too, rarely gets used.  I took a walk to the Georgetown Cemetery at the southern end of town one time, and looked at the grand old headstones and memorials here.  Stories of passengers on ships that had fallen ill and died, fevers and even the odd shipwreck.  But just a few graves dug in the last forty years.  A few heart attacks, the odd horrific work injury.  And even in these cases, everyone is related to someone off island, the bodies tend to be sent to the Morgue for cold storage before being transferred on the airbridge or RMS.

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 – Will we ever get there?

About 150 people gathered under the portico of the hotel, but no buses arrived for nearly half an hour.  We contemplated walking to the terminal and in fact we saw some head off alone, but in the end we complied with authority (was I already being brainwashed into acceptance of taking orders?)  and when the buses arrived dutifully boarded.

The trip took less than four minutes but was uncomfortable as this old bus rattled as it bounced over speed bumps.  Once at the airport we had no queuing to do as we already had our boarding passes from the check in the day before.  It was an RAF boarding pass in red and blue.  Despite the flight being conducted on a charter jumbo jet and crewed by a commercial airline, it was still treated as a military flight.

We were held in the check in area for about an hour and given there were no windows onto airside, we had no idea whether our plane had turned up or not.  Rumours went round but we had no firm evidence.  I saw now that although many people were in civilian clothes, some of these were military.  On this occasion and later trips I could usually distinguish between the majority who were travelling to the Falklands and those who were alighting half way at Ascension Island.  The Falklands bunch had fleeces, bubble jackets, heavy sweaters and scarves about their person.  Ascension Island travellers were in t shirts and light trousers.  As well as the British there were a number of darker skinned people with a variety of different features but all with something in their pleasant countenances that made me link them together.  This was my first real encounter with the Saints.

Saints are the common term for people who come from St Helena.  There has always been a smattering of them on any flight up and down to the island.  They may come from St Helena but many work on Ascension Island and the Falklands where the wages have traditionally been much better.  And several have taken up residency in the UK.  The UK is also where many go to University and there are little honey pot concentrations of them in West London and Swindon.  The latter is not really much of a surprise as it is the nearest large town to Brize Norton.

After another long sit we were called through to the departure lounge.  To get there we went through the ticket check and airport security machines like you do at any airport, but the staffing was small at Brize and I found the same people who check you in were often at the boarding pass stand and both checked the x-rays and frisked you on the way in.

We were now in an airy but boring room.  But at least there were large windows at one end and I could now see the white jumbo jet that had been causing all the problems.  We were never told exactly what had happened to it to cause it not to travel on time, but still be able to be piloted to Luxembourg to be fixed.  It’s not a huge worry but it always makes me a little more nervous of a flyer when I know something has recently been wrong with my aircraft.  I know deep down it is more likely that it is in a better state now than it had been but it does not stop me thinking about my fatality probabilities.

It seemed another age before we were called forward to the gate and shuttled off on buses.  Curiously, the military do queues by rank, so all officers went first, then the enlisted men, the contractors and consultants and finally the civvies like ourselves.  When we got on board we were all scattered around this huge aircraft – and there was at least two seats for every passenger.  We waited for ages again and I had time to look in a bit more detail.  The aircraft had obviously been owned by British Airways at some stage – some 1980’s style branding was still evident on the panels, but its history had obviously been more complicated as it had instructions stuck on the seat backs about life vests and seatbelts that appeared to be in Indonesian.  I later saw a plaque which stated that this had been the first ever 747 that had been delivered to British Airways.  And it showed.  Some of the seats were broken, tray tables were missing bits and every armrest had an ashtray.

This was going to be an interesting flight…. if we ever got off the ground.  Eventually with a huge apology from the captain for the delay, we taxied down to the runway and turned and waited for the all clear to take off.  And we waited.  And we waited.  And then slowly but definitely the huge jumbo full of weary, angry passengers lumbered back to the terminal.  The shrieks of “oh what” and “no way” around all the cabins  were almost in unison.  The captain once more apologised and explained that all jumbo jets have 7 compasses, and one of them had failed.  And without it they could not leave.  This did nothing to enhance the incredulity of the passengers, but we were told we would stay on the plane and an engineer was being called in from the airfield to take a look.

Life on Mars – Long night of waiting

Almost half the people had gone and the makeup of those who were left was much more civilian biased.  Edsel and I decided we were hungry so headed to the hotel’s restaurant.  I say restaurant, but in fact it was like an army canteen run by the NAAFI – the Navy Army and Air Force Institutes.  To me the NAAFI were an anachronism I remember from old post war black and white British films.  But here it was brought right up to date.  To me, the food was edible but nothing to fuss about; sausages, steak and kidney pie, heaps of chips and baked beans.  For Edsel he was not used to this kind of filler cuisine, and since he had chosen years ago not to eat any pig products there was not that much left on the menu.  I poured myself a glass of orange juice that turned out to be the sort of weak cordial that I remember from school dinners – tasting more of chemicals than fruit.

That nightmare out the way we returned to the TV.  It was here I got my next induction into military ways.  I had thought I had been watching ITV – the UK’s old commercial channel – where X-Factor came from, but now they were watching something on BBC1…. and the channel was the same.  In fact there were only two channels on this TV.  BFBS 1 and BFBS2.  The British Forces Broadcasting Service pump amalgams of various programmes from various broadcasters on these two channels, with the occasional self made programme such as their forces news.  It was like I had moved in to a parallel world, where elements of my old one existed but in a new form.

We were given an update on our flight early in the evening.  The plane would leave Luxembourg at first light and be at Brize Norton at around 6am.  We should expect to be called at 5am to head to the terminal.  Given this news Edsel and I retired early.  Although we had been vegetating around the hotel for most of the afternoon, the uncertainty of what was to occur had exhausted us.  But I found it difficult to get rest – there were still planes coming in and out of Brize, the noise from the lobby rose into our room and my mind was still whirring about when we might or might not get off and what impact that was having on our proposed work programme on Ascension Island itself.

I must have eventually nodded off because the next thing I remember was a screech from the old speaker above our heads and a brusque female voice telling us that those on the Airbridge flight to the Falklands should be assembled in fifteen minutes at the front of the hotel to board the buses.  From a supine groggy start this was a demanding timetable, but really we both just had to have  a quick shower and brush our teeth and pack the few things we had in our carryon bags and we could leave.  There was no time to use our breakfast vouchers – the NAAFI did not open for another hour fortunately.

Life on Mars – Night at the Gateway

So next day we had a morning to ourselves and I showed Edsel some of the sights of my local area.  We got back for a light lunch (hurriedly bought from a local shop since I had emptied the fridge the previous day – I was intending to be away for 6 weeks!).  I rang the number once more but could not get through to the automated message.  So we decided to take a chance and head over to Brize Norton once more.

It was a Saturday so the roads were less busy and we reached in half the time of the previous night.  It is one of those truths of life travelling around the south east of England.  You can know how far you have to travel but whether you get there in an hour, two or three is up to the sheer weight of traffic or the multiple incidents which can grid lock whole stretches of motorway in seconds.  And living in Kent I almost always have to travel round London clockwise or anticlockwise on the M25; the number of alternative routes can be limited.  But second time around we were fortunate with this piece of travel.  We still had to go through the rigmarole of getting security passes at the main gate.  Different officers were manning  the desk and they had no news of the flight.  When we got to the main terminal though we discovered the news was bad.  The fault had still not been fixed and there would be no flight tonight.  They had been assured by the charter company that the plane would arrive early on Sunday morning.  We were told we could either head home again but be back by 5am, or spend the night in the military hotel within Brize Norton’s perimeter.  We decided to take this option but that meant a lot of paperwork.  And we were not alone – there were many more people in the terminal this time.  We were checked in with our baggage leaving us; we took out just what we needed for a one night stay, and we were handed a booking slip for the hotel, and vouchers entitling us to one dinner and one breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant.

Now, I had heard stories about this hotel – the Gateway House.  It was reputed to be not much more than a glorified barracks block.  When we got there I found out the truth…  It was not much more than a glorified barracks block.

Built in the 1960’s it was Spartan to say the least.  Our room was up echoey stairs on the second floor.  The room itself was long and thin – with just about enough room to walk between two single beds.  One single glazed window looked out over some landscaping to the airfield beyond – which meant we heard every plane that was landing and taking off even when the window was shut firm.  And apart from small bedroom cabinets, a built in wardrobe and a couple of bedside lights there was no other furniture. Just a large speaker attached to the wall – dating from the same time as the building itself.  The last time  I had seen a speaker like this was when I would do “Movement and  Music” at school in the 1970’s.

We decided it would be too depressing to sit here till the flight, so we headed down to the public rooms.  People were everywhere.  Our flight was not the only one to be delayed.  At the time the post Iraq conflict meant that the British were moving people in and out of Basra every day.  A couple of hundred well built young guys in their desert camouflaged uniforms were sitting around everywhere with their helmets and piles of kit bags.  Some played cards, some were  glued to their phones; others reading or staring off in to space or just closing their eyes and trying to shut off this world and mentally prepare for the tough assignment to come.  I thought how where I was due to head would be completely different and the juxtaposition of people going to what was still in effect a war zone and those travelling to one of the most peaceful places on earth jarred me.  As well as the soldiers going out to Iraq were many in civilian clothes – contractors and consultants no doubt.  I even saw some very well dressed Iraqi men in suits wearing large watches and smelling of expensive after shave.

Every seat was taken in the main lobby area, so we settled in the TV room next door.  This was still crowded but there were some spaces at the fringes.  We had little to do but wait and I found myself watching a new phenomenon; the X-Factor auditions on the big TV.  I’d studiously avoided this kind of programme for years but here I was commenting on the lousy singing, outrageous outfits, pushy parents and bitchy comments from the judges along with the rest.  We watched about three hours of TV nonstop.  After that, I decided I needed some fresh air so went into the trees behind the hotel and rang Vicky and  a couple of others to give them an update.  It was a hazy midsummer’s evening but I felt trapped behind the airfield’s fence in this curious no-man’s land.  No home comforts but no exciting adventure either.

We had observed that more and more people were arriving at the Gateway, but as I walked back from my phone calls I heard a tannoy message that said the Basra flight would leave in three  hours time and people were asked to make their way to the front of the hotel to board buses to the terminal.  Most of the soldiers collected their kitbags and emptied the lobby of so much clutter.  The Iraqi suits I had seen calmly put on flak jackets and helmets over their expensive clothes and headed out.  I pondered that they may have been Iraqi politicians who had been at a meeting in the UK and were now heading home with some new policy.