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.

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