Montserrat

– visited October 2013 –

I arrive on Montserrat with the small boat from Saint John’s in Antigua. It is dark when we arrive but my bed is ready, I had made a reservation. Montserrat is an internally self-governing British Overseas Territory and in this way a remnant of the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state and appoints a Governor as her representative. Executive power though, rests with the Montserrat government. The links to Britain are more important if it comes to foreign relations and defence, or in case of Montserrat being struck by a natural disaster.

All the islands in the Leeward Islands are of Volcanic origin. Some, lying a bit more to the east (Antigua and Barbados), are older, their volcanism long extinct and their highest elevations have already been ground down by the elements. Others show signs of volcanism like hot springs or lakes and one, Montserrat, has an active and threatening volcano. Long considered dormant, the Soufríère Hills volcano started erupting in 1995. Ash soon covered most of the southern part of the island including all the main population centres in the flatter southern half, people had to flee. The Volcano calmed down, some people returned but in 1997 pyroclastic flows (a fast-moving current of hot gas and volcanic matter) shoot down the mountain. Normann, my guide was managing the airport at that time. They heard the sound, exited the building and found out they were saved from annihilation by a little hill that shielded the airport building. This airport has been unusable ever since. 19 people were not so lucky that day and out of a population of 12,000 more than two-thirds eventually left the island. Since then, Soufrière Hills has shown activity every few years, the last time in 2010. More than half of the island has been declared an exclusion zone that needs special permission to enter.

Topographical Maw with Exclusion Zone
By Ivan25 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10880736

We stand on a hill overlooking the devastation. Abandoned houses as far as the eye sees, much of the volcanic ash is already overgrown but the path of the last pyroclastic flow from 2010 is still barren. Towers with equipment to monitor the volcano have been built. In the distance, the former capital of Plymouth is visible.

In 1997 the volcano struck the airport and the harbour, blocking all the usual means of escape, trapping people. A new harbour has been built in the north and life has generally shifted to the more mountainous north. Brades has become the new seat of government and about 5000 people live on the island nowadays. I explore the villages and head to a black sand beach. This is a small place, Normann knew everybody we saw and even I was already waved at in “town” by the lady I had an interesting conversation with at the hotel last night.

The new airport is in operation since 2005. The runway length is 600m and it was difficult to find a flat spot in the safe parts of the island that long. In the end, two hills were flattened and the runway was constructed crossing over an existing road. There are two flights (to Antigua) in the afternoon with a combined capacity of 14 passengers. I like this place, someone asks you if you are on the 4 o’clock flight, you say no and they immediately know that you fly at 5 ‘o clock, the only other option. I am asked to stand on the scale with my bag, they need to know the weight (and balance) of the seven-seater plane. I sit right behind the pilot for the twenty-minute flight. Approaching V.C. Bird International Airport we all see the British Airways flight in the air in front of us, the pilot grumbles and flies a waiting loop, in a place as small as Antigua (30km to 25km) that means an island tour. As we approach the runway the big plane is still on it, thankfully it takes a right turn that moment. Our pilot promises to catch up with it. Minutes later, while the stairs are still being brought for the other plane, we walk just a few metres to get into the terminal.

Bye the way, why is the island called Montserrat? Isn’t that a weird name? Well, many places in the Caribbean got their names from their first European explorers, they didn’t bother to ask the locals, in the case of Montserrat they just sailed past, looking out for the next island in the chain already. Someone thought the mountains they saw looked similar to the landscape around the famous monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona, a few strokes on the one and only map and the name stuck.