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Montserrat
    
  
"Many people try to do Montserrat as a day tour
 ... Montserrat deserves more."





Nov 16
After centuries of lying dormant, Montserrat’s Soufriere Hills volcano burst to life in 1995 and, like a modern day Pompeii, buried the island’s once vibrant capital, Plymouth.
About 60% of the island’s landmass was designated an "unsafe" zone and Montserrat’s population of 12,000 dwindled to 4,000 as many residents went off island to rebuild their lives. Today the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and Seismograph Station continuously monitors the volcano rumblings ... the only live volcano in the Caribbean.

We were met at the new Gerald’s Airport by our tour guide, Sunny (having made advance arrangements through Gingerbread Hill where we would be staying tonight).  Because of WinAir’s late arrival (another story in itself), Sunny didn’t waste anytime introducing us to his island. Our late arrival and early departure tomorrow did not allow us to see all Montserrat has to offer so we were going to concentrate on the effects of the volcano.
Photo courtesy of Montserrat Volcano Observatory - Explosion on January, 3, 2009 at 7:30 a.m, local time from MVO. The plume reached an elevation of 12 km a.s.l.  
Travel Tales photo by Sherrie Thorne - Montserrat north end

 

Close to the airport, new subdivisions are being built to house families displaced by the eruption. The new homes have concrete walls and roofs and are supported by tall slim pillars ... not yet tested out in an earthquake.

 
 
 
Sunny drove us through the hills and coastal scenery all the while telling us the island’s history and the implications of living with a volcano. We had so many questions, all of which he answered with knowledge, simplicity and candour. At Jack Boy Hill viewpoint we looked down on the old airport, now mostly covered by volcanic mud flows.
 
 
 
 
Taking a break from ‘volcano talk’ we stopped in at the remnants of a sugar mill.  It looked much like a stone barn with wooden doors (the cow grazing in the grass outside helped with the image). Inside, the cogs and wheels stood as they had done for a couple of centuries. 
 

Down a narrow set of stairs Terry pushed another wooden door open against a barrier of vines and brambles and stepped out into a fascinating yard where old copper boiling pots sat upon rock walls. A lady from the States has a little cottage in the corner which she visits ever once in a while. With a little cutting back of intruding vines we could appreciate her fascination with such a charming setting.

Sunny drove us up to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. From this point, using binoculars, we could peek in on Plymouth. The citizen’s were proud of their modern capital ... whose grey skeleton buildings now stand storeys deep in rock, mud and ash. It is an eerie sight ... like something out of a sci-fi movie ... but for the citizens of Montserrat it is real ... too real ... yet stands as a testament to the people’s strength of character and resilience.

 
 

The still active volcano’s gaseous steam mixed with low cloud shrouded it’s lava domed peak (est. 1050m) which is now higher than Montserrat’s original highest peak - Chances Peak. "It’s quiet today," said Sunny who, when necessary, is part of a 24 hour watch team.

We thought this was as close as we would get to the devastation ... but Sunny had something special in mind.

He drove us, oddly enough, to Happy Hill where he parked and we followed him on foot.

 
 
"Although volcanic activity is currently at a low level there are other dangers. We can’t come here if it has rained or even if it has rained up in the mountains. Heavy rains cause lahars, or mudflows. The mud from the volcano is still sloughing down and burying things deeper and deeper. It could be disastrous to be caught in the flow. When it is dry, this is a Day Time Only Entry Zone ... we must be gone before dark. Exclusion Zones, such as Plymouth, cannot be entered at all, not even in daylight."  

We walked out on what seemed to be a dry riverbed. "This was once a golf course," Sunny said surveying the wide expanse of light grey/brown dirt pocked with pebbles and boulders. "The volcano spat them out creating rock showers." Buried beneath our feet was a bridge while above our heads the now dead telephone and electrical lines were within reach."

We walked "upstream" to a home nearly buried in mud.  It's front porch had trapped tree stumps and thick branches.   Windows were broken and walls beaten.  Rebar and not rocks held up a corner of the house.  It was odd to see a porch light bulb in place ... unbroken.  Terry looked in through one window ... it was the kitchen with mud about as high as the upper cabinets.

   
 

We walked ‘downstream’ to another house; we couldn’t be long as the sun was about to set. The house, a stately home with a guest cottage (now buried up to it’s eaves), once had a prime location on the edge of the golf course. We were able to get into the house through permanently open rich wood french doors with brass hardware.

We had to crouch over as to not hit our heads on the beamed ceiling ... even Sherrie.  

Inside, a library shelf still held some books and a pair of reading glasses.
 
   
We climbed the wooden staircase to the upstairs master bedroom feeling a little intrusive. Other than having a layer of volcanic dust the master ensuite appeared in good order. A half doll sat near the bedroom window. "Ironically," Sunny said, "a photo of the golf course taken from this window was featured on the cover of our 1995 phone book."  

Interior doors and the double front doors were again of rich woodwork.
 
   

We walked away. The experience had been very moving. We picked up three different stones and showed them to Sunny. "This one," he said of the reddish stone, "comes from the belly of the volcano; it’s a good find. This one, comes from nearer the mouth; and this one is pumice."

Pumice is a very light, porous volcanic rock. It’s often so light that it will float on water. Pumice stone was once liquid which during a volcanic eruption is turned to foamy glass and then to pumice, trapping bubbles as it cools in the air ... "You can see flecks of shiny glass in it," Sunny pointed out.

 

The sun set as we climbed back into Sunny’s car and made our way to Gingerbread Hill where we had reservations for the night and finally got to put a face and voice to the friendly emails we had exchanged with Clover. She showed us to the latest addition to Gingerbread Hill ... ‘Mango Cottage’. This charming place unto its own offers bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and table and chairs on the covered porch. We immediately wished our stay was not going to be only overnight.

Clover lent us a copy of her husband, David’s, excellent DVD "Price of Paradise - Memories of Montserrat" - the story of the volcano’s eruption ... really a family effort with David’s photography and narration, Clover’s music and voice and Sunny’s computer skills. "We usually have people look at the dvd before they go on an island tour," Clover explained, "but sadly you weren’t able to give Montserrat more time." She’s was right. Many people try to do Montserrat as a day tour, some like us give it only a short day (don’t count on WinAir to get you there on time) and a short night ... Montserrat deserves more.

Nov 17
A new day was dawning when Clover arrived at the cottage.  Before leaving Gingerbread Hill she introduced us to 'The Heavenly Suite' which has commanding views from two large balconies.  The interior is spacious with full kitchen, living/dining room and bedroom.     
Clover, David and Sunny must be among Montserrat's most passionate ambassadors; we would have liked to have more time to spend with them.  

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