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.
The traffic was less than usual for Cayman’s capital, Georgetown, which was a relief. Our route was only a few kilometres as the airport was just behind the main urban area. I paid the taxi driver, hauled my case out of the trunk, and headed to the check in desks. As I almost ran inside I noticed that a couple of workmen were boarding up the large panes of glass next to me. There was no queue at check in, so I placed the suitcase on the scales and was checked in easily – no seat preference available; I was to have the last empty seat on the plane. As I stuffed my passport and boarding pass into my shirt pocket, I noticed the check in staff close the check in, shut down the computers, turn off the lights and make their way ready to go home.
Passport Control and Security at Cayman was equally as quick and once through I noted again that the machines were being shut down behind me and the staff packing up. The airport behind me was as quiet as anything, the small departure lounge in front of me jam packed with people. I found a couple of conference delegates; all from the Deep South of USA which is why they were happy to head to Atlanta. We chatted; I bought some rum, and we boarded the plane. I was right at the back so not only was I the last person to check in at the airport, and the last through security, but almost the last to go up the steps and get into the plane. Every other plane had been cleared from the apron, the small ones may have been stashed away in some hangar, but even Cayman Airways had parked their planes in Miami, not at home. This was literally the last plane out before the hurricane struck.
I could just see out of my window across my fellow traveller, and saw more boards being put up on the glass of the departure lounge. I saw some palm trees next to me bending about 45 degrees in the wind, the clouds above were a lot thicker than they had been.
Last passengers loading
The palm trees starting to sway
The now boarded up terminal
As the stewards prepared the cabin, the captain chatted to us in his southern drawl and easy going language, warning us that the initial ascent might be “just a little bit bumpy”. We taxied to the end of the runway and I caught a last glimpse of the wind flapping at the trees.
There were one or two others, already booked out on the handful of flights left to leave that morning. As I was heading back I wanted to speak to reception. They were still being quite forceful about getting rid of me – they did not want the responsibility of looking after me. The desk to assist with flight changes was still functioning and I talked to this guy for a while. I would have been happy to go as long as I could carry on immediately. Trouble was the BA option from Cayman would not leave at the earliest for four more days anyway. If I took any of the other planes leaving, I could still end up being stranded in the wrong place for days on end waiting for a seat back to the UK. To add to the complication, I was due back on another job in Mauritius in less than a week’s time.
In the end there was a chance – Delta were flying out in the next couple of hours with a route that would get me to Atlanta with a couple of hours to make the connection to the BA flight. But he could only help me to book the Delta flight. I had to go online and look at changing the BA flight. If there was a problem on either leg, I would end up with an expensive mistake. As it was I had to shell out over 400 pounds to get on the Delta flight, on top of what had already been quite an expensive flight to Cayman. But it would get me home. The deal was done; but I had to get to the airport immediately as they were already checking people in. I asked the hotel to prepare my bill then ran to my room, piled my belongings in the case and rushed back. While I was paying off the bill, someone was grabbing me a taxi, and then I was away.