On the 26th March-2nd April 2014, a group of 12 Cadets and 4 Staff from Warwickshire & Birmingham Wing set off on an adventure of a lifetime to Ascension Island, located in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, right between South America & the West Coast of Africa.
It all started off on a bleary Wednesday afternoon at Wing HQ in Coventry. Most of the 12 cadets were being picked up from here and this is where I met Flt Lt Hobbins for the 1st time. She made sure everyone who was supposed to be picked up was there, we then got picked up by the minibus coming from Birmingham with the rest of the cadets & the staff as well, Flt Lt O’Neill, WO Heart, with Flt Lt Martin, CO of 165 Sqn driving the minibus. We packed our luggage onto the trailer at the back of minibus & set off to RAF Brize Norton.
After about an hour & a half we arrived at Brize Norton and after having to wait to gain entry onto the base then we made our way to the Passenger Terminal. We debussed, gathered our luggage and waited in the Arrivals lounge. We were given our Camp Polo shirts, then made our way to Check In. Flt Lt Martin said his goodbyes and drove the minibus back home. We then attached our luggage labels onto our bags and waited in the queue. Everything was going to plan until I was just checking in, when a Cpl came out from the check-in desk to announce to everyone that the flight had been delayed for 24 hours due to ‘maintenance problems’! Expectedly, everyone didn’t like the thought of staying in Brize Norton for a day as well as losing a day on Ascension. As a result of this, the RAF gave everyone on the flight free accommodation and food for the duration of our stay at the Base. By the time the flight was delayed it was about 8pm on Wednesday night. We then had to get ourselves & the luggage onto a coach to be transported to the accommodation, the Gateway House ‘Hotel’. There we were paired up, given the keys to our room. The staff gave us a quick word about what was happening, told to sit tight and hopefully we will be on our way shortly. We ever so slowly waited it out until the next day.
We left Gateway House at about 8pm on Thursday, got to the Check In desk and this time managed to check in successfully. we were going to Ascension at last! We then all proceeded through all the correct security procedures then waited in the departure lounge to be called forward to board the plane, one of AirTanker’s brand new A330s, all dubbed by the RAF as the ‘Voyager’. The flight departed at around about 11.30pm. We then had a 9 hour flight ahead of us.
The flight was very nice, with the Cabin Crew giving us free use of a Pillow & a Blanket as we were sleeping on the flight. As well as this, we were given free Soft Drinks, Squash, Tea, Coffee as well as a Snack, 2 hours into the flight, a Chicken Burrito Wrap with Crisps and a Chocolate Bar. There was in Flight Entertainment of a few Movies and TV Programs as well as some music channels, where you can just plug your headphones into the side of your armrest. I managed to watch the 1st Movie and then nodded off to sleep, waking up in the morning watching the Sunrise in the Aircraft. About two hours before we landed we were given Breakfast to eat, just about everyone had finished we then started our descent and came into land. We landed about 8.30am Friday morning (as the Island is in GMT), and as soon as I got off the Voyager, the heat hit me- 26°C, it was also humid. From going to about 10°C to this was a bit of a struggle to begin with. We then all walked from the Apron where the Voyager had stopped to the Arrivals Terminal, gathered all of the paperwork necessary to enter the Island, and about 20 minutes later we all managed to pass through security, finally onto the Island, to be greeted by Flt Lt Watson, the Camp Commandant who had been on the Island since the Sunday before, gave us a quick hello, then through the use of 3 Ford Fiestas, everyone was transported to RAF Travellers Hill, where our Accommodation was for the rest of our time on the Island.
Once everyone had arrived, we were given the opportunity to unpack, have a wash & get changed, have a some rest, before we got changed into our Greens, ready for lunch and then on towards to have a Station Brief by a WO and a FS from the Station, back at the Airport.
The Flight Sergeant whom was the Stations Nurse gave us a quick brief about our own Health & Wellbeing on Island, in regard to the heat, wearing Sun Cream & using After-sun as well as drinking plenty of water as well as talking about Mosquitos on the Island and other bugs likely to bite you, so insect repellent was a must!. Then the Warrant Officer gave a brief History of the Ascension Island and the involvement of the RAF on the Island, such as the Operation Black Buck during the Falklands War in 1982, also explaining why the RAF was still there at Ascension, supporting the Air Bridge from the UK to the Falkland Islands.
After we had the Station Brief we headed back towards RAF Travellers Hill, got undress out of Uniform and got ready to travel to Comfortless Cove, one of only 2 Beaches on the whole Island that are suitable for Swimming from. We then spent the rest of the afternoon swimming at Comfortless Cove, where I had the unfortunate luck, along with somebody else to be bitten by a Black Durgon Fish-which is related to the Piranha! After we finished swimming, we visited Bonetta Cemetery, which was a short walk from the beach. During the 1830s Ascension had become a base for the ships of the West Africa Squadron. These ships patrolling inshore along the African coast were looking for slave ships, as Britain had embarked on an anti-slavery policy. The Ships used Ascension as a port for resupplying and giving the crew rest, however many types of Fever was present on Ships, such as Dysentery & Yellow Fever. Comfortless Cove was a place where people diagnosed with Yellow Fever for instance were Quarantined & where some of them eventually died from their Illness, being buried in Bonetta Cemetery, named after HMS Bonetta.
We travelled back to Travellers Hill, had dinner then we travelled to North East Bay, where along with guidance from the Ascension Island Government (AIG) Conservationists, we had a look at Land Crabs, where most of them were converging onto this one beach to lay their eggs. For the most of the time they live up in Green Mountain & travel all the way down to the Shore to lay their eggs. We had the opportunity to pick them up, as well as some of the Conservationists talking about the Crabs, how to identify them, Male from Females etc. Once we had finished it the sun had set & on our way back in the darkness, we pretty much stumbled upon dozens of Baby Turtle Hatchlings, which had hatched that very evening and were making their way to the Sea! Whilst we were walking back, what was also nice to see was the Night Sky-there was no Air Pollution as such & cloud cover was minimal, it was just different to see so many constellations in the sky, even having the Southern Cross (the Crux) being upside down. We then journeyed back to Travellers Hill, had an opportunity to relax in the NAAFI Bar, where Hot Food & Dinks could be served, a TV & Pool Tables were also there, as well as it being one of a few Wi-Fi Hotspots on the Island. After this we all went to bed.
On Saturday Morning, we went to Long Beach, near George Town on the Island, one of the Larger Beaches where there are a Dozens of Turtle Nests. For about 3-4 hours we split off into two groups, led by the AIG Conservationists, where one group was ‘attacking’ the plants and other pieces of Vegetation that had rooted onto the beach, with the other Group, the one that I was in, walked 300m down the beach to a place where there was some sort of Tarpaulin/Roof Liner/Fabric that was buried under the beach. The tasks for the Group involved with the plants was to uproot them and discard of them as when there are plants in the sand, the rooms don’t often penetrate deeply, they go down only slightly and then spread out, which causes the Turtle Hatchlings to get caught up in them, so obviously they needed to be gotten rid of. As for the Tarpaulin Sheet, there was a rough estimate as to how big it was but there was no definite answer, reason for wanting the removal of this was again, the hatchlings were being caught up in it when they were trying to reach the Surface, so it needed to be removed. Both groups spent most of the morning rectifying these problems to the best of their ability, with my group not even uncovering the whole of the Sheet with 3-4 hours’ worth of digging. After we had finished at the beach we then made it back to RAF travellers Hill, where we had lunch, afterwards we prepared for our Afternoon Walk up to Lady Hill, where a previous group has tied an ATC Ensign to a wooden telegraph pole, like you would have in the UK but had a Floodlight on the Top of it instead. It took us about 45 minutes or so to walk to the summit of the Lady Hill, where we had the opportunity to appreciate the view, take some photographs & we also had a group photo of all of the Cadets on top of the Hill, with the ATC Ensign Flying above us in the Wind. We then made our way down the other side of the Hill, then walked to the road where we were approached by Flt Lt Watson and WO Heart who had gone down the Hill the way we went up it to meet us in the Cars so that we could be driven back to camp.
We then had a wash, got changed into clean clothes, had dinner, then we managed to drive to another beach not far from the Airport just in time to see the Sun set. We spent another 20 minutes or so relaxing at the beach, where even the Station Commander was with his family (including Dog!). We then travelled and parked up near to the Airport and waited for the Voyager to arrive from the Falklands in the dark. Once it had arrived we made our way back to camp and were given some free time before bed.
Sunday Morning after Breakfast we travelled up to Green Mountain, the National Park of the Island. Also known as ‘The Peak’, it is the highest point on Ascension Island, which has gained some fame for claims that it is one of very few large-scale artificial forests. Many early 19th-century accounts, including Charles Darwin's, describe Ascension as barren, with very few plants, some of them endemic to the island. Reason being, in relative terms, the Island’s isn’t that old & also due to Isolation as it’s situated 930 miles away from the nearest land mass. In 1843, the British plant collector Joseph Dalton Hooker visited the island with Sir James Clark Ross's Antarctica Expedition. Hooker proposed a plan to plant the island with vegetation to attempt to increase rainfall and make life more bearable for the Royal Marine Garrison that was stationed there. Long story short, it increased precipitation on the Island and helped for the Forest to thrive.
Our involvement was a little less drastic than that, as for the morning we were only going to walk around the Mountain, called Elliot’s Pass. Once everyone had arrived, having driven up the twisty and windy road up the mountain in the Cars, we made our way to the start of Elliot’s Pass. We then split off into two groups, both going opposite ways around the Mountain. Along the trial, there was quite dense vegetation in places as well as stunning views on the Island in places. Although we were quite high up, there was still a long way to go to reach the Peak of the mountain. It was quite a surprise as well to see the odd Land Crab now and again whilst we were walking too. As it was one of the Letter Box walks on the Island, where you have the opportunity to write down a message or leave a little momentum in the box, both groups did so. Once we had finished the walk, both groups rendezvoused at the Cars and we headed back down to Travellers hill, get cleaned up if need be and then had lunch.
Afterwards, we travelled to the other Beach on the Island which is suitable for swimming from, English Beach. Travelling to the Beach we also went past the BBC World Service Relay Station, which was impressive in its size and vast arrangements of Antennas. English Beach is a lot larger than Comfortless Cove and is a ‘stereotypical’ beach in some regards as there is plenty of sand as well as being a large beach, with rock pools, even having a Volleyball Court! After spending a few hours there, we travelled back to Camp where we got washed, ready for dinner and then it was off to see Turtle nesting on Long Beach near George Town.
We travelled to the Conservation Centre in Georgetown, where we were shown a brief Video Presentation about Turtle Life on the Island. From this, we walked down to the Beach, donned our Red Torches, as White light is distressing to Nesting Turtles as well as confusing for Baby Hatchlings as they’re attracted to it. Once we reached the beach, the Conservationists Radioed to one another, as one Turtle had already to start to Nest. We managed to get across the beach to see the Turtle laying her eggs just in time. When the Turtles lay, they go into a trance, where it’s been proven as they’re distracted by light or any movement in front of their face, so with this, we were allowed to use the flash on our cameras to take photos of the Turtles. A few minutes or so after getting to the Turtle finished laying her Clutch of Eggs, and started to move about covering up the where the eggs were with her flippers. This process takes a few hours, so the group moved onto another Turtle that was about 100m or so down the beach. Once we arrived at the Turtle, the Conservationists measured her and attempted to measure the temperature of the Eggs. Unfortunately she stopped laying in time to get a proper reading. The temperature of which the Eggs are at is critical as it determines the sex of the Turtle. With this, as Ascension Island’s temperature doesn’t drop below 25°C on Average, with the Temperature of Males needing to be 24°C, there is a higher proportion of Female to Male Hatchlings, so this is being monitored constantly.
Unfortunately, whilst we were watching the Turtles laying their Eggs, another Conservationist was walking all over the beach trying to find some Baby Hatchlings to look at, but it was not to be as he couldn’t find any. However, the compromise was to walk over to the Pier in Georgetown, where it was known that Hawksbill Turtles would be there, (not the same species as the Green Turtle that nest on the Island). We spent another 45 minutes or so in Georgetown, made it back to cars then made our way back to camp, for an early start the next morning.
We had to be up early on Monday, as we were going to have the opportunity to have a Tour around the Voyager which was landing from RAF Brize Norton. However, the Clocks had gone forward due to Daylight Saving in the UK, but in Ascension, it isn’t observed as it is so close to the Equator, therefore it was landing at around 7am, not 8am. As we were driving towards the Base, we saw the Voyager land; manage to park up in time as well to see her taxi onto the Apron. We then proceed inside the Ops room, where we witnessed the Pilot’s briefing, which took about 10 minutes of talking about the Weather mainly (how British!) and what delays could occur from it. Once the Pilot’s had finished, we were escorted onto the Apron and to the Voyager. We waited for the Pilots to arrive, from which we were split up into two Groups, one having a Tour of the outside of the Aircraft whilst the other had a Cockpit talk through, swapping over in due course. This took about an hour & a half. Once we had finished at the base, we headed over to the mess for a late Breakfast, followed by the Journey to return to Green Mountain.
This time, we weren’t here for a leisurely walk, we’d come to help with the path clearance around Elliot’s Pass, so that the letterbox walk could be attempted with more ease-we evidently knew what the situation was like after the previous day. After we had arrived, we were given a quick brief by the Parks only ranger, who gave us a brief history about how the forest came to be and then told us what we would be doing. We were all given Machetes as the tool to use and told how to use them. We were also informed about the endemic species of plant, most of which are endangered, going onto the verge of extinction on the Island, what they look like and also told to watch out for them and to not chop them down. We then made our way up and along Elliot’s Pass, to the point where the other group of Cadets previous to us had cleared. After hacking away at the under, over and everywhere it was supposed to be growth for about 3 hours, we returned back down the mountain, gave in our Machete’s then travelled back to camp, got changed and ready for lunch.
Once lunch was over, we paid a visit to the European Space Agency (ESA) site on the Island. To start with, we had a talk with a German Scientist, who in fact had nothing to do with the ESA, but in fact was from the Max Plank Institute for Biogeochemistry. On the ESA site, there was a shipping container, which had inside it the instruments and equipment needed for him to carry out his job. The reason for his presence there was that he was analysing sunlight, as the relative unpolluted air gave the best sunlight samples. From this, he could see what compounds of Gasses that there were higher up in the atmosphere, in regards to Greenhouse Gasses etc. We had a look inside of the Container, where there was an array of Mirrors & Computers and things. Afterwards, we had a tour of the ESA part of the site, where we went into the Office to begin with to have a talk about what the job of the ESA on the Island is. About 4-6 times a year, the ESA launches the Ariane 5 Rocket from Kourou in French Guiana, carrying mainly commercial Satellites. To track the launch of the Rocket, they require a few stations along the path of the launch as one station alone cannot do the Job. So for 6 minutes, for 4-6 times a year, the job of the People on Ascension Island is to track the Rocket whilst is it travelling out of the Atmosphere, along with other stations along the trajectory of Rockets flight path. After they explained this in the office, we headed over to the Operations Centre, where all the equipment for tracking the rocket is stored. It was also nice to spend some time indoors with some Air Conditioning for once! The person who was showing us around explain what all the bits and bobs inside did, also saying that the room itself was also a Faradays Cage, to prevent any electrical surges from the outside of the room from getting within and disrupting the electronical equipment within.
After we had the Tour of the ESA, we made it down to the beach, a 5 minute walk or so away. Here though, you couldn’t swim, neither had we brought any swimming gear as such, but what the beach did offer was plenty of rock pools, and the main feature, a naturally occurring Geezer/Blow Hole, where incoming waves would hit, with the rock eroding in such a way, that it would spurt water out like a Geezer, 10s of feet up into the air. We managed to get to the rock where this occurred, watching it, taking photo’s etc, afterwards, we walked back up to the top where the ESA site was, and travelled back to camp. From here we spent our last night on the Island, having the opportunity to spend most of the evening in the NAAFI Club Bar as well as packing our bags to go home.
On our final day on the Island, we spent the morning Visiting Georgetown. We started off at the Museum on the Island, Fort Hayes Gallery, which told of the story of Ascension, from the discovery of the Island to the RAF & NASA involvement too-there was also a lovely Dog, a Golden Retriever called Arthur who was being looked after by the owner of the Gallery. After spending time there, we made our way to the abandoned Fort, where there was a good sea view as well as some interesting rooms, one filled with empty Brown Glass Bottles for instance. From this we walked into Georgetown, where unfortunately the Post Office was shut, however the local Shop was open, where we had the opportunity to buy Food & Drink or an Ice Cream. We then made it towards the Obsidian Hotel, where there was a Souvenir/Gift Shop, so we could buy something to take home with us. Once we were finished in Georgetown we made it back to the Mess for Lunch, then we all decided to go back to Comfortless Cove for the afternoon to swim again for the last time. After returning from Comfortless Cove, we had our last meal on the Island, where I had Salmon, (goes to show the quality of the food we had), we finally packed our bags, attached our return luggage labels, packed up & headed towards the Airport.
Our flight was arriving an hour early, so we had a 10.30pm departure time, therefore for check-in we had to be there earlier too. We managed to get checked in successfully, with a few of our bags being ‘randomly checked’ by the ‘computer system’, from which there were no problems, all we had to do was wait for hours until we could board the Voyager back home. We boarded right on time and then we arrived back at Brize Norton, at a chilly 10°C, nice and early at 8.15am with a 8 hours and 10 minute flight back, with the quality of the flight being just as nice on the way back as it was on the way there.
I would like to thank all the staff involved in making the trip a success, Flt Lt Watson, Flt Lt Hobbins, Flt O’Neil & WO Heart and an especially big thank you for Gp Capt Bowers, the Regional Adventure Training Officer for Central & East Region for planning the trip to Ascension Island, not for just Warwickshire & Birmingham Wing, but for all of the Wings in the Region that had this opportunity of a lifetime to go and visit Ascension.
More photographs from the Ascension Island Camp by Sgt. Matthew Carrington's
View More Images from the Ascension Island Camp