After Ty Dewi’s Atlantic crossing, the Ward family begin their winter in the Windward Islands with a trip to the tiny and volcano-swept island of Montserrat.
We made it here to Montserrat yesterday after a fabulous four hour sail from Antigua. We even broke our fishing jinx, with a skipjack tuna and a kingfish providing more than enough food for dinner. We anchored with the cats and the pelicans.
Montserrat is somewhere I’ve always wanted to come and visit, and it is certainly off the beaten track, despite being just 25 miles from Antigua.
The reason for that, of course, is the volcano in the Soufiere Hills that, since 1995, has been violently active, causing the destruction of the southern half of the Island and widespread evacuations. The volcano is still dangerous, making it one of the longest continuously active volcanoes in the world. We hired Sam, a local taxi driver, to show us around. After winding our way through the new and continuing construction on the north of the Island, we soon came to one of the main mudflows leading down to Old Road Bay, once the best anchorage in the Island.
Here, the outpouring of volcanic mud had buried houses and filled in the Bay, so that the sea now lapped at a new beach some half a mile further out than the original dock and waterfront.
Climbing away from that valley, the road twists and turns past many large, expensive-looking houses. Some are slowly being reclaimed by their returning owners, but others still have ash-caked balconies and mud-filled swimming pools.
Parking the taxi, we got out and walked up a very steep road, and Sam explained that the vegetation has only just returned to this area. Cresting the hill, you see why – the volcano still smokes and fumes menacingly across the valley. There is still regular activity, although right now it is very quiet and rather hard to explain to the kids just how destructive this has been.
From this hill, you can see the old town of Plymouth, now abandoned and inaccessible. Carcasses of buildings stick out of the barren ashen landscape, where baking hot pyroclastic flows raced down the hillside, wiping out everything in their path. The power of this is literally awe-inspiring.
Sam was telling us about the buildings there, those that are above the ash flows and obvious devastation. They look OK from a distance, but get up close and everything is a mess. Nature is taking over, whilst rust and decay destroys what man has built. The carefully accumulated trappings of civilization have been rendered useless in just twelve short years. It is a fragile place that we inhabit these days.
And if you owned some of this, the insurance companies paid out twenty-five percent as a gesture, given that a volcano is outside the normal range of cover.
The closed and ruined southern half of the Island creates some interesting situations. When we arrived, I couldn’t find an immigration officer to stamp our passports, so hung around for a bit. After about an hour, we met a couple of policemen arriving at the quayside in a rather smart, little police launch. “Oh sure”, he says, “just wait for me to put the boat back on the mooring and I’ll be with you”. Off they go, taking a little longer as one of the guys slips and falls in – being the Caribbean, this merely means a change of boots and a chance for his fellow officers to have a good laugh. As we walk up to the office, Dad comments on the smart little boat, and asks if they have much to do around here. “Oh yeah”, he says. “Yesterday, we caught 54 Haitians trying to land on the Island”. Apparently the deserted buildings are an attractive place to sneak into, but on an island of about five thousand people, it’s pretty hard to stay hidden, as new faces tend to be noticed at the grocery store!
Our tour with Sam the taxi driver had been interesting and enlightening, but what really brought it home to us was sailing south along the western side of the Island. This took us past the exclusion zone and the devastated ruins of Plymouth. This was once a lively town, at the centre of a pretty little Caribbean Island. George Martin had a recording studio here, and many famous names came out to cut albums in the tropical sunshine. The hills are lined with pretty, and expensive looking homes, but through the zoom lens of the camera, you realize that they are abandoned, dilapidated shells. The bulk of the town has been engulfed in an ash flow, and the remains of buildings and storage tanks protrude from a grey-brown desert. The sulphurous fumes roll down the hillside and out over the water, so that even a mile offshore we wondered if we were a bit too close.
It’s clear that money is flowing to the Island from the UK, rebuilding key infrastructure like the airport and the cricket ground, but in a place that is little bigger than your average Hampshire village, it’s hard to start almost from scratch and have a self-sufficient economy. Tourism is almost non-existent. We saw a hostel and maybe there’s a hotel or two, but the Island is still off the map as far as all but the most adventurous tourists are concerned. We found it a little expensive and uncomfortable, but it was good to put a small injection of cash into the place. It’s worth a visit.
(things the kids say when cruising)
Issie and Max lean over the quay wall, fascinated.
Issie: “Look – a big school of fish!”
Max: “Which one’s the teacher?”