Goat Water on Montserrat

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Sun 13 Feb 2011 01:56
Rendezvous Bay, Montserrat, Saturday night

We've seen just about all of Montserrat today, or at least, the bits that are still accessible after the volcano erupted.

We had a disturbed night's sleep as Saxon Blue was rolling around so much that Andrea said it was like being on passage. Our bed developed a creak which defied my attempts to locate it. Our bathroom door slammed shut, waking us both up and then proceeded to creek in sympathy with the bed until Andrea worked out a way of tying it shut with our laundry bag. I've been meaning to sort out the creaky door for ages so I took the opportunity when I got up and worked out where the door was creaking against the frame and drew on it with pencil so the graphite lets it slip without making a noise. If only all boat issues are so easily solved.

After having breakfast, we thought that we'd play our trump card and put the kedge out to hold us nose into the swells so we'd get a good night tonight. Having learned from past attempts, I got Saxon Blue turned around with our anchor chain stretched out and Kali dropped the kedge perfectly so that the boat was exactly where we wanted her. The only fly in the ointment was that the swells were reflecting off the cliffs behind and slapping us up the bum with a load of noise and commotion. Doh! We hadn't thought of that. Anyway, we were anxious to get off to explore so we left her where she was - at least we had two anchors down as we were leaving her so she should be there when we got back.

We loaded up the tender with us three and all Andrea's filming gear and pottered slowly around to the harbour. The barge which was sitting in the bay last night was alongside the quay, held in place by the tug with the helpful crew. From the barge arose clouds of dust and a succession of loud noises. As we drew level, we could see earth-moving trucks reversing down the quay and onto the deck of the barge where they were tipping their loads. The trucks were queued up waiting to get on and, if one driver was a little tardy in getting back off, he received a chorus of honks from the others. I must admit that seeing such frantic activity really excited me. It was such a change to the typical Caribbean attitude and it was great to see somebody actually doing something with an economic purpose. It turns out that Montserrat is exporting volcanic sand to the other islands as it's perfect for plaster or concrete. Every cloud...

After watching the action for a while, Andrea and I followed on after Kali and found her in the Customs office filling in another interminable form full of random questions to which nobody checks the answers. "What's GSP?" she asked the Customs guy. "Oh, they mean GPS" he replied so she dutifully wrote the number 2 next to it. So that's it now, we officially have two GSPs on board. I hope they never discover that we actually have about a dozen. Honestly, what a waste of time. When she'd finished filling in the form, both sides, in triplicate (I kid you not), the Customs guy told her to go over to the Port Authority building, fill in their form and then come back with it before he could issue the Customs clearance. Kali, with considerably more patience than I, went off and returned ten minutes later with the new form so our guy could issue his form. We had to pay him extra overtime as it was a Saturday so the customs form cost about 40 dollars plus another 20 or so for the Port form. Meantime, we could have been unloading guns, drugs or whatever round the corner in our little bay with nobody batting an eyelid.

Kali had also found us a taxi/tour driver so we went over to meet Sam, and set off with him through the foundations of the new town that is being planned around the new port. There are a couple of large municipal buildings already in place with plaques on celebrating EU or Trinidad Petroleum funding. Outside the new market building was a collection of brightly coloured wooden buildings with locals selling their wares. I'm convinced that, if we returned in a few years, we'd see the now completed but abandoned market building still surrounded by the same wooden stalls. I don't think that these big projects are going to work out here - better to support people in making new lives for themselves rather than get some Central Planning done and try to make them conform. Sam told us about how most of the population emigrated to the UK after the eruption in 1997. Some have returned since but the ones who stayed have just got on with building a new country for themselves in the northern part of the island. They seem to show much more enterprise than the other countries that we've visited. It sounds as though they had a much more advanced economy than most when the volcano destroyed it and they're hard at it making a new one.

We stopped at a wooden roadside building to have our lunch - the local delicacy of Goat Water. This is basically meat soup with a goat chucked in. Or at least, the bones of the goat. There was a bit of meat in there but it took some finding. "Is the meat tender?" enquired our chef. "Yes, and the bones are very tender, too" I replied which made him laugh so that was OK. Andrea had a local fish with a load of lovely trimmings. Apparently, the fish is so good and so rarely caught that, when the fishermen land with them, you have to run home and get your money out from under the mattress and spend it all on fish.

Suitably fortified, we set off again up to the Volcanic Observatory high on the hills overlooking the first of the devastating pyroclastic flows. The observatory was closed, it being Saturday but I'm sure that's OK as the Montserrat volcano always erupts on a Thursday so they can afford some downtime at the weekend. We looked out at the forest-covered hills and the ugly grey scar cutting through them. Directly below us, an old guy burned the coarse grass in his tiny field so he could plant more vegetables to go with the ones he was already growing nearby. Last year, all the plants in this whole area were killed by ash but, as it's so fertile, it all grows straight back again. Still, farming here must take more than the usual amount of optimism.

We drove down and then out onto the pyroclastic flow itself. It was like driving onto the moon. The avalanche of ash, boulders and steam had followed the course of a river right down into the sea, burying everything in the valley under 50 feet of debris. Nothing grew on it here as it's so unstable that the water just washed the plants away. We drove to a ruined building with only the top of its three stories showing above the rubble. A few vines struggled to grow up it and we spent a while getting some footage of Andrea as Janeway walking around it. A bit further on, we filmed some dead, ash covered trees. The contrast between the dead river valley and the surrounding forest-covered hills was unsettling.

Sam promised us an amazing view from the top of the nearby Garibaldi hill and that was no lie. To the left, the volcano itself was clear of cloud but was busy making its own pall of steam. We could actually smell the sulphur and we were about 8 miles away. Sweeping down from the top, all the way to the sea about 6 miles away was a blanket of ash. Everything was grey. In amongst it we could see the tops of buildings and the whole city of Plymouth lies buried there. We could see the old line of the coast and, about half a mile further out, the new line where the ash has made new land. The remains of the deep-water port, the University, the hospital - it's all under there. Sam owned a house in the devastated area which he wasn't allowed to visit. He's had to start all over again and build himself a new one in the North of the island. It was breathtaking looking out on so much destruction and moving to imagine the local people who had grown up down there in places that now no longer exist.

We headed back down to the flow which we'd crossed earlier and found another buried building, this one an old sugar plantation house with just the tops of its upper storey windows showing, the shutters still half open and locked there by the ash. A huge Iguana lumbered over the roof and into some scrub nearby. It was a perfect filming location. From there, we drove down to where the flow entered the sea. As we did, we drove over the site of the golf course, the beach, a marina and leisure complex. Occasional bits of construction poked up through the dust. By now, we were all getting pretty parched so we called into a local bar on the way back home. Outside, Sam's friends played Dominoes with drama and panache, slapping the bricks down onto the wooden board with loud cracks.

From there, we headed back to Little Bay, the location of the only port now that the others are buried. Before the eruption, Little Bay was just a beach but it's now the island's main link to the outside world. Sam dropped us off and I'm sorry to say that we didn't seem to see eye to eye about how much I paid him for his services. I thought I paid a fair amount - over twice what I'd paid for a similar tour around Nevis - but he seemed to think I should have paid more. Shame that as it left me feeling like I'd been a bit mean but I really don't think I have. Andrea thought I paid the correct amount but that we should have been clearer before we set off. Hey ho.

We tendered back around to Saxon Blue, sitting calmly right where we'd left her. We all went for a swim to cool off but the water wasn't as clear as other places and I didn't see any good fish. Just before dinner, Kali and I retrieved our kedge anchor so we're now lying much as we did last night although the swell seems to have died down a little. Still, I'd rather be rolled from side to side than slapped up the bum. We didn't intend to come down to Montserrat when we drew up our itinerary last week. It just seemed to make the voyage to Antigua a bit more favourable with the wind. In the end, it's been one of the most fascinating islands to visit. The volcano is stunning and frightening but the most impressive thing for me is the way that everyone is just getting on with rebuilding their lives. The old guy in his field is the first person I've seen trying to actually grow anything - and he's not even guaranteed that he'll harvest it before the next cloud of ash kills everything. The resilience of the human spirit and all that. Perhaps some of the other islands could do with a proper disaster to get everyone galvanised and help them look to the future instead of constantly back into the past.


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