The island was visible almost as soon as we took off and crossed the old canefields of Antigua. We approached Montserrat from the east and I was able to see out the window the great massive of the volcano, and the flows down each side, including where the flow had caused a new bulge in the coastline on the eastern side, and the remains of the old airport runway. We circled the northern side of the island and I could see the new runway, precariously perched on top of the hill, and the clusters of houses old and new that made up the main settlement. We landed and my colleagues, Matt from Durrell and Geoff from RSPB, were in the small arrivals hall. But my luggage was not. Due to the large number of passengers they had been unable to get all the bags in the plane, but no worries, I was told, they were going to pick up the remaining passengers and it would be on that one. They will be back in under an hour.
So in the mean time I was offered a beer down by the harbour at Little Bay, where the ferry now came in; it being the only point known by Geoff to have adequate wifi. We drove down the hill and pulled up by this old beach hut. We checked email and started to chat about my task. Geoff had been around for a week or so teaching staff to tag birds, and was going to overlap with my visit for a couple of days. Matt was staying for a longer period, over a month. Although he was full time on the project, he was based out of Micoud in St Lucia, and so was in an out of Montserrat from time to time.
We headed back up to the airport to collect my bag and just as we arrived the planed swept in to land. We waited patiently for a few passengers to come off and saw a pile of bags being manhandled off the plane onto a small hand trolley…. but I could not see my distinctive hard red case. I was told it would be on the next plane, which was tomorrow morning. So with the clothes I stood up in, a passport and a laptop, I got back in the car. We stopped off at a small grocers in Brades so I could at least get a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a bar of soap.
Now at last I was able to visit, but I was to work for another incredible conservation organisation, the Durrell Foundation. As a teenager I had read all the Gerald Durrell books; my favourites being of the expeditions, and of his philosophy of how to build a zoo (the Stationary Ark). I had long wanted to visit Jersey Zoo as one of the places that specialised in the less well known animals. In Africa I had tired very quickly of hunting for the big five for that photo that everyone else already had – and was more keen to see the wider spread of other animals. When I started working in small islands, the rate of speciation from isolated populations had formed myriad biodiversities, fragile and unique on these plots, and it only endeared me to that pioneering attitude of the Durrells. Montserrat was a perfect example of that fragility, especially since the volcanic eruptions had begun.
Alas I was still not to get to Jersey Zoo. My first encounter with Durrell occurred in Bath on a frozen winter’s day; I met with one of the project coordinators who was resident at Bath University. We discussed the project and agreed to establish a visit in the summer, between my two trips to Mauritius. I actually prefaced my time in Montserrat with a couple of weeks touring the northern islands, visiting friends in Antigua, Culebra off Puerto Rico, and St John in the US Virgin Islands. After a further night in Antigua, it was a leisurely drive to the airport on a Saturday afternoon, a simple check in (mixing with the lobster red tourists gathering for the transatlantic services back to London) and then boarding a small prop plane for the barely twenty minute hop to Montserrat. The service is an odd one as they only had a few seats =, and if there were more passengers they did a second shuttle. Fortunately I was on the first out (I’ve never been keen to spend too much time in Antigua’s old departure lounge with the overcrowding and the interminable announcements calling out the destinations more like a bus route than a flight – “calling at St Kitts, St Maarten and Beef Island, Tortola”….. “Calling at Melville Hall, Dominica, Vigie St Lucia, Barbados with onward connections to Grenada, Tobago and Georgetown Guyana”).
There was one little postscript to this story that personally affected me. I was still dealing with Edsel’s untimely demise. A few months after my return home I was trawling through my lists of contacts and I found a friend of mine who lived in Antigua, Greg. Although a Trinidadian, he had lived in Antigua for many years and I had come across him at a workshop when I was working in BVI. He had invited me for a weekend in Antigua to lime and see the country. I jumped at the chance at the time. Antigua was a couple of hours flight from BVI (usually with only one quick stop in St Martin) and I spent several weekends over there; good to get a change of scene from my island. This guy took me around sightseeing and we visited Nelson’s Dockyard and spent a night on Shirley Heights at the usual weekend party up there. We got on very well – outsiders in someone else’s island – and I found him perfect company.
Antigua was a good place for me. When I got back to UK I started working in places like Montserrat and Anguilla. And Antigua was the place I would pass through en route. And it was good to meet up with Greg and even if I was only in Antigua a few hours, pop over to the Sticky Wicket pub next to the Airport and have a beer and a chat.
I’d not worked in the northern Caribbean for a few years. I’d not seen Greg for a while. I thought I would drop him a line, but I heard nothing back from the email addresses I had. So I searched his name on Google.