Notes from a very small island for would-be visitors

 

If you read the blogs on the website of the Montserrat Reporter, it’s clear that many people who think about visiting Montserrat first “check it out” extensively via the internet. This page is designed to be helpful to such cybervisitors. I’ll discuss various points that may be useful and add some links to tourist-oriented websites.

 

 

The obvious first question – is it safe?!

 

This is very easy to answer. Yes, it’s very, very safe! Visitors worry about crime in the Caribbean (as everywhere) and, of course, the volcano. Montserrat is a dreadful place for a would-be criminal because everyone knows everyone and there’s nowhere to escape to after a crime. The result is extremely little crime. After all, who wants to have to swim to Antigua or hide in the Centre Hills forests? Perhaps the most positive thing for criminals is that their jail has arguably a better view than Alcatraz! Nevertheless, the more unsavoury aspects of the modern world are inevitably slowly infecting his peaceful island and a visitor would be wise to take normal traveller's precautions.

 What about the volcano (after reading all the horrendous stuff elsewhere in this website)? Again, perfectly safe! The Government of Montserrat and MVO have devised a system to ensure that people and the volcano are kept totally apart. You can see and photograph the volcano from two excellent viewpoints (Jack Boy Hill – see Home page -- and the MVO). A boat can take you for a memorable ride past the ruins of Plymouth (Figs 1 and 2).

 

Fig. 1  Soufrière Hills volcano (SHV) smoking above the ruins of Plymouth (Bob Thompson).

Fig. 2  Ruined Plymouth buildings slowly vanishing beneath pyroclastic flows and lahars (Bob Thompson).

 

When the volcano Hazard Level (see below) is 3 or less, you can explore Garibaldi Hill and part of the Lower Belham Valley and its “lahars” (volcanic mudflows). This is the one area where you can actually get close to and walk on some of the deposits of the current eruption.  The Hazard Level will only rise higher, if the volcano has one of its occasional eruptive climaxes. If you look at the Hazard Zone maps on the MVO website, you will see that the crucial zone for access to the Lower Belham Valley and Garibaldi Hill is Zone B. It is very important before going into this area to understand that the MVO Hazard Levels only tell you about the MVO assessment of the direct danger from volcanic activity. Even so, it would be sensible to check with the observatory staff immediately before venturing upstream from the road crossing between Old Towne and Garibaldi Hill, just in case something on the volcano is changing rapidly. 

Because so many pyroclastic flows and rockfalls have deposited debris (boulders to fine ash) at the foot of Tyer’s Ghaut during the years of the eruption, there is a vast amount of loose material just waiting for tropical rain to wash it into the Belham Valley below, where it forms lahars. Both these and the damage they have done to buildings in their way are an extraordinary sight (Figs 3-7).

 

Fig. 3 Lahar deposits steadily filling the Lower Belham Valley (Bob Thompson).

Fig. 4 Lahar damage to a reinforced concrete house (Bob Thompson).

Fig. 5 They don't bother to knock before entering! (Bob Thompson).

 

The conditions when such lahars are deposited are indescribable but Figs 6 and 7 say more than a thousand words. The material rushing down the valley in these photos has a bulk density similar to newly-mixed concrete and carries huge boulders downhill. You can see at once that it would be crazy to be on the floor of the Belham Valley during a rain storm. Remember also that heavy rain high on the volcano would be equally likely to trigger a lahar; so keep an eye uphill, even on a sunny day.

 

Fig. 6 Belham Valley lahar (2004). From a distance this resembles a water torrent  (V L Hards, MVO). A video of a smaller one, placed on YouTube on 13 April 2010, says it all http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEny25AocYw

Fig. 7 Viewed from closer, the lahar is clearly composed of mud and boulders (V L Hards, MVO).

 

How does holiday accommodation work on an actively volcanic island? H.E. the Governor has stressed publicly that anywhere north of the Nantes River (just north of Salem, see Fig. 8) is effectively totally and permanently safe from the volcano (see Montserrat Reporter article in June 2008). Why is this so? Figs 8-10 show that the island has its own Great Wall of Montserrat – the Centre Hills. These form an impenetrable barrier so that, while the volcano huffs and puffs to the south, only fine ash from big explosions can reach the north.

 

Fig. 8 The “Great Wall of Montserrat” (NASA). How the Centre Hills protects the north of the island from the volcano.

Fig. 9 View across the ruined outskirts of Plymouth and St George’s Hill, with the Centre Hills towering behind and excluding dangerous volcanic deposits from reaching the north of Montserrat (Bob Thompson).

Fig. 10 The barrier formed by the Centre Hills is obvious when viewed from a helicopter above the NW slopes of the volcano (V L Hards, MVO).

 

Of course there is an “in between” zone between Nantes River and the Lower Belham Valley where it is perfectly safe and extremely pleasant to stay most of the time. The Trade Winds mostly blow the smoke from the volcano to the west, across former Plymouth and well clear from present houses. But things can get more complicated in this zone when the volcano is erupting in certain ways. All these scenarios are fully explained on the official Hazard Level Map and its accompanying tables. The hazard map may be regularly updated in response to the changing activity of the volcano. Figure 5 is an example of the map released in August 2008, and is shown only as an example. Please refer to http://www.mvo.ms/ for the official current hazard maps and tables. For instance, the hazard zone boundaries were revised somewhat on 1 April  2010.

 

 

 

Why go to Montserrat?

 

If you yearn for bustling noisy resorts, vibrant nightlife and endless daytime activities, you’re thinking about the wrong island. Go to Montserrat for utter peace and relaxation. Bathe from several small quiet beaches, visited by breeding turtles. Dine in a range of relatively small and very friendly eating places or self-cater. Drink excellent water. Hike in the Centre and Silver Hills (no poisonous snakes on this island). There’s excellent snorkelling and scuba diving. If you fancy a challenge, why not scuba near Redonda to photograph nurse sharks and barracuda? Then swim to the rocky island, shed your flippers and climb to its summit. Above all, relax and recharge your batteries! 

If you are interested in walking and wildlife, the potential of Montserrat as a place to visit will have shot up as a consequence of the publication in June 2009 by the Montserrat Tourist Board of a really excellent guidebook to these aspects of the island. Their partners in this effort are the UK Government’s Department for International Development and the European Union. Called “Montserrat: a Guide to the Centre Hills", it is 140 pages long and packed with maps and beautiful colour photos of the rugged centre of the island, with its tropical rain and cloud (“Elfin”) forests, and the astonishing variety of flora and fauna to be found there. These range from common Lesser Antillean species to critically endangered rarities (plants, reptiles, bats and birds). The guidebook gives an illustrated page each to all the rare species and to a big selection of the rest. It omits details of insects and other creepy-crawlies but contains more than enough details to satisfy a visitor, within a book suitable to carry around.

The introductory sections on island history, vegetation zones and suchlike are ideal for their purposes and lead to thorough descriptions of each of the eight major trails in the Centre Hills. These range from easy strolls to the ferocious Katy Hills trails, which in places are scrambles -- verging on jungle rock climbs. Time to test your Tarzan skills! There are experienced local guides available, if you want them. The book is edited by Steve H. Holliday (how appropriate!), with sections written by worldwide experts in each field. If you are interested in the biodiversity science of the Centre Hills, go to the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust website and download their Conservation Monograph No. 1. Pick up the guidebook from the Tourist Office at 7 Farara Plaza, Brades, when you arrive. All the Montserrat bird species are also illustrated on a single plastic-covered card on sale at the Montserrat National Trust offices.

 

 

Some practicalities

 

These notes are based only on my own experiences.

 

Getting there (via Antigua) has sometimes in recent years been a bit of a hassle but things have changed radically for the better in 2010. In 2009 the island at last regained its own small airline, FlyMontserrat, funded in part by the Montserrat and UK governments. This new airline began operating in December 2009 and in early 2010 both it and Winair provide competing services. Then a permanent new ferry also began service in January 2010.  See the Montserrat Tourist Board website for details.

When planning a visit, beware of the mad rush of homecoming former islanders and tourists around Christmas and remember that bad weather can easily close the travel links temporarily.

When you reach the island, you’ll be handed a leaflet about the volcano hazards etc. If not, make sure you pick one up there. During the main hurricane season (roughly between early July and late October – see http://stormcarib.com/) you’ll also get a leaflet about this comparatively rare hazard to the island. Both make unusual souvenirs. 

To get around Montserrat you can either use the minibus/taxi network or rent a car. If you drive, you must get a Montserrat temporary driving licence from the police. The island-wide speed limit is only 20 MPH. This is quite fast enough where the roads wriggle like snakes and where deep unfenced storm drains run beside narrow roads. The main roads are thoroughly policed, so don't be silly about speeding. A 4x4 vehicle will enable you to reach some of the less-accessible corners of the island, like the spectacular viewpoint of Garibaldi Hill (when the volcano risk is low).

Laptop PCs and cameras don’t like the very fine volcanic ash sometimes in the air (neither do asthmatics). Take suitable coverings for both (all three!).

 

 

AIR studios

The battered but still upright AIR Studios, on the northern side of the Belham Valley, are one of the most potent reminders (after the ruins of Plymouth) of the days before 1995 when Montserrat was the highly fashionable Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. Read about their huge influence in modern popular music at http://www.georgemartinmusic.com/montserrat.htm ; see also http://www.montserrat-today.com/S.html

Jennifer Boone has very kindly written a personal appreciation of this iconic place:

The (very) short story below is a small part of my journey through this world. I often feel compelled to visit certain places - Montserrat evokes a strange nostalgia in me, even though I have yet to go there. Perhaps it is because of the damaged beauty, or the promise of quiet respite. My love of music is the catalyst, and the ghosts of AIR Studios are calling me southeasterly.

Jennifer Boone, Jackson, Mississippi, USA

I'm sitting in the duplex that I rent on Sherwood Drive, and around the corner is the house I grew up in - 4016 Council Circle. That is where I first saw the video on MTV for the song.... "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" by The Police. It was 1981 and I was 13 years old. Every time it aired, I was magnetically drawn to the sounds and the sights on the television. The bouncy bass line, the airy piano and, of course, Sting's inimitable, mock-reggae vocals. It began in a mysterious room with Sting backlit and playing the stand-up bass, his blond hair glowing like a halo. Then revealed Stewart and Andy playing their instruments in what was obviously a recording studio. Now progressing to a console where the three band members messed around with the controls, all three in the most casual of dress, cargo pants, T-shirts, Stewart in his almost-obscenely-short 80's type running shorts.

 Then, as the bridge of the song approaches the climax, in and out flash images of what must be outside the studio. A tropical locale, complete with local residents. Sunny skies, banana trees, colorful clothing, and the band in the back of a beat up pick-up truck, joined by a second drummer and some local kids. The truck is bouncing up and down to the beat of the song and Sting's trademark dance while he beats a tambourine. Island women shimmy and twist to the beat of the music.

 It seems odd to me now that I only recently learned where the album "Ghost in the Machine" was recorded. On a tiny island in the West Indies called Montserrat, at the world famous AIR Studios, formed by none other than Sir George Martin, producer of The Beatles. And then, even more recently, I made the connection. Of course! The video was filmed at AIR Studios!

 It also seems odd to me that my fascination with the ocean and all things ocean-like began at the exact same time as my fascination with The Police and all things Police-like. The strange, beautiful wheels in my head, that I don't even try to understand anymore, started turning. "I'd like to visit this place," they said.

 My internet research has revealed that the studios were hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and damaged severely. Then, a crushing blow was dealt in 1995 when the volcano on the island erupted and the AIR complex was covered in ash and closed. Strangely, this only makes a pilgrimage even more appealing to me - to see the ruins of this place, haunted by the sounds that filled my youth seems even more appropriate and kind of sacred.

 I can only wonder where this is leading...

 

Amazingly, the original video can be seen at  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=s5W2Vr6HU7s 

 

 

 

LINKS

 

Montserrat Tourist Board. http://www.visitmontserrat.com/ 

Montserrat weather. http://www.accuweather.com/world-index-forecast.asp?partner=netweather&locCode=CAC|MS|MH001|PLYMOUTH&metric=0 

Tourism in Montserrat. http://www.montserrat-today.com/V.html

This private website contains absolutely everything you ever wanted to know about the island but didn't know where to begin asking. In February 2009 the owners kindly included a short overall summary by me of the eruption to 2009.

July 2010 account of a family holliday there, plus loads of discussion comments by others. http://www.fodors.com/community/caribbean-islands/limin-in-montserrat-trip-report.cfm

If you are interested in the history of this remarkable island there is an excellent history written by Sir Howard (H. A.) Fergus. In addition, the period of history from the abolition of slavery to mid last century is  both annotated and illustrated by photographs in the "Montserrat Connection" section on the Sturge Family website.

 

 

There are many non-scientific publications about the eruption, especially the period leading up to the 1997 fatalities. The formal UK Government report on this period is as follows:

E Clay, C Barrow, C Benson, J Dempster, P Kokelaar, N Pillai, and J Seaman, An Evaluation of HMG’s Response to the Montserrat Volcanic Emergency. Department for International Development Evaluation Report EV635 (1999).

Other books have been written and contribute to the overall atmosphere of seeking to apportion blame for the 1997 disaster etc. One contrasting published account, by Cathy Buffonge, of what things were like for ordinary residents is mostly or all out of print in 2010. Another, by Lally Brown, appeared early in 2010. Contact the author directly to buy a copy (sargeantpress@live.com).

 

 

St Johns, capital of Antigua. Note the four cruise liners moored at the docks (Bob Thompson)

You must remain on Antigua to watch international cricket at the Stanford ground (Bob Thompson)

 

 

If you sit beside the pilot, you can learn how to fly......

......and check the fuel situation!

 

 

The fine dust in the air above Montserrat had not fully cleared by the morning of day 7 following the 11 February 2010 partial lava dome collapse but vanished during the next day. The delta-like feature is the new pyroclastic fan, formed in about one hour and overlying older volcanic deposits.

Montserrat's small new airport was opened  in 2005. The visible houses etc are the island's contribution to global post-1995 urbanisation. The unpopulated Centre Hills (see below) and Silver Hills occupy most of the island away from the erupting volcano.

 

 

Winair plane disembarking in front of the distant Centre Hills (Bob Thompson).

The new kids on the block. FlyMontserrat plane in February 2010 (Bob Thompson)

The east coast is much drier than the west. This 2007 photo pre-dates the huge 11 February 2010 pyroclastic flows that "reorganised" the low ground in the distance (Bob Thompson).

 

 

Typical of the good eating places on the island (of course everyone has their own favourite). Of these three, The Attic serves typical so-called Creole food, Gourmet Gardens is run by a European lady and Olveston House is a private house (former planter's house) when Sir George and Lady Martin (yes, the Beatles' former manager!) are on the island but becomes accommodation and a restaurant when they are elsewhere.

The Attic

Gourmet Gardens

Olveston House

 

 

Restaurant décor, Ponty's Place at Little Bay (Bob Thompson).

Woodlands beach BBQ (Steph Flude).

Montserrat National Trust souvenir shop, just outside Salem (Bob Thompson).

 

Exploring the Centre Hills forests (Steph Flude)

Free diving (Steph FLude)

Scuba (Vicky Hards). Spot the small shark!

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