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.
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
Life of the island was turned upside down, even geographically. The southern third was left as an uninhabitable exclusion zone, a further third declared an intermediate zone where no-one can live but some activity, the odd farmer’s field, can continue. The rest of the island’s activities are squeezed into the remaining third, previously the less developed end of the island. The government was located on a steep hillside at Brades near a small sheltered bay on the north western side of the island. With no functioning airport everything had to come in by sea to this bay. The population reduced to only 3000. The social and economic problems associated with this upheaval caused great tensions, exacerbated by an insensitive reaction from the UK Government, culminating in the response from Clare Short when the Montserratians asked for more help that “they will be asking for golden elephants next.”
The activity at the volcano eventually calmed, but with occasional large events and frequent clouds of sulphur, ash and material flows, Soufriere is still a dominant neighbour of the nervous Montserratians trying to re-establish their lives at the other end of the island. New estates have now been built on the hillsides and some returnees have swollen the population up to nearly 6000. The smaller villages down the west side have remained too, and a new capital at Little Bay below Brades is being formalised moving from emergency portacabins into proper buildings, for government, market, infrastructure. A new airport was built straddling the central ridge of the island in the north. It has been a slow process.
New housing to replace what was buried at the other end of the island