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Date: 14 Apr 2014 15:40:00
Title: Ascension Update

We may not make another trip ashore and so it's back to using the sat phone to send emails, so photos from Ascension are going to have to wait until we next have shore based Internet and we don't know when that will be. So this is just a text update of what we've been up to. Ascension really has been quite a surprise and is quite different to St Helena. It's more low lying around the fringes and somehow lighter and fresher. The higher lands are in the centre and Green Mountain dominates at 2,817ft, but there are other hills and pinnacles - the island is volcanic and actually has 44 cones/craters dotted across it. When approaching the anchorage (Clarence Bay) it looks like they have a problem with giant moles! It's been dormant for 300 years or so, which is not long and as said before, a lot of cones/craters give a moonscape appearance that looks like it was only created yesterday. Some of the red colours are quite stunning in contrast to areas that have been planted by early settlers and are green (hence Green Mountain!).

Getting ashore though is not easy! While the swell out where we are anchored is less than at the moorings in St Helena, the swell at the steps alongside the wharf here is much worse. Like St Helena there is a frame with ropes hanging down, but here you have to use them every time to get in and out of the dinghy - even on a good day the swell rises and falls several feet and you have to time your leap as the dinghy rises against the steps. It looks impossible at times, and sometimes is! One catamaran that only planned to stay 24 hours, bought lots of supplies, including diesel in cans and put them on the wider platform at the bottom of the steps not realising how big the swell can be. Before they had a chance to get the dinghy alongside a big swell came in and washed the whole lot into the water and they lost quite a lot. The crew standing on the platform with water around their feet suddenly found it was up around their waists and they were almost swept off too! When it comes in like that it's rough with it, and is dangerous. The cruise ship Amsterdam (700ft or more) dropped anchor the same day, but the swell was too high for the passengers to come ashore. So it just sailed right around the island for it's passengers to see as much of the island as they could before heading off into the distance. Once you do get ashore you have to tie the dinghy to a line that runs to a buoy nearby and you can then pull the dinghy off and away from the steps. It stays there clear of the steps going up and down with the swell. The process has to be reversed when you want to go back to the boat. As a result there are only 3 yachts here - others have bypassed the island due to it's reputation for getting ashore, but we're very glad we didn't. It's definitely worth making the effort and taking on the challenge!

The airport runway for the island, used by the British and American planes, is in the American Air Force base and is long - apparently it was extended so that it could accommodate the Space Shuttle, should they need to land it in the Southern Hemisphere. We've been past it a few times now and it is very long. Planes going from the UK to the Falklands stop here to refuel. During the Falklands war this was the main supply base and at that time it was one of the busiest airports in the World. We have only seen one plane land and there is no evidence of planes on the runway.

There's a group of conservationists looking after the islands native plant species and we hitched a lift from them to go up to Green Mountain. From there we went on a couple of walks that gave stunning views over the island. One of the walks took us right to the top of the mountain and up there it was covered in a bamboo forest. The early settlers had dug a small water reservoir up there and planted the bamboo to give it shelter from the sun and help stop evaporation. Now all the water needed for drinking is provided by a desalination plant. The old water supplies are use to cultivate the rare and endemic plants that the conservationists are trying to preserve.

The island is a working island in that people only come here to work, some bringing their families - there is no local population. At any time there's up to about 1,000 people, most being military. Some are working for the BBC as it's still one of their communication centres. There is one hotel and it has a few hire cars. We were lucky to get one on Saturday and toured the island with Nick and Jennifer, a Canadian couple on Green Ghost - one of the other two yachts at anchor. They've been here a while awaiting the arrival of a new autopilot from the UK. Having said in an earlier update that it was not too difficult to get parts on the military planes, it seems that while it is easy to get approval, it's not possible to guarantee when it might be delivered. At the moment all the planes are full and so they are having to wait.

The anchorage in Clarence Bay is at the main settlement - Georgetown. The hotel is here, a very small supermarket, lovely church (its white paint contrasting with the black cinders that cover the ground all around) and buildings and workshops associated with the port. This is where all the goods (mostly containers) are brought ashore. The American Base is a 10 minute drive out of town and the British Air Force Base is a further 5 minute drive. But we got to see both as we had elevenses at the NAAFI on the British Base and at the end of the day had a steak supper at the American Base (watching Arsenal win on penalties! - they also had baseball on another screen).

The geology of the island is fascinating and we had a good look round, but we also had our first proper swim for about 6 months! There are a couple of small beaches that are safe to swim at (dangerous undertows at the others) and although there are no coral reefs, the water is warm and there are lots of tropical fish, particularly Black Trigger Fish. They are everywhere and converge on anything thrown in the water and devour it in seconds like a shoal of piranhas. Luckily they don't have a go at swimmers! At the end of the day, after dark and with almost a full moon, it was a good time to go and see the turtles coming up the beach to lay their eggs. It was only about 21.00, so quite early but we could see 6 making their way up the beach. We didn't get close as it's easy to put them off and they go back out to sea without laying. We had seen it all close up in Grenada with proper guides, but what we did see here that we didn't in Grenada was a tiny hatchling making it's way down to the sea. It was all on it's own and was either an early hatch or a late one, and when we saw it, it was going the wrong way! But with the help of our red torches (we like to think) it turned and we watched it scurry across the sand towards the sea. Then it was back to face the wharf steps and hopefully get in the dinghy without getting too wet!

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