After the discovery of the island by the Portuguese in 1501 the first permanent settlement of the island was established in 1815 by the British to prevent a takeover by the French. The British were afraid that the French would use Ascension to help Napoleon to escape St. Helena and therefor built a military base. Now about 800 people live on Ascension to work at the different relay, radio or military bases or do some research at the Conservation Center. They usually have two-year contracts which can be extended easily.
To go on shore there is only one place - the pier in Georgetown. Although the main wind direction is southeast there usually is a swell coming from the north. This means that landing by dinghy often is an adventure itself. You have to wait for a wave and then quickly depart via a steel ladder, at least there are also some ropes to hold on to. Then there is a steep stairway up to the main dock. If the swell is too strong or there are storms from the north you will not be able to go ashore.
Georgetown, the main village on the island, is very small and except a small shop (has a lot but very expensive), a bank, one hotel, a small club and the Conservation Center there is not much more. Once every three to four weeks the RMS St. Helena comes from Capetown and brings fresh vegetables, fruits and dairy products. So everybody comes to the shop at nine in the morning on the day after the arrival to get some fresh things. After four weeks without any possibility to buy fresh things we did just that and were able to get enough for our upcoming long trip.
Ascension was made by one volcano and only 1% of it is above water. You can see lots of different vents on the island next to lava flows, lava domes, scoria cones and pumice deposits. During our trips by car we could see this fascinating landscape with the volcanic formations. The volcano is dormant which means he is “sleeping” at the moment but could be active again some day. The last time volcanic activity was observed was in 1838 in the north of the island. 1836 Charles Darwin came with the HMS Beagle to visit the island and wrote a paper about the geology. One of the places he spent a lot of time is Devil's Riding School. There you can walk on lava rests which feel, sound and look like parts of potter's clay towards a former crater lake, where round and white stones mad of calcium are lying around - called Devil's Eyeballs.
Darwin also visited the settlement on Green Mountain, with 859 m the highest mountain of the island, where the marines had established a garden to supply vegetables and fruits for the garrison. Since the gardeners lamented that the island had no trees Joseph Hooker, a friend of Darwin, decided after his visit in 1843 to proposed a plan to increase vegetation on the mountain. Records show that over 330 different species of plants in form of seed and seedlings from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina were sent to Ascension. They were mainly planted on Green Mountain in organized forests, shrublands and pastures. Only the strongest survived and today you find the only man made cloud forest of the world. This also meant that the endemic plants (only growing on Ascension) were decimated severely. From the former 25 species growing on Ascension before the arrival of humans 10 were endemic, only 7 survived until today. Those you can only find on a few places around the island. One species was only recently found again during a survey in 2009. The Conservation Center tries to replant those endemic plants in long term studies. This is difficult because they are outcompeted by the introduced plants and herbivores. For example on Green Mountain we saw lots of rabbits running through the forest. So the areas were the endemic plants are found have to be fenced and taken care of regularly to protect them. However the Ascension Island Conservation Department is working to find a balance between the native and endemic flora, as well as find out which of the over 400 introduced species are beneficial and those that are just invasive weeds. It is not an easy undertaking. For example the Mexican Thorn (Prosopis juliflora) is very invasive and since the first record in 1960 has spread extensively across drier lowlands. Or the Tree Tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) which spread rapidly in the lowland areas in less than 20 years.
A positive thing for us are the wild banana plants (Musa sp.) on Green Mountain. You are allowed to cut down and take bananas if they are ripe. Since we did not know it beforehand we were not adjusted for harvesting bananas. But since Tom always takes his leatherman he was able to cut down a tree with good looking bananas. Unfortunately the fluid in those trees and on the bananas is very sticky and leaves dark spots on clothes when dried. But since those are fresh and organic bananas we did not mind too much.
Around the mountain top we also encountered some beautiful flowers on the bushes there. So I took out the information booklet and found out that those beautiful flowers are Ginger (Alpinia speciosa). We really did not know how Ginger looks like until now.
Before we leave Ascension we definitely will get some more fresh bananas for our trip across the rest of the Atlantic Ocean.