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.
Scriber asked if I wanted to go on and see if we could see more. I was aware of the time (it was past midnight now) and how these guys had gone out of their way to drive me to the other side of the island to see our quarry. So I thanked them and said no, we should return to our beds. The visit a success we descended back to the vehicles and I was dropped off at the gate to our villa. I quietly stole in and went to bed a happy man.
My work time in Montserrat was nearly done – I had a bit of training to complete the next week on one day before flying home, and I was continually making tweaks to all the databases I had created, but Matt and I decided we had to have a little downtime over the weekend. Geoff had gone back to the UK on the Friday evening so Matt and I decided we would take a drive down to the exclusion zone.
I had noticed a network of poles around the island on which were sirens. They were used to alert the residents of any harmful volcanic eruption – of course the chance of evacuation when there was a really large discharge from the volcano, but there were also other hazards. There is a continuous stream of ash and smoke coming from several vents in the Soufriere mountain and small ash falls were regular. It might settle out as a fine dust, sometimes as a pseudo-snowfall, and had a habit of covering everything. If that were the end of it people might be OK to cope – get out the brooms and the switches and push it off into the bush or ghut. But the ash had been belched up from deep below the earth’s crust and was full of noxious chemicals; most abundant of which was sulphur. The smallest amount of water and the dust turned into acid that ate into everything. It is particularly fond of tin roofs, and cars. Left without cleaning, and maybe with a dose of warm Caribbean rain, a car can rot away in just a few weeks.
The early warning system
I woke up a couple of times in our villa and found a film of ash across the veranda. But more often than not there was a curious smell of bad eggs in the air. The volcano would fart toxic gases that would blow over the villages. My lips would capture these molecules and more acid would be created as it mixed with my saliva, leaving me with a tinny slightly painful taste in the mouth.
Then, ahead of us, the other guide darted forward and shone his light on a large amphibian nestled in amongst some leaf litter on the forest floor. It had a white underbelly and green and brown mottled back and legs but it had a knobbly head. We realised it was no mountain chicken. This was the dread cane toad. It is unclear just why the cane toad came to Montserrat. On other islands; Antigua and Jamaica, for example, they were brought in to the sugar cane plantations to control pests, but of course became a pest themselves. Maybe a few cane toads made it on shipments to Montserrat, or somebody decided to bring them in to control pests on another crop. Whatever, they have found a good niche here on the island.
The cane toad was duly noted in the field sheet (although it was an unscheduled transect, Scriber wanted to record his data) and we moved on up the ghut. Soon afterwards the guides’ torches focused once more on the forest floor and I saw what appeared to be a garden ornament. Standing stock still was a large amphibian again; but this time it has strong dark and light colourations – stripes on the legs and blotches across the back. It had a black streak running from its shoulders to its eye sockets, and, in the torch light, the most amazingly deep amber eyes. It perched, yes perched is the right word, on the ground; its front legs angled inwards and the toes pointing towards each other. The massive back legs were curled tightly on themselves. This was our elusive mountain chicken, coiled up in readiness to fly if needed.
But instead of escaping us, it stayed motionless in the full glare of our torches. Scriber said it was a common behaviour against predators. It looked a darn stupid one to me. Scriber grabbed hold of it – it more than covered his fist but still made little struggle. Maybe a reason it was not doing so well…..
The elusive mountain chicken
It was weighed and measured and they took a look at its health and features. They photographed it and then Scriber placed it carefully back on the ground. I looked down at it and then realised both why the marking were so good and why a behaviour of freezing on encountering danger could work. I could hardly make out the frog from all the leaf litter, twigs and other detritus down there. If it moved it would be immediately noticed and possibly eaten.
One other noise occasionally broke the tree frogs’ chorus; a loud caterwauling, indeed like a cat having an argument with a neighbour. Scriber pointed a finger skyward “the mountain chicken”. He had a slot on his field datasheet to record this, positive contact but without a sighting. Although we could get some idea of the direction of the call – the terrain and the complexity of the forest meant we could not find the actual callers themselves.
We heard several mountain chicken calling across the valley to each other, but we did not see any amphibians save these tree frogs. I was rather disappointed. My time on Montserrat was limited and there was no chance of another evening transect while I was on island. Scriber was also disappointed for me and said “We’ll go over to another transect where I know we shall find one”. We carefully picked out return route to the vehicle and headed along the main road past the top of Brades and the airport and over to the east coast. Although the road zigzags in much the same fashion as on the leeward side of the island, there is little habitation. The road used to head all the way down to Plymouth past several villages and the old airport, but this northern section, being on the more exposed windward side of the island, had barely been developed save for the odd quarry. We parked up and headed up into the Centre Hills for the second time that evening.
Not a Mountain Chicken – but what is it?
While I was walking I asked Scriber how he got his name. It turned out that he had a second job. He was a poet and a writer as well as a conservation officer and tour guide. He’d been told at school that he seemed to have a talent for making complicated things simple and he was a “Describer” which became in this modified form, his nickname. He’d got into the habit of writing some of his descriptions down and was quite a legend amongst the local community. Over the course of the time I was in Montserrat he told me a few about the turtles and the national bird, the Oriole. But it was still mountain chickens I was hunting here.
To this end the Conservation Department had a monitoring programme which I was there to support. I talked extensively to the guys who did the work. They could point to the areas they surveyed around the Centre Hills but had never mapped them. In fact they were not points, they were transects, walks they did generally up one of the many ghut valleys and when they spotted a chicken they would take its measurements and check its health. I’d worked on a database that allowed them to log sightings of individual mountain chickens along these transects and with the help of Matt, had worked out various ways to number crunch the information to make graphs showing both spatial comparisons between different valleys and trends in observations – whether the numbers spotted were increasing or decreasing.
With these kinds of databases, it is all very well coming up with complex ways to log and analyse the information; the reality of field data collection is it is often hard work, difficult to be consistent and often a long time spent for relatively few results. I thought it would be a useful exercise for me to join the field workers on one of their expeditions into a ghut.
As with most amphibians in the tropics, the mountain chicken is most active at night. So it was about 9 pm when the guys from conservation popped over to our villa and picked me up. We didn’t go very far; they were looking at one of the western ghuts that night. We parked the vehicle near some houses in a small road off the main route from north to south. One of the guys, called Scriber, carefully extracted a sheet from envelope and fixed it securely to a clipboard. he hauled a small backpack onto his shoulders and then said to me – ” you ready”. I was wearing a head torch; the field guys were carrying large torches in their hands, but we kept them off until we started walking on the transect itself.
I was ready – I had been fiddling with a GPS to establish our location exactly but now walked behind the guys recording our track out into the field. The transect itself was marked by a ghut – a dry stream bed which only fills up after rain. Many Caribbean islands are so volcanic that their rocks are porous and the slopes so steep that rain either soaks away into the soil immediately or rushes off to the sea very fast. Few of the smaller islands have any permanent streams, but these channels are well marked and often the best way to make progress through the otherwise densely packed forest. As we walked up the steep gradient, the forest was alive with noise – the chirruping of so many tree frogs. I had visions of these being like the central American treefrogs – about 30cm long and brightly coloured. Scriber kept flashing his light over a tree and saying – see all those tree frogs. I could see nothing. Eventually I had to ask him to show me one up close. He went over to a tree and pulled down on a small branch, exposing the top part of a large floppy green leaf. Nestled in the central rib was the tiniest frog I had ever seen – less than a centimetre across. But it was perfectly formed with a pointed nose and a prominent backbone that held tight skin in place over its fleshy flanks and, for its size, powerful legs. To imagine so much of the chirruping that I could hear was made from these miniscule bodies was beyond belief. And although there were potentially many in the forest, it still did not seem to account for all the noise.
The other animal of interest was the mountain chicken. And this was not a chicken – what was it about giving Montserrat animals the wrong name? The mountain chicken is in fact an amphibian. It is a rather large frog that is so rare it is only found on two islands. Dominica and Montserrat.
I have a confession to make. I once ate a Mountain Chicken in Dominica. At a restaurant at one of the best hotels in Roseau, I was served a pair of frogs legs sautéed in lemon sauce. It did indeed taste like chicken. At the time the Dominica mountain chicken was quite common and it was a local delicacy but by the time I had got to Montserrat, a fungal disease called Chytrid had decimated the population on Dominica. Montserrat had a smaller population to start with, but had remained chytrid free. Like many other species though, its range had been curtailed by the eruption in the south of the island. For the conservation team this was the jewel in their crown and a heavy responsibility. They were attempting to make sure that the chytrid fungus would not enter the island but this was no small matter. Fungi are notorious spreaders – their reproduction vessels are tiny spores which blow through the air, or get attached to other matter. Small islands rely on imported goods so much and the spores can be transmitted in cargoes the world over. Montserrat had set up a checking routine at the customs house at the dock but it was impossible to check everything.
So far the Montserrat mountain chicken had been lucky to avoid fungal infections but many other threats still existed. Their numbers were already quite low before the eruption and now the Centre Hills were their last stronghold. At the fringes of the forest they were vulnerable to predators, mostly domestic dogs and cats. Another interloper, the cane toad, was thought to be muscling in on the mountain chickens’ habitats as well.
Starting the hunt