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.
Ascension Island, South Atlantic Ocean
Eight hundred residents on the British-run Ascension Island will not be able to get a regular flight off the island until at least 2019 because of potholes on the only runway, a travel agency has said.
Ascension is governed as part of the St. Helena British overseas territory. Under the headlines Airport Tale Turns Embarrassing for British Government and St Helena Airport Opening Postponed – Again I told you last year about problems with the possibility of wind shear at the newly built but never used £285 million – and counting – St. Helena airport. That potential for wind shear was apparently never anticipated until the airport was built, but only discovered in pre-opening testing. See the test landing – which came only on the third try, in this video.
When we traveled the Namibia – St. Helena – Ascension circuit we did so aboard the Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, which sailed that circuit most of the year. There had been plans to retire the RMS St. Helena after the opening of the airport. No prospect of that now. And now, with the closure of the Ascension airport making shutting down travel to either Ascension or St. Helena by air, there’s one other problem. This month,
the ship (the RMS St. Helena) was declared out of order, twice ending up in dry dock in Cape Town, most recently due to the left propeller becoming locked in a forward position.
The British Royal Air Force had operated its “South Atlantic Airbridge” between Brize Norton Air Base near Oxford, England, Ascension Island, where there are US Air Force, UK government and BBC installations, and Stanley in the Falkland Islands. It seems that the A330s for those flights are too heavy to use the Ascension airfield, pending repairs, and so they have been rerouted via Dakar, Senegal.
For now, and by “now” I mean the foreseeable future, if you happen to be a tourist stranded on St. Helena or Ascension, it might be a good time to bear down on finishing up that novel. Ascension is the more austere, but I believe if I had to choose, I’d choose to be stuck there. The military there have planes. They can fly in more beer.
The Royal Mail Ship St. Helena is under repairs in Capetown, South Africa. For a normal ship that wouldn’t generate any headlines. But the RMS St. Helena serves as a literal lifeline and the only means of transportation for the inhabitants of St. Helena Island, a speck of land way out in the South Atlantic ocean. This document, attempting to address questions from stranded and potential passengers and businesses, shows the RMS St. Helena’s importance to St. Helena Island and also to Ascension Island, where the RMS usually calls on it’s regular itinerary. It’s interesting to follow this link and read about the trouble caused by the possible dry-docking of the Royal Mail Ship.
You can feel the remoteness of these places when you take the three day journey out from the African mainland to St. Helena and the overnight journey onward to Ascension. But that just became way more immediate for the unfortunate subject of an article headlined British woman mauled by shark near Ascension Island saved after husband punched it. The only way off Ascension Island is the RMS St. Helena or via the British Ministry of Defense’s “airbridge,” used to shuttle troops between the Falkland Islands, the military base at Ascension and the Brize Norton base near Oxford, England. The airbridge, it turns out to the ill fortune of our shark attack victim, is temporarily not calling at Ascension either, as you can see from the question and answer sheet.
As a result,
the family found themselves “pretty stuck” by travel chaos across the South Atlantic.
St Helena’s airport, built with the help of £285 million from the Department of International Development, was due to open last May but flights have been postponed indefinitely as it is too windy for commercial aircraft to land safely.
As a result, people normally get the island’s ageing supply ship, the RMS St Helena, to Ascension Island, but it broke down near South Africa in late March and it remains there having repairs to its propellor.
Furthermore, flights have stopped touching down on the military runway on Ascension for safety reasons, reportedly because of cracks in the runway.
It was huge news when the British government announced that tiny St. Helena Island (below), some 1200 miles of the coast of west Africa, would get an airport, finally making unnecessary the five day journey by Royal Mail Ship required to visit the island. Plans were approved in 2010. Six years later the Saints have their airport but it will require an open checkbook to ever use it.
The site of the long-sought, still unrealized airport.
This has got to be frustrating for all concerned. Intrepid little Atlantic Star airlines has been sending out emails for months with news of one problem after another involved in getting the air link to St. Helena Island up and running. At the time of our visit to St. Helena aboard the RMS St. Helena in December 2009/January 2010 they were already working and planning for this new airport and still today the Royal Mail Ship is the only regular transportation to the island, around 1200 miles west of Angola.
Hang in there, Saints.
(Here are some photos of St. Helena Island, one of the more remote corners of the world.)
It’s been a long time coming, but the new airport at St. Helena Island is just about ready for paying passengers.
St. Helena is WAY off the beaten path. If you’re the adventurous type, be one of the first.
Taken from the train platform in Spiez, a little town on the Thunersee, between Interlaken and Thun, in Switzerland.
The mercado in Addia Ababa, Ethiopia. They call it the world's largest outdoor market and it really is huge. It's blocks and blocks and blocks both long and wide.
Out in the countryside in St. Helena, a British territory in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Kind of frozen in time.
Along the side of the road in rural Uganda.
Fremantle, the port near Perth, on Australia's Indian Ocean coast.