As far as you can go – The moving volcano

St Helena was formed by a volcano sitting over the mid Atlantic Ridge about 15 million years ago.  Sitting in the deep ocean, it must have taken millennia for any rock to break the surface, and the little island you can see today must sit on an immense pile of submarine mountain.  But any geologist will inform you that the material being spewed out from the mid Atlantic ridge is steadily moving apart.  Ascension Island was formed by a similar process and is moving westwards as it sits on the South American Plate, but St Helena was just on the other side of the divide and moved eastwards towards Africa.  More volcanic eruptions meant a second blob of land appeared to the west of the first and gives the slightly dog’s head look to its shape.  The second volcano partly smothered the deposits of the first and made one single island, with about 40 tiny islets around its perimeter.  In fact these little islands are more likely to have been loosely joined to the mainland for years and gradually eroded away.  About 7 million years ago eruptions in St Helena stopped, the island had drifted so far eastwards that it now was away from the ridge itself where magma from the earth’s interior is being spewed out, pushing the continental plates apart and forming new surfaces.  So now the mountains of St Helena are probably a lot smaller than they were.  Years of weathering have eroded the softer rocks into jagged peaks, or rounded off the massifs, and heavily incised the mountains to form the deep valleys with streams at the bottom.  Some are permanent streams, others are more often dry river valleys called guts.  I knew guts of old as they were a common name for similar temporary drainage features in the Caribbean, although there they were sometimes spelt Ghut.

Ascension Island had been formed in a similar way but much more recently, and still being close to the ridge it was still technically an active volcano zone although it has been several hundred years since the last eruption.  St Helena has had more time to attract the plants and animals on to the land.  As in all rocky regions the first to arrive are the lichens and mosses, the so called Bryophytes.  Ferns were probably next, the tiny spores carried hundreds, even thousands of miles.  Then flowering plants have managed to arrive.  Animals would not have been far behind.  Some insects and spiders had found their way, and many other invertebrate species, and sea birds had found an amazing secret place to colonise.  By some freak a land bird arrived, the wirebird, and somehow started to breed.

And that was probably it for millions of years, apart from one thing.  These animals, remote from their original gene pool, started to evolve separately till they became an endemic species, that is unique to one habitat location and unable to breed with their ancestral line.  The natural species found their niches at different elevations, or in the wetter or drier part of the islands, or mutated over many generations to better cope with the conditions they found.

Life on Mars – Out of town

Ray Benjamin, one of the Conservation Office team, lived up here with his wife, Sandra, and Edsel and I were regularly invited up for Sunday lunch.  We’d grab a few beers from Solomon’s shop if we were given enough notice, but it was no problem if we didn’t; the Benjamins were so welcoming and if there were not some of their family around, they just invited a host of other people along.  The best food I ever tasted in Ascension came out of Sandra’s kitchen.  Considering the difficulties of getting good quality food to the island, it was the most succulent chicken roast, and always a big hearty pudding.  Then we would sit around on the deck, maybe wander a few steps over to the house of  another of the Conservation crew, Stedson, to marvel at his tomatoes, or watch as one of the Benjamin clan would tinker with their car.  I know this is meant to be travel writing, but sometimes you just revel in soaking up the routine family weekend activities when you are miles from your own home.


Ray Benjamin

Pass in front of the Two Boats Club and keep going and you cross a cattle grid, or more correctly, a donkey grid, and drop steeply.  The road hugs the foot of Green Mountain, to the left a large plain spotted with little volcanic craters is often off limits as it is used as a military firing range.  You cross a North East Ghut, a dry river valley, which I once calculated was the second longest on the island and has recently been discovered to be a major faunal feature, but more of that later.

Soon you reach North East Bay which is a handsome sweep of triangular sand wedged between two lava flows, The sand clogs up what might have been a small estuary if the North East Ghut flowed more regularly than once every three years.  It is the largest of the remote beaches and there is such a lovely sense of solitude when you are the first set of footprints to wander across its wave-washed sand.  North East Bay is famed as a crab spawning site, and as a turtle beach, but I’ve also seen it as a fish graveyard.  Every so often, islanders start reporting hundreds of reasonably sized fish ending up stranded on the beach, and North East Bay is one of the places where large concentrations have occurred.  The reason for the mass death is uncertain, some speculate some virus or fungus passes through the ocean, possibly deadly gas from the many volcanic events in the Mid Atlantic Ridge poison the oceans for miles around.


Ariane Rocket Tracking Station

The tarmac road does not come to NE Bay, but turns to the right and heads down the east coast to the ESA Ariane rocket tracking station.  Apart from the receiver looking more modern than many on the island, there is nothing particularly striking about the site, but a scramble over the rocks takes you to one of the best blowholes on the island.

Life on Mars – One Boat, Two Boats

Weirdest of all is a rock on the roadside before you reach One Boat itself.  Its origins lost in the mists of transience and forgetfulness, although some claim it was a cairn built in the naval period, a tradition has grown up that if you are about to leave Ascension Island and you never want to come back, you paint it.  There was apparently a lizard carving atop the cairn, and originally you just “painted the lizard”, but nowadays the ceremony is just to throw a tin of garish paint over it.  Over the years the lizard has merged in with the rest of the cairn with so many coats.  Some emigrants are less accurate in their paint throwing than others and much of the ground around is smattered like a Jackson Pollock painting.  Many people obviously still do not like being stationed on the island, maybe homesick for their families or not used to the limiting factor of its size and options, as I have seen the colour change several times over ten years.  I, I must point out, have never ever considered painting the lizard.

Beyond One Boat the road runs straight and parallel to the old pipe that fed water from Green Mountain to Georgetown.  On the left is the “Chicken Coop”, a set of old wooden sheds where Conservation keep some of their hardware for maintaining the footpaths and vegetation. The road gradually becomes steeper and you bend up a hairpin and enter Two Boats itself.


Two Boats to Two Sisters

There is an air about Two Boats that I love.  Compared to Georgetown it is a very modern settlement, built primarily to house workers at the BBC facilities at English Bay.  The site was chosen because the climate is fresher than on the coast, and much more hospitable than the north of the island, and it nestles pleasantly in amongst a set of hills.  Green Mountain towers over the east, but the perfect shapes of the Two Sisters and other scoria cones help shelter the village from the worst of the wind.  Low density housing set around a series of gently curving roads with regular open spaces for play areas and sports fields; it has the feel of a nicely constructed 1960’s English housing estate.  Which to all intents and purposes, it is.  I often get  a twinge of nostalgia when in Two Boats as it has hints of some of the nicer housing estates of my childhood in south Liverpool, right down to the style of the little street lights. Curiously Two Boats has a hint of the ranks like Georgetown, with separate social clubs for managers and workers.

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