Friday, June 9, 2017

Volcano Dreams

Last sunrise over Nevis
Some places just seem like they are larger-than-life to me.  Like they have some special something that sets them apart as "bucket list" places.  Montserrat is one of those places for me.  I'm fascinated by volcanos and rocks and such... and when I heard that there was a place where a volcano recently devastated a town it just seemed like something out of a movie.  I had to go see it for myself.

She spent the entire day just like this...
It looked as if the weather was finally working with us for a change.  We had a couple of relatively benign travel days, allowing us to get from Nevis to Montserrat easily, then a couple of non-travel days, then a couple more days that would allow us to move on to Guadeloupe.  We'll have several days in Montserrat!  Perfect.  The morning dawned mild and beautiful... 

Bruce got a serious workout today!
I won't bore you with all the details, but suffice it to say that we had bigger seas and more variable winds than we expected... and with all the bouncing around, our engine quit due to a clogged fuel filter.  Twice.  After sailing without the engine long enough for it to cool enough to allow Bruce to change out the filter, we were able to start the engine and motor on to Little Bay where we dropped anchor just before sunset.
Redondo Rock... almost there!
Waves weren't huge, just lumpy and the winds were seriously up and down...
Montserrat in the distance.
I smell volcano!!!
Approaching the anchorage... hoping our engine doesn't quit again!
Fishing fleet and the commercial dock(right)
Big neighbour leaving the dock
Tired, but so happy to be here without further issues... we toasted a new view for our sundown and hit the sack.

The anchorage is reportedly rolly but we experienced only a brief, mild swell in the morning.  Since we hadn't cleared in the night before due to our late arrival, we splashed the dinghy and paddled our way to the dock.  We paddled because our outboard was damaged back at the town dock on Nevis and is unusable until parts, or some other solution, can be found.

The only sailboat in the anchorage...
Clearing in was easy and we were in and out quickly.  We left the gated port area and met a man named Joe, who was mentioned in Doyle's cruising guide, who agreed to take us on a tour of the island.  The price was a little steep, but Bruce wanted to do it.  We didn't want to miss out on the history of this place like we felt we might have done on Nevis by renting a car ourselves instead of taking the taxi tour.  

Extensive collection of Volcano pics
So... off we went! First stop was the Hilltop Coffee House for a quick bite.  We left the boat this morning without having breakfast thinking we were coming right back after clearing in...  Because it's low season, the Coffee House was not serving their full menu but they produced some cinnamon rolls and brownies for us to munch on while we listened to the talk about the island.

So many albums recorded on Montserrat!
I was not previously aware that Montserrat was the home of Air Studios, a state-of-the-art recording studio to many of the 80's biggest music legends...  Hurricane Hugo destroyed the studio but this quirky place keeps the memory alive with an extensive collection of memorabilia here at the coffee house.  You can also while away some time listening to some of the early recordings and talking story with the owner.  

A who's who of 80's rock
A collection of bits and pieces from Plymouth
He also has collected an extensive array of volcano bits and pieces.  Photos and pre-destruction items that have been scavenged and rescued from the carnage are displayed here, museum style.  It would have been nice to stay longer but we were on a mission... 

It's quite a scenic drive
There is one main road that runs south and and back up... it doesn't run around the island because... you can't go where the volcano buried the town anymore!  Duh!

We stopped for a sip of water from Runaway Ghaut... The water is running down from the mountains and the story goes... that if you sip from the fount you will return to Montserrat.  We sipped!  It tasted like good spring water with a hint of dirt!  I'll let you know if I suffer any "ill effects" of this little adventure...
Always eager to drink from the mountain!
Bruce wanted to take pictures but Joe urged him to get in there and drink!
It kind of had a subtle dirt aftertaste...  
Soon we turned off the main road and began to climb up a very steep and narrow road.  We arrived at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory just in time to see their movie!  After the volcano became active, this facility was built to monitor the day to day changes in seismic activity in an effort to predict when it would blow.  

There we watched their informative video with amazing footage of several of the eruptions.  It was just inconceivable...the plumes of smoke and ash billowing up into the air like an atomic mushroom cloud.  There are several YouTube videos about Montserrat if you want to see them... This one was suggested to us by Joe.

Also these (two parts).

Monitoring sensors aimed at the volcano

This is the type of flows that are emitted from Montserrat's volcano. 

Outside the observatory we looked toward the volcano... and the sky above us.  It looked different to us somehow, now that we'd seen the moving images of those disastrous days.  Now we can imagine the plumes rising above our heads superimposed upon the serene vision before us as we stand now in the same place that was shrouded by the plume.

Flows to the left...
Joe pointed out the areas on either side of the volcano that remain barren where the slow progression of the flow has left conditions  where nothing has grown.  

Flows to the right...

He also pointed out areas down in the valley where there were once homes... Now they were all abandoned and overgrown because they were part of the exclusion zones for many years.

He pointed out the Air Studio building and several other buildings that he would show us later...  He has a fascinating collection of photos from before and after.  Photos in which there was once water and beach, where there is now a slab of land... the coastline being much further out to sea... It would not have been much of a tour without Joe's photos and him taking us to the spot where the photos were taken in many instances... he showed us the "then and now" views and it was startling.  How could this BE???

The MVO has a website that advises of the current hazard level.  They monitor the volcano day and night hoping to avoid future disaster and loss of life.

We wound our way back down to the main road and continued on to the little village of Salem, where our host pointed out the few people milling around... He said that after this, we would probably see no more people.  We were going into a part of the island that was once one of the exclusion zones...  Zones that were deemed too dangerous for people to inhabit or even be allowed to visit, even though they owned the property!

We came upon a river.  The Belham River... Well, somewhere down there beneath the sand and ash is a river.  The entire area was built up by piles of rock, sand and ash that have come down from the mountain .  Joe said that the river still flows underneath all of that stuff and that if you dig down you will find water.  Amazing.  

Entering the Belham River basin

New ground up to the level of the windows on this small shack

Looking up the mountainside from the middle of the river
The road ends where the mudslide buried the river and the bridge that still spans it below the rubble. 

You can see the Observatory up on the hill to the left... white building with a tower.

Continuing on, much of the ground we drove over was ash.  Packed ash.  Literally piles and piles of ash that has landed here from the volcano.  It looked like ordinary dirt... a little grey in color but ordinary.  Until I dug out a little and held it in my hand.  It was as fine as silk powder.  A puff of wind would send it billowing.  I threw my handful into the air and watched it drift away... 
I threw it into the air and it drifted away... 

Leaving a fine, silky powder that washed off with water but it felt slick like clay mud.  

A very nice entrance gate to a home now abandoned
We followed the road through the old neighbourhoods where people once lived.  Now they have been mostly claimed by jungle.  Joe slowed the car and pointed into the brush to show us the many, many homes now abandoned and falling to ruin.

The destruction showed no favouritism... rich and poor lost everything.  It took years to reach the condition the volcano zone is in now... but Joe remembered that they were told to pack for a weekend... and then they were never allowed back to their homes. He harbours some buried resentment at the scientists who advised them at the time, as you might imagine.  He said that insurance didn't pay... they found some fine-print loophole to exclude coverage for this kind of peril...  tragic!

Now it is as if this is a place that time has forgotten... few people come here.  Some day in a time far distant, people will discover these homes and point to them like we do the ruins of previous civilisations.  They will wonder what happened to the people and why they left... no... they will know why.  The volcano.

One property that's been cleared.  Looks pretty good!
It's been 20 years and these homes in the village of Cork Hill are still vacant.  The area has been reopened to the public but only a few of the homes have been touched.  Some streets have been excavated by pushing the ash up along the sides of the road where it still remains in piles.  It is heartbreaking to think of the lives once lived by the owners of these homes... now just abandoned.

The owners of the properties are still the owners... Why does nobody come in here and clean all of this up???  It is no longer considered part of the exclusion zone, people are allowed in 24/7.  But there are no utilities, no public infrastructure maintenance...  And of course, just TRY to get financing or insurance on these properties now!!!

The school-yard was used as a parking lot for the party.
There was a clean-up effort recently in one village linked to the 20 year anniversary of the devastation.  This area was scraped and cleared and for one weekend the people returned.  They ate and drank and had a sort of festival... then they all returned to their lives elsewhere leaving the neighbourhood a ghost-town once again.

There is still mud beneath the stairs.  You can see the level of ash mud on the wall
Most of the inhabitants were transplanted to the UK by the government.  Some came back but the island has far fewer people living here now.  And those who do live here are concentrated in other parts of the island that are considered safe, far away from Soufriere Hills...

As we drove slowly through the jungle I began to notice a golden-yellow coloured substance on the trees, leaves and some buildings.  "What IS that yellow stuff" I asked Joe...  Acid rain... ACID RAIN!!!  As if the falling ash isn't enough!  This also explains why so many of the roofs made of corrugated metal have been eaten away... There is something in the ash that literally eats some substances...

Dumping the bulk into the machine
We left the neighbourhood and Joe took us to see where the people of the island were making lemonade out of lemons... or sand out of volcano runoff as it were.

Conveyor belts shake the bulk through smaller and smaller grates...
So with tourism being devastated along with the towns and villages that once boomed... these resilient people found something they could use out of the very destruction that took away their livelihoods...  The volcano was literally making sand!  And this sand is perfect for use in cement, of which most of the buildings and roads in the islands are made.

It may LOOK like the ash I held before... but it's nothing like it!
They mine the sand in bulk from sites such as the Belham River we visited earlier, then they separate it out into the different sized components and export it to nearby islands!  Brilliant!  It is a renewable resource for as long as the volcano continues to live.

Finally we come to the object of our morbid curiosity.  Plymouth.  The once-thriving tourist mecca that now lies frozen in time beneath layer-upon-layer of rock and ash...

It is now possible to go to Plymouth, but only with advanced authorization, which we did not have.  But there are no longer steeples sticking up through the flow, no more rooftops to stand next to for a photo-op...  It's all been buried.  So we came here to an abandoned condo on Richmond Hill...

The volcano is venting as you can see by the smoky looking sky
The silence was palpable...  only the sound of the breeze could be heard as we reverently looked out over what was once a thriving town.  

A hill in the center sticks out above the flow.  You can see a ravine behind it that is being carved by more recent rains.

Homes on the other side... all vacant.

These photos do not do justice to the scene before us.  The clouds moved across the landscape, silently highlighting spots in sequence.  Joe described to us in disjointed snippets... just how it was to have lived through this long history.  People always ask "why don't you leave???".  But this is his home.  It is the only existence he knows... it is his "normal".

Trendy Condos with an awesome view... abandoned.
Every place has it's perils, whether it be hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados or horrendous snowfall...  People live.  They adapt and adjust.  He described his dreams... no, his nightmares, in which he drives his taxi up to the taxi stand down in Plymouth... like he has done so many times... but the stand is gone!  Destroyed by the pyroclastic flow.  It is difficult to imagine how the mind reacts to such an impossibility.  The disbelief, the denial... yet... it happened.  And you move over to a safer spot, and you carry on.

We were silent as we left what was once a trendy condo with an awesome view...  Joe took us to one more place...

This was all water before...
A piece of new land overlooking Old Road Bay where we would come on our boat the following day... Here, they are rebuilding.  There are signs of progress as resilient people are moving the piled layers of ash and sand to expose what was once a dock where Joe remembers standing... He showed us his pictures of the beach and a row of palm trees that are now far up on the land... It was good to see them beginning to rebuild.  Perhaps someday we will return to find a newly thriving tourist town once again.
They have uncovered the old dock!  You can still see the pilings on the pier.  

Our tour now done, Joe dropped us off at one of the restaurants near the port area so we could get some lunch.  I promised to promote his business as being a cut above... and while I haven't had a tour by any other driver, I can't imagine one being better researched or informative.  The photos Joe showed us from the position of where each photo was taken, the videos he played on his iPad while we drove along the streets... seeing with our eyes how it was then... and now in stark contrast... These are stunning treasures compiled by a person who obviously loves his island and his job.

Joe gave us a pamphlet documenting the dates of significant events in the island's history.  He also sent us an email with links to some of his resources...  The only thing I can think of that someone might find negative, is that Joe seems to get a little defensive when asked a question for which he has no answer.  But as our time with him went on, I came to the realization that it was only a cultural difference...

Back to "normal"
Our culture wants to know things that his does not...  One example, how much does your gasoline cost?  His answer:  Why do I care?  When my tank is empty, I fill it and give them the money, whatever it is.  Why do I need to know how much per liter it costs???  This is just useless information that clutters your brain and gets you nowhere.

The new port... they just moved on!
We reviewed all of the many things we had seen and heard over a delicious, if strange lunch (Sweet & Sour chicken pared with a side of lasagna) and we marveled at how different our lives were from those of the inhabitants of this island.  We travel to learn about these other cultures and their differences...  I think back on my previous life and the dreams and nightmares I once had.  Angst over something that was happening at work or about my kids...  Worries that brought stress to me, even in sleep... and I think how my woes were nothing compared to the people of Montserrat with their Volcano Dreams.

A couple more of Joe's Links:

The Police Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

Rolling Stones Recording done in Montserrat in 1989

I highly recommend Joe Phillip Avalon Tours 1-664-492-1565 email:


  1. What an interesting place! If you are ever up here, you would enjoy Mt. St. Helens. It blew while my dad was up here looking for a place for the family to live. You can still find pumice in the rivers beneath the volcano. This whole area is lousy with volcanoes. Hope another one doesn't blow anytime soon. love the pictures!

    1. I would love to visit your area some day... my problem with it is the COLD!!! But your photos are making me rethink my resistance...