Travel: Don't argue with a 500lb turtle on heat

The mid-Atlantic Ascension Islands once boasted the world's worst golf greens, but Michael Brooke recommends it for holidays like no other
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The Independent Culture
ASCENSION IS a paradox that is evident from the moment of touchdown at Wideawake Airfield. Adjacent to the runway is South Gannet Hill - a towering cone of red volcanic cinder topped by communications equipment of the 21st century.

On the one hand, here is a volcanic island, a pimple of the mid-Atlantic ridge that has emerged above the sea in the last million years. It is an island where subterranean forces have spewed a palette of rocks - black lava fields, cones of red scoria of immaculate symmetry, dusty trachyte as white as the cliffs of Dover. How, ask I as a non-geologist, can a single fissure into the bowels of the earth yield such variety? It is as if one toothpaste tube magically produces toothpaste, chocolate spread and tomato paste on separate days.

On the other hand, tracts of this geological wonderland are besmirched with satellite dishes and telecommunications golf balls belonging variously to the RAF, the US Air Force, Cable and Wireless, and the Combined Signals Organisation. The BBC World Service maintains huge antenna arrays for beaming the word to Africa and South America. It is the 1,000 employees of these organisations, mostly either St Helenans or British and American expatriates, who form Ascension's transient population.

Overseeing this hotchpotch is the British Administrator, a career diplomat who has the honour of driving a car with the quality personalised numberplate, AA1, and some 40 miles of paved road on which to flaunt it. Although I suspect the present incumbent is delighted to exercise benign rule over all he surveys in the run-up to his retirement, he remains the diplomat and declined to comment.

From the airfield, we drove in a police van to Georgetown, the principal settlement. Named after George III since 1815, when a British garrison permanently occupied the island, the town still shows its military past. Two forts guard the pier. The main hardware supplier is housed in the former Great Victualling Store, an imposing building of volcanic blocks built in 1848.

We stayed in the Islander Hostel which principally serves as temporary lodging for those bound for St Helena by ship. Across the road, we ate in the St Helenan mess, where the food was plentiful and reminiscent of school. Meanwhile, the Exiles Club, built during the reign of William IV as the naval barracks, provided beer or a glass of wine at 60p, boisterous half-price happy hours, and a grand view of the setting sun.

Just to the north of Georgetown is Long Beach, a steeply shelving crescent of white sand. It is the nesting beach for the green turtles, some 2,000 of which come ashore to lay eggs each season, roughly from January to April. Since its discovery in 1501, Ascension has been famous for its turtles which travel to breed on the island from feeding grounds off coastal Brazil, about 1,500 miles to the west.

In the old days, the unlucky ones were captured. After visiting Ascension at the end of the 17th century, John Ovington wrote that, once turned upside down, "they then begin to lament their condition in many heavy sighs, and mournful groans, and shed abundance of water from their eyes in hopes, if possible, to secure their safety by their tears".

Georgetown's delightful little museum displays a turtle harness, used for dragging 500lb of obstreperous turtle from the beach to the turtle ponds, walled enclosures flushed by the tide. Here, sighing turtles awaited a passing ship and their fate.

Because of the island's size - it is roughly circular and about 10 miles across - a hire car is vital for getting around. Beware the world's scruffiest sheep on the road. Beware, too, the land-crabs which are four inches across the back and dwell in the moister parts of the island. They wave their claws in helpless rage at approaching tyres.

A car also helps to reach the start of various walks. One day, we visited the sooty terns whose cry "wideawake" gives the airfield its name. Ascension's terns do not respect the seasons. Every nine-and-a-half months, they return in a clamorous mass, each pair to lay its single egg on the sunbaked ground. Pity the poor chick which enters this arid world.

To judge by the guano that still smears many rocks, like creamy icing that has run before setting, great throngs of seabirds once bred on the island, the only haven in a huge tract of Atlantic. Nowadays, the terns are the only seabirds to nest on the main island. Roaming feral cats have seen away the throng. A paltry remnant nests on Boatswain Bird Island, a short distance from the main island. This stack, resembling an irregular wedge of white chocolate emerging from the blue ocean, is home to the entire world population of the Ascension frigate bird, as well as boobies, tropic birds and various other species.

For a holiday like no other, go to Ascension. The "greens" of the golf course, once listed in The Guinness Book of Records as the worst in the world, are raked blackish-grey sand. Parts of the landscape resemble a pile of red bricks, and are correspondingly uncomfortable to traverse. Nevertheless, the red post van is still emblazoned "Royal Mail". And when I asked my travelling companion whether he would like to return, he said without hesitation: "Absolutely". My very thought.

Before you travel to Ascension, request permission from the administrator, Roger Huxley; his telephone number is 00 247 6311, fax 00 247 6152, and e-mail:

The only "airline" operating to Ascension is the Royal Air Force, which stops there en route to the Falklands. It flies twice a week from Brize Norton, fare pounds 343 one-way. Book your flight through the Foreign Office on 0171-270 2749.