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.
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
My week on Montserrat was busy – I had to meet the various teams of environment department workers who were responsible for the different biodiversity programmes. I was to meet an old friend of mine, Laverne, who almost single handedly had introduced and fostered use of GIS on Montserrat. And I wanted to get a grip on the species I was looking at.
The biodiversity action plan was to focus on endemic species in the Central Hills. My colleagues from Kew Gardens were getting a good handle on the plant species – had conducted transects across the hills and were finding new species almost all the time. I had a quick job to manipulate their existing data into a format that could be transferred to their master database in London. There was a guy called Steve who I started referring to as the batman; he was crazy about bats and had a complicated way of recording all his information. The island conservation team more or less let him get on with it. Bats are one of the few land mammals in the Caribbean that are endemic – given the chain reaches out in the ocean there are not many other ways to extend your species’ range unless you fly. The result is that there are several endemic species and subspecies of bats in all the islands and Montserrat is no exception. I chatted with the batman a couple of times by email but there did not seem much point in changing the way he did things for the sake of local conditions.
Then there were the birds. I worked with Geoff from RSPB to decide how we would best tackle this. I showed him the seabird databases I had developed in the South Atlantic, but we agreed this was a different case. Here they were not trying to count every bird on a rocky outcrop, but to try and sample some shy species in forest undergrowth; most notably the Montserrat Oriole whose numbers had declined sharply after the eruptions.
The Centre Hills from our village
The two other species of interest were different. The first was an enigma. It was like hunting the snark, like the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat …. that isn’t there. It was the Montserrat galliwasp. A galliwasp is not, as you might imagine, a kind of insect, but a lizard. For a smooth lizard it is slightly flattened, wide bodied even. My description is all from books. I didn’t see a galliwasp in the week I was there. In fact it had been several years since anyone had seen a galliwasp. The last time had been about five years ago and the poor creature in questions was in the jaws of a small dog so was not going to do anything to relieve its critically endangered species status.
So I designed a database that was to do a couple of things; one was allow anyone to log reports of people seeing a galliwasp – whether being eaten or not at the time. The second was that a series of remarkably complex study sites were being set up to see if they could attract galliwasps in to be studied. I never saw one of these sites themselves but it was described to me in great detail. They sliced up the site into segments of long grass and short grass, corrugated iron they could hide under, scrubby vegetation. I was to create a complex database that would describe all the habitats and the number of galliwasps of what sex, age, length and height. All this for something which had not been seen alive for a generation.
Matt had procured a fantastic villa for the project. Although not far as the crow flies from Brades, it was round a circuitous road that hugged the contours. Just beyond the sprawling village of St Peter’s you dropped off the main road and round a small estate of widely spaced houses and our compound was right on the waterfront. It was made up of a large house with an enormous open plan living room and kitchen area, and two bedrooms, and a separate smaller house which Matt took. In between them was a huge swimming pool and below all this a large grassy lawn spattered with shrubs and trees leading to a low stone wall. On the far side the land dropped steeply as a huge boulder scree into the gently lapping Caribbean Sea. It was, …yep… idyllic.
Postures in our garden
We shared the garden with a whole host of iguanas. The green iguana , as in many islands, is a common sight in Montserrat. Here they acted out a veritable soap opera on the lawn. In the early mornings they would start to emerge and find the best basking spots to heat up their blood. Once alert they would look around for food – insects mainly it seemed – but the prime activity for the day would be posturing. They would work on a series of intricate rituals with their cohabitants; standing in a particular position at a particular distance from a rival or potential lover and going through a sequence of stare offs, bobbing movements or tail twitching till one got bored or decided not to chance their arm. I say rival or potential lover – it was impossible for a layman like me to know what the true meaning was, and although I watched mesmerized day after day when I should have been typing up notes of designing databases, it was hard to distinguish between the sexes and even the ages. There were obviously some alpha males around; much larger with craggier head gear and muscular legs and tails, but pursuit of females looked almost the same as fighting off interlopers.
There were battles for high spots in the garden, or just for a scrappy piece of worn out sand on the lawn; there seemed little rhyme nor reason to it. And in fact the actual drama was usually short lived and the rest of the time they just sat on the grass, heads pointing skyward, like tropical garden ornaments. I never knew temperature regulation could be so complicated.
Alongside the stress on the people, the volcano obviously did untold damage to the environment. As well as being an intensively farmed area on its lower slopes, its upper reaches and several valleys were rich in fauna and flora. Before the eruptions, several studies had looked at the ecology of the southern hills around Soufriere. The significant hills of the central region had been less studied and more or less dismissed as an area of less interest.
With the eruption both turning much of the southern part of the island into at best a fresh landscape ready to start again with lower order plants, at worst an arid moonscape poisoned for centuries, the unscathed Centre Hills became more of a focus for environmentalists. And what they saw surprised them greatly. There was both more biodiversity here than expected, and it was home to some of the more bizarre plants and animals that Montserrat contained.
With the national level of resources in government at an all time low, and focused on rehousing, rehabilitating and rebuilding the infrastructure and life on the island, there were few resources to look at this biodiversity. As with other islands I had worked with, especially the Overseas Territories, some big names from the UK were trying to assist. In 2008 I was asked to assist with a particular project that the UK Government’s “DARWIN” initiative had funded, that was to write action plans for all the key species in this region. My role was to look at the monitoring of these creatures and plants and see how it integrated with the government’s GIS.
I’d wanted to go to Montserrat for many years but so far had only seen it smouldering in the distance the many times I came into land in Antigua Airport. Montserrat had come and seen me once. When I was living on Tortola, I had gone to California for a conference and when I returned to my apartment high above the sea, I found a thin layer of red dust covering the whole terrace, including the tables and chairs. Montserrat had had another eruption and the particles had been blown on the wind over 200km to the Virgin Islands. I’d also met a few people from there and had tried a couple of times to formulate projects.
The north end of Montserrat and the Centre Hills in the distance