24 June 2007 | The Exclusion Zone
It was a cloudy morning and the weather forecast made a couple of nights in Montserrat look like a good idea prior to making the crossing to Guadalupe. We all wanted to see the island so it was just as well.
Both Kelp Fiction II and our boat were still flying the yellow flag so we set out to the main quay to clear in as the first order of business. Apart from the concrete quay and the yard, the port consists of a warehouse and a security trailer. We arrived just as the customs officer got in and cleared in with no hassle. Montserrat doesn't get a lot of visitors and the officer was pleased that his signature was going on a Japanese passport.
A taxi/tour guide had hailed us on the VHF when we arrived and he was waiting for us at the gate. We piled in the van and set off for a day of exploring. There's not much to Montserrat these days. Most of the folks are very nice but the population is only about 15,000. Little Bay is scheduled to be the new capital but development is moving slowly for justifiable reasons. The main settlement has relocated to an area near the top of the hills in the northern part of the island. Great views but not a lot of flat land to work with.
There had previously been a ferry that brought tourists a couple of times a week to Montserrat from the more prosperous Antigua. Montserrat is a dependent territory of the UK. Given the choice of the subsidized ferry or an airport, the government of Montserrat shut down the ferry and built an airport. It is a nice airport in the hills near the settlement but not capable of handling more than a 16 seater. Due to the expense of flying in, a lot fewer folks visit the island now.
If you look at a guide to the Caribbean pre the 1997 eruption, Montserrat is heralded as the Emerald of the Caribbean. Pictures of the beautiful town of Plymouth and the lovely harbor of Road Bay impress. Unfortunately all of the areas where people previously lived, worked and played are restricted now. Much, including Plymouth and the old airport, is now wiped out, buried in ash and stone. You can only go in if you need to retrieve something from your former business or residence and then only with a police escort. Eruptions of pyroclastic flow take only 90 seconds to reach the ocean and the poisonous fumes kill instantly.
We stopped by a tourist outpost that was being built on the west side of the island. It is at the edge of the restricted zone and offers panoramic views of the desolation around the old airport. You can clearly see how the runway disappears under several feet of rock and ash. We stopped at the observatory on the west side of the island as well. It was closed but it is situated so that you can see the entire volcano and some of the primary run off zones. The beach near the old harbor is about 100 yards farther out into the ocean now.
The volcano is massive and dominates the horizon. You can only rarely see the top as it is typically enshrouded in steam and clouds. Man is no match for the forces of nature. All we can do is try to predict Mother Nature's actions and get out of the way accordingly. You can discover more at the Montserrat Observatory web site here: http://www.mvo.ms/