On Ascension Island, a speck in the middle of the South Atlantic, even the locals are far from home. To survive, its international workers seek common ground. By Matthew Clayfield.

Life on Ascension Island

Comfortless Cove, one of only two places it is safe to swim on the rugged coasts of Ascension Island.
The German climatologist had a theory. “Everyone comes to Ascension Island for strategic reasons,” he said. “The American air force is here because of the island’s location between South America and Africa. The RAF is here because it allows them to refuel on their way to the Falklands. The BBC is here because it allows them to broadcast the World Service into various countries on various continents. And the Saints [by which he meant the Saint Helenians, residents of Ascension’s nearest neighbour, Saint Helena, a three-day boat ride to the south] are here because the pay is significantly higher than it is back home.”

“Even the turtles,” he added, referring to the world’s second-largest colony of green turtles, at that moment nesting not a kilometre from where we were enjoying continental breakfast on the hotel patio, “are here for reasons that we might consider, broadly speaking, strategic”.

The climatologist knew what he was talking about. Indeed, he was on Ascension for strategic reasons of his own, working for an international project measuring the prevalence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by recording how much sunlight was penetrating it at any given moment. The island’s remoteness, positioned between tropical Africa and the Amazon, and negligible carbon emissions of its own, make it an ideal atmospheric research location.

His theory might be said to hold true for the handful of tourists who visit the island each year as well, with most of them using it as a launch pad to reach Saint Helena rather than treating it as a destination in and of itself. (Saint Helena’s long-awaited airport doesn’t open until 2016 and in the meantime the island remains accessible only by sea. RMS St Helena operates a Cape Town-Saint Helena-Ascension round trip every couple of weeks.)

Which is not to say that Ascension, 1600 kilometres from the African coastline in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, and another 2250 kilometres from the South American one, doesn’t have stand-alone charms of its own. 

Discovered by the Portuguese in 1501, the island remained unclaimed until 1815, when the British exiled Napoleon to Saint Helena and garrisoned Ascension to the north and Tristan da Cunha to the south in order to deny the French a site from which to launch a rescue attempt. Once, passing ships would stock up on turtle meat on the island’s beaches and leave messages for one another in bottles wedged in its rocky cliff faces. Their landings were not always successful. Shipwrecks now await divers less than 200 metres off the coast. Whale sharks, like the turtles, pay a yearly visit. First-time anglers are likely to catch some of the world’s biggest tuna and marlin in the island’s waters, often the first time they cast a line into them. And the island is crisscrossed with a number of walking trails – one or two of which have been named for the devil, with good reason – that will test even the fittest of hikers.

Then there is the island’s centrepiece, Green Mountain, a towering, terraformed triumph of will that must surely rate among the most impressive feats of 19th-century meddling with nature. In 1847, British botanist Joseph Hooker, with the support of Charles Darwin, who had visited Ascension on the Beagle about a decade earlier, advised the Royal Navy that they should institute a long-term project to vegetate the island, importing plants from across the Empire in the interest of capturing more rain and improving the soil. The result is a startling pillar of green, rising out of the volcanic ash and dried-up lava flows of the island’s lower elevations, its summit topped with a crown of bamboo shrouded by the mists of the man-made cloud forest. Of course, as was common with such Enlightenment shenanigans, Green Mountain’s transformation had unintended consequences. The introduced plants made short work of the endemic ones and conservationists are now trying their damnedest to ensure that critically endangered examples of the latter don’t become extinct. The mountain’s catchments no longer provide any of the island’s main settlements with their water, two desalination plants having rendered them irrelevant.

But what really sets Ascension apart has little to do with its tourist-brochure elements and everything to do with its population.

Legally speaking, there is no such thing as an Ascension Islander. In order to live on the island, one must be gainfully employed there, however loosely defined and applied those terms sometimes are. Even those who are born on the island must find work if they wish to remain on it beyond the age of 18.

But when no one really belongs in a place, it means that anyone can; when everyone’s an outsider, it means that nobody is. Once one has landed at Wideawake Airfield – built by the US and abandoned at the end of World War II, then regarrisoned by the RAF in 1982 for use during the Falklands War – or disembarked from the mail ship, the only question is whether one wants to fit in. Those who don’t tend to leave after a year or two.

The rest stay and, in a manner of speaking, build a life for themselves. At the Volcano Club, on the US base, Saints play Americans in high-scoring games of softball, the wind whistling over the mouths of one-dollar Coronas as the sun sets over the ocean and the left-field bleachers. One goes for the third-class softball and stays for the world-class heckling. Just off Long Beach, turtle nests pockmarking its length like mortar blasts, Scottish contractors, here to paint the RAF barracks at Traveller’s Hill, destroy the island’s reigning soccer champions. The weekend’s matches will be dutifully written up, at length, for the island’s weekly newsletter. 

A random traveller can quickly find himself being treated like a local. The Easter long weekend was a case in point. The festivities kicked off on Good Friday with the Interserve fishing competition and fry-up, run by the global service-provision company’s contractors. We played Jenga with their main man at Wideawake, who recounted Barack Obama’s visit on the president’s way back to Washington from Nelson Mandela’s funeral. We spoke with a young Saint who organises the island’s Halloween festivities each year and was a member of the team that won the day’s award for heaviest catch. “There’s alcohol in the punch,” my fiancée stage-whispered to me conspiratorially after her fifth cup.

The celebrations continued the following evening with the US Air Force’s Easter Saturday cookout, attended by seemingly everyone on the island, including a number of volunteers from the tall ship Europa, which was passing through on its way from Antarctica to Holland. The house band, comprising contractors from the US base, channelled everyone from Simon and Garfunkel to Fleetwood Mac, with a young Saint girl standing in, impressively, for Stevie Nicks. We ate grouper and conger eel with an Oklahoman who said his years in the military had made him more racially tolerant than he would have been if he’d remained at home, and a Saint with an encyclopaedic knowledge of sporting arcana who said he wasn’t eating that night in order that he might drink more. “Jello shots!” he cried.

When RMS St Helena arrived a week later, and we walked through Georgetown’s Saints’ Club on our way to the dock, Americans, Brits and Saints shook our hands. Embraces and email addresses were exchanged. People said they hoped to see us again. We said we’d return,
and meant it.

With each organisation on the island pursuing its own strategic aims, as the German climatologist had it, whether military, commercial or scientific, one might assume a certain tribalism would result. In fact, the opposite is true. Because although the organisations themselves may have disparate goals, the individuals that comprise them ultimately share a common one: that their stint on this cinder in the middle of nowhere, whether two years long or upwards of 20, should be as pleasant and as productive as possible. A sense of community is as necessary to survival there as the semi-regular arrival of supply ships. (When we arrived on Ascension, our hotel had run out of eggs and guests were surreptitiously sent to buy up the local store’s supply. “Don’t go all at once,” we were told. “It will be too obvious.”) The only way to avoid going mad is to lean on one another.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "Island life".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Matthew Clayfield
is a freelance foreign correspondent.

Our journalism is founded on trust and independence

Register your email for free access or log in if you already subscribe

      Keep Reading                 Subscribe