The Belham Valley, Montserrat
The Belham Valley as it was
The Belham Valley looking inland
The Belham Valley looking out to sea
The Belham Valley is an awesome sight, seeing it from the hill above did nothing to prepare us for the sheer scale of standing in the middle of it. Now buried under volcanic debris is the Belham Valley Bridge (pictured here in 1993) which connected the North to the South of the island. Rain falling on loose volcanic debris over the Soufriere Hills Volcano generates "lahars" hazardous floods in the valley, but today the sun was out and George our driver took us and another four people to the river bed itself.
Bear standing on what was the northern side of the valley, the rocks behind him should be over thirty feet high, the original valley 'wall' high above the river
"Lahar" is an Indonesian word that describes volcanic mudflows or debris flows. Lahars have the consistency, viscosity and approximately the same density of concrete: fluid when moving, then solid when stopped. Lahars can be huge: the Osceola lahar produced 5,600 years ago by Mount Rainier in Washington produced a wall of mud four hundred and sixty feet deep in the White River canyon and covered an area of over one hundred and thirty square miles for a total volume of 0.55 cubic miles. A lahar can bulldoze through virtually any structure in its path, but quickly loses force when it leaves the channel of its flow: even frail huts may remain standing while being buried up to the roof with mud. The viscosity of a lahar decreases with time and amount of rain, although the mud solidifies quickly when it stops moving.
Lahar flows are deadly because of their energy and speed. Large lahar flows move at approximately sixty miles an hour, can flow for more than one hundred and ninety miles, and can cause catastrophic destruction in their path. The lahars from the Nevado del Ruiz eruption in Colombia in 1985 caused the Armero tragedy, which killed an estimated 23,000 when the city of Armero was buried under sixteen feet of mud and debris. New Zealand's Tangiwai disaster in 1953, where 151 people died after a Christmas Eve express train fell into the Whangaehu River, was caused by a lahar. Lahars have been responsible for 17% of volcano-related deaths between 1783 and 1997. Lahars can cause fatalities years after an actual eruption and as the volcano here is still producing many tons of debris every day, there is no shortage of risk.
We met our first truck on Montserrat as we went in search of Immigration. Since then we have seen or heard a steady stream of trucks taking sand to a holding area behind Immigration, now we see the source. The sand is loaded from here taken and taken to the sifter to have stones and big debris removed, taken to Little Bay and then loaded on a sand barge to be sold to various islands up and down the Caribbean. These rainfall-induced lahars vary greatly in discharge and sediment concentration, but no matter how much sand is taken away the levels raise slowly but surely, giving rise to a strange form of export. Sand. The old saying “He can sell sand to the Arabs” is actually incorrect. Arabs do need sand, if you use Saudi sand in construction – no matter how much cement you add – the building will soon crumble and fail. This ‘sand’ needs 30% less cement and is widely seen as the best. We have seen buildings on Anguillar, St Martin and other Caribbean islands, often wondered why they glinted so beautifully, now we are standing on the very sand used. The glinting is the basalt content.
We were lucky this evening to see a sand barge come in at about 17:00, many thousands of tons loaded, the trucks like worker ants, and away by 19:30.
The Belham Valley Golf Course, home to a once pristine eighteen hole golf course where many international golf championship matches were held pre-volcano. We walked in the valley and viewed first-hand the impact of the volcano and saw the clubhouse half buried under rubble. The dead trees in this picture show the actual river course. Just visible to the very left is Crowe House, the roof just showing.
Crowe House - first picture - as it was photographed after the first pyroclastic flow (found on the internet) and today as we see it. In the first picture you can see the double garage and first floor, then visitors could see inside at the "just walked away" look. The guest house beside it was completely destroyed in the flow. How very sad for her owner, he once had one of the most beautiful views on the island..
Just outside the golf course was this garage for car repairs
We walked to the waters, Bear is in the middle of the 'new beach', Crowe House looking tiny way back on the right. The original land was behind the bushes
The Ocean View Hotel on the northern side of the valley, could be used, but, the owners clean it up and the ash spoils it again in a vicious circle, so for now the owners have left it
From up on the northern hill from the valley we could see just how much the island has "grown"
ALL IN ALL WE HAVE WITNESSED THE POWER OF NATURE
EXTRAORDINARY SCAR OF GREY MIDST THE GREEN LUSHNESS