Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island
Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - An Unexpected Stopover in the Middle of the Atlantic
I never expected to find myself stranded on a remote volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, yet that's exactly where I ended up on a recent trip from South Africa to London. My journey had started smoothly enough, with a pleasant overnight flight from Johannesburg to Cape Verde. But upon landing for my stopover in Praia, we were informed that bad weather had forced the closure of the airport at our next destination - Ascension Island.
With no other viable options, the airline said we'd have to spend the night in Praia before continuing to Ascension and then onward to London. Though disappointed, I tried to make the best of it and got a hotel near the beach. The next morning we boarded an early flight to Ascension, still not knowing how long we'd be stuck there.
Ascension Island, a British Overseas Territory, is located about halfway between Africa and South America in the South Atlantic Ocean. Though it covers 34 square miles, only around 800 people live there. The island was first discovered in 1501 but remained uninhabited until 1815 when the British garrisoned it to keep watch over Napoleon, who was imprisoned on nearby St. Helena. These days, it serves as an important communications hub and hosts both British and American military bases.
Stepping off the plane, I was immediately struck by the island's barren landscape of volcanic rock and lack of vegetation. The climate at sea level is arid, though lush green mountains can be found at higher elevations. I'd read that Ascension was a birdwatcher's paradise, home to some of the largest seabird colonies in the world. Sure enough, the skies were dotted with tropicbirds, frigatebirds and masked boobies.
With little infrastructure for tourists, I set out to explore the island — known locally as "Ascension" — on foot. Hiking along the jagged lava flows near English Bay and Long Beach was an otherworldly experience. At one point, I spotted a female green turtle hauling herself onto the beach to lay eggs — a rare treat. Making my way up Green Mountain, the island's highest peak at 2,817 ft, I was rewarded with spectacular 360-degree views of the whole island and its surroundings.
That evening, with our flight still delayed indefinitely, I got to sample some of Ascension's unique cuisine. Local specialties I tried included fishcakes made from black triggerfish, boiled lobster claws and flying fish — aptly named for their ability to glide above the ocean's surface. Meals are expensive though, given that most food is imported.
Later, I stopped by one of the military sites and learned about Ascension's strategic importance during World War II. Its location provided an ideal mid-Atlantic refueling stop, enabling the British to project air power far into Africa. America also built an enormous runway during the Space Race to serve as an emergency landing site for the space shuttle.
What else is in this post?
- Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - An Unexpected Stopover in the Middle of the Atlantic
- Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Marooned on a Barren Volcanic Island
- Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Exploring the Jagged Lava Lands by Foot
- Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Tracking Down the Elusive Green Turtles on Long Beach
- Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Hiking up Green Mountain for Panoramic Views
- Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Trying Local Cuisine of Boiled Lobster and Flying Fish
- Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Learning about the Island's Strategic Military History
- Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - My Surreal Night Stranded at Wideawake Airfield
Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Marooned on a Barren Volcanic Island
Being stranded on Ascension Island was an eye-opening experience. While the island spans only 34 square miles, my time there felt endless. With flight delays dragging on, I found myself exploring every lava-strewn corner of this remote outpost.
Wandering the island’s jagged shores and barren volcanic slopes, I gained true appreciation for its rugged isolation. Ascension sits over 3,200 miles from the nearest mainland, Africa. The nearest inhabited island, St. Helena, is 700 miles away. Surrounded by thousands of miles of open ocean, you cannot easily walk to civilization here.
The island’s austerity reflects its harsh origins. Ascension is a young landmass, formed through volcanic eruptions million of years ago. The terrain remains rough and unwelcoming. Vegetation struggles to gain foothold outside Green Mountain’s misty heights. At lower elevations, scenes evoke the surface of Mars.
This rugged landscape has challenged visitors since Ascension’s discovery in 1501. Early explorers found its shores nearly devoid of fresh water and resources. British garrisons stationed here in 1815 suffered terribly. "The island appears to be little more than a heap of cinders," wrote one homesick officer.
Today, Ascension attracts a rare breed of visitor undaunted by its austerity. British servicemen and American contractors comprise much of the 800-resident population. With limited amenities, life here requires resourcefulness. People create their own fun through athletics, amateur dramatics, and "fivesies" matches of volleyball.
For birders and eco-tourists, the landscape holds unique allure. Ascension hosts over 400,000 seabirds across 28 species, including the world’s largest colonies of masked and brown boobies. Peculiar native plants, like the cabbage tree and bastard cabbage, offer rare botanical sightings. And the chance to spy nesting green turtles compensates for the lack of beaches.
During my extended layover, I met others who relished the island’s unique offerings. I went on impromptu hikes with British soldiers eager to share their favorite spots away from base. At a local pub, I chatted with members of the Ascension Island Conservation Department about their efforts to protect turtles and endemic species.
Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Exploring the Jagged Lava Lands by Foot
With flights delayed indefinitely, I suddenly found myself with days rather than hours to explore Ascension Island. Eager to make the most of this unexpected extra time, I set off on foot to discover the island’s jagged lava landscapes. This would prove to be an unforgettable adventure across otherworldly terrain.
Ascension’s surface is almost entirely covered by aa lava, one of the rarest and most hazardous types. Created when molten rock moves slowly underground, aa lava forms sharp rubble with clinker-like fragments. Walking across this broken ground truly requires paying attention to each step. One misplaced foot could lead to nasty cuts or a turned ankle.
Despite the risks, I was determined to explore this geological wonderland. Kitted out in sturdy boots and cargo pants, I headed south from the capital Georgetown towards English Bay. Along the way, I traversed expanses of aa lava resembling battlefield ruins. Passing spatter cones and volcanic craters, the Earth’s violent past was etched clearly across the land.
In places, curving lava flows hugged the coastline like petrified waves about to break. One massive formation looked just like a breaching whale. All of these unique rock shapes had emerged gradually over millennia as lava cooled in different ways across the landscape.
Drawing nearer the sea, I navigated block fields so jagged it felt like walking across piles of broken dishes. Clambering over the remnants of old lava tubes and around boulder choke hazards added to the adventure. My trek confirmed just how young and dynamic Ascension’s geology still is.
Far from any roads or settlements, I felt like a lone rock explorer on a distant planet. The vistas of volcanic cones towering above cliffs plunging down to the sea only added to this otherworldly atmosphere. It was the epitome of rugged natural splendor.
While challenging, tackling miles of aa lava on foot provided unrivaled opportunities to inspect this geology up close. I discovered beautiful formations like columnar jointing and lava tree molds that I would have missed driving past. It gave me true appreciation for Ascension’s unique lava landscapes, which remain less visited than other volcanic island destinations.
Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Tracking Down the Elusive Green Turtles on Long Beach
Of all Ascension’s wildlife wonders, few captivate visitors like its endangered green turtles. Growing over three feet long and weighing up to 700 pounds, these gentle giants haul themselves onto the island’s beaches to lay eggs between December and June.
Yet actually catching sight of nesting turtles proves elusive. Ascension offers prime turtle habitat, but its remote beaches are unpopulated. Unlike more touristy nesting grounds, you won’t find hordes flocking here nightly to cheer on emerging hatchlings. Hardly any permanent nest monitoring or public viewing opportunities exist.
Luckily, during my extended stay, I seized the chance to independently track down these elusive creatures. Fellow stranded travelers tipped me off to search Long Beach, a stretch of rocky shoreline and lava flows south of Georgetown. Arriving one evening, I spotted telltale tracks in the sand confirming recent turtle activity.
As darkness fell, I staked out a discreet spot and waited, listening to the rhythmic thunder of waves pounding the beach. Around 9 PM, a hulking shape emerged from the surf. I watched breathlessly as the ancient leviathan slowly dragged its bulk up the beach. Pausing above the high-tide line, it proceeded to dig a two-foot deep nest chamber for its eggs.
Witnessing this timeless ritual happening just yards away felt surreal. I stayed low and quiet, not wanting to disturb the spectacular scene. After an hour, the turtle finished laying over 100 eggs. It reburied the nest and returned exhausted to the sea.
The rarity of this sighting hit home as I reflected on it back at my hotel. Few places on Earth offer easy turtle viewing. Ascension provides a special window into the lives of these threatened giants. Enthusiasts like myself willingly spend whole holidays waiting for just one fleeting glimpse.
Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Hiking up Green Mountain for Panoramic Views
Among Ascension's most popular activities is the hike up Green Mountain, one of the island's iconic peaks. Towering 2,817 feet at the highest point, Green Mountain offers unparalleled panoramic views from the top. On clear days, keen-eyed hikers can see out across the whole island and spot offshore outliers like Boatswain Bird Island and Boatswain Bank.
Compared to Ascension's bleak lava badlands, Green Mountain seems like an oasis. As you ascend, the arid coastal scrub gives way to mist-bathed forests shrouded in "cloud forest." Etched from ancient lava flows, the mountain has developed rich volcanic soils that support tropical vegetation. Hikers pass through shaded fern grottos and stands of taller trees like Norfolk Island pines and eucalyptus. It's a pleasant reprieve from the sun exposure on rest of the island.
For birding enthusiasts, the cloud forest also delivers sightings you won't get anywhere else on Ascension. Bird species like the Ascension frigatebird and the island's endemic frigatebird "grundling" frequent these wooded slopes. The critically endangered Ascension crake also calls Green Mountain home. As you climb higher, you'll be serenaded by the fluty songs of endemic mountain chickens and locusts.
The summit climb travels along a gradually steepening rocky track passing several old British military buildings. Most hikers choose to begin from the historic Green Mountain antenna. From there, it's around a 1.5-2 hour steady walk to the top depending on fitness level. Make sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection as there's minimal shade.
Approaching the summit, the vegetation thins out dramatically. But the views expand, showcasing the island's forbidding lava landscapes juxtaposed against vibrant turquoise waters. From the absolute highest point marked by a U.S. satellite tracking station, it's possible to see in all directions for miles. Keep your eyes peeled for whales breaching offshore and frigatebirds soaring by at eye level. The panorama puts Ascension's isolation into stark perspective.
Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Trying Local Cuisine of Boiled Lobster and Flying Fish
Among Ascension’s most memorable offerings for visitors is the chance to indulge in delicious local seafood dishes showcasing the island’s bounty. Two standout specialties I was keen to try during my extended stay were boiled lobster and pan-fried flying fish, both featured heavily on restaurant menus.
Having spent months at sea surviving on salt pork, early British sailors in Ascension were overjoyed to feast on the island’s abundant lobster population. Though now a delicacy, lobster was once so plentiful in Ascension’s waters that indentured servants complained of being fed nothing else. Today, restaurants in Georgetown like Two Boats Club and Ann’s Place serve up freshly boiled lobster claws dripping with garlic butter. It’s a must-try indulgence.
Equally iconic are Ascension’s flying fish, aptly named for bursting into the air and gliding long distances over the ocean’s surface. These colorful, iconic fish travel in large shoals, making them easy to net. Freshly caught flying fish are transformed into crispy pan-fried fillets at eateries around Georgetown and the U.S. base. Light and flaky with minimal bones, they possess a uniquely sweet, melt-in-your-mouth taste and texture.
Though pricier than eating ashore, getting to sample lobster and flying fish gave me real insight into Ascension’s culture and history. When the island was first settled, most endemic wildlife was hunted to extinction. Memorable meals of frigate bird chick and green turtle flesh were once common. Today, sustainable fishing practices ensure future generations can enjoy Ascension’s seafood bounty.
While some ingredients are imported, most restaurants pride themselves on serving up dishes featuring locally sourced fish, fruits, vegetables and meat. Sample bonito fishcakes paired with punch made using marsa berries. Tuck into a "midnight snack" of grilled wahoo wrapped in banana leaves alongside roasted breadfruit. And don’t miss the chance to try Ascension’s national dish, “volcano rabbit,” - rabbit reared on the slopes of Green Mountain then stewed with potatoes, onions and chili peppers and served with dumplings or rice.
Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - Learning about the Island's Strategic Military History
Though remote, Ascension Island has played a vital strategic role for the British armed forces and their allies for over 200 years. Walking past its airstrips and military installations, I gained insight into how control of this tiny island has been crucial for projecting power across the Atlantic and African spheres of influence.
Ascension’s position approximately midpoint between South America and Africa offers a vital stopping point for resupplying ships and aircraft. When Napoleon was imprisoned on St. Helena in 1815, the British garrisoned Ascension to keep watch against a rescue attempt by the French. Soldiers stationed here endured horrific conditions, with many dying from dysentery, sunstroke, and suicide. However, British ships were able to control sea lanes and maintain dominance in the region.
During World War II, America built Wideawake Airfield on Ascension in just 18 months. At the time, its 7,720 foot runway was the largest in the world. The US military realized that the island provided an ideal staging point to reach Europe and North Africa. Anti-submarine warfare was coordinated from Ascension, helping secure vital Atlantic supply routes.
In the Space Age, NASA designated Wideawake as an emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle should it be unable to reach planned sites in Europe or Africa. The Air Force expanded the runway to handle the heavy shuttle gliding in without power. Though never used, it underscored Ascension's ongoing strategic significance.
Walking around the island's military sites, I gained appreciation for this long history. Old naval guns still dot the rugged coastline, remnants of fortifications built to secure Georgetown. Up at Green Mountain, you can explore the remains of a sprawling network of tunnels and bunkers constructed by American forces during WWII. And the communications masts and antenna arrays crowning the high points showcase Ascension's ongoing role facilitating air traffic control and satellite monitoring across the Atlantic.
Beyond the infrastructure, I most enjoyed chatting with servicemen from the US and British contingents based here. While limited in what they could share about current operations, they provided glimpses into daily life on a remote outpost. They described grueling physical training regimes working around the lava fields in full kit and shared favorite fishing spots off the jagged shores. Swapping war stories over beers at Two Boats Club, I gained insight into the challenges and camaraderie of isolation.
Stranded at the Ends of the Earth: My Unexpected Layover on Remote Ascension Island - My Surreal Night Stranded at Wideawake Airfield
With my Ascension Island layover extending indefinitely, I found myself spending an utterly surreal night camped out at Wideawake Airfield. This strategic military base has served as a vital hub enabling Britain and its allies to project air power across the Atlantic since World War II. Yet spending an evening marooned amid barracks and bombers proved a disorienting experience, especially given Ascension’s ultra-remote location over 3,000 miles from the nearest mainland.
I’d ended up at Wideawake after bad weather scuttled yet another day’s flights, leaving fellow stranded travellers and I with nowhere else to stay. We were graciously put up in Visiting Forces’ barracks normally reserved for military personnel. Given no option to leave the airbase, I wandered outside to explore after dinner. The sun was just setting, casting an orange glow across the tarmac lined with aircraft. In the distance, Green Mountain’s imposing silhouette loomed over military radars domes and satellite dishes.
Despite being surrounded by over 800 personnel, the base felt eerily quiet as darkness fell. Standing alone on the runway – once the longest in the world – I was struck by the sheer isolation. There was a thrilling yet chilling sense of being at the literal end of the Earth. Back home in South Africa, family and friends were sleeping soundly and safely, blissfully unaware of this alien landscape over 2,000 miles across open ocean to the northwest.
Staring up at the night sky, I struggled to comprehend Ascension’s miniscule footprint within the vastness of space and time. This island emerged only a million years ago – the blink of an eye on the cosmic calendar. We humans have populated it for barely 200 years. Yet it anchors air routes connecting continents and supports satellites beaming data worldwide. The juxtaposition of insignificance and global importance dazzled me.