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Welcome to Nowhere
Midway through a tramp-steamer voyage, an adventurer jumps ship at impossibly remote Ascension island. He expects to find a bleak, windswept outpost. Instead, he has the surprise of his life. By Simon Winchester

It was a blazing tropical morning in the middle of nowhere. I was on a rusting, salt-stained Russian tramp steamer beating slowly up toward England across the Doldrums, and for reasons long forgotten I was in a desperate hurry to get home. We were making no more than eight knots that day, which meant that I'd not see the cranes of any European port for the better part of three more weeks. And out there on those hot, high seas—I was on my way back from Antarctica—it was unutterably tedious.

The radar on the bridge showed the Atlantic Ocean entirely empty—except, that is, for the tiny speck of Ascension island, which lay otherwise invisible 40 miles (64 kilometers) off our starboard bow. It was then, in a sudden moment of realization, that I remembered something. On Ascension island there was an airfield, and jet planes flew there, to and from London. If I played my cards right, I could get myself out of here.

I promptly got on the ship's radio, asking if anyone over on Ascension could hear me. At first, nothing—just the hissing white silence of dead ocean air. But I called and I called, and eventually, quite faintly at first, there came over the ether a British voice. Yes, it said, he was the duty harbormaster. What did I need? I told him I wanted to get on the next Royal Air Force flight to Britain, and so could I land on Ascension and try and wangle my way aboard?

Yes, he replied, after a momentary muffled conversation with someone else, provided that I was able to jump when told to do so, because the Atlantic rollers were making landing at Ascension perilous that day. And since there was a northbound plane due to arrive in two days, I might also be able to find a seat and get myself to London in double-quick time. "Ask your captain to steer toward Ascension," the man said, "and when half a mile off, tell him to put you ashore in the whaler. If you're fit," he said with what sounded like a sinister chuckle, "you ought to be able to make it."

Half a day's slow sailing later, the enormous dark pyramid of Ascension rose up ahead of us—a mid-ocean volcano, half a mile high (800 meters), its summit brushed with green foliage and a patch of dark cloud, the slopes and the spreading base iron-gray and seemingly as lifeless as the moon. A few sorry-looking buildings were dotted here and there, and there was a cluster of radar domes and antennas, and a gathering of Quonset huts around the airport's single runway.

A grinning Russian sailor who said he had been here once before, and who the captain assured me "knew the form," lowered me into his whaler, and we motored swiftly across the chop to a tiny gap in the Ascension seawall, a gap in which I could see a narrow set of steps rising slimily from the waves. Enormous swells and rollers crashed over these steps at regular intervals, completely immersing them, then draining away again in a rush of wild white water and fronds of streaming weed. There was a slime-covered rope fastened to a doubtful-looking and very corroded stanchion. The Russian told me that all I had to do was wait for the interval between swells, leap onto the highest step I could manage—the higher I managed, the less slippery the steps, he said, laughing—and clutch the rope as tightly as I could.

Well, I'm here today, and so the scheme must have worked. All I remember is a welter of confused green water, the precipitous dipping and rising of our whaler's bow, the word "now!" suddenly screamed behind me, my feet and hands scrambling for a hold, the wet length of rope tightening under my weight, the onrushing of the next wave knocking me off balance but the rope holding, holding—and then my furious dash upward until I was at last on a dry step. My bag, hurled with great force by the Russian way down below, landed beside me, followed by the yell of "Dosvidanya!"

And then, quietly, almost like a gentle whisper, came another voice.

"Do let me be the first to welcome you to the British territory of Ascension island," it said. "My name is Nicholas Turner. I am the vicar here. And this is my wife, Ann."

Find out how Winchester's benign pit stop on the isle of Ascension turns into the most memorable few hours imaginable by subscribing to Adventure.

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Related Web Sites

Simon Winchester
Learn about the past and future of the best-selling author of Professor and the Madman, The Map that Changed the World and, his latest, The Meaning of Everything.

The Kindness of Strangers
Read stories from Tim Cahill, Dave Eggers, Jan Morris and others in the Lonely Planet's anthology The Kindness of Strangers.

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February 2004

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