If you think St. Helena is off the beaten track; try getting to Ascension. The two islands are the most remote populated places on earth. Ascension was discovered in 1501 by a Portuguese ship but was uninhabited and inhospitable so he did not even bother to mark it on his charts. The island was ‘re-discovered’ on Ascension Day in 1503 by Alphonso d’Albuquerque, a prominent Portuguese General. It was too dry and too barren to be of any use to the East Indies fleets so it was rarely visited. Ascension only became strategically important 300 years later when Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena, which is 703 miles southeast of Ascension.
Ascension is closer to the African coast (1600 km-1000 miles) than St. Helena (1950 km-1210 miles) because it is located to the northwest making it nearer the bump of the continent. With Napoleon on St. Helena, the British were worried that his supporters may try to rescue him. Ascension is the closest land from which they could ‘launch a raid,’ even though it is 700 miles away. A British garrison was stationed on Ascension to prevent such a possibilty. After Napoleon died in 1821 Ascension became a military suppy base for ships fighting the slave trade. It was a valuable naval and air station during WWII and in the years since then it has been used as a NASA tracking station and is the location of the BBC World Atlantic Relay Station which serves South America and Africa. The main activity is centered on the military bases at Wideawake Airfield. The US military service their base and facilities with a regular supply ship (MV Ascension) and air transport and a limited number of commercial passenger tickets can be arranged. There is now a hotel and cars you can rent to drive the 40 km of island roads, but tourism is in its infancy.
The evening of our sea day between St. Helena and Ascension the captain warned us that we may not be able to stop due to high seas that would prevent the tenders from docking safely.
We arrived at 8 am but anchored off shore due to the high waves. An hour or so later the captain sent a tender over to check conditions but they were still deemed too hazardous. At 10:30 it was decided that “the most agile” of the guesst would be able to go ashore, with the caution that the short flight of cement steps at the base of the pier would be slippery and wet. There were no formal excursions as the population of the entire island is just over 800 people and there is not much to see. It was a very hot day and with the volcanic ash hills and the lack of trees we really noticed the heat.
We visited the museum and explored the old fort.
There is a small herd of free-roaming donkeys on the island and we had a short visit with one of them on main street.The main export items are Ascension Island Postage Stamps, first issued in 1922, and, since 2010, commemorative coins (which are legal tender but non-circulating), and commercial fishing licences for long-line tuna fishing vessels operating to ICCAT quotas (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas).
The supply ship RMS Saint Helena visits Ascension Island approximately once a month linking the island to St Helena and Cape Town. Fuel is delivered by a chartered tanker; the Maersk Rapier, which operates on an MOD resupply contract for both Ascension and the Falkland Islands every two months. Fuel for the island is transferred via a floating hose, which is connected to the on-shore depot at the island’s pier head and to the ship at anchor. The most beautiful thing about Ascension Island is the crystal clear turquoise water. We could easily see schools of large black fish from the edge of the pier. Many of the people who came ashore just wandered along the beach. All aboard was three o’clock. John had to check out the fire truck and chat to the fire fighter on the way to the pier.
Once we had pulled anchor and were underway the Captain sailed close to shore as we circled around the top of the island. The volcanic ash was very prevalent. It is really not a very hospitable or scenic island, but I am very glad we had the opportunity to visit; not very many people have the chance to do so. As we have sail around on the world’s oceans we have often seen flying fish and sea birds. The water around Ascension Island was a great flying fish area and we managed to get some good photos of them as they skipped over the waves. The Gannets were very adept at catching the fish as they breeched the surface. Our journey was quickly coming to an end. During our four days at sea before we reached the coast of South America we began to sort our belongings and pack. We had to itemize all of the contents of our luggage for it to be shipped home at the end of the cruise. FedEx representatives would be coming onboard in Barbados to give information and assistance. It was a big process before we left home and would be even more time consuming since we had to pack and account for all the gifts we had recieved and all the purchase we had made. But….hey, what else did we have to do while we sailed for four days across the Atlantic Ocean?