You probably haven’t heard of Ascension Island because they never wanted you to. That’s the whole point of a secret military base—to remain unknown and practically invisible. And yet the more I travel, the more I run into these “top secret” places all over the world. Most of them are no longer secret—thanks to GPS and Google Maps, anyone can pretty much look at anywhere they want.
I arrived at Ascension after nearly three weeks at sea on board the MV National Geographic Explorer. Let me tell you—it’s not easy getting to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—halfway between Africa and Brazil. Nor is it so easy getting permission to legally enter. Prior to 2003, civilians were not allowed to visit Ascension, ever. When a rather adventurous acquaintance of mine once sailed around the world, he tried coming to Ascension but never made it to shore—he was quickly approached by a British military patrol boat and commanded to leave immediately or face arrest.
What could be so terribly secret on such a remote and inaccessible island? I was curious to find out and as luck would have it, I got the chance: while en route across the Atlantic, we had two whole days on Ascension. I had already received written permission from the island administrator and showed proof of the required air evacuation insurance—despite a long history of castaway pirates and marooned sailors, the Ascension Island government does not appreciate modern travelers getting stranded on this particular British colony.
Ascension Island looks like Mars, if Mars was planted with imported trees. A dead, volcanic landscape stretches out between a dozen or so black cones, each streaked with earthy red tones. Grainy chunks of black and red pumice cover everything, except for the very middle of the island, where a tall green pinnacle of a mountain is proof that humans enjoy gardening—over the past century, bored military officers have experimented with growing all things tropical, be they edible or pretty. The odd mixture of bananas and vine trees has grown into a miniature rainforest, covering the highest (and wettest) point of the island. The rest of Ascension looks dead, or at least in a coma.
Despite all the secrecy, once you’ve managed to legally land on this very remote island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, everybody assumes that you’re supposed to be there. There were no security checks or interrogations for me. I just rented a car and took off—driving straight onto the American military base and happily snooping around. The entire area displayed a kind of cold, mechanical dreariness with pebbled grounds and naked tumbleweed-type shrubs propped up bland beige buildings. I sincerely hope that I am not revealing any state secrets here, but the American base on Ascension Island feels like the most soulless college campus in the universe.
I kept driving—seeking, searching—and then drove my car right onto the island’s famous runway. The airstrip was built by the Americans back in World War II, and then later lengthened to accommodate spacecraft. At a whopping two miles long, Ascension Island’s Wideawake Airfield is still a designated emergency-landing spot for the United States space shuttle. Today, there are weekly US military flights to an Air Force base in Florida and RAF flights to both England and the Falkland Islands. Otherwise, this was a rather empty airport. Nobody seemed to mind that I was driving a rental car down the runway.
In my informal investigations, I also stumbled upon all kinds of space-age radar installments, including a few massive antennae. Ascension island hosts one of the five antennae for the Global Positioning System—GPS as we know it. It seemed ironic that one of the more secret military bases in the world was home to the technology that now enables all of us to uncover all the world’s secrets from our homes and our phones—the same technology that allows cars to dictate driving directions to us.
So that was it? This whole charade of secrecy came down to an airstrip and a jumble of radar? No, I was later instructed, the BBC also has a satellite on one side of the island but today’s technology has surpassed its use, as well.
I guess I was hoping for more—a little more James Bond, a little less boring. Despite having traveled all the way to an exotic tropical island in the turquoise South Atlantic, I felt like I was touring somebody’s office. Every manmade thing had a technical function and lacked any real aesthetic.
Most of the houses in Ascension’s “town” of Georgetown are stucco and suburban—like someone ripped a few blocks out of a Tucson subdivision and threw them into the blank black asphalt landscape that is Ascension. The British air force base had newer, better housing compared to the American base—but it was all pre-fabricated and as austere as the dead volcanic hills around me. I wondered what how they referred to their houses—inhabitation units? Life pods?
Military has a way of sucking out the humanity of a place, but on Ascension Island—where there was no humanity to begin with—there were signs of the opposite. People have tried desperately to make Ascension more human, with some surreal results. The British base had a cricket pitch, the Americans a baseball field. Optimistic attempts at rose gardens added a rare splash of hot pink here and there. Long ago, donkeys were introduced and even appear on the local two-cent coin (tuppence). Today, some twenty donkeys still wander the hillsides like animal ghosts from the old world. All the while, space age windmills line the coast, spinning madly. Wind is the soundtrack of Ascension Island—wind and wild canaries, introduced from the actual Canary Islands and who make do with the scraggly tree limbs, singing like cheerful children. It’s a weird place.
There is so much more to Ascension Island, I soon discovered. The incredible bird life stands out as some of the best I have experienced, especially the local sooty terns, known as “Wide Awake” birds (for which the airfield is named). Giant green sea turtles nest on Ascension, and one night, I was able to witness the birth of thousands of cute, golf-ball-sized baby turtles. Ascension is also home to some 900 islanders—none of them native and all of them employed by either the Brits or the Americans. Though most are on contract and all are from elsewhere, Ascension Island is their home for the present.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Yet for all the natural beauty of the island and the surrounding sea, there was also a strange sort of listlessness on Ascension Island—the sadness of buzz cuts and lifetimes spent in remote places. The mental distance between this tiny place and elsewhere, the fact that everyone is a temporary visitor to a somewhat secret place.
The geography of secrecy still fascinates me, especially since it is all rather irrelevant these days. The internet allows anyone to peek into anyone else’s backyard, be it the White House or Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Invisible Ascension Island made that all possible. For that alone, I am glad to have traveled to these shores and seen this place.
Returning from my island exploration, I met up with the crew of our ship at one of the island’s only public bars, a place called Two Boats. Far too inebriated to drive themselves, I volunteered to bring them back to the dock. Suddenly, in addition to the eerie Martian landscapes, the soulless vegetation, the hot wind, the military austerity and bizarre confluence of wildlife—my Ascension Island experience was enlivened by the antics of a raging drunk crew. Each of them shouted contradictory directions at me—“Turn Here! NO! There, right there, yeah.” I was driving on the left, as in Britain, and trying to concentrate on the road in spite of the chaos in he back seat.
Such was my grand finale on Ascension—driving a drunken crew home to their ship. Somehow, I don’t think it’s the first time that’s happened here, nor will it be the last.