Friday, May 29, 2015

From Montserrat to Antigua

We wrapped up our last day on Montserrat which was a holiday Monday, with a visit to the local cricket pitch.  The boys played on under the hot sun while we thoroughly enjoyed the fried chicken and johnny cakes the ladies cooked up at the food stall.  I still don't completely understand the game, but just like any other sporting event, liming (socializing) in the stands is half the fun!

It was as hot and dry, and far away as this looks - making it difficult to follow the action.

Half-time break and just like at a hockey game, they repair the pitch.  Is this a cricket "zambonie"?
 Back at the beach shacks by the harbour we checked out the facilities ...

Loved the creative beach showers.

The wind had died right on cue, just as we wanted to make our way almost directly east about 20 miles to Jolly Harbour on Antigua.  The seas calmed down nicely from the prancing white horses of the weekend and of course we had the lack of wind to thank for this, which meant once again we motored the entire way.  Not complaining though as this could have been a bash.

Jolly Harbour is a deep, protected series of bays and as you wind your way in there are many rental properties with their own docks, little restaurants, a large boat yard and repair facility, and finally the marina at the top of the bay.  Now that the winter sailing season has wrapped up, the place is a bit like a ghost town, but one can imagine the hustle and bustle - especially during regattas.  It's kinda nice being on the quiet side.  We have come here to see a little of the island, but also with a booking for Mowzer to stay at the marina for the two weeks of our trip back to Canada.

The reefs and beaches surrounding Antigua are tantalizingly close but for now will have to remain unexplored; something for us definitely to return to.  In the meantime, we took a day to explore landside using the local bus system, which is incredibly well organized I might add with labelled route numbers and a depot in St. John's.

The main town of St. John's, to quote a friend, is "rather unremarkable".  Cruise ship docks, local markets, people rushing around or lounging in store fronts with a general shabbiness make it similar to most other towns of the Caribbean.

We hopped from one bus to another at the depot to make our way to the south side of the island and a visit to historic Nelson's Dockyard, a working Georgian facility at the top of yet another lovely deep bay.  We wandered around and through the historic buildings, enjoyed a lunch from the bakery housed in the old kitchen building and watched the comings and goings of the boats in the harbour.

Originally built in the 1700s as the main naval base for the British navy in the Caribbean, and actually commanded by Nelson in the 1780s, the buildings have been beautifully restored and many of them serve a purpose today similar to that for which they were built.  There is a small hotel in the old Pitch and Tar Store and Engineer's Office building and Sunsail operates a charter fleet from the docks that were built deep enough to accommodate the brigs and frigates of the time.

The pillars that supported a sail loft surrounded by beautiful gardens.

More of the famous pillars - the sail loft building was frequently destroyed by hurricanes so they capped the pillars and gave up on that idea.

More beautiful gardens with an English feel.

The Admiral's Inn lies in a charming location near the pillars.

The saw pit shed is now the oldest building on the site and today houses the sailmaker.

The officers' quarters, as seen from the Admiral's House, today a well laid-out museum.

Large boats were careened at the dock walls for cleaning and repair.  Ropes run around these capstans pulled the boats onto their sides to expose their wooden bottoms that were susceptible to damage and rot.

Berkely Fort protects the entrance to the harbour.  Even here the Sargasso weed has found it's way in on the current.
We wrapped up our day with the bus ride back to St. John's where it finally started to rain - more than we've seen in months and so desperately needed on these dry islands.  With no umbrella there was nothing left to do but duck inside an ice-cream shop for a little treat.

And yes, I did ask Henry to get two spoons for sharing ;-)

Monday, May 25, 2015

Off-Trail Hiking and Beach Time

One of the pleasures of our time in Montserrat has been meeting up with Dalynn and Glen on Amoray.  This couple from B.C. has been cruising down here for a few years and like us, love to get out and explore the islands on foot.

Our plan for a "lazy" Sunday was to hike over to Rendezvous Bay, just north of Little Bay and holding the title for the only white-sand beach on Montserrat this seemed like a good destination.  However, rather than taking the short up and down track out of Little Bay, the decision was made to walk up the road to Drummonds, an area (community?) at the northern end of Montserrat and then find the longer trail that would take us down into Rendezvous.

First order of business was finding the short-cut up the hill from the bay.  "Let's ask that guy over there!" exclaimed Glen - turned out to be a man in pink shorts and bedroom slippers carrying a hammer through a small quarry.  What could possibly go wrong with this scenario?  Well, apparently nothing as he pointed to a sturdily built ladder leaning up against the bluff at the side of the road.  Believe it or not this led to the roads above and probably cut a good 20-30 minutes off our walk.  I'm thinking the next Montserrat Development project could be a set of stairs.

We wound our way higher and higher, laughing at the local names and yet again marvelling at the views.

There goes that local sense of humour again!

Are we almost there yet Dalynn?
Reaching to the dizzying heights, we found the trailhead just as shown on the map.  However, from there on in we have no idea where we went wrong to miss the trail, but perhaps we should have heeded the signs along the way.

We scrambled, crabwalked, crawled and at times had to be extricated by the catch-and-keep (a nasty thorny bush), our mantra being, "Go down, go left" and "Where the heck did the trail go??"  Just when we were beginning to lose hope of ever finding the trail, we found our own way down through a clearing and then the gut, to land upon a beautiful pristine beach.  We made it!

Oh boy was the water welcoming as we washed off the sweat and bits of dirt and wood from our scramble down the steep slopes.  We carried in lunch and enjoyed it sitting on the rocks with the deserted beach laid out before us.

Now for the return, this time up the shorter trail that leads directly from Rendezvous to Little Bay.  With four pairs of eyes locked onto the trail this time, we scrambled up and over making it back to Little Bay and an icy cold beer at one of the bars behind the bay.

A glimpse of Rendezvous far below us.

Sizel is currently in flower.
How to wrap up the day?  With a resounding round of Wizard and a great pot-luck dinner no less!
Craziest hand of the night!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Awe of Nature

Yesterday was all about discovering natural, present-day Montserrat.  The island where people live and work and where natural life carries on undisturbed on the mountain-sides except for the occasional hiker or small plantation owner with a dozen banana trees and a few papayas.

Today however, we came to see what most people come to see on Montserrat.  The tourism industry (limited as it is) here is based on showing the spectacular, much like going to the old-time circus to see the bearded lady or the siamese twins, and in that respect Montserrat delivers.

Henry did a little internet search and came up with Sunny who offered a full-day tour of the island and that is exactly what we got.  We highly recommend this young man who grew up  and lives on Montserrat today as a musician, computer technician, tour guide, vulcanologist and property manager.  As he explained to us, employment here is difficult so you must create options for yourself.

We began the day by continuing our explorations of the north end of Montserrat where everyone lives today.  The new airport which was unfortunately built too small to accommodate anything much and thereby limits economic expansion, the north-american style developments with cookie-cutter houses that were built to house many of the displaced islanders who have lost not just their homes but all that they owned, and the new schools, community centre and government buildings all provide the impression that Montserrat is recovering and moving forward, if somewhat tentatively.

The new airport that unfortunately cannot be expanded and is too short to land the larger island-hopper aircraft.

The new homes are being colourfully painted, sometimes looking like a competition on who can outdo the other with the most outlandish colour scheme.

The island is controlled by an Exclusion Zone that has varying levels of intensity depending on the current activity of the volcano.  If you happen to live in an area that is Zone C, you can expect to be evacuated at any time, and therefore everyone has moved to the north or at least Zone B to live.  Beyond Zone C is completely inaccessible to everyone except those scientists who have a need, and the means of escape, to study the present situation.

Throughout the tour, Sunny provided us with the historical facts and also his personal experiences of living with the volcano in their midst.  What was so interesting was that although the Soufriere Volcano awoke in 1995, it was not one cataclysmic eruption that caused the damage to Montserrat and obliterated the capital of Plymouth along with many other villages.  It was instead an ongoing series of events from that time with the most devastating in 2010 when the dome of the volcano collapsed again sending a huge flow of ash and rocks down the eastern flanks of the mountain and extending the shoreline a good half-mile out into the ocean, completely burying the old airport in the process.  

Soufreire Hills Volcano shrouded in cloud and sulfer gases.
There's an airport buried in there and the tower used to be near the coastline.
Amazingly the old sugar mill tower has still survived, just look at the size of the boulders though that litter the landscape.
Zone V encompasses most of the southern end of the island and up to the peak of the volcano.
As the volcano spits out more ash and boulders and as the rains sweep sand, mud and gravel down the slopes and guts, the landscape below continuously changes as the remaining buildings are buried further.  Amazingly, some people who lived in what is today zone C, still visit their homes and try to maintain them somewhat in the hopes that if and when the volcano goes back to sleep, they might have a property to return to.  The atmosphere however, even if the dust is not filling in the home, is slowly destroying anything metal with acid rain such that any home with a tin roof is now open to the heavens.

We crossed the Belham River which now fills the entire valley with a winding flow of sand, gravel and boulders.  When it rains heavily and more is washed down, bulldozers have to clear the road to access a small enclave of upscale homes that lie on the hills south of the river.

The sand filled Belham River and the site of the old golf course, buried many feet below.

Our final area to visit was in zone C just on the outskirts of what was once Plymouth.  The devastation is complete and yet continuing daily as more ash falls.  With the stench of sulphur in our noses we tried to take in the magnitude of the scene before us.

Water is creating a new ravine above the old town site.

Abandoned and destroyed homes and the old medical school that has now relocated to Sint Maarten.

What is it with these old sugar mill towers - they sure knew how to build them!
We entered an old hotel where we really got a sense of the effect of the ash.  It is slowly filling the rooms through any opening to the outside, anything metal is rusting away, falling down and disappearing while items of wood, plastic or fabric look almost as though they just need a good dusting off to be returned to their former use.

Sunny showing us the reception desk at the hotel.  Notice the doorway behind giving an indication of how much ash is on the floor.

Papers lie on the desk where they were left, but the metal legs of the chair have completely rotted away.

The label at this end of the swimming pool indicate it was 10' deep.

This suite had a kitchen, now almost completely filled with ash.  The louvre doors are still in remarkably good shape.

The old steps have been cleared but this really shows the depth of the ash - remember we are far from the main area where the ash fell, this is just what has blown in on the wind.
Moving away from the views of Plymouth we wound down our tour with a side-trip to the now abandoned Air Studio.  Back in the late 70s and early 80s, George Martin (now Sir George) established Air Studio on Montserrat as a sister studio to his London operations.  He was famous as producer of the Beatles, but in the years of operation in the Caribbean, some 70+ albums were produced here and looking at the album covers on the wall of the cafe where we stopped for lunch, we were immediately transported back to those years through the music of many famous musicians and bands.

The home and studio now lies abandoned in Zone C.

The old gates welcome you to Air Studio.  Seems you can make just about anything out of rebar down here.

A quick note about our tour with Sunny.  He was extremely knowledgable and informative, gave us a great overview of the island including the spectacular devastation but also little gems of places such as his favourite beach.  We stopped at his parents' cafe at Hilltop and enjoyed a homemade lunch and ginger beer, where we also had the opportunity to watch a short documentary about the volcano made by his father, filmmaker David Lea.  We'd definitely recommend him to anyone visiting the island.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Mystical Montserrat

The island of Montserrat is really two extreme halves.  The north is lush and green with small villages surrounding the Central Hills rainforest.  The south has been laid waste by the Soufriere volcano that blew its top in 1995 and destroyed the main town of Plymouth, sending many Montserratians away from their homeland as their homes and businesses were destroyed.

Following the eruption of the volcano, the island had to quickly rebuild for those remaining and relocate it's capital and it's main harbour.  There's not much choice on Montserrat and with the Plymouth anchorage destroyed by lava flows, Little Bay in the north now provides the place of entry.

We arrived in the evening after a boisterous motor-sail from Nevis so awaited Friday morning to check in, but were glad to have made it before the weekend when all the rates go into overtime.  Our first day on the island, we decided to explore on foot.  I have to say that the scavenging taxi-drivers who greet you on these islands as soon as you get out of customs are the most annoying.  We ran into a particularly engaging character named Sarge who not only exhorted us to use his services for an island tour, but then followed us down the road and berated us as idiots for wanting to walk and not take his ride - really?

Undaunted, we set off down (and up) the road to visit the little villages along the way.  The main road winds along between the steep cliffs plummeting down to the ocean and the Central Hills, home of the Montserrat rain forest.  There is an extensive hiking trail system providing access to the forest so we headed for the nearest trailhead up on Forgathy Hill that would take us over Lawyers Mountain and down into the most southerly settlements of Woodlands and Salem.

As if they knew I was out of breath, this sign was posted half-way up a steep hill on the road.

Her way of being active?

At the Hilltop Cafe we found directions.
Our hike into the rainforest on this 'moderate' trail was anything but easy.  With the dry season, the trail is covered almost ankle-deep in dry leaves which made it super slippery.  On the steepest sections we were using cables tied to the trees to help us up the inclines but at the top of Lawyers Mountain were rewarded with spectacular views.  The bar is set high though and some of the other hikes may prove extremely challenging.

A view of Little Bay with Mowzer a little white speck tucked into the bay.
For the first time we heard birds other than Doves and Bananaquits, and kept our eyes peeled for the supposedly inquisitive Oriole.  Meanwhile we feasted our eyes on the growth of the forest such as we have only seen before on the heights of Puerto Rico, the cloud forest on St. Croix, or the very tip of Saba.  I think Montserrat is just a hint of what we shall see on some of the islands further south of here such as Dominica and Grenada.

We exited the forest back to the road that led us down to Runaway Ghaut (pronounced Gut) which is a stream (or river in the rainy season).  Again, since we have mostly visited the dry islands to the north, this is the first time we have seen natural springs in the forest.

The water was incredibly cool and sweet.
We continued our wanderings to the south, making our next stop at the National Trust botanical gardens which showcases the local flora and types of gardens to be found on the island.  Being the dry season, it seemed that most were gingers or frangipani, but the scents were like walking into the most exotic perfumery.

Our final stop was the little village (corner?) of Salem, the sleepiness of the locale at 4 o'clock in the afternoon belied by the signpost.  We gratefully pulled up a seat at the local bar for a cold Carib and as the tunes cranked from a couple of competing establishments  we got a feel for how this Friday evening might progress.

A sign that says it all.

Not sure of the Desert Storm association, but the beer was good and cold.

Notice the unrefrigerated eggs?  So long as they're fresh and never refrigerated, and if you turn them over every day, they will keep up to three weeks this way.  With a bar-sized fridge, this is a huge savings!

Tired from our rambles however, we caught a bus back to Little Bay where we settled in for a quiet but blustery night.  Tomorrow we have signed up for a guided tour that will let us see the southern part of the island and the devastation wrought by the volcano.