Ascension Island

Here is this month’s On the Road column, as published Monday at 3 Quarks Daily.

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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.

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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Additional reading:

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.

Quotes: Ursula Le Guin

I want to thank Mary Hrovat, from whose tremendous blog The Thinking Meat Project I am absconding with this lovely quote from Ursula Le Guin:

“Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moon-driven sea. Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.

But here rise the stubborn continents. The shelves of gravel and the cliffs of rock break from water baldly into air, that dry, terrible outerspace of radiance and instability, where there is no support for life. And now, now the currents mislead and the waves betray, breaking their endless circle, to leap up in loud foam against rock and air, breaking…

What will the creature made all of seadrift do on the dry sand of daylight; what will the mind do, each morning, waking?”

A Good Day for Giraffes

As a major giraffe fan, it makes me happy to read this good news in the most recent newsletter from the Amboseli Trust for Elephants:

“The 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species took place in August in Geneva, Switzerland. CITES was established by the UN in 1975 to ensure that international trade in wild species of flora and fauna would not threaten their survival as species. Currently 183 nations are parties to CITES. ATE and other NGOs either attend the CITES meeting as “non-governmental observers,” or advisers from the sidelines. Either way, we work to persuade attending governments to conserve species, not profit from their destruction.

This most recent meeting attained some important victories for vulnerable animals. Proposals by southern African nations to reopen the international ivory trade by allowing the resumption of ivory stockpile sales were defeated, as was a proposal to reopen trade in white rhino horn. The conference stressed the need for governments to address the existence of legal ivory markets, and the EU promised to tackle the huge market across its 28 member states. Australia also announced its intention to ban the domestic trade in ivory and rhino horn.

In a huge victory, giraffes were granted protection from unregulated international trade. This is an historic move, and marks the first time giraffes have been granted such protection. Giraffe numbers have dramatically declined (in some areas, up to 40%) during the last 30 years, due to habitat loss, poaching, disease and war or civil unrest.”

On The Road: The Maneater Of Mfuwe

Here is my monthly column as it appeared Monday on 3QuarksDaily.

by Bill Murray

Just about everyone who visits the famous South Luangwa wildlife park drives through Mfuwe, Zambia. A mere wide spot in the road, a trifle to tourists, Mfuwe holds a fearsome, searing memory. It will forever be known for the Man-Eater of Mfuwe, a lion that killed six people over two months in 1991.

There are more famous man-eating tigers than lions in the literature. Tigers and people live in closer proximity in India than lions and people in Africa. I’ve seen an estimate of as many as 10,000 people killed by tigers in India in the nineteenth century.

The Champawat Tigress, the most infamous Panthera tigris, was said to have killed 436 people before she was killed in Nepal, then part of British colonial India, in 1911. After a spree of terror, hunters having failed to kill her, the authorities ultimately called in the Nepalese army. In Kenya’s Tsavo Park two lions killed perhaps two dozen Indian railroad construction workers in 1898, halting the colonizing Brits’ project to connect the port of Mombasa with the interior of British East Africa.

But the Mfuwe man-eater was no colonial-era killer. Its attacks occurred less than thirty years ago, thoroughly terrorizing an overgrown village of scarcely a thousand a spare 60 miles west of the border with Malawi, oriented toward the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. Lusaka, the Zambian capital, is 300 miles away.

The night of the first attack the killer struck two boys walking along a road at night. One escaped, but responding game rangers found only clothing and fragments of the other boy’s skull. A few days later a lion crashed through the door of a woman’s rondavel on the edge of the village. The second victim.

The third attack was nearly foiled by an edgy ranger, who fired his gun, but the victim, a young boy, was bitten and died of his wounds. Three more attacks were to come. People began to believe this was no ordinary lion, but a devil or a medicine man taking the shape of a lion.

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Today the Mfuwe lion is stuffed and on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. 3.2 meters long, 1.2 meters at the shoulder and estimated at 249 kilos, it was male, and it was mane-less, similar in that way to the man-eating lions of Tsavo.

At first the lack of a mane led people to assume they were after a lioness. Early in the Mfuwe terror, people believed they’d got the man-eater, when a Japanese hunter brought down a lioness. But then the man-eater entered a woman’s hut and stole a bag of laundry, taking the bag into the village and roaring over it. This lion was clearly male.

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Wayne Hosek wasn’t the first to try to kill the cursed thing. Other professionals, including the Japanese hunter, tried before Hosek.

Remarkably, as a child the man who ultimately brought down the Mfuwe man-eater studied the man-eaters of Tsavo, also on exhibit at the Field Museum. Wayne Allen Hosek was born in Chicago.

He says the Field Museum has always been one of his favorite places on earth. As a boy, Hosek spent days in front of the Tsavo lions, trying to imagine confronting the real thing, as he imagined it, with nothing but a few seconds separating him from their wrath.

Hosek’s battle with the Mfuwe man-eater stretched across the first nine days of September, 1991. First he met the hunter who had shot the lioness. Everyone hoped that solved the problem of this particularly evil Panthera leo but days later, two days before the hunter returned home to Japan, the sixth victim was attacked.

Hosek’s early description, a pdf in the Field Museum’s archives, is incomplete, reading as an early draft of an incomplete story (Hosek later wrote a book.). There’s even a place in the .pdf where his narrative reads “SECTION TO COME.”

In that section perhaps Hosek would have introduced us to his hunting companions, for later we are assumed to know “Charl” (Charl Beukes, another professional hunter), who was with Hosek the night the animal was killed.

Hosek visited villages where the lion had been spotted, talking to people, learning the cat’s behavior. The killer had dragged the last victim, a woman named Jesleen, from her rondavel in the Luangwa valley village of Ngozo.

The day after Jesleen was killed the lion walked into her home in the middle of the day and took a white bag with some of her clothing. People frantically beat on pots and pans to scare the lion away. It played with the bag like a cat with catnip. They found the bag in a dry river bed a mile from Jesleen’s house.

Village women used to wash their family’s clothes there by walking to the middle of the riverbed and digging down to water. Hosek writes, on this day “(e)ven the hornbills lounging in the riverbed seemed to be giving the bag a wide berth.”

Phillip Caputo, in Ghosts of Tsavo, writes that at this point Hosek’s trackers wouldn’t look him in the eye, two of them wouldn’t look at him at all, as if they resented his getting them into all this.

The elders decided Jesleen’s bag was bewitched and the lion was a sorcerer or a demon, “or at least demon possessed,” and villagers would not go near the bag. Authorities instituted a curfew at 5:00 over an area of some 65 square miles.

The hunters laid bait near the bag, hoping to keep the lion near, and retired to camp. Hosek’s companion Charl counseled, “Remember to follow-up HARD as soon as you make your first shot.” Hosek, a devout Christian, woke repeatedly that night, and each time he prayed.

The next day they built a blind using bamboo and elephant grass cut by villagers. Charl shot a small hippo and laid a haunch in the riverbed. They spent an uneventful night. The lion didn’t take the bait, but by day the hunters found its tracks a scant fifty feet from the blind.

The following day the hunters holed up in the blind around 3:30. Hosek describes “blind sleep” – “my eyes were closed, but my ears seemed to have acquired an ability to listen to each and every sound.”

Again they didn’t see the lion, but by now, “(t)he man-eater had become the center of my life’s purpose.”

Too many ineffectual cloistered hours led to a new strategy. They would build a new blind elsewhere, hang bait and leave the blind empty, in hopes the lion would get comfortable at the absence of its stalkers. They arranged for others to build the blind so the cat wouldn’t get the scent of the hunters.

Charl selected the site. He felt that the lion was clever enough never to let the hunters spy him standing still, and that it would be moving whenever it allowed them to see it. Gauging their being shut away in a blind against a lion on the prowl, he thought ultimately they would have no more than 2.5 to 3 seconds to take their shot.

When the hunters made their way to the new blind they saw that the man-eater had torn off part of the bait and eaten it in a footpath used by villagers. As Hosek tried to take a photo of the lion’s tracks, his camera broke.

As a Christian, he took it as “possibly a sign from the Lord.” The villagers saw the lion as a witch or a demon, after all. They had their spirituality. Hosek had his.

On the day of the lion’s death, the hunters entered the new blind, again about 3:30. In less than an hour Charl spotted movement in tall grass. The lion approached in line with the trunk of a tree, masking its visibility.

Hosek writes that he was “in a quick stride, almost trotting.” Hosek shot the lion below and behind its left shoulder, and it was dead. One of the trackers sang the Kunda tribal lion song and villagers converged on the place, spitting on the lion, beating it with sticks, and lit celebratory fires.

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This is the story from Hosek’s memoirs, but I have found out a little more. Some time ago I asked Adrian Carr of the Norman Carr Safaris clan, about Hosek’s account. Carr figured in the man-eater story, but downplayed his role. He sat up on watch for the lion one night, saw it, but never managed to get a shot.

Here is Carr’s perspective:

“I had got involved because one of my workers insisted that I come and see something.

“He had got up in the night and gone outside for a wee. The lion had tried to catch him but somehow he got back in to his hut – the lion followed him in and he miraculously managed to get back out again – though the door. All this in the pitch black with all the terrifying growling. It was a small mud hut without windows and luckily he had been alone. The doors are on the inside opening inwards – so when he got back out he pulled the door closed and the lion was stuck inside. This is what he wanted me to see. It was like a bomb had gone off inside – the lion had totally destroyed everything including the roof from where he had eventually got out.

“I then put a bait up nearby (a hippo haunch) and the same lion fed on it that night – he had a big distinctive track.

“I decided to sit up for him the next night.

“My plan was to commandeer one of the cylindrical grain storage bins (kokwe) around the village as a blind or shelter. It was September (I think) and the grain storage bins were mostly empty. Traditionally they are made from split bamboo and woven together very tightly. They are quite heavy, very strong and I felt (in the daylight) impregnable. I would plonk myself down on the ground 30 yards from the bait – the basket, 6 feet in diameter and 8 feet high would be placed over me, I would cut a little window to shoot through and await developments….

“I was a bit late arriving that afternoon, – a small crowd gathered. I dispatched 5 strong men to go and collect a kokwe and received some quizzical looks…

“I watched as one guy sauntered up to the kokwe and effortlessly lifted it up above his head!

“Oh dear…. !! Made of millet stalks instead of bamboo! That’s like pith and balsa wood with no strength at all.

“Too late however to do anything else if I was to retain my casual demeanor and reputation of aloof imperturbability and disdain for the magical beliefs that are always associated with man-eating lions.

“Privately, of course, I was seriously doubting the wisdom of the whole enterprise!

“He came soon after midnight. Or at least that’s when I first became aware of him. I could hear his footfall circling my paper-bag fortress. My two heavy rifles, three flashlights and a handgun were little comfort. It went quiet for a bit and then I heard him feeding on the bait. I let him settle in to the feeding for 20 minutes and then put the light on him. I still have the mental image of him standing up on his hind legs, very big and tall, maneless and pale. I was ready to shoot but the instant the light hit him he dropped and was gone. He never came back and Charl and Wayne got him two nights later.”

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Adrian Carr graciously shared his story by email, kindly arranged by Norman Carr Safaris, which is now a company called Time and Tide. My thanks to the Carr family and Adrian Carr. 

Photos © the author from EarthPhotos.com.

Black Panther Photos, Mission Accomplished

It really just has to be the most exciting thing ever for photographer Will Burrard-Lucas. Big congratulations to him for getting photos of the exceedingly rare black panther at the Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya, sort of between and to the north of Nakuru and Mt. Kenya.

His story and the photos are on his website.