On 2nd April, I was to embark on a trip of a lifetime with cadets to Ascension Island; part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. Located around 4,500 miles from the United Kingdom the island is used by the Royal Air Force and United States Air Force along with lodger units such as the BBC and the European Space Agency. The island was used extensively by the British military during the Falklands War.
Having met at 1181 (Syston) Sqn at 3pm, we loaded up the coach and got on our way to RAF Brize Norton! The fact that we were flying from Brize was exciting in itself because not many, non-military personnel can say that they’ve done that. The journey down wasn’t too bad and soon enough, we had arrived at Brize. We checked in at about 17:30, only to find out that our flight wasn’t until 23:30 so we had a 6 hour wait in a very small departure lounge! But it went rather quickly and soon enough, we were on the flight, headed for Ascension.
After a very uncomfortable, sleepless night on the Voyager (thanks to a screaming baby), we arrived at Ascension around 07:00 where Flt Lt Kenyon met us. As soon as we stepped foot off the plane, the heat was incredible. The first day was pretty relaxed, with a few briefings and then a visit to the beach, just to get us settled.
Our first full day consisted of two ‘letterbox’ walks at the east of the Island around Devil’s Cauldron and Weatherpost. It involved a lot of ‘up and down’ style walking that was challenging, especially with the heat and lack of sleep! But the views were like nothing I’ve ever seen and that alone was enough to make the walk thoroughly enjoyable, not to mention the endless banter and good spirits within the group!
Having found the two letterboxes, we headed back to the accommodation and that evening, we went down to one of the beaches to see a blow hole and then we went to the American base to play pool!
The following morning after breakfast, we went down to Long Beach to see the local conservation group. The morning was spent helping out by de-weeding the beach because the hatchling turtles can caught up in the weeds and subsequently die!! As we worked along the beach, we came across some hatching baby turtles! It was one of the best sights I have ever seen!
Following lunch, we went to the beach for a swim and a relax for a couple of hours up until dinner. The beaches and the sea were brilliantly warm and it was nice to chill out for a bit after an eventful few days. We stayed at English Bay until dinner and then we planned to go and watch the sunset but unfortunately, we just missed it so instead, we went back down to Long Beach and observed the Green Turtles coming onto the beach and laying their eggs. Something that really stood out for me was the night sky. I have never seen so many stars and right above us was the Milky Way, something few people can say that they have seen so clearly. At one point, we were all lay next to a nest where the female was laying and all of a sudden, the nest next to us erupted and all of these tiny baby turtles came out and started crawling over us as they made their way back to the sea!
Sunday saw us climb two peaks, including the largest on the Island, Green Mountain. We started, after breakfast, with Lady Hill; a very steep, loose terrain, peak. It was a difficult climb but it was well worth it once we reached the top. A previous wing had erected the Corps Ensign at the top so we had a camp photo with that before making our way back down the hill! Following lunch, we headed to Green Mountain.. So that we had time to reach the top, we drove ¾ of the way up and began our ascent from and old marine barracks. The experience of trekking up Green Mountain was quite bizarre. The landscape changed dramatically from one corner to the next. There was one pathway that had banana trees and palm trees on one side and nettles and blackberry bushes on the other. And then when we turned the corner, it looked as though we were in the peak district, complete with sheep and everything! The further up we went, the steeper it got and we found ourselves in what looked to be a rainforest, surrounded by bamboo and damp conditions!! We reached the peak and had another camp photo and then, after meeting a man who had ran up, just to run back down, we headed down ourselves and back to Travellers Hill to have a shower and dinner. That evening, we headed back to Long Beach to meet the conservation people who were going to show us female turtles laying their eggs again. It truly is a sight you could never get bored of.
On Monday, we headed back up Green Mountain to meet a man who we would be helping for the morning, by clearing the path ways on one side of the mountain with machete’s!! As you can imagine, we all got a bit excited about this and well, between the 12 of us, we defiantly made a difference to the state of the paths. Flt Lt Towell was particularly good at this!!!
Having had quite a full on few days, we went to the pool in the afternoon where we all just chilled out a bit and enjoyed the sun. We then went back to the turtle conservation people and helped them out for a couple of hours by raking the beach, ready for that nights bout of turtles coming to lay their eggs.
That night, we were going to do a wild camp on the beach but due to the weather being poor, made a decision to not do that and instead, we went back to the American base and spent the evening there, playing pool and darts again. It was quite sad to think that it would be our last night on the Island.
On Tuesday morning, we went into Georgetown to buy any souvenirs that we wanted to get and visit the local museum and fort for a few hours before we went back to pack before lunch. We then went and had an hour or so on the beach for the last time before it was time to head to the airport. There was a long wait, again, due to the fact the plane was delayed but soon enough we were on board and heading back to not-so-sunny England!
The week that I spent in Ascension was by far the best experience of my life and I am humbled to have been given such a once in a lifetime opportunity that very few people will ever get to do. Thank you to the 4 staff that made the week happen and for making it such a memorable camp. If the opportunity arises again, I would encourage everyone to put their names down for it, it’s too much of a fantastic opportunity to miss!!!
Flt Sgt M Henson
1461 (Wigston) Squadron