Island Exploration and Turtles
Ascension Island might just be a tiny dot in the South Atlantic Ocean but, over the years, it has had immense strategic importance. Latterly it was the Cold War which gave it eminence, what with the NASA station and all the secret bits and pieces about which we know now. But, back in history, it was militarily strategic - particularly when Napoleon was exiled to its nearest land - St Helena which lies two or three days' sailing south. To this day Cable and Wireless and the BBC Relay Station are still hugely important, as is the island's runway - one of only six in the world which can accommodate a landing of a space shuttle in the case of an emergency.
For all these reasons Ascension was, until relatively recently, closed to tourism. That has now changed although getting there isn't all that easy. There are no commercial flights and so we fly with the Royal Air Force from Brize Norton. There are only 26 civilian seats on each flight (2 flights a week) and they serve not only Ascension but also the Falkland Islands and, sadly, the air fare is horribly expensive. But it's worth it.
At first sight this is a stark island, seemingly full of volcanic clinker and little else. But that is not the case. There's a surprise round every corner. The island has 40 volcanoes and 32 sandy beaches, only two of which are suitable for swimming but most of which are home to nesting Green Turtles. The sight of these magnificent creatures laying eggs is an emotional experience, as is that of watching the hatchlings rushing to the sea in the early morning trying to avoid the attentions of the island's endemic Frigatebirds. There are fantastic seabird colonies and the island's National Park, Green Mountain, is something else.
The journey to Ascension is, in itself, a bit of an adventure as we fly with the Royal Air Force from RAF Brize Norton. Don't worry - no parachutes and green lights: it's a standard AirBus chartered from a commercial airline. Once on the island we'll travel round in a minibus or, for off-road activities, LandRovers. We'll also have a four-hour boat trip to Boatswain Bird Island which is a fabulous seabird colony where we get up close to the rock and the birds and during which we'll also hope to see turtles and dolphins.
Your Tour Leader
Since graduating from Plymouth (more years ago than he cares to remember) Richard White has worked in a variety of wildlife research and conservation positions on Ascension Island, the Falkland Islands, the Seychelles and in the Caribbean. He has, over the years, developed a love of small islands and of being at sea - the latter passion being pursued by working as a naturalist on expedition ships around the world since 2003. As well as being a superb (but not besotted) birder, Rich is an excellent botanist and, equally importantly, very good company.
Links to external websites relevant to this destination:
www.ascensionconservation.org.ac - Ascension Conservation.
Our flight leaves RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire in the late evening.
Upon arrival we're met and driven to nearby Georgetown where we will be staying in the Obsidian Hotel. Having settled in we'll get together for an orientation stroll in the town before an early lunch. In the afternoon we'll drive to Comfortless Cove where, if the sea conditions allow, there'll be an opportunity to swim as well as visit the historic cemetery. For the more energetic there will be the option of walking back to Georgetown - a gentle walk of about 3 kms. After dinner we head to the Conservation Centre where we will watch a video about the Green Turtles before walking down to Long Beach where we hope to be lucky enough to find a female laying her eggs.
This morning we head back towards the airhead where we landed yesterday and, with permission from the Americans who control the base, drive through to visit the colony of Wideawake (Sooty) Terns. We then head up to the other main inhabited area of the island - Two Boats - where we visit the local club for a swim in the pool followed by lunch. In the afternoon we head up to Green Mountain - Ascension's National Park and the only part of the island where there is lush vegetation. We'll visit the propagation centre for the islands' endemic plants before continuing up the steep and twisting road. Where the road ends we continue on foot (optional) up to the Dew Pond, passing the area which has been cleared of invasive species and planted with endemics. We return to Georgetown for dinner and overnight.
Our boat trip to Boatswain Bird Island is dependent upon weather and sea conditions and also the availability of the boat which may be required for other duties at the last minute. However, we are hopeful of being able to do the trip as some stage during the holiday. The island itself is a fantastic sea bird colony which lies just off the east coast of Ascension Island. It's basically a flat-topped sheer rock which rises 300 feet from the sea and which we'll circumnavigate - all 400 yards of it. It's an extremely crowded and noisy place with several species of seabird including Ascension Island's endemic Frigatebird, Red-billed and White-tailed Tropicbirds and a variety of petrels and boobies. On the way to and from the island (we leave from Georgetown Pier) we'll be looking out for turtles and dolphins as well as enjoying views of the island from the sea. We'll get back in time for a late picnic and then have a free afternoon to wander around the town or take a walk a little further afield.
Ascension Island has only been open to tourism for about 10 years. Before that it was a very secret place (and probably still is). Today we'll visit the remains of the NASA station which one client described as bringing back memories of 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E'! From here we'll be able to look down on Boatswain Bird Island which we visited yesterday, giving us a different perspective. We'll also be able to see the area where Masked Boobies have started to nest again following intensive work on cat and rat eradication by Ascension Conservation. We'll have a short walk and then a picnic lunch before heading back up Green Mountain as far as Elliott's Path for an afternoon walk (about 4 miles along a level trail). After dinner we'll go back to Long Beach for a second opportunity to watch the turtles as they come ashore.
This morning we head towards North-East Bay to visit another space-orientated facility, this time in full working mode. The Arianne Station tracks the satellites from Brazil on behalf of the French. Having been shown round, we'll then do a bit of birdwatching in the area and walk across to get a view of the dramatic Hannay's Beach blowhole. After lunch in town we'll head over to English Bay for a lazy afternoon on the beach and, if sea conditions allow, the chance for a swim.
There are usually a few turtles which came ashore late and are caught in the daylight or, indeed, hatchlings which have mistimed their entrance to the world and are scurrying down the beach hoping to avoid the ever watchful Frigatebirds. To see all this means getting up early and being down at the beach by dawn - around 6.15/6.30 a.m. Breakfast will be waiting when we get back and then there'll be time to sort out things like settling accounts (if you've had any personal expenses such as drinks) and doing some last minute souvenir hunting. As departure is not until after dinner we've arranged for you to keep your rooms until late afternoon. A visit to the excellent museum and gallery has been arranged and we encourage you to keep some of your souvenir shopping until you've seen what's available there. After lunch in town there'll be a free afternoon to pack and rest up before and early dinner and departure for the Airhead.
Our RAF flight arrives in Brize Norton at around 0730 hours
Please note itineraries can be changed without notice and at the sole discretion of your tour leader.