In last month’s column we sailed from Walvis Bay, Namibia, to St. Helena Island, 1800 miles from Angola, 1200 from Brazil, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. This month we continue north to Ascension Island.
When the Brits exiled Napoleon to St. Helena in 1815 they denied the emperor newspapers, subjected him to curfew, and guarded him with 125 men during the day and 72 at night. So intent were they to avoid a second imperial escape that sailing down, they garrisoned Ascension Island on the way, better to defend St. Helena.
Napoleon died six years later. With the Suez Canal fifty years in the future, the Admiralty hung on to Ascension as a sea base and it serves now as an airbase shared with the Americans, who built the island’s Wideawake airfield to move troops in WWII.
Ascension provided the middle link in an airbridge for the United Kingdom’s 1982 Falkland Islands campaign. During that conflict Ascension came alive like never before or since, as the UK Ministry of Defense ran a frenetic schedule of flights between the Brize-Norton air base near Oxford, England, and the RAF’s Mount Pleasant airport near Stanley, in the Falklands.
Other than aboard your own ocean going yacht, at the time of our visit ten years ago, there were only two ways onto and off of Ascension Island: the airbridge, which ran twice weekly charters, and the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, which supplied St. Helena Island with periodic trips from Cape Town, and usually continued the additional 800 miles northwest to Ascension Island.
Where much of St. Helena is graceful and green, Ascension is stark and volcanic. St. Helena’s population has ancestral roots, while Ascension’s 34 square miles are home to no permanent residents, no farmers, fishermen or private property. St. Helena exports labor via contract workers. Ascension imports most of it.
Ascension is home to various NASA satellite tracking stations and military installations. The BBC transmits its World Service broadcasts to Africa and South America from an other-worldly array of broadcast antennae on the island’s northern tip. The military airstrip was lengthened so it could serve as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle. It remains the longest in the Atlantic, supporting the 800 working residents, comprised of a changing coterie of research scientists and a small community of contract workers, like my new friend Nick.
I met Nick on the two day run up from St. Helena. But for a trickle of tourists this was a ferry full of “Saints” like Nick, residents of St. Helena on their way back from Christmas holiday to contract work on Ascension. Nick ran a shop in the neighborhood of Two Boats.
Ascension Island from the RMS St. Helena
Nick and I sat drinking beer in the open air aboard the RMS St. Helena, out on deck behind the indoor sun lounge. We were escaping the games inside, bingo and the like, meant to entertain passengers grown weary of the monotony of no sight of land.
Nick spoke in bursts, quick half-sentences. He’d make a point and give a knowing nod and a smile, like he’d just heard himself and agreed with what he said. He had things to say about life in the middle of the South Atlantic.
“St. Helena got its problems, y’know? Some people makin’ a fortune. Guy goes off to the Falklands to work, lives almost like a slave. Livin’ in dormitories, cleanin’ up after the Brits. He gets free travel, now, but he makes what, five grand a year, comes home and a house gonna cost him twenty. No way to live.
“And a man ought not have to go away to earn a living anyway. Here I go to Ascension, been there eleven years. Now the good thing: the way you can raise kids. It really is good. I’m bringin’ my son because I have a little shop and my wife, she teaches. No lockin’ doors, keys in the car. 900 people, maybe a thousand, right? Somebody ever takes something, eventually you find it.
“Now they have these clubs, a man doesn’t need money, just sign and have a beer, pay for it on payday. He don’t pay, he can’t leave the island, they take his last paycheck or somethin’.
“Sometimes I say no at my shop. A boy come in, wants a case of beer, if he can’t pay I say no. Otherwise I end up with no beer and no money to buy more. But my father taught me never say no if a man is a couple a pounds short for his kid’s shoes.
“Grinds people down. Some people make too much money, some people really poor, best thing they want is maybe a broken down second hand car. They just never gone anywhere, never seen anything in the world.
“Now I been eleven years on Ascension. I been lucky. Time for me to go back. My father died young. Not young, 62. My mother died in her 50’s. Lucky, my Auntie keeps my business back home. Won’t say I’ll never go back to work on Ascension. You get really big fish there, you know?”
Ascension Island. Hell with the fire put out. Volcanic, 100 kilometers west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the above-water tip of a 3,200 meter high, 60 kilometer wide volcano. Most recent lava flows thought to have been in the last 1,000 years but none since at least 1501. Some eight degrees south of the equator.
Astonishingly young. Its most ancient rocks are no more than a million years old. The slopes descend to the ocean floor, a visitor wrote, like a lorry full of gravel just unloaded, with “the same steepness and regularity, something totally unlikely in a natural mountain.” In the black lava from the most recent eruption NASA tested its LEM, or Lunar Excursion Module.
In ordinary places travelers perform a trivial ritual meant to assure their return, like tossing coins in the Trevi Fountain. On the tip of Chilean South America, you will return to Punta Arenas if you kiss the toe of the Ferdinand Magellan statue.
It’s different on Ascension. The Obsidian Hotel’s island-touting brochure describes a golf course on the road east from Georgetown as the worst on the planet, where “the ‘Greens’ are called ‘browns’ and are made of crushed compacted lava smoothed flat with diesel oil.” Across the road are two canoes stood on end, one third buried, planted in lava.
Logically enough, these boats mark the road to the gaggle of housing called Two Boats, where Nick has his shop. The Ascension travelers’ legend centers on an elaborately painted stone beside the boats. When you are due to leave Ascension you cast paint upon this stone, to assure you need never return.
The waters off Ascension are home to spotted and bottlenose dolphins, humpback and Gervais’ beaked whales and the big attraction, the green turtle. The green turtles were laying when we arrived, in December. They would then swim across the Atlantic to Brazil, and return in three or four years to these very same beaches to once again mate and lay their eggs, a behavior scientists call ‘natal homing.’
We joined three conservation officers and four or five others one night for a walk down Long Beach in search of nesting turtles. Ten minutes from the middle of town, an all-enveloping darkness. A very hushed affair broken only by the chest-thumping impact of Atlantic rollers, waves that gather unimpeded for hundreds and hundreds of miles.
The lead conservation person slipped away then back, summoning us to shuffle through the sand toward a massive green turtle nesting on the beach. It’s a rare and fascinating sight, common to no one, even a researcher.
Turtles favor Ascension for the absence of predators. No dogs, no monkeys. The Ascension green turtles are the largest in the world, a meter and a half long, weighing as much as 300 kilos. Green Turtles are between 20 and 40 years old when they make the journey for the first time, males and females swimming together to mate.
A turtle will nest as many as ten times at intervals of 10-17 days. Once she has dug a large pit with all of her flippers the turtle digs a chamber with her hind flippers into which she lays around 120 ping-pong sized eggs.
Nesting Turtle and eggs
Both laying and hatching happen at night. One hatchling after another pops out on to the sand and races for the sea. They are born all at once. Only by working in numbers can they generate sufficient strength to burrow up through the sand. Once out in the air, their numbers increase the chances some will survive the headlong dash into the surf.
Everything about these turtles is remarkable, but the poet Amit Majmudar reminds us that all animals are “routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it.”
Perhaps because we live our lives in conscious thought, we discount the astonishing ways our fellow beings, seemingly unconsciously, navigate the world. Green turtles appear to use their own internal maps of the Atlantic Ocean. Some migratory birds seem to navigate by the pole point, the due north spot in the sky around which the sky rotates.
Ants’ ocelli, light-sensitve organs on their heads, can read the sky even when the sun is obscured by cloud, using patterns of polarized light to orient themselves. The cataglyphis ant uses an internal odometer to keep track of outbound steps to then find its way home.
Other ants seemingly do trigonometry, taking circuitous routes outbound then the most direct route back to their nests, figuring out spatial relationships between the various places they’ve been each day.
Honeybees use polarized light to find the most direct way back to the hive – a beeline. This with brains of fewer than one million neurons and with 20/2000 vision. Also shown to use polarized light: Monarch butterflies, lizards, shrimp, lobsters, cuttlefish, crickets, and rainbow trout as well as numerous migratory birds. And maybe, so did the Norse.
Human navigation away from Ascension Island in 2010 meant either sailing back to St. Helena Island aboard the RMS St. Helena, which has since been retired, or flying via the airbridge to the United Kingdom or the Falkland Islands. Since 2017 maintenance at the Wideawake airbase has precluded landing of larger aircraft, and the Falklands airbridge is for now rerouted via Cape Verde. Current options for getting to and from Ascension are even fewer than those ten years ago.
We took the airbridge. A testudinologist (studies turtles and tortoises) named Sergio Ghione wrote that at the time of his work on Ascension, the Airbridge was a grim military affair, with the first row or two of seats removed in order to accommodate stretchers. By the time of our visit, at a non-military time, flights staged to and from RAF Brize Norton using charter contractors, like the Scottish company Flyglobespan, which had the contract until it filed for bankruptcy a month before our scheduled flight.
Unsure who might fly in to pick us up, we assembled to leave Ascension in a little chain link holding pen just off the Wideawake Field tarmac, and a brightly-colored Air Tahiti Nui widebody arrived to pick us up, which later set up a jarring visual as the airliner, in its merry Polynesian livery, glided in to touch down at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, in the snow.
On Ascension Island: Turtle Island by Sergio Ghione, and Island Base: Ascension Island in the Falklands War by Captain Bob McQueen.
On animal navigation, By the Light of the Moon, the Poles of the Earth, The remarkable ways animals get around by Sally Davies. For a tour of the odd capabilities of some really strange living things try Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes.
On human navigation try Wayfinding by M. R. O’Connor, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis and The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
Take a moment if you can to read my monthly travel column at 3 Quarks Daily, posted this morning. It’s about a quirky little cruise way off the map, out to the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.
A fine young man with a Yesus Kristus medallion bouncing around beneath his mirror drove us the seven or so kilometers into Mt. Kinabalu park, through the sleeping village of Kundasang. Farmers congregated at a warren of tin-roofed stalls along the main road. It looked like a good day for green tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage.
They hauled us all in bas minis from the ranger station to the trailhead. From there, a six-kilometer trail led up to our destination, the Laban Ratah guest house, at 11,000 feet. At 13,432 feet, Mt. Kinabalu’s summit, in Malaysian Borneo, is the highest point in Southeast Asia.
Just at first the trail led downhill, charming, to a cool, wet place called Carson’s Falls. On the way down the mountain, conversely, having to climb at the end was just one last kick in the butt on the way out the door.The first kilometer (the trail was marked at each 1/2 kilometer) popped by in 23 minutes. We were flyin’, and all that stuff about how hard this would be was just talk. The first kilometer, we only stopped long enough to shed our wraps.
Still before 8:00 a.m. no sunlight had fought its way to the forest floor. The air was downright chilly once our shirts turned sweaty. And they did — at the first K marker they weren’t soaked through, but a breeze blew down the rise and chilled our damp skin.
We were cocky, jaunty, making tracks, and unappreciative of the flora, except the little violet flower of the Kinabalu Balsam, which was shaped more like it had a beard than lower petals.
The massif stood silent and still, the only sounds birds or a rustling squirrel. There are no monkeys on Mt. Kinabalu. They live nearer the sea, to the east.
Our guide Erik was a volcano of phlegm at first, hacking, spitting, coughing, exercising all facial cavities. He was a little guy, as these highland people were, but with the strong, imposing legs you’d imagine.
He guided once a week, reckoned he’d done the climb fifty times. His personal record to the top — a place called Low’s Peak — was about three hours.
The rest of the week he helped his parents haul their produce to the Kundasang market, where you cain’t make no money. Erik said a kilo of cabbage brought fourteen U.S. cents.
Grim realization set in during kilometer two. I felt my pack with every step, even though all it held was a camera, a towel, a dry t-shirt, bread, cheese and water.
We appreciated the moss, ferns and banana trees and searched for these particular birds who sang in two notes, but a little more grimly, a little less buoyant, quieter. Still, we made two kilometers in 58 minutes, and there were only six, total. We fed the squirrels some of the tiny peanuts Mirja had bought. Still cool and still, the entire third kilometer. Dark, thick, jungly, even almost cold, and about an hour and a half after we’d set out, at two minutes to nine, we marked halfway.
In the fourth kilometer, blazing red running shorts caught my gaze. I looked up from the path and it was a Japanese fellow, smiling. He made the summit, turned, and passed us on his way back down before we’d made four and a half K. I just couldn’t believe that.
They do this run as competition. The winner last year, Ian Holmes of the U.K., did 21 K up to the peak and back in 2:43:20, trailed by fellow Brit Simon Booth at 2:43:22. Poor Simon Booth.
I thought of Beck Weathers on that famous ill-fated Everest expedition, who was left for dead, but stumbled, frostbitten, back to camp. He said mountain climbing, really, was simple. All you had to do was be in shape and then not let your mind defeat your body. One foot in front of the other, he said, it’s all just endurance.
But by now I was grim, unhappy, soaked-through wet. I used Weathers’ advice and eventually thought I’d achieved a sort of runner’s high. I had a little bounce back, but I was hiking sloppy — lurching, and, when there was something to grab on to, I hauled myself up by it. Still, I was sure for the first time since Carson’s Falls that we would make it. I turned cocky.
We stopped to enjoy Mirja’s chocolates and tiny peanuts, like they sell in Nuwara Eliya, back in Sri Lanka. We sat there steaming. Our own personal dew points produced our own, individual, self-generated clouds of steam, our shirts purely drenched through.
Porters made good money — six ringgits per kilo — but that work’s just too hard, Erik thought, and I was sure he was right. A typical load was ten to twelve kilos (twenty max) and that’d bring you twenty bucks — then you had to haul the trash back down from the top.
Erik liked guiding.
U.S. twenty was real money. The park required we have a guide and took a fee for him, so that Erik made about eight bucks for his day, probably as good as a porter if he got a right-tipping foreigner — and no taking out the trash.
The porters plied the path up and back, right alongside us, low to the ground and bent, exchanging local-language intelligence with Erik on the way, usually hauling rice bags full of supplies for the restaurant and guest houses up above, held by straps across their foreheads. Or sometimes they’d be laden with daypacks and duffels of tourists.
Twice we passed Japanese girls in flip-flops, and the last one was really hobbling, on her boyfriend’s arm. Mountain climbing may involve stepping over rocks. Apparently they were not told.
Erik commanded pretty good English.
Had he ever been to K. L. (Kuala Lumpur, the capital)? I asked.
“No, but when I get money I take my baby.”
It’s a big city, you know, tallest building in the world (at the time)….
“Oh, no!” Scornful reply. He was aiming high. “Maybe one day I get 10,000 ringgits I go around the world!”
I spent long minutes anticipating the sun, by which to energize. We were still deep within the forest at the two- hour mark, and again I had begun to flag. It was damp, I was wet, and the path stretched only straight up.
Twenty or thirty meters of steep steps would lead to a bend, and you’d yearn for a stretch that didn’t lead straight up, but time after time after time after time after time, you’d reach the bend and see even crueler steps beyond. And then you’d do it again. And then again.
At first the sun would hit the forest floor in this odd spot or that, then as we rose (so slowly) up the hill you’d see sun more often than not, and by 10:00 in the morning we stood at the Layang Layang staff hut, on a little plateau flooded by sunlight. I drenched my head under a water pipe.
Up to now there were few on the mountain with us except the runner and a couple of porters. Now groups of overnight campers passed us bound for the bottom, but no one but Malay boys climbed (in fact, we were the first to set out, and first to arrive at Laban Rata).
Eric was constant. Mirja and I waxed and waned at intervals, and kept one another going. At the four K mark, I hit my stride one last time. It was 10:08, only two K to go. I fairly strode ahead. The sun was out now, but we’d ever be ducking into a crook in the trail that led through shaded forest.
Here was a sign, “NEPENTHES VILLOSA areas 9000-10,300 ft.” by which they meant those curious pitcher plants were about, and we spied several in the woods, the biggest the size of two fists.
The curious pitcher plant.
A big Chinese contingent slid downward, all chatty. Along about here my recently found vigor ran out and I resented their being able to breathe. Like Mirja said, on the way up it’s your heart and lungs, on the way down it’s your legs, and I began to get an ugly payback for my cocky “hitting my stride” bit, as I could hear my heart pounding in my head.
We stopped (it was an excuse to stop) to watch a green bird, the “Mt. Kinabalu Blackeye.”
Now this was terrible. Stretching above us we had to begin some scrambling. It was just damned hard. Mud. I saw myself closed off now, thinking only of where my next foot would go (except I had this vague “What the hell were you thinking!?” notion bouncing around my head, too).
I seized upon a mantra. I said to myself, over and over, “Mt. Kinabalu blackeye.” Over and over. Now, whenever we’d spy anyone above us on the trail, we’d (“graciously”) stop to let them slide by.
One fifty-something Japanese fellow laughed at himself how he’d taken eight and a half hours to the summit. Hell, we weren’t even going to the summit and we weren’t laughing. Yeah, but anybody can laugh and climb down, I thought.
Now came a section where you had to haul yourself up by rope. Now the trees were small, dwarfed and gnarled by the wind, cold and thin air. They were small, but Erik said some were hundreds of years old.
At 10:58 we stood on the five K marker. Someone coming down asked if this was our first time and Mirja peremptorily replied, “And the last.”
We could see the South China Sea from here, 52 kilometers to the north. And our hotel, the Perkassa, high on its hill overlooking Kundasang town, was an insignificant little speck below. We stopped every third or fourth step for the last kilometer, which took 50 minutes.
At 11:48 we reached the top.
Which wasn’t the top. The Laban Rata guesthouse was built 15 years ago to support summit seekers. At 11,000 feet, it has 20 tables, bunks and a grocery with Milo, old batteries, candy bars, Carlsbergs and a kitchen serving up fried rice, sweet corn soup and coffee. The bulletin board admonished, though, that today we had no: cream of chicken soup, Maggi chicken, chicken, lemon or chicken curry. Cursed porters.
So we had lunch – fried rice – and climbed down. Four hours twenty minutes up, 3:10 down. On the way to the bottom we passed a mere boy carrying a 40 kg coil of rope. Impossible. Weak as I was by now, I couldn’t even lift it, but he hoisted it through two loops onto his back and it would take a day and a half to haul it up there — for 63 dollars in ringgits.
We were both thoroughly hobbled by the last two K down, Mirja and me, our brakes having given out, both of us gripping the handrails when there were any, noticing all too clearly that Eric just ambled on down the hill ahead of us the way he had ambled up. We went home, ate a table full of daging redang and papadums with a side of fiery red chopped chillies, and slept hard by eight o’clock.
On the Road: Getting to Tasiilaq
First thing we have to do, we have to find Robert.
The men smoking outside the concrete block terminal are not Robert so I ask around inside. The man behind the check-in counter might as well be collecting Arctic tumbleweeds. No flights are pending; no one is checking in.
He does not know Robert.
Together we lean over his counter to look down to the harbor. One boat is speeding away and there don’t seem to be any others. He flips his palms up and shakes his head, “I think you just go down there and wait. That is your only chance.”
Humans inhabit the fringe, the perimeter of Greenland not flattened by the ice cap, and I mean flattened, literally. Even with its thinning, ice reaches three kilometers deep at its thickest, pushing the bedrock into the mantle such that if the ice disappeared, the island would become an archipelago.
You can’t fly to Tasiilaq, the biggest town on the eastern side of Greenland, for lack of sufficient flat space for an airstrip. So we have flown to a gravel strip called Kulusuk airport. To get to Tasiilaq we must traverse the mouth of the Ammassalik fjord. We booked that online and all we know is, get to Kulusuk and ask for Robert.
We can see our destination twenty kilometers across the fjord behind a few icebergs and a coastline of precambrian rock thrust from the sea long before humanity, possibly even contemporaneous with the first life on earth.
We invade and insult the silence with our prissy roll aboard carry-on bags, scraping and skipping the damned things down the rough gravel. Show more respect and stand still, and the quiet closes up around you as a vehement, absolute thing.
A man from Cologne with a massive backpack walks ahead of us. He has arrived with no itinerary beyond walking for two weeks. His pack reaches up past his head, bulging with two weeks of freeze dried food and powdered milk.
Once he walked from Ilullisat to Sisimiut in western Greenland, and that is far, far farther than from here to Tasiilaq and then clear around the island, but that time he was advised that there was no danger of polar bears and he has yet to be so advised here. His itinerary may have to be revised based on local information. Right now he plans to circumambulate Ammassalik island. He puts great store in the advice of Robert, but none of us know how to find him.
Airport to harbor, perhaps a twenty minute walk. No boats in sight. Either side of the gravel path, just rock and a little but not much tenacious flora. Our destination across the water is low and bare with mountains rising snow capped, glaciers embedded toward the top. Clouds tease the ridges but do not suggest a threat of rain. In between individual icebergs, not a field, rise like several-story buildings.
It turns out that two tiny Danish-built fiberglass Poca speedboats, so low slung that the dock hides them both, bob in the sea beyond the dock. Two Greenlandic men stand down there on the shore below the dock, neither in so much as a jacket, enjoying the northern summer.
We ask, “Robert?” and the younger man, with no English, shakes his head no, “Christian.” We and the backpacker, who is expecting the same ride, are at a bit of a loss until we work out, through gestures and good will, that Christian is on behalf of Robert. For us, that is good.
The dock is too high for the boats, and so we scramble down onto rocks to climb aboard, and Christian takes the backpacker, my wife Mirja and me screaming across the fjord toward a similar spot on the far shore. Christian, hair stood up to a greased crown, drives standing, and stops us dead in the water alongside this iceberg, then that, so we can take photos.
We clamber out on a rock where there is no dock at all. Christian motions without words, “up that way,” and makes no move to leave the boat. So off we scramble, not having paid anybody for anything, off to find someone who wants our money. Robert, maybe.
The Inuit seldom keep individual dogs as pets, but rather tether them in groups outside in summer, and we rouse the mild attention of a pack of tethered dogs as we troop up the hill. Inuit sled dogs have two layers of fur, the inner short, like wool for insulation, and the outer longer, coarser and water repellent. That may make them hot today but overall, they are surely chillin’, taking the warm season off, lounging all day except when growling and snapping over territory.
A vehicle makes its way down the hill picking its path, for the way is gravel and bumpy. A slight girl stops to ask that we wait here, drives down the road to drop some camping supplies and returns to drive us to the Red House, a tour shop and hostel run by the famous Robert.
Robert’s reputation should have preceded him. Turns out in 1983, extreme explorer Robert Peroni from the Italian south Tyrol walked across the Greenland ice cap, all the way across the island at its widest point, some 1400 kilometers, on an 88 day journey.
Now 72, Robert stands before us trim and erect, and above all relieved to find we aren’t planning to stay in his hostel, for he is booked solid as he would hope to be in a very short high season. We pay him for the crossing from Kulusuk, bid farewell, and the girl drives us up the hill to the Hotel Angmagssalik.
There was a time when airline passengers celebrated successful landings. I remember applause in 1986 when my Lufthansa flight landed in Frankfurt from Moscow. I thought it was as likely for getting the bloody hell out of the Soviet Union.
We came over from Iceland today on a brand new, gleaming Air Iceland Bombardier Q400 prop plane, twenty rows two by two. Bustling their baby refreshment cart up and down the aisle meant actual work for the flight attendants, compared to the doorman role they play on short domestic flights.
Come time to land, the plane took on a buzz incongruent with today’s humdrum air travel. In a small plane you’ve more of a sense of flying, and when the pilot maneuvered to dip under the clouds and between the mountains, we all craned to be the first to see icebergs, and phone cameras filled the windows. The runway at Kulusuk came up fast and we rode it right to the end lights.
About fifty of the seventy aboard were here for a day trip. Over in the morning, touch the soil, check Greenland off your list and fly back. I met a taxi driver in Reykjavik who said he did it as a fifteen year old.
What did they do?
They deplaned, someone took them around the side of the terminal and they watched a man in a costume play a drum and a fat woman dance.
Some months ago he drove a man to do the same and picked him up later that day. What did they do? A drum and a dance.
The east Greenland coast near Tasiilaq
Excerpted from Out in the Cold, Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada by Bill Murray
… of the Arctic Russian Kola Peninsula here in the Calvert Journal.