“What is your final destination?. I was asked upon entering Antiguan customs.
“Montserrat”. I replied.
While searching my bags the customs agent commented, “Do you know you’re running the wrong way?”
He then added with a smirk, “Why do you want to go there?”
As I handed him my passport, I responded, “To watch the volcano erupt.”
While stamping my documents, he shook his head and directed me to the boat.
The small volcanic island of Montserrat forms part of the Leeward Island chain in the West Indies, a geologically young archipelago that began forming less than 50 million years ago. The island’s volcano has remained dormant for some four-hundred years but all that changed in July of 1995. The Emerald Dragon awoke in a very cranky mood.
The eruptions involved intense earthquake swarms. Steam exploded out of the mountain from the rapid heating of ground water by the rising magma. By mid-November of that year, the magma reached the surface and a new lava dome began to form. The lava of Caribbean volcanoes is known as Andesite and is very viscous, thick like honey. It piles up around the volcano’s vent, forming a dome that continues to rebuild and collapse. When the dome collapses it creates a pyroclastic flow which is an avalanche of millions of tons of fragmented lava and incandescent gasses that race down the mountainside destroying everything in its path. Reaching speeds over 100- mph and temperatures over 600 degrees Celsius, nothing within its reach survives.
As a result of the island’s violent outbursts, two thirds of this forty square mile landmass became unlivable. Called the Exclusion Zone, entering it without direct government permission and escort is illegal. A large-scale evacuation effort relocated over 8,000 of the 11,000 residents. Most people searched for a better life on a neighboring island or in England which is Montserrat’s “mother country”. After learning that the Montserrat volcano was considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, I flew down to the island to see how its wildlife and ecosystem reacted to this destructive environment.
As a result of the volcanic activity, Montserrat’s airport was demolished, so I rode the island’s ferry from Antigua. After climbing aboard the 150-foot boat I realized that there were only nine other people on deck. All of them were Montserrat natives returning after a day of shopping in Antigua. These are some of the resilient few who have toughed out the volcano’s wrath and refuse to leave their homes.
The boat was a high powered catamaran, unlike any ferry I have seen. It transports people to and from the island twice a day and is on stand by in case of an evacuation, that is if the sea permits it to do so; some days when the sea swells are too treacherous the boat cannot safely dock in Montserrat’s Little Bay. In order to keep the boat finely tuned, the Captain ran it at full speed.
As I departed Antigua, I realize that if this were the United States we would have had at least 15-minutes of “safety instruction”. Here I appreciated the “use your head” approach; if you did not use your head, you would find yourself swimming. The sea was so rough, even some of the seasoned passengers held on for dear life. The splashing water and chop of the boat digging into the waves was unusually peaceful. Fatigued from traveling over 2,000 miles before noon, I felt as if I was in a dream state. The bright sun made everything overly sharp and vivid. The crystal blue water rolled by and the sweet smell of the Caribbean air relaxed me like a dentist’s laughing gas.
In this part of the world fish can fly. In small squadrons, they soared over the waves like diamonds being skipped over the sea. Then their wings would cut into a wave, plunging them into the abyss like mini kamikaze pilots. I pictured little.rising sun. headbands around each of their tiny heads. Far in the distance the faint silhouette of Montserrat emerged from the horizon. The reflection of the water made the island appear to hover in mid air as its volcano hung from the sky shrouded in clouds. When the boat approached the north end of the island considered the “Safe-Zone”, lush aloe trees and palms gave a glimpse of what the entire island was like before the eruptions.
Like the islands from Jurassic Park and King Kong, Montserrat puts forth a menacing aura as its craggy cliffs jut out of the Caribbean Sea. Its thick jungle vegetation hides a force uncomprehendable to most humans, a far greater power than Hollywood could ever dream up. When the boat pulled up to the dock, a dozen or so people lined the shore waiting to depart the island on the boat’s return trip to Antigua. While being cleared through customs, I could not help but notice that everybody seemed unconcerned and happy. The tiny bar next to the custom’s pavilion was perfectly named The Last Resort. It was full of customers drinking their beer, along with lightly tap-ping one another’s fists together in a sign of respect.
The Last Resort is owned and operated by a man named Moose. Moose’s staff consists of his lovely wife plus his two extremely well behaved and hard working children. The spear fishermen are still wet when they deliver the catch of the day. On most evenings I would watch the sunset from Moose’s and enjoy a wonderful home cooked meal. While eating, a gang of the largest, thickest, and most intimidating black and yellow spiders paced like intoxicated tight rope walkers over my head. They always seemed as if they were about to fall on me but they never did. I actually became rather used to them being there and eventually developed the habit of holding them. They were rather docile, with their long legs straddling my entire hand but never biting. Moose welcomes the spiders just as much as
After passing through customs, I met my contact from Montserrat’s Emergency Department and he drove me to my guesthouse. The island’s roads are cut out of the sides of the mountains and all the cars chirp their tires as they wind their way up the steep thin hills. My rented guesthouse sat next to the governor’s home, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, on the edge of the “Exclusion Zone”. On my return trips to the island I continued to stay in this same house. Aside from it being a luxurious house, it is logistically perfect. This beautiful location is completely surrounded by jungle except for the view of the crystal blue Caribbean Sea. It is so close to the Exclusion zone that watching the eruptions from the back deck gave me a stiff neck. It is like sitting in the front row of an IMAX movie (that can burn you to death).
Once I settled all of my gear in the house, I decided to venture into the small town of Salem. This town lies in the shadow of the volcano and was considered part of the Exclusion Zone for some time but had recently reopened. It was a 3-mile walk into the town and it was pitch dark, not a street light and, on that night, not even the moon. I have quickly learned from experience that in many areas of the world it is not wise to venture out after dark. Montserrat is the exception; it has little or no crime. When the island began its evacuation there were only eight prisoners in their jail. The police commissioner once told me of a small group of bank robbers that he incarcerated. When most people think of bank robberies, we envision people in Nixon masks wildly pointing guns and cursing. Not on Montserrat.
This is how they robbed a bank. When a pyroclastic flow covered their capital city of Plymouth, several of their banks were also covered. A small group of men learned that during the hectic evacuation of the city, one of the banks left behind one million dollars in uncirculated cash. So one night they hiked down to Plymouth, dug a tunnel through the hard ash, broke into the bank, and stole the loot. I imagine that they might have gotten away with the deed except for the fact that they tried to exchange all the money at once in a casino in Antigua. Being uncirculated bills, the robbers were quickly caught, so even most crimes in Montserrat are peaceful.
Whether poor or a millionaire, everyone leaves their homes open, their car doors unlocked, and no one bothers a thing. This was also a rule before their ongoing tragedy. I have found that most of the residents on Montserrat are very proud people and have very little class envy. As I was walking into Salem, all I heard were the digital sounds of tree frogs at a deafening volume. About a half mile from the town, I saw the single headlight of a motorcycle coming toward me at a high rate of speed. I was a bit more nervous than I normally would have been, due to the fact that there are no drinking and driving laws in Montserrat, and no speed limits.
A dark, massive creature emerged from the weeds about 50 feet in front of me, it charged the motorcycle and.BLAM!. The bike then crashed onto the road. As the bike hit the pavement the gas tank flew to the left, the seat flew off to the right, and the driver’s body was sent skidding down the middle of the road. Just as quickly as the dark creature appeared, it vanished. I ran to help the man as residents emerged from their homes to see what was going on. Being totally baffled by the event I asked,.What happened?.. One Rastafarian man next to me said,.Ya mon, de bulls, they no like de sound of de bike, so da charge..
The bulls roamed free after the eruptions began since most of the farmers had relocated off the island. The bulls hate the loud noise of the motorcycles and will occasionally go head to head with them. The bull always walks away and the rider flies away. After we dusted off the injured biker, he got a lift to a local doctor to be examined. Later, I found out he survived suffering only a broken collarbone and fractured wrist. I began speaking to some of the residents at the accident scene and they invited me to a local pub called Jimmo.s to play a few games of dominoes. Dominoes is a very intense game for them, almost a contact sport. The more confident they are of their move, the harder they slam the domino on the table. When I would play against them, I could always guess who the big winner of the day was because the rickety table leaned in his direction from being slapped so much. cake disposable carts