An island of contrasting sides

Monday 2nd June 2014

One option to get to St Helena is to fly to Ascension Island and then pick up the RMS St Helena to get to Jamestown in St Helena. Landing at Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island at 6am, I am far from alert after an overnight flight, but still excited to see what lay ahead.

I soon noticed that there are two distinct sides to the Island – one a beautiful, rugged coastline with some superb wildlife and the other, a brutally functional, human influenced landscape. Large military bases dominate the island along with telecommunication equipment and a now defunct NASA tracking station. Whilst I knew this before I went out there I was unprepared for its scale and impact on Ascension Island. Industrial Ascension adjacent to a beautiful cove (c) Alice Farr

A pivotal place in the development and protection of the British Empire, the British garrisoned the island in the 1800s to prevent Napoleon from being rescued from his exile on St Helena. It then became a place to store provisions for the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron trying to supress the slave trade, and a place to quarantine their sick.

During World War 1 and World War 2 the Island had a heavy military presence. Eventually in 1942 an airstrip was built allowing 25,000 US planes to transit through on their way to North Africa, Middle East and Europe during the rest of the war. This airstrip is still controlled by the military but a small number of civilian seats are allocated for each flight from RAF Brize Norton to allow people to go onto the Falklands or St Helena. Fort Hayes (c) Alice Farr

The other, starkly contrasting side of the island is its wildlife. Around 3,000-5,000 female green turtles lay their eggs on the beaches of Ascension – making it one of the largest populations of nesting Green turtles in the Atlantic and you can see the hatchlings making a dash for the sea under the cover of darkness.

It is thought to be one of the most important warm-water seabird stations in the world which supports over 400,000 seabirds of 11 different species, although this is a fraction of the numbers found before human colonisation of the island in the 1800s.

The bugs here are also pretty cool, with 26 species unique to Ascension. Only a proportion of what can be found on St Helena, but many species are adapted to the exceptional conditions that they live in.

You can find the largest pseudoscorpion in the world here, the islands extreme isolation has enabled this species to develop in size as there were no natural predators (or at least until rats, mice and rabbits were introduced!). A species of blind spider, which is found in the caves of Ascension and nowhere else in the world, is thought to have arrived by ‘aeronaut’. This is where spiders use silken threads as parachutes and travel by the movement of the air to new areas.

So far I’ve seen just a snapshot of Ascension Island, its history and its wildlife. It is only a few days into my trip and there is already some truly fascinating stuff which is so very different to the UK – I’m looking forward to what comes next on St Helena.