A dreary way. — Water-tanks. — A conscientious pony. — Climbing the Ramps. — A delightful contrast. — Grass. — Garden Cottage. — A welcome fire. — Break-neck Valley. — A Dew Pond. — The Peak. — Looking down upon our neighbours. — A Krooman's idea of a holiday. — Ascension Flora. — "Sherry and bitters." — "Sic itur ad astra."
WE passed the night in Garrison with Captain and Mrs. Phillimore, and set off in the cart next morning for Green Mountain, following a road which winds round Cross Hill at the same elevation above Garrison as the Captain's Cottage.
We were even now not much nearer our destination than when we left Mars Bay, but there is no choice of routes to perplex the tourist in Ascension, and we took perforce this dreary way—round the side of Cross Hill, then four miles across a barren plain, diversified by the familiar piles of clinker. Black, brown, and reddish brick-dust-coloured cinder was gathered into heaps around us, and ground into dust along our path.
Here and there the road would run for a short distance parallel to the iron pipe which conveys the water from Green Mountain to Garrison, and on passing a small square block of mason-work about half-way, we read thereon in neatly painted letters, "Lady Hill Tank." Tanks are placed at intervals along the whole line of pipe to hold the reserve water, and, if possible, to gather any that may be collected in their neighbourhood. The next one we passed had the additional attractions of a pump and a trough, and bore the inscription, "God be Thanked Tank." The next was called "Travellers' Tank," and so on. Altogether I think we passed six of these tanks before reaching the bottom of the "Ramps."
As we were about to commence the ascent, we passed between two boats placed upright, with the stern ends buried in the clinker. In this way the upper halves were converted into rustic bowers, and a plank of wood placed across the inside a few feet from the ground, offered a welcome resting-place to the pedestrian. Here the road split into two, and on a fingerpost was written, "To Dampiers;" but as the post was placed at an exact angle between the two roads, and pointed quite as much to the one as to the other, we might have been at a loss had it not been for the very evident decision of our pony, who conscientiously chose the steeper way.
Until now we had ascended very little since leaving the Captain's Cottage, and after four miles of tolerably level ground were still at the very bottom of the mountain, up the steep sides of which wound before us two miles of a rough and stony road. Not that the mountain was two. miles high, fortunately. A screw progression, into the merits of which we had been initiated at St. Helena, led us slowly upward—now north, now south, then back again, turning and winding and making slow advance, but affording us excellent opportunities of viewing the surrounding country, which formed a great contrast to the brilliant panoramas of St. Helena.
Yet it was interesting and curious. Now we could see that what before had seemed to be simply hills of cinder were really so many craters, some of them quite perfect with their cups unbroken; but the greater number were worn away more or less towards the south-east. As we mounted higher we saw too, that the larger hills, such as "The Three Sisters," "Cross Hill," and "Gannet Hill," were just as fiery in their nature as their humbler brethren. Altogether we counted twenty-one extinct craters before reaching our destination—each one once a smoking chimney no doubt, fed from the great central funnel, on which we could now see the mules peacefully browsing, and hear the cocks crowing as our brave little pony toiled painfully upwards.
Unlike that of most mountainous countries, cultivation on Ascension commences at the top, but unfortunately it stops there. In ordinary times an oasis of 4000 acres decks the mountain with a green cap; but in this season of drought, the cap had shrunk to a mere shred, and we were very near the top indeed before our eyes were refreshed by a glimpse of real verdure.
Stunted aloes and prickly pears appeared at intervals; that was all. But the delightfully cold wind, now rushing down upon us, banished all feeling of disappointment, and at last I was stirred into enthusiasm at sight of a little family of ferns, biding coyly from the sun under a wild olive tree. After this, things continued to improve, and, for some yards under the barracks, the naked rock covered itself with a robe of faded green and put forth trees, under the shade of which we reached the top.
The contrast was delightful—the shade, the green, the coolness; and, down below, the hot burning desert which I could now hardly believe in. Yet there it lay, like a great map stretching out towards the sea, 2,000 feet below us; and away on the southern shore we descried our white tents gleaming in the sunshine of Mars Bay.
Near the top of the Mountain are the farm-yard and a small barracks for twelve or fourteen men who attend to the cattle, the water supply, the garden, &c. Here we found Hill, who had preceded us with the luggage, and with him a sergeant of marines, who, taking our pony by the bridle, led her forward through a stone archway, surmounted by a very rusty bell, into a really pretty garden.
I could hardly contain my delight, and yet it was no gorgeous vision that burst upon me; only seven or eight large shady trees dotted here and there along one side of the path; and beyond these, and under their shade, about half an acre of garden ground, broken up into plots of young turnips, parsnips, parsley, and other vegetables.
A single cocoa-nut tree, and a clump of bananas with tattered yellow leaves, grew against the end of the long low cottage, which stood here empty for our use. On the side facing the east a narrow projection was built on, and in the angle thus formed there were—oh, joy of joys!—a few square yards of fresh green grass. At one corner of this miniature lawn, a patriarchal bald-headed "Pride of India" supported a swing; while close beside the front verandah bloomed a few roses and geraniums.
Within the verandah we found some wicker chairs and an iron sofa; there too grew a small round table. From its single support, which dreamt not of plane or French polish, some tender green leaves were opening to the sun; but the life rose no farther. The carpenter had crowned the still living trunk with a lifeless head, and it was on this unique escritoire that I prepared for the October mail.
But the greatest novelty was yet to come. The porch-like projection which we now entered I found to be the drawing-room, and here a bright little fire was burning—a fire within 8 degrees of the equator, and welcome too! It gave life and cheerfulness to the rest of the room, which contained nothing more remarkable than six chairs, two tables, and a sofa. Behind this was a tiny dining-room, furnished "to correspond," but minus the sofa; and from both ends of it the little house ran into bedrooms. Of these we chose the outer one towards the south for our apartment, and with a few additional comforts unpacked from our boxes, it appeared to us delightfully snug.
"A gipsy's life is a joyous life," no doubt; but then gipsies do not usually pitch their tents on clinker, and perhaps are not so keenly sensitive to dust and centipedes as one who has adopted their habits rather late in life. At all events, I heartily enjoyed the comfort afforded by four walls, and began with a will to settle down. During the process I explored the little chest of drawers in our bedroom, and the first drawer I opened displayed therein a disgusting cockroach rushing frantically hither and thither. Worse than centipedes! So I shut him up, and tried another drawer. Here I discovered a penny, and some odds and ends, which made me feel as if I had intruded. So I shut that drawer up too, and tried another—it was bottomless. Then I left the disappointing old thing alone, and stuck to my tin box, where cockroaches and strangers' goods did not distract me.
After having put matters straight here as far as possible, I could no longer restrain my impatience to gather a posy—an impatience, perhaps, not unnatural after a three months' flower-famine—so I strolled into the garden bent on plunder, and bore off in triumph a magnificent orange-red Hibiscus, and a basketful of blossoms from a Pride of India. These latter were especially grateful, with their scent of English lilac, which they resemble also in form and colour.
The next thing to be done was to search the cupboards for glasses, and out of a stock of eight, comprising the oddest variety, I chose two of the quaintest. In these I carefully placed my treasures, and straightway felt that the four walls, six chairs, two tables, and one sofa, were converted into a drawing-room.
That sofa, by the way, deserves a few words specially to itself—a whole book, in fact, for it was vile enough for any modern here. So high in the seat that your feet dangled helplessly in the air; so low in the back as to make you think of lumbago each time you attempted to rest; and the cushion—well, I do not know what the cushion was stuffed with, and my imagination lacks a simile, but it was certainly neither a pillow of down nor a bed of roses.
This afternoon the Peak was clear of cloud, and we were unwilling to lose the chance of getting to the very top, for "Garden Cottage," our present abode, stood 400 feet below the highest point. So about 4 o'clock an aged mule was led to the door for my benefit, and under guidance of a sergeant of marines, David and I set out for the Peak.
Passing through the farmyard behind, we ascended for a little way up an easy slope, which brought us suddenly on a giddy height, with sharp precipices on either side. Here on our right we could see a deep gorge run along to windward. Everywhere on our left a furrowed plain spread itself out far below and touched the rock-lined coast; a narrow ridge, covered with coarse grass and fringed with stunted trees and shrubs on the leeward side, led up to the Peak, now rising, straight ahead and cutting off the east horizon.
Here was a reproduction of Diana's Peak. Another lip of a huge crater, with its lava-sawn valleys opening to the sea. But here no soft verdure clothed the naked precipices—Nature hid no smiling gardens in the deep valleys—only rocks, everywhere rocks.
The gorge dipping to windward was indeed characteristic of its name, "Break-neck Valley," for the ridge on which we stood cast itself headlong into it, and on either side steep rocky walls confined it. Here and there among the crags could be seen patches of coarse brown grass, from which a flock of sheep were attempting to feed, at the risk of their necks; and occasionally some clumps of the much-enduring aloe stood out in decided green, and relieved the eye.
How different had the colouring been forty years ago, when a lady writes that, "Nasturtiums covered the slopes of 'Break-neck Valley.'" Possibly this is the time that the "Encyclopædia Britannica" refers to, when it tells us that Ascension is remarkable for its production of green vegetables! Now there is nothing but rocks, bare and sterile, and in the lap of the valley a sun-burnt windmill. Near it stands a large octagon tank, and from our guide we learn that this gorge yields our largest water supply.
As we paced slowly along—my mule preferring of course the extreme edge of the ridge—he was not particular as to right or left, but it must be the edge—we passed through gorse, blackberry bushes, wild ginger, guavas, and other shrubs which I did not recognise at the time, though I afterwards learned that they were "poor relations" of fair stately trees whose acquaintance I had made at St. Helena. In the shade of these were growing quantities of ferns, and the most beautiful stag-moss I had ever seen. It was in some places three feet high, like a miniature pine, and looked no mean descendant of the great genus of Lepidodendron.
As we ascended, the cold increased, and the sudden change of scene and temperature since morning was bewildering. Yesterday at the Equator, to-day on some furze-clad hill of "oor ain countree.'' I had put on a moderately warm Shetland shawl at starting, and had laughed at David, who would load himself with a heavy Scotch plaid which I had brought with me for a blanket. By this time, however, I was glad enough to be enveloped in it, shivering the while, for the trade-wind was blowing a bitter blast, and the sun was hastening to the sea behind us, shrouded in leaden clouds.
Within a few feet of the top, and surrounded by a thicket of little trees, we came upon the dew-pond—a cement-lined cup about twenty feet in diameter, meant to receive and retain any moisture that might be deposited here. It was at this time too new an experiment to have entirely succeeded; but even now a muddy pool lay at the bottom, giving hope for the future. The design was good, but bad material had frustrated it. The cement was porous, and much moisture had already escaped, while what remained was converted into mud. Here we tied the mule to a Eucalyptus tree, and climbed to the Peak on foot.
A splendid view rewarded us! Splendid at least in its comprehensiveness, for the whole of the little island now lay before us, and we were almost startled to find it so small. It seemed as if, with a good leap, one might jump over all these apparently tiny ash-heaps right into the sea.
Turning our eyes southward, we saw Red Hill lying far below us; and beyond it, to the south-west, was another red cone, which I did not at first recognize as Gannet Hill, our neighbour at Mars Bay. From our low level I had looked on it as a veritable mountain; now it appeared very insignificant indeed, and I looked over its head with much contempt (just, alas! as old neighbours that have risen in the world too often do) right away to the Observatory tents, dotted like a flight of sea-gulls on the black rocks by the shore.
Towards the west the sea appeared very close to us; the intervening plain, dotted with its little volcanoes, being lost in the shelter of the big shoulder of hill on which stood the mountain settlement. To northward the dark plain again appeared, stretching here and there into pretty little white-lipped bays. I call this plain in contradistinction to mountain, and from the height where we now stood it certainly appeared tolerably level, with occasional ridges and furrows: but I afterwards found these ridges stiff climbing, and in the innocent-looking furrows were hidden many nasty precipices, perplexing to a mule-mounted explorer not accustomed to steeple-chasing.
On a low spur of the mountain to the north-east stood a solitary cottage, which, with its tiny bit of garden ground, relieved considerably the wildness of the scene; especially as the ridge, stretching out behind it, was grass-covered, and had it not been for the great red gullies sawn on either side, one might have given to it the sweet English name of meadow. East of this little oasis, the fire-born wilderness gave itself up to the most fantastic and utter barrenness, and the red colour now disappeared from the land, giving place to a greyish white.
The formation of this corner—the apex as it were of the triangle into which the island shapes itself—gave a curious impression of its having been somehow turned upside down. The topographical characteristics are entirely reversed, and instead of little hills rising from a plain, as on all other sides, here deep dry lakes are sunk in a raised plateau. At this point alone the coast is lost to view, on account of the high ground rising so abruptly from the shore. Thus we could not see "Boatswain Bird Island," which, from the chart, I knew must lie close to the leeward shore. Altogether there was a certain mystery about these bare, bleached eastern hills and valleys, which excited a strong desire to explore.
The Sergeant, however, was not very sanguine about ways and means. "You can't ride there, ma'am, and you can't walk," he said; and as I certainly couldn't fly, I felt depressed, if not despairing.
Our glass could sweep the north, south and west coasts almost without interruption, and between the sea and the shoulders sloping from the great Parent Head on which we now stood, all was clinker-covered plains and clinker-built hills. Some 300 feet below us, a good footpath, called "Elliot's Path" (from the name of the admiral under whose supervision it was made) ran round the Peak; and, branching off from it, another path wound its way along a ridge running southward to a little summer house which stood on the further extremity—seeming to invite us to take pity on its loneliness, and have a cup of tea under shelter of its roof.
All this, so difficult to paint with a clumsy pen, was almost an instantaneous photograph to the eye; and well it was so, for one could not long contemplate these burning plains from that elevation without shivering and teeth-chattering, so strong and biting was the wind. Indeed I was glad to take shelter from it in a "Boat-Bower," which is placed here, after the manner of those we saw at the foot of the "Ramps." This one bore the inscription, "Ascension Day, 1876," and our guide told us that the Kroomen had had a holiday on that day in order to bring it up from Garrison. Verily these good Africans have a novel idea of a holiday! and yet do not more enlightened people often work hard—very hard at pleasure-seeking ?
After a short rest here we turned homewards, leading the mule behind us, and enjoying our loiter among the shrubs and trees. Writing in 1836, Darwin says, "On the island there is no tree;" and in 1839, Hooker finds "Ferns the principal flora." But I venture to mention trees in 1877, on the strength of a clamp of fair-sized Port Jackson willows, which blossomed yellow in the sun, sheltered on the leeward of the ridge; and, of course, the Scotch fir is a tree, however small it may be, though I must confess, that the little colony in this place seemed to have forgotten the dignity of their race.
I plucked some of the beautiful stag-moss and ferns as we went along, and also a few of the delicate pink blossoms of the ginger-plant, which I found hiding away among its flat, flapping, ungainly leaves, and as I enjoyed the sight and scent of the flowers, they seemed to give out to me some of their fresh life.
At the head of Breakneck Valley, the wind came rushing up the narrow gorge with such strength and bitterness that I could not stand against it, so I seated myself on the brink, wrapped in shawls, to let the breeze "play freely round me" and brace up my poor nerves—tired and somewhat wearied out by Mars and Mars Bay. It was very delightful. "Intoxicating," David suggested; on which our guide promptly re-marked, "They call this place 'Sherry and Bitters,' sir.'' We thought the name excellent, and David declared that it gave him a better appetite than ever did that insidious tonic.
By this time I was rather tired of walking and proposed to ride home; but the Sergeant suggested, that instead of retracing our steps through the farm-yard, we should descend into Breakneck Valley, and go homeward by a tunnel, which leads a waterpipe through the higher ground that lies between the valley and the barracks.
Now I do not like tunnels, nor any owly places from which light and pure air are excluded; so, not wishing to expose my nervousness, I made the mule my ground of objection.
"Oh never mind him—Jimmy Chivas knows the island better than any of us—he'll find his way, sure enough," said the Sergeant, as he fastened the reins to the pommel of the saddle and administered a phantom kick to Jimmy, who, at the sign, fled precipitately down hill to his stable. I felt deserted, and as my husband was curious in mind about the water supply, of which as yet we knew nothing, 1 meekly scrambled down after him to the mouth of the tunnel. Here I should have preferred to stay and gather a basketful of the lovely little ferns and lichens which grew around its damp lips, but my guides passed quickly from the light into gloom, and I did not wish to be left behind.
At first it was not quite dark, and we could see the iron pipe crawling along one side, and the pretty green roof of moss and lichen; but by-and-by we lost this encouragement, and were plunged in utter darkness. The Sergeant marched first—I last; and I begged for the point of David's alpenstock to guide me, for I was continually stumbling against the damp, clammy walls of the vault. Neither did David steer his course quite steadily, for his "topee" was repeatedly knocked off, which would not have happened had he kept the centre, where the roof was seven feet high.
Most heartily did I wish the journey over, for I grudge even a temporary loss of the most glorious of the Gateways of Knowledge; and in darkness I have always a painfully acute realisation of the terrible loneliness of the blind. And still more than light do I love air, and this little tunnel of 200 yards chilled and stifled me.
"How do you like it?" asked David, when we were about the middle of the tunnel. But before I could reply the advance-guard answered, "Oh, it's quite easy, sir, except when you chance to meet anything! Coming through here, our last captain once met a bull, which was rather awkward, as I take it."
I should think so indeed, and I quite approved of the discretion of the gallant captain, who turned and fled before his foe, though David suggested that he might have made a spring and vaulted over the beast.
"Yes," I added, "and that might have happened to his head which has so often happened to your helmet."
At last a gleam of light showed ahead, and in a few minutes we found ourselves, much to our surprise, in the garden of our pretty cottage home. As we emerged into light and air again, and looked back upon our mysterious path, I read over the entrance, "Sic itur ad astra. Anno Domini, 23 July, 1832." "Such is the road to the stars!" I do not believe it, nor does any one of the flighty beings who envy the "cow that jumped over the moon," and are ever longing for a Pegasus to ride along the Milky Way.
How fresh and pretty the garden looked as the sun went down! We lingered reluctantly under the shade of the darkening trees till I felt so light-hearted, that only a strong sense of matronly dignity kept me from getting into the swing, and sent me within doors to pour out tea instead.