It was so good to see Jeremy – the last time was four years beforehand when I had to hurriedly leave Rodrigues. While he introduced me to Dave, a large cheerful Glaswegian, we quickly caught up on key important updates in our lives, and they gave me a run down in what they had achieved given the 24 hour advantage they had over me in terms of Maldives knowledge.
They had done all the introductory meetings with the government people we were to work with. We were to head off quickly tomorrow morning to one of the nearby islands to look at the real world implications of the guidelines we were to write. Then after a further day, Dave and Jeremy were going to head off to some of the more far flung islands while I was to be left in town to work on some database and have a few more meetings with officials. I was a bit disappointed that I was not to travel further but what I was already seeing was more exotic and enchanting it was bound to be a rich trip.
This small reception area with barely room for a small table and a few comfy chairs, was not conducive to a proper meeting so we decided we would head off to a cafe to allow them to update me on progress to date.
We headed west from the hotel and in no time at all we had emerged at an open square. On the far side was a harbour stacked with small coasters, their cargoes packed tightly but rather haphazardly across their decks. We crossed the road and entered one of several tiny bars – barely a canopy across plastic tables and a small garden area under the trees. There was little difference between any of them and we flopped around a table and ordered some mint teas. Jeremy and Dave filled me in on the details; it was a relatively simple operation. I was dumped with a load of reading materials and told to design a database for them that would catalogue all the sea protection schemes both hard and soft around all the islands. I was also given some past attempts. One document I was to read at my leisure told of a highly detailed and technical document about harbours across the archipelago, and the government was keen on something similar for coastal protection structures. I decided mine would be a lot more simple and manageable, and started to think about how I could make a map of the elements and how the detail could be logged easily on a database.
The other element of this was that we would do some sample surveys of a few islands. I was to help out with one the next day, but then Jeremy and Dave would fly around the islands filling in the gaps while I was to be left along in Male.
It too was pokey – enough room to walk around the bed but only just – the wardrobe and chest of drawers filled most of the rest of the space. A stand up shower integrated with the toilet (i.e. they were almost on top of each other) and a TV against the wall of the main room was about all I could expect. At best I could say they made optimum use of the space they had available. I thanked the guide and I started to unpack. As usual if I am in town for more than one night I like to spread my stuff around and put some sort of stamp on this anonymous space.
The window was covered in a thick net curtain. I drew it back and gazed upon a most unusual view of the Maldives. I could not see the sea. In fact I could not see much apart from the backs of all the houses and tower blocks around me. At least I could see beyond the other side of the street as there were a cluster of low rise buildings with tin roofs nestled in amongst the more modern apartment buildings. Unfortunately the owners of these seemed to consider these roofs as both extra storage space or dumping ground. The roof opposite was strewn with an old sink, several planks of wood, tubing, a box for some electrical equipment, pots of paint, spare tin roofing, and bits of vegetation that had somehow been left up there. Let’s say it was not a pretty sight.
Not your typical view of the Maldives
I drew the net curtain back, took off my travelling clothes and took a quick forty winks – after all I had been travelling for the best part of the last 24 hours, and with spending the wee hours traipsing round Dubai airport, I could do with a bit of catch up sleep.
It did not last very long. The phone rang and I heard Jeremy’s cheery voice inviting me to join him and our engineer, Dave, in reception. I quickly mustered together a new outfit (shorts and t-shirt) and headed down the steep steps.
Immediately the car dived into the interior of the island. The traffic was busy – not just cars but hundreds of mopeds and small lorries and vans. We inched down narrow streets for about five minutes before turning on to a wider road. I could see in front of us that the road stretched off in a straight line right across the island – the gap of blue sky at the end denoting the western coast. Behind me, slightly closer, was another gap marking the eastern end of the island. Over a hundred thousand people packed into this tiny island and even on this first transect I could start to see how it managed to pack these people in. They built high – every block was crammed with houses heading several storeys high. Next to the narrow roads were narrow sidewalks, all the vehicles were smaller and all the sidewalks were crammed with people, and Maldivians were small so more could pack into the limited space.
In the narrow streets
Eventually we turned off this main thoroughfare and headed down a couple more streets before eventually stopping in the middle of the street – it was barely two lanes wide – and I was escorted into a tall narrow building on a corner. The front was wide enough to take a thin door and a slim window and no more. From the entrance hall – smaller than most houses’, I came into a cosy reception area, a couple of comfy seats set around a coffee table and at the back a high desk. I was checked in and then a hotel porter helped me with my case. He squeezed it in alongside me in a narrow lift, then walked up the two flights of stairs to meet me as I alighted. The landing was tiny with only three doors off – barely enough space for 3 rooms on each floor – and I was welcomed in through the door of my room at the back of the hotel.
It was here that I spent a week helping the Maldivian government look at one of the most critical issues for their nation, how to engineer the islands to resist the relentless onslaught of sea level rise. I’d been invited to join a consortium of consultants by Jeremy Hills, with whom I had walked the Mauritian coast a couple of years beforehand.
A flight to Dubai and then on to Male brought me there overnight. The capital is both small and packed with buildings, so the main International Airport for the Maldives is on the nearby Hulhule Island, which itself is largely reclaimed to make the runway large enough for long haul aircraft. And most bizarrely, as we landed in one direction on the tarmac runway, a small seaplane coming from one of the other islands was dropping into the sea next to the airport.
After the formalities in the airport I was collected by someone from the ministry I was working for. But instead of heading to a car, we walked across a quiet road and on to a wooden jetty. In a small protected harbour there were a series of small docks. Ferries were coming in and out at all angles and at frequent intervals. We only had to wait a short time for our ferry to fill up, many passengers’ suitcases, including mine , piled up at the front end of the boat.
Our trip to Male was barely 15 minutes. Once out in the open water we wove our way between a mixture of different vessels – more ferries like ours, yachts and cruisers, cargo boats, fishing boats, boats carrying oil supplies, even one naval ship complete with helicopter on the aft deck..
We were heading south westwards to a dramatic skyline of tall office blocks, apartments and hotels that fronted Male’ northern coast. As we drew closer, the detail of the front became clearer. the buildings were set back and it appeared the whole coast was protected by a high concrete wall. With a few breaks in these defences, boats were able to access the city itself. Ferries were congregating to a gap at the eastern end. Behind the wall was extensive sheltered water running the length of the coast. We came ashore and I waited for my suitcase to be offloaded, then we clambered into a small taxi on the main tree lined thoroughfare beside the sea wall.
When I lived on Tortola for two years, there was much to love. But one aspect that drove me crazy was that if I had no big plans for the weekend, I would climb in my jeep, drive round the island slowly just to check up on what was happening at all the beaches, and I would end up back at the apartment after 2 hours, max, and would have driven along every metalled road on the island. A few islands I worked on had more room that a day trip did not mean seeing the whole island in one day. But others were so small a quick trip in a boat over, and unless you found a beach bar or a hot sandy spot to sit in all day, you ran out of things to do fairly quickly. For someone who enjoys driving over the horizon and beyond, to spend so much time on islands where the first horizon is often the end of any more landward travel, it could be limiting. In fact it could drive you up the wall.
So the idea of travelling to the Maldives where even the largest and most populated islands are barely a mile across, did leave me wondering whether I would be suffering from acute claustrophobia by the time I boarded my plane home.
How do people live on islands that barely rise from the ocean waves? Nowhere in the Maldives is more than two and a half metres above mean sea level. You can walk across most islands in ten to twenty minutes.
The archipelago is a long chain of islands, reef, sandy banks formed into twenty six atolls. These atolls are themselves in a necklace like shape draping 500 miles across the Indian Ocean. On the eastern side in the centre of this chain are the two Male atolls, north and south, and the capital, Male itself, sits on an island at the southern end of the northern atoll.
Can you live on an island this small?
At the back of the hall, temporary stalls had been set up by the Ministry of Agriculture to display farm animals. Various schools had brought their boys and girls in smart uniforms to take a look round the exhibits and their favourite locations were the farm animals. I noticed in one place a group of nursery children were stuck together holding a long piece of sugar cane between them. The hubbub from the hall was of the whole community meeting, sharing, talking and relaxing. For a nation which had seen so much trauma over the previous ten years, with two thirds of its population scattered across the world, this was a warming sight. Despite being forced to start again at the wrong end of the country, some with nothing but the clothes they stood up in, rebuilding they were, and with a lot of outside help putting back not only the essentials for living – new housing estates for shelter, new fields for cropping, new pumps for water supply, health centres for medical needs – but also the reinvigorating the culture of a small but immensely proud people.
It was heartening to see that although progress was slow, this new capital town was emerging and providing much nourishment to the social fabric of Montserrat. And I was pleased to play a small part in protecting its natural resources, both the endemic species like the mountain chicken and galliwasp, but also the more widespread nature like the iguanas.
On the last evening I saw another introduced species. I was relaxing with a beer in the dusky light straight after sunset (no green flash for me as usual). From the tangle of undergrowth that marked the boundary of our plot, there was a disturbance. I saw this small brown lump skittering back and forth behind a couple of palm trees. I strained my eyes to see what it was. It looked at first sight like a deer, long running legs on a pear drop shaped body. But it was smaller than any deer I had ever seen – barely a foot tall. And its head was more pig like than deer. It has a long and wide dark pink snout and perched above a small head were a pair of orange ears.
This was an agouti – a red rumped agouti to boot. I had seen these once before in Dominica many years before but had never close enough to be able to observe this behaviour. It seemed to have compulsive obsessive disorder. It carefully followed a route around the garden, marked by various shrubs and trees where it would pause and forage before hurriedly moving on. The route sometimes double backed but this animal was not wavering, it knew exactly what he was doing. It was following some well established foraging route round the garden, not missing any possible morsel of food. I tried to get a decent photograph of him but the light was low and this nimble little animal was too quick for me to get a steady shot. Although not endemic (it is thought the Amerindians might have introduced them) it was still part of the tapestry of natural life in Montserrat. With the help that was being given to conserve both the endemics and the naturalised species, and the rebuilding of the human spirit, no amount of rumbling from the volcano of Soufriere could obliterate this robust little island.
The agouti comes to sniff
The next day an agricultural fair had been organised in the spanking new market building in Montserrat’s replacement capital, Little Bay in Brades. Matt was interested in attending and I said I would tag along. I had been working in the villa a lot the last few days, putting the final touches to the databases I was designing and although Matt was very good company, it would be useful to see more human beings.
We drove along the main road and dropped down the ridge towards Little Bay. Beyond the current village of Brades where temporary government buildings had been set up, a new town was beginning to take shape in the valley behind the beach. A new Government office would be built, a larger jetty for both ferries and cargo boats was being constructed within a wall forming a sheltered harbour, and various civil buildings were to be constructed. The Market was one of these and before it opened to the general public it was to be used for this fair. It seemed about half the island were here, and half of those present were exhibiting their goods. There were jams and chutneys, sauces and sweets, crafts and dolls, pickles and cakes, beverages alcoholic and non alcoholic, tropical plant arrangements, fruits and vegetables, fish and meat cuts. Inside the hall rosettes marking winners of each category had been laid out. And lining the hall were many copies of Montserrat’s flag; with the Union Jack in the top left corner and a lady in green holding a harp. The lady is called Erin, a representation of the strong links Montserrat has with Ireland. Many of the original farm owners on the island had hailed from Ireland, and it was reflected in many of the surnames on island – Patrick, Allens, Farrell to name but a few. And Montserrat had embraced a lot of Celtic traditions. One of the few places outside of Ireland to have a public holiday for St Patrick’s Day, they also have developed a beautiful tartan , a wide orange and green check with white lines. Some of the women were dressed in it, it also adorned every pillar and many of the tables around the market hall.
Montserrat’s colours in evidence at the fair
There were some dark clouds hanging over Soufriere but the day was hot and sunny and we decided we would take a chance. We stepped out into this alien world; even the feel of this grey dust under our feet was weird. Strange sights continued to bombard my eyes – a typical Caribbean villa, the bottom storey almost completely submerged in the mud. The branches of dead trees poking above the mud as if a nuclear explosion had ripped through the island. In a way… one had.
We picked up a few stones – I was astonished at how light they were. a piece of pumice larger than my head could be balanced easily on a couple of fingers. Over to one side we spotted a dust cloud emerging from the ground. Intrigued we both made our way over to its source; only to be confronted by a large green iguana digging under one of these pumice rocks. We noticed there were several of these creatures digging large burrows in the ash; either to have a cooler place to hide away from the mid day sun, or maybe to lay eggs in a safe place.
Iguanas in the sand
There was a hint of rain in the air and despite there being no risk of it turning the Belham River into a flood zone with an imminence we decided to head back to the vehicle.
Although the exclusion zone was not to be on our itinerary, we did want to have a closer look at the intermediate zone – that area where people were allowed to enter routinely but not to live. Below the observatory, snaking down from the slopes of the Soufriere mountain itself, was a massive channel of stones; where an enormous mudslide had filled in an old ghaut. It bulged out as a delta into the Caribbean Sea. Tracing upwards to its source, above the abandoned farmsteads on the lower slope, was a barely vegetated moonscape. The volcano was still active and new ash kept on burying any attempts by nature to recolonise the screes. In some parts there was a smooth coating of ash, sometimes incised with deep water channels. Here and there huge misshapen boulders clung to the sides of the slopes. These had not rolled down by gravity from a higher perch; they had been catapulted thousands of feet in the air from the crater and fallen, literally like a stone, on to the ground and they lay where they landed. Often it seemed they actually defied gravity – they were stuck at curious angles in the ash. And of course they were misshapen because they had solidified en route from the crater; some of the youngest rocks of all…. and probably some of the lightest. No wonder they seemed to perch so precariously.
We took one last look before we dropped down to the river bed – Matt pointed out a villa on the other side of the gravel channel; the AIR studio where so many artists had recorded in the 70’s and 80’s. AIR had closed because of Hurricane Hugo and the changing fashions of the music industry; long before the volcano had wreaked its havoc.
We drove down the hill through the last village in Montserrat but turned left along the old main road to Plymouth. We passed the no entry sign that marked the boundary of the unsafe zone. The road was even more pitted beyond here but we continued down the hill to a point where it disappeared under a mass of gravel. The road continues down the valley to the river at the bottom, but the flow of ash and mud had smothered a large chunk of that valley. The river was called the Belham, but a channel had long since vanished. Instead of a tarmacced road, a set of tracks winds between the larger boulders on the surface of the ash to the greenery on the far side. I was neither sure of the firmness of the gravel and ash, nor about the 4 wheel drive capabilities of our pick up – I had once before been stranded on a gravel slope in one of these babies during my time in BVI. So we parked at the end of the tarmac, just off centre so other vehicles could pass. Then we walked out on to this moonscape of grey ash. Large boulders, smaller rocks and the remains of trees littered the whole surface. Rainfall and water flows had sorted some of the finer materials but most of the detritus was as it had been when deposited in the main mud flow. The government warned people that to step out on to this crossing they were giving up any government liability. And with good reason – the river crossing continued to flash flood during rains and mudslides were an occurrence here ten years on from the eruption.
The sirens could be used if the level of gases got too concentrated or if ash clouds were imminent. They were controlled from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory just inside the danger zone. We could head down to the observatory and take a look at the beast that was keeping Montserrat cowed. Matt could not drive so it was left to me to drive our pickup truck along the main road south to the last couple of villages still habitable. The last one was Salem; an ironic name where, even in that short drive the smell of sulphur had strengthened. We drove up to the observatory but it was shut; however from the view point nearby I got my first close up of the exclusion zone.
Shrouded in cloud, about two kilometres to the south east, a huge wall of grey mountainside loomed over us. While the flank facing the observatory was vegetated, the north and south faces were bare. Huge ashpiles scarred with rain washed ravines cascaded down the slopes. And yet at first sight it looked like the lower slopes were inhabited. There were field boundaries and houses, trees and roads. Only by looking through our binoculars could I discern these were deserted villages, the houses dilapidated and with vegetation growing through them. Of course there was no sign of human activity but this imprint of a past land on the landscape, although devoid of humans now, gave the scene much more humanity. It made me understand a little of the wrench it must have been for people to have to up sticks from residences which had been home to them for generations and have to start a new life on an unfamiliar, and at least perceived as a less favourable part of the island. Less favourable, that is, until the big muscly neighbour called Soufriere started to throw its weight around.
Through a gap between two hills to the south of us I spotted more abandoned dwellings, but rather than gently merging back into the natural landscape, I could see they had been ripped apart by the force of the mudslides and ash clouds. Roofs were off, some walls crumbled down, windows blown out. But most of all so many of the buildings were only half visible; their bases submerged in the mud.
The deserted Plymouth
I was looking down on the former capital of Plymouth, now a ghost town. It had been described as the most perfect setting for a capital city in the world – elegant wide streets sloping down to the calm leeward side of the Caribbean Sea. Now it was abandoned, but still there as a sorry reminder of the terrible tragedies of 1997. On such a small island, you can never be far away from it. Matt and I had purposefully not asked any of our Montserratian colleagues to join us on this trip; if we had talked to them about it they may have driven us through the exclusion zone but this form of disaster tourism was distasteful to us. Matt had told me that Lloydie in particular had been forced to abandon his home, his land, many of his belongings in the evacuation. We decided that a respectful viewing of the exclusion zone from here was sufficient. It did bring home to me just how much that Montserrat had lost in that trauma. Despite it only being a small population, on a percentage scale the community had been blown apart by the eruptions and it was testament to the resolve and strength of character of this island people just how much they were moving on and rebuilding their lives on the other side of the island.