Monserrat's smokin' volcano
After a great two weeks with my Mum on board, we dropped her off back at Antigua and stayed a few days extra to restock the boat with fuel, water, food, gas etc and a day doing nothing but watching the rugby in English Harbour. The wind has dropped right down to what we had expected for March so we decided to go and spend a couple of days in Monserrat - Monserrat has no well protected anchorages and even in light winds the swell gets into them so it's only safe to visit in certain conditions, it would have been impossible for the past 2 months.
We had a slow sail here from Antigua. . which was a change! We arrived at 3pm with only 3 other Yachts anchored in the port, the book said customs closed at 4 so we didn't relax and got straight onto inflating tenders, getting the engine on etc and zooming ashore to clear in. Given the greeting we nearly just left that night You have to go into the port at Little Bay where we anchored - the port appeared to be controlled by a very large and very loud lady who would sit in her security shed and shout at anyone violating her rules from within it (you had to be really bad for her to get up and come out of the shed to shout) - lots of people were shouted at. She told us to wait 5 mins for the customs guy so we waited 5, then 10 then an hour. . . at one point we tried to talk to a taxi driver the other side of the 'port control' fence to try and arrange a trip to the volcano - security woman came marching out of her shed and ordered me not to talk to him and to go and wait by the locked customs door - all seemed rather un-relaxed for the caribbean, we had to sit on the 'naughty step'. Talking to some Swedes we found out it was a holiday (for St Patrick's day) so if we did check in, we would have to pay 5 times the standard fee for overtime. . . so we beat a hasty retreat back to our boat with the plan of returning next morning and hoping we weren't spotted escaping. Some more Brits arrived and anchored behind us - we watched them disappear ashore at about 5 and wondered how they would fare, we were smug when they returned about 30 mins later and we found out they had been ordered by our favourite person to go back to the boat and they were not allowed anywhere until they were cleared - they said they saw us sniggering as they returned to their boat (we were just glad we got 'standard treatment')
So today only I went ashore expecting another long wait - but today was all different - lots of people in 'HM Customs' shirts and a very nice immigration chap . . and no scary woman
We arranged with the other Brits to all pile in a taxi and do a tour of the island to see the Volcano and the destruction to the capital 'Plymouth' (There is also a town called 'Dagenham' in Monserrat.. or there was until it got covered in ash - not sure why Dagenham was chosen as a place name. . .. . )
Anyway, we had come to see the Volcano and see the island and people as they don't get so many visitors since the volcano. I don't really know if I remember the Volcano erupting 16 years ago or anything about Monserrat before I got out here so here's a small bit of history. . . .Monserrat is the only remaining British Dependency in the Windward/Leeward Island chains (and George Martin had a recording studio here). Like all the islands out here it is Volcanic, although had all been quiet for 400 years since Columbus discovered it. In 1996 things all got less quiet and it had it's first major eruption and Plymouth in the south was covered in ash, 2 years later an even larger eruption destroyed Plymouth, Dagenham and the airport completely as huge Pyroclastic flows spilled down the volcano - this made most of the population homeless and jobless. About half the islanders were re-housed in the UK and the rest who opted to stay moved to the north of the island. Since then there have been a number of other episodes, the most recent in early 2010 and the volcano is still sitting there happily smoking. Britain is helping with trying to build a new centre in the north by Little Bay where we anchored - but progress seems fairly slow although there are now shops, cafe's and a new auditorium (built with funds from a concert in the Albert hall in 97) and market place. The northern part of the island is still beautiful and green - but the south is still buried and grey with dust and ash. Given that the last eruption was only 2 years ago - who knows when it will be safe for people to return.
2/3 of the island is still off limits, but you can go into the daytime entry zones through the police checkpoint to see the devastation. The flows of ash and rock buried the main town - 2 storey buildings disappeared. Cecil Wade took us around in his taxi - we went up to the Volcano Observatory where various British and Caribbean scientists are monitoring the activity and where, for a couple of pounds, we watched an excellent film, the Pyroclastic flows are amazing to see on film, helpfully the narrator described them as looking like ' energetic cauliflower' which is not a term you hear every day but makes sense when you watch them (maybe more sense after the local 'Volcano Rum' that they make here). Then we went on down to the closest you can legally get to Plymouth and passed a very nice policeman at a checkpoint, we wandered around the ruins of the 'Monserrat Springs hotel' which was once probably quite nice but all the buildings are like the Mary Celeste - belongings abandoned, the swimming pool full of ash, the reception chair behind the desk looks like it has 2 inch legs til you realise it is sitting in a foot and a half of compacted ash and you can only see the tops of the legs.
The wildlife in the south of the island is probably having a good time without people and cars, we saw 2 iguana's sunning themselves on the road and there are many birds and butterflies around, but the strangest thing when you are in the exclusion zone is the lack of any 'people' noise - just birds and rustling of trees, no cars, no music etc.
So after a shaky start to our trip here, we like Monserrat - the people are friendly and hopefully they will get more visitors back in future, it is a very pretty island, the water is crystal clear and and although will never be a 'beach holiday' place as there is only really one beach left, they are planning to build a Marina - but I think that may take many years more. It is very sad to see the pictures of the old town and countryside of the south as it was before, but at least they look like they know how to enjoy themselves having just finished 3 days worth of St Patrick's day celebrations (they celebrate St Patrick's day as their major holiday as the Irish came here from St Kitt's in the past). The volcano still looks pretty awe inspiring.
Pictures to follow once I have an internet connection to upload them with! Barbuda is the next stop. . . .