As we waited and waited for police approval to crackle over my guide’s walkie-talkie, I began to wonder whether this was a good idea. I was about to enter the only modern-day capital city to be permanently abandoned.
All residents of Plymouth, the largest settlement on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, were evacuated on 25th June 1997. Two years earlier, a series of volcanic eruptions in the Soufriere Hills, barely three miles away, had cause significant damage. Most islanders had never expected volcanic activity. And they certainly weren’t prepared for a new mountain to appear from nowhere, eventually reaching higher than their tallest peak, which stood at just over 3,000 feet.
It was a privilege to be allowed to visit this deserted city, mothballed in metres of ash and boulders – propelled out of the smoking volcano that now looms above the former settlements. Many locals have not been allowed to return. Many islanders have chosen not to.
Getting permission to enter the exclusion zone takes some work. It’s not a theme park – not Disneyland. And although locals speak highly of the scientists who monitor activity from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, you never know when the mountain will blow again. My guide, Sunny Lea, had to make a number of phone calls to officials within the police service and the MVO to gain clearance.
I met with Scotsman Rod Stewart, the director of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. I smiled at the no smoking sign outside the building – in the distance you could see clouds of ash rising from the dome. You have to visit the centre to see the pictures and video, and talk to the experts, about what happened during the eruptions and how they forecast future activity.
Rod isn’t one of those stereotypical geeky, awkward scientists who are not good with people. He offered me a warm welcome to the MVO and spoke passionately about his work and the island. He had returned to Montserrat following a spell in Trinidad, which he describes as ‘quite a violent place’ and which contrasts greatly with this safe, welcoming island.
Everybody knows who he is, which he admits can be awkward when he needs to make a decision that might be unpopular. Rod and his team operate a siren system to warn islanders to take action if significant activity is monitored. He has a special connection to the island’s only radio station, ZBN, and can go direct-to-air with information that can save lives. Technically he needs the Premier and Governor’s consent to sound the alert but says that if he couldn’t raise those dignitaries, he would do it anyway and ask for forgiveness the next day.
He doesn’t take his duties lightly. The major blast in 1997 killed 19 people. It followed two years of volcanic activity and Rob says the tragedy might have been avoided if people had followed evacuation orders. Montserrat’s volcano isn’t one of those cones that just exudes hot lava and gases. It’s potentially lethal because of pyroclastic flows and surges – the kind that are now known to have destroyed Pompeii in Roman times. The volcano can eject rocks and gas into the air, and down into the area surrounding the former capital, at speeds of over 200 miles an hour.
“People have to understand how dangerous this volcano can be,” warns Rod as his smile fades and his expression becomes serious. “It can go from quiet states to generating pyroclastic flows in a couple of minutes. That’s why it’s important that people cannot go into the exclusion zone. It is a real threat,” he adds.
The observatory uses three key indicators to assess whether there could be trouble. They monitor earthquakes and check volcanic swelling using GPS, which can measure movements down to a millimetre. Scientists also monitor sulphur dioxide emissions. “The level of that is too high for an extinct volcano,” advises Rod.
I first visited Montserrat in February 2010. There was more ash activity back then. Grey flakes rained down, leaving the roads a sooty, slippery skidpan. The ash gave the whole landscape a greyscale tone. Trees, hedges and windows were all covered. On a very shallow level, your clothing would be smudged and smeared with ash when you ventured outside. It was like standing downwind of a 5th November bonfire. That has now ended and the thickly wooded island is emerald green again.
During my first visit, much of Montserrat was off-limits. Metal barriers were swung across roads and signs identified the lettered zones you were about to enter or leave. That’s now been simplified. “People can enter Zones A, B and C if the level of threat from the volcano allows,” explains Rod. “Residents are now digging out their homes from the undergrowth within areas which were previously off-limits.”
It’s worth mentioning that the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and places of accommodation and social activity are all in safe regions. The mountains act as a barrier, which limits how far the volcano can extrude material. The new capital at Little Bay and the temporary capital at Brades are entirely safe for visitors.
But now, here I was with Sunny, about to enter Zone V – the area around the volcano’s slopes, which takes in half the island and the former capital. As we drove through the leafy villages of wooden, colonial-style villas the road surface switched from tarmac to dirt and we crossed the boulder-strewn Belham River. Road signs warned about the danger of crossing the riverbed when flash flooding was likely.
During the eruptions, the river valley had channelled water and volcanic material down to the sea. It’s called a lahar and it had obliterated the island’s golf course. We drove on dirt roads, navigating around boulders, before picking up an old and poorly maintained metalled road again. As we drove on we witnessed abandoned homes, now overgrown. It was strange driving around traffic roundabouts – clearly this was once a busy area but now we were in a wasteland. The map of the island that I had downloaded from Google was useless. The roadmap of Montserrat had effectively been redrawn.
Then, gulp, the big barrier. A sign warned that we could go no further without permission. This was Zone V. A police officer had to open the padlocked gate for us and we waited for their arrival. At one point I assumed that they wouldn’t be coming. We only had a short time window to enter the exclusion zone and time was ticking away. Just when I thought we would have to return, officers arrived and opened the gate.
Driving past the high hedges and under the spreading trees I asked Sunny how far we were from the former capital. “We’re almost there,” he replied. That surprised me. The tunnel of trees and foliage around us was green and verdant and gave no hint of our proximity to the site of a natural disaster. We passed an abandoned school and petrol station buildings and then, turning the corner, I saw the intimidating and towering volcano – a view I will never forget.
I had seen pictures of this vibrant, colourful colonial town in years gone by. Plymouth had looked lovely, with its mix of traditional, garrison-style stone buildings and wooden villas. The view before me resembled the aftermath of a nuclear attack.
The whole scene was one of devastation. You could make out the shape of buildings, still standing but with windows broken. The ash was deep and compacted. Some structures only had their upper levels visible. In other buildings you could peer inside but there was only two or three feet of space between the ash and the ground floor ceiling. More buildings were bent out of shape by the huge boulders, which had rained down on the former capital.
“Nobody would survive this,” I said to Sunny. He pointed out where the old cinema was. “That’s the wall the film would have been projected on.” He pointed out the former hotel and what was Angelo’s supermarket.
Earlier in my visit I had met Rosetta West-Gerald. Her company offers the small number of passengers who visit from luxury cruise ships a chance to see Plymouth. “Some people weep when they see it,” she told me.
Sunny was 15 years old when the mountain blew. His parents lost their business – a bookshop. They now operate the not-for-profit Hilltop Café and Coffeehouse. I’d recommend a visit to see how David and Clover have created a museum of how Plymouth used to be.
They’ve rescued business signs and covered the wall space with photographs showing how the ash level grew year by year. Plymouth had an iconic concrete clock tower, which stood on top of a war memorial. It had been used as a marker indicating the depth of the ash but is now totally subsumed. David, who worked in television, has produced an excellent DVD which means locals have more than just memories of Plymouth. You can also visit the National Trust Visitor Centre at the Botanic Gardens where there is large block model reconstruction of the capital.
During our trip we were in constant walkie-talkie contact with the MVO. We reached the former pier – a long expanse of concrete now truncated by boulders and Sunny explained that the grey, rocky, dusty foreshore has been created since the eruption. An area of around a quarter of a mile between the wharf and the former governor’s mansion had been filled in, like a giant rockery. The island is getting bigger. “I’m sure it’s added to its 39 square miles,” said Sunny.
I got out of the 4×4 to take a look around. Sunny joined me but kept the engine running. “Why did you do that?” I asked. “We have to make sure we’re ready to drive away in an instant,” he replied, chillingly. I recalled my conversation earlier with Rod. “I was working at the MVO late at night when I heard an explosion. The sensors had not picked up any activity but within two minutes the flow had reached Plymouth. If there had been anyone there, they would have been killed.”
Life, as it was in 1997, has been mothballed in ash and debris. You could see office wall planners and calendars stuck on that date. The Hilltop Café had rescued a Barclays Bank calendar showing that day. Then I noticed the distinctive turquoise trim and the remainder of the building. “That’s the bank, isn’t it?” I said to Sunny. “Yes. Shows the power of marketing and branding doesn’t it that you can recognise Barclays from that colour,” he replied.
The smell of sulphur filled the air and the crackling handheld radio squirted the sound of a synthesised speaking clock through the air. It was time to leave. As we drove away from the capital I spoke with Sunny about what it was like growing up on an island that had lost half of its accessible land – and half its population.
“I don’t think we would have foreseen twenty years of volcanic activity ahead when the eruption started in July 1995,” he told me. “Did anybody predict such a cataclysmic event?” I asked him. “Nobody saw this happening, I think. We had another volcano further south called Galloway Soufriere. That was a tourist attraction and was considered dormant so when the new volcano started in a different area, nobody imagined that all of Plymouth and the surrounding area to the south and east of the island would be covered and buried by a volcano which didn’t exist in our minds.”
We were back on the bumpy, metalled road approaching the exclusion zone entrance gates. “I feel sad that this had to happen,” said Sunny. “I’m sure someone out there knows why but I certainly don’t. I don’t want to leave you with a negative point of view. It’s quite a phenomenon to see. It’s quite exciting to a degree. Nevertheless, islanders have gone through quite a level of hardship.”
Islanders are still trying to rebuild their lives and for many it’s a struggle. The best thing we can do is visit, understand and then celebrate what is great and beautiful about the safe, undamaged top half of this wonderful island. It’s free to visit and look around the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.
You can arrange Sunny Lea’s incredible tour of Plymouth, subject to a safety assessment made on the level of volcanic activity, by visiting gingerbreadhill.com. They also offer superb self-catering accommodation, which you can book through that website.