Recently, I read Simon Winchester's travel narrative, OUTPOSTS, about his mid-1980s visits to the last vestiges of the British Empire. This left me oddly fascinated with Britain's three mid-South Atlantic island colonies identified in the title of this guide to ST. HELENA, ASCENSION, TRISTAN DA CUNHA. I mean, they're so "out there".
Each of the three having one part of the volume dedicated to it, the book describes each island in terms of geography, climate, natural history (flora and fauna), history, people and politics, practical information for the visitor, and what to do after arriving. There are several very useful maps and four short sections of color photographs.
Being the largest and most populated, St. Helena (47 square miles and population 5,100+) gets most of the attention with the visitors' practical information and what-to-do-when-you-get-there sections comprising 45 pages. Ascension (34 square miles and population 1000+) gets honorable mention with the same sections comprising 14 pages. Tristan da Cunha (38 square miles and population around 300) is almost an afterthought with the touristy section stretched to a whopping 6 pages. My backyard has more sights of interest and things to do.
St. Helena is, of course, most famous for being Napoleon's prison from 1815 to his death in 1821. Therefore, the chief attractions are arguably Longwood House (his residence in exile), his campaign cot, and his original burial site. Beyond those tourist traps, and compared to Ascension and Tristan de Cunha, there's a lot of other stuff to see. Trust me.
Ascension is essentially controlled by the RAF and the USAF, the latter operating an air base. Private land ownership is virtually non-existent. Big tourist draws include egg-laying green sea turtles (January-May), a notable blowhole at Hannay's Beach, the Volcano Club - a "real American" bar on the airbase serving American-style food, and Dampier's Drip, a natural spring that sounds more like a sailor's venereal disease. For botanists, two destinations of pilgrimage might be the patches of ground hosting:
"Sporobolus caespitosus is an endangered endemic grass. The last time this species was spotted, there were approximately 70 tufts remaining high on Green Mountain. Since then, no further sightings have been made, and it is quite possibly extinct."
And my favorite ...
"Dryopteris adscensionis is an endemic which can be found in moist ravines. As far as anyone knows, there is only one single plant remaining." Honey, we're leaving for Ascension, and pack a garden trowel!
Tristan da Cunha is remarkable for its lack of sight-seeing opportunies, unless one counts the sheep and the Potato Patches, the latter where the islanders grow their food staple.
Basically, one's route to any of these places is expensive and convoluted, and usually involves a ship of some sort, though the Royal Air Force does reportedly operate passenger flights from RAF Brize Norton to Ascension twice weekly. Perhaps as a cautionary addendum to such, the guide features a special section on how to prevent deep vein thrombosis (DVT) on long-haul flights.
ST. HELENA, ASCENSION, TRISTAN DA CUNHA is a little gem of a travel guide providing more information than you ever dreamed possible about three places on the distant edge of nowhere in particular. If you skim it from cover to cover, you'll likely come away with more knowledge than if you actually visit. Of course, you'd miss the opportunity to dig up and smuggle home Dryopteris adscensionis.