Voyage of Traveler / Blog

January 30, 2010

Traveler Postcard from Montserrat

Filed under: Year 3: July09 - July10 Greece to Newport Beach, CA, Caribbean — mrlawlerjr @ 5:26 pm

I don’t know,
Oh, I don’t know,
I don’t a-know where I’m a-gonna go
When the volcano blows.
–Jimmy Buffet

January 29, 2010
Little Bay, Montserrat

We almost skipped this island, but we’re glad we stopped here.

Almost skipped it for two reasons:
(1) Ten days ago when we were on passage from Guadeloupe to Antigua, we could see, from 30 miles out at sea, the volcano of Montserrat blowing its top, with huge clouds of gas and ash billowing a mile high into the sky and then the trade winds blowing the massive cloud to the west, and (2) following back-to-back devastating hurricanes in the late 80s and the massive volcanic eruptions of 1995 and 1997, the island is just not what it used to be.  But I decided to go anyway.  Call it morbid curiosity.  The recent pyroclastic flow of super-heated ash, pumice and rock went all the way to the sea, burning a few houses in its path.

The volcano was still erupting as we dropped anchor, and continued to erupt the entire time we were on the island.  It was the first time that Brian had seen a volcano, literally, blowing its top.  Pretty exciting.  In addition to the eruptions, the island’s volcanologists (is that the right word?) report that the island has had about 10,000 earthquakes in the past year.  But that’s normal, nowadays, they say.

The devastating 1995 eruption covered Plymouth, the island’s capital and home to most of the residents, in several feet of ash, which then hardened like concrete with the rain, making it a modern-day Pompeii. Fortunately, they had some advanced warning and most of the residents took the advice to evacuate. Most went to London, shipped there by the Royal Marines.  Our taxi driver told us that many of them froze to death the first winter. Of those who stayed behind, only nineteen died from the volcano. The island had a population of 12,000 before 1995, and now has only 4,000.  The 1997 volcanic eruption, one of the largest in modern history, blew ash as far west as Panama, and with it acid rain. The southerly two-thirds of the island are in the so-called Exclusion Zone, which extends two miles out to sea, and is described as “extremely dangerous.”

We toured the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, on the edge of the Exclusion Zone, and saw their half hour film about the island’s ‘95 and ‘97 violent eruptions, while the volcano was erupting again!

A large eruption also happened this past December while a rare southerly wind blew, covering the northerly part of the island with three inches of ash and giving the islanders a ghostly, pyroclastic White Christmas.

On arrival tourists are given a brochure warning of the volcanic hazards.  This includes, “Explosions can throw hot or cold blocks into the air.  Known as ballistic projectiles or bombs, they travel like cannonballs, usually landing within 5 km of the volcano. They can be as big as cars.”  Nice.  No wonder there are no tourists here.

Many British rock stars came here often in the 80s and early 90s to record their music, including Elton John, Dire Straits, Sting and many others.  Sir Elton still owns a home here and came for a week’s vacation recently.  To be sure, the island is not what it used to be, and is still a very dangerous place to live.  Or visit, for that matter.

Living the Dream,
with Brian and Yansen

P.S.  My next Postcard will be from Redonda.  Where’s Redonda, you ask?
It’s located between Montserrat and Nevis, closer to Montserrat (only 9 miles).  But it is officially a part of the country of Antigua and Barbuda, which are more than 25 miles away. This tiny islet, only 2 sq km, has 1000 ft. high vertical cliffs all around and dangerous surf breaking on its rocky shoreline, with no harbor, beaches or even a safe place to anchor. It was the last island in the Caribbean to be claimed by any government, probably because it is nearly impossible to go ashore. The British claimed it in 1865, and it was made a dependent of Antigua and Barbuda in 1967. But it has a wacky past.  In 1865 an Irishman from Montserrat, Matthew Dowdy Shiel, poking fun at the British for taking claim to Redonda, claimed the island for himself and made his infant son, Matthew Phipps Shiel, the King of Redonda in a ceremony purportedly carried out on the island by a bishop. In 1927 Matthew Phipps Shiel, then a minor author of fantasy novels, launched a new book with the announcement that he was, indeed, the King of Redonda, and the London press played it up. This gave the otherwise unheard of island an international splash of notoriety.  The royal history gets a little foggy after that. At one time there were four claimants to the throne. (Please keep in mind not only is the islet uninhabited, it is completely uninhabitable.) One “King” (Juan I, aka Jon Gawsworth), a colorful resident of London with a bit of a drinking problem, would grant knighthoods to people who would buy him a pint. In 2007, the Wellington Arms, a pub in Southampton, declared themselves an embassy of the Kingdom of Redonda in order to gain diplomatic immunity from a ban on indoor smoking.  For the past decade, Bob Williamson (or as he preferred, King Bob the Bald) held court in the waterfront bars of Antigua surrounded by his knights (drinking buddies) and navy (one derelict sailboat).  But his recent death has opened the door for the next king to claim the throne.  Hummmm…..

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