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Ashes to More Ashes!… Exercise Busch Baby

by Sqn Ldr Paul Haywood

‘Eh! Exercise Busch Baby! Where ever can that be going?’ This was my first thought as I browsed the SROs for RAF Henlow in my office at RAF Stanbridge. Firstly it looked like a spelling mistake and secondly it sounded likely to involve ape chasing in Africa which would have been novel. So for that reason it caught my eye and drew me to read it in more detail. As it was, it emerged somewhat unexpectedly to be a walking exped in Ascension Island, and whilst I could see no link with primates or babies it still sounded like it could be fun. I should say here that although I have had many (many) years in the RAF I have never been on an exped, so I thought it was about time I treated myself. So one phone call later I had talked with the exped leader, Jane Disley, and found that she planned to take 6 people for 10 days to Ascension Island, to walk the 21 ‘letterbox’ walks that are dotted around this small, equatorial isle.

Now the surprising thing was that although she could only take 6 people on the exped she was still seeking team members with only 4 weeks to go, particularly amongst the ranks of SAC and JNCO. How is it that such a great opportunity isn’t being taken up by these youngsters? Okay, perhaps walking isn’t very ‘sexy’ but anyone can do it and that makes the opportunity all the more remarkable - anyone can join in. You don’t need lessons, or skills, or lengthy training programmes or unusual needs. All you need is a decent level of fitness and a pair of good boots. Simple, eh? Well, their loss was my gain as a week before the event I was told there was still a space on the exped and I had been booked into it. Great!

And so it came to pass that one evening in early November I was sitting on the Air Luxor plane (yes – it sounds like a dodgy Egyptian charter but it is in fact the Portuguese airline now contracted to do the Falkland’s run) bound for Ascension Island with my six exped colleagues Jane, Iain, Jeff, Glenys, Carl and Laura (the latter being our ‘kiddo’ since she was more than half the age of the next youngest member). The morning we were in the basic but comfortable RAF Exped Centre at English Bay, on the island’s north coast.

I had seen Ascension Island before, but only from the compound you are imprisoned in during the stop-over to the Falkland Islands. And it had looked barren! It was only on walking and driving over the island that I got the full impression of just how barren it is - yet it is strangely remarkable too. The island is just south of the equator, with an area of 25 square miles forming a roughly circular shape. But tropical paradise it ain’t! Most of the coast is sheer cliff faces and craggy volcanic rocks against which the constantly pounding seas has torn many a ship (and many more sailors) to pieces over the islands 500 years of navigation history. But the coast also has a plethora of little coves protecting rough shelly sands, gravely inlets with a myriad of rock pools, and some stunning beaches of deep yellow sand (albeit lapped by a vicious sucking sea) which have countless deep pits at their rear dug by the previous season’s egg-laden Green Turtles. On one beach there are rock pools with 2 forms of animal life unique to the Ascension Island. Okay, they aren’t exactly crowd pullers since one is a small transparent shrimp, and the other is a green, glass-like alga, which looks like an emerald marble shimmering under the water.

The island’s hinterland is no less bleak, and our letterbox walks took us on a journey of adventure around the island as we climbed its many volcanoes, skirted numerous craters and descended into deep calderas. The island is studded with dozens of extinct volcanic cones of many different sizes, shapes and, oddly enough, colours! There are deep red mountains, black ones, brown ones, grey ones and a green one. Okay, that’s a lie; the Green Mountain is only green because unlike all the others it is covered in verdant tropical vegetation ranging up from mosses to ferns to bamboo to banana trees to towering eucalyptus, since its summit is often nestled in swirling cloud.

And the walks we did were so varied. Our first, which we started barely 3 hours after disembarking the plane, took us 1,085 feet up Lady Hill’s red volcanic scree to a peak overlooking the RAF camp at Traveller’s Hill. Here, we found our quarry – our first letterbox - which comprised a waterproof container stored in a small hand built cairn at the top of the mountain. The letterbox’s contents were an ink pad with an embossed rubber block, and we all enthusiastically queued up to use this kit to imprint our passports with our very first letterbox ‘stamp’; for Lady Hill this was the green outline of a curvaceous woman encircled within a green ring. One down, 20 stamps to go!

It was during this first walk that Laura took her first of many tumbles. This initial slip was on the ascent and involved a dramatic launching into a particularly large and flourishing bush whose long, cruel, dagger-like thorns made Laura’s legs look like she had been fighting a rabid cat. Her second fall, taken whilst descending the sharp volcanic clinker of the hill, merely added to this effect.

But our second walk that afternoon was less aggressive, with a steady climb up to the Devil’s Riding School (many natural features here seem to have some hellish reference!) The volcanic debris covering the paths of this walk looked like pieces of broken terracotta flower pots, and the walk over this scree took us up just 820 feet to the peak of a volcano which afforded us a view over the dried-out but colourful bed of a large circular extinct crater lake, looking much like, as the walk’s name suggested, the arena of a horse-riding school. Here, in driving and rather chilling rain, we collected our second letterbox stamp.

The following days’ letterbox walks saw us satisfyingly stamping our passports at the top of Broken Tooth and on the summit of Sisters’ Peak. The climb to the top of Sisters’ Peak was our most tiring yet with a very steep ascent to 1,469 feet over black pebbly shingle which slid from under our feet, giving the feeling that we were slipping backwards further than we were stepping forwards. Our eventual arrival at the apex after several hours of determined trudging gave us a terrific view of the island’s diverse topography as well as a clear view down onto the small town of Two Boats where we could see the blue shimmering of its public swimming pool. This very pool we gratefully ended up soaking in following a long and slippery descent during which (needless to say) Laura spent much time on her backside. Another walk that afternoon took us through eucalyptus forests which were alive with scurrying land crabs. These bright orange monsters (whose carapaces alone were around 6 inches across) fled into the undergrowth as we approached, but fearlessly snapped their claws at us in defence if we tried to corner them for photos. The letterbox at the edge of the forest was at the oddly named Bullock’s Pond, which was a load of er, nonsense, since there was neither water nor bullocks to be seen.

Sunday took us to a chalk domed mountain which was innocuously called the White Horse. I pause here to re-live the terror of this third day. Whilst my climb up the almost sheer (to me!), crumbly, pitted face of the White Horse was pretty frightening, the clamber back down was down-right terrifying. To the inexperienced walker with a high centre of gravity (I’m very tall) the only tolerable way to descend was firmly on your rear-end, moving an inch at a time and just behind someone who could potentially and conveniently break your fall! Seemingly fearlessly, the most experienced (and oldest) walker on the team (our glorious deputy leader Iain who has walked the Ascension Island letterboxes a total of 18 times) stayed upright all of the way down. Carl didn’t do badly either. But when I had finished my descent I looked back at the hill and shuddered, wondering just how I had managed to complete that ghastly climb alive. It was a beast of a hill, which I would never wish to return to. I know that Jeff too (the other tall member) thought the same. As if this wasn’t enough, we went straight into another letterbox walk which required us to walk a long, treacherous goat track which none of us could even see until we were almost upon it. This track presented us with a vertical wall on one side and a 100 foot drop on the other, and in a few places the track was only around a foot wide. This narrow crumbling path wound its way around a mountain’s side for several hundred yards before opening out onto the ridge of Louis’s Ledge where we could rest and take in the breathtaking views of the sea and the coastal cliffs, which were thick with soaring gulls and terns. It was from this point that we began our longest and most arduous walk of the exped through what could best be described as Mordor (you will be able to clearly envisage the scene if you have seen ‘The Lord of the Rings’). It was an endless, featureless plain of black volcanic cinders and billowing ash studded with the occasional low, scrubby thorn bush gasping for life in a parched dusty terrain. We walked for an hour through this hellish landscape until we came across a hill of pumice which we ascended and then scrambled along for nearly another hour until we clambered down into a humid clinker strewn valley. After another long slog we finally reached the letterbox for our stamp, our packed lunch and a well-deserved rest. But then we had the return trip back through Mordor to the minibus. It was at this point we picked up on the song by ‘The Proclaimers’ with the refrain ‘ but ahyee would walk five hundred miles and ahyee would walk five hundred more…’. This became the song of the exped, largely as it seemed fitting in many of the circumstances we found ourselves in but also because Iain sang it so well in his broad Scottish accent. I think we were all relieved when that Sunday was behind us – it had been a tough, gruelling day but nevertheless thoroughly exhilarating and a reminder that real-life is full of danger, risks and physical challenge.

At this point I should mention that most evenings we made dinner and ate ravenously in our comfy little exped centre (accompanied in the latter days by our pair of almost resident wild donkeys). We took turns to cook, getting our rations from the mess. Carl excelled at the barbeques and Glenys was nothing short of a domestic goddess. We all slept here in a large dormitory until Jeff took voluntary exile and moved to another room when his snoring became just too intolerable. We visited the few bars on the island, disliking most the soulless bar at RAF Travellers Hill with its blaring music, and preferring the atmosphere and quiet of the outdoor bar at Two Boats. To me the nights were most notable for just how dark it was! With barely any light pollution on the island the night sky was truly awash with stars and gave us an astonishing, cloudless view of the Milky Way and frequent glimpses of shooting stars. Living in England you forget just how remarkable the skies are when it is truly dark, and it’s easy to imagine why the ancient civilisations of the world were so in awe of the heavens.

Anyway, back to the exped. Day four took us up the tallest mountain at the centre of the island, the 2,817 foot Green Mountain. At the foot of the hill we walked up the winding tarmac road, and as we got higher the vegetation became visibly more lush and varied. The metalled road then turned to pitted gravel and as we ascended further it became just a rough track. Not far from the top where the heavy dews and cooler climate makes the environment more tolerable stood the large house once used by Governors with its verdant colourful garden. Nearby stood an abandoned farm where Marines used to raise cows, pigs and chickens in the days when the island was forced to be more self-sufficient. The Marine’s old accommodation block and the farm buildings still stand as ghostly abandoned relics of the past. From here upwards the mountain starts to get really wet! Here thick grasses and dense bamboo forests are bathed by frequent mists and rain, and have developed over time a deep fertile soil. As a result of walkers such as ourselves, the narrow paths to the peak had been turned into to thick, slimy, sucking mud, but we all had a great laugh trudging and slipping through this on our way up to the famed Dew Pond just below the mountain’s summit. Surrounded by soaring, creaking bamboo and packed with pondweed and lily pads, the Dew Pond was an unexpected oasis in an island otherwise seemingly gasping for moisture. Here we collected our 10th stamp.

On the close of this day there were still 8 to go and 11 letterbox stamps to collect. During these remaining days we hiked along cliffs, trekked around bays, slid down craters and slogged up mountains. Each walk had its own breathtaking view and special features, and some were considerably more demanding than others in terms of distance to cover or toughness of terrain. To me, only the steep, shingly, dusty 2,000 feet descent from Boatswain Bird View down to Spire Beach was as perilous and daunting as White Horse (or was I just becoming hardened to death defying experiences!?) This walk was scheduled for day 8, and we knew it was to be a tough one with many miles of arduous hiking, but it held the promise of wonderful vistas and 4 letterbox stamps on its completion. It began with a 1,990 feet ascent up the rugged chalky face of a hill called Weather Post, followed by a descent on the other side of the hill into the Devil’s Cauldron. We then faced another tough climb up to Boatswain Bird View with its wonderful views of the coastline, and then paused for a sandwich and some serious mental preparation for our next descent. Looking down to Spire Beach it was clear we had a feat of endurance ahead of us.

Right from the start the tremendously steep gravely slopes of the mountainside brought most of us down onto our back-sides as we tried to control our descent over the treacherous, loose, gritty scree, each of us terrified of sliding helplessly down the mountain in an avalanche of sharp dusty stones to certain serious injury. All the novices on the exped struggled with this stage and it’s fair to say that it was an utterly nerve-racking ordeal for each of us, demanding interminable concentration. After well over an hour of extreme effort, the perilous gravel made way to firmer stones and then larger boulders, which became more and more massive until we all eventually staggered onto the pebbled beach. Here we gathered all caked in thick dust, all exhausted, but each thrilled by the awesome experience we had just undergone. This was the only letterbox where I acquired a couple of memento scars when a sharp boulder slipped from under my foot and took some skin off my calf and ankle with it. It should also be noted that by now the many slashes and grazes on Laura’s legs could have been translated by a Braille reader into a gripping novel. Thankfully our climb out of Spire Beach took us on a different route, up a deep gorge strewn initially with gigantic rocks. After an hour of scrambling up these we came to a plateau, which then led us to a final hour of exhausting trudge up a steeply sloping plain of scree to our minibus. What an incredible day!

And so it was that on Day 11 we collected our final stamp. This was an unexpected 22nd letterbox which Jane only heard of that week from a local in a bar, since it was quite new. This final venture took us down into the surprisingly green and humid Cricket Valley, whose vegetation consisted in part of spreading thorn bushes and large prickly pears, but also of eucalyptus forest and a number of highly fragrant and leafy shrubs. Having no past experience of this terrain, Jane and Iain only knew that we would find our prize at the base of one of its spindly palm trees, and it was here that Jeff stumbled upon our last letterbox. So we had now achieved our aim without any major incidents or accidents, and our final passport stamping event resulted in much hand shaking, group photographing and several celebratory sandwiches washed down with diet coke. We knew how to party!

Okay, the exped wasn’t all walking. We had some time shopping (if that’s what you could call it) in the tiny, quaint but forgettable capital village of Georgetown. We had a morning’s fishing trip out to sea where Carl, our only fishing enthusiast, caught a 3 foot wahoo (I’ve never heard of them either). We visited the island’s museum and fort, snorkelled and fished amongst the rocks of English Bay, swam in the surging waves of Comfortless Cove and browsed the teeming rock pools. But our expedition soon came to an end, and we each without exception felt a great personal accomplishment in having succeeded in fulfilling the objective of completing all of the Ascension Island letterbox walks. It was a great physical and mental achievement which tested us all, and bound 7 people together as a proud and positive team who helped and encouraged each other through often difficult and hazardous circumstances. I have heard that walking is not seen by some who approve and finance RAF expeditions as being an activity particularly worthy of endorsement. No doubt they take the view that anyone can just walk. But that’s why it’s so special – because anyone can do it. Most members of our team had never been on expeditions before, and this ‘walk’ gave a group of inexpert and relatively un-sporty servicemen and women an experience and challenge that they will never forget. Despite our team’s maturity of age (bar one) it has nevertheless enhanced the development of our key managerial qualities of self-confidence and leadership.

And finally, remember the odd exped title? Well it was assigned in celebration of the Busch lager found in the bar of the island’s US Airbase which is so fondly sought after and so gratefully imbibed by the deputy team leader!

… but I would walk 500 hundred miles …