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?
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.
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 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.
Taking advantage of limited internet
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”).
Day trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico
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