In September 2019, a twist of fate enabled us to embark on a long-sought tour of the Caribbean.
After three months, we had descended the Lesser Antilles island stepping stone from the Dominican Republic to Antigua.
Montserrat was a short ferry crossing.
From the top of the boat, we can see the houses of St John and the lines of the relief of Antigua becoming blurred and, little by little, those of Montserrat gaining definition.
All about a Caribbean Sea that looked more like a lake.
We were about to turn around the northern end of Montserrat when we heard a strange noise in the engine.
The boat stops.
They tow us to the Little Bay Terminal where we were supposed to dock.
A hostess welcomes us, leads us to immigration. Then send us to a taxi.
Olveston House and the Entry into the History of Montserrat and Sir George Martin
In conversation with the driver Milton, we arrived at a glance at Salem and at the Olveston House where we were going to stay. There we are welcomed by Margaret and Peter, a retired English couple who spent much of their time in Montserrat.
built in style planting, his house had been owned by Sir George Martin, the famous fifth Beatle. Martin acquired the mansion in 1980. In the following years, it was there that he welcomed many of the musicians who arrived from Britain to record albums.
What was left of that afternoon, we went down to the cozy beach of Line Kiln Bay. In the care of its waves, in the Caribbean sun, we recovered from the early morning awakening and the fatigue of the journey.
The local elections had dictated an unusual holiday so everything was closed. Foresight, as night falls, Margaret and Peter bring us vegetarian curries, well served with rice. So they pamper us for a long-awaited night's sleep.
We woke up late. Faced with the lack of alternatives, we devour a half-cemented oat with water. They call us from the yard in front.
It was Jermaine, candidate of one of the defeated parties, the youngest to participate in a long time. Jermaine was also the guide of one Fabulous Tours, the guide charged with revealing the corners of Montserrat.
The Montserrat Volcano Observatory
It starts by taking us from Salem to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, where authorities monitor the Soufrière volcano, and where we get its first glimpse, too diffuse and obstructed by clouds.
"They'll see you much better in a little while." Jermaine soothes us. “I'm going to take you to a place as unique or more unique. It will be a special mission.”
From there, through narrow alleys flanked by coconut trees and leafy bushes, we came to a damp ramp top, which too was given over to vegetation.
And the Ruins of the Air Studios of Montserrat
Signs affixed to a fence signaled the Private Property of Air Studios Montserrat and, in red, the risk of entering the premises, rusty and unstable.
We followed the steps in the guide. We climb a fence wrapped in foliage.
On the other side, we come across a pool full of rainwater, about to become a swamp.
In the threading, the entrance to the technological core of the old Air Studios Montserrat, with its shop window, wooden roof and a series of fittings for columns and other types of equipment, has long disappeared.
Despite the abandonment of time and tropical flora, in the 80's, stars like the Beatles, The Police, Dire Straits, Elton John, Duran Duran, Ultravox, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed frequented that pool and studios.
And in a darker style, even the Black Sabath.
In 1979, the year the studio opened, Jimmy Buffet recorded an album there named “Volcano”.
On the way to the volcano
By that time, the Mount Soufrière Hills that inspired him lay dormant. The volcano's sleep would be short-lived. Pressured by the illegality of the transfer, we finished a few last photos and returned to the van.
We point to Plymouth and the sulfurous domains of the volcano. On the way, we cross the Belham River that marks the threshold between the regions of São Pedro and Santo António.
Even amidst such sanctity, a new sign warns of another risk: “Don't Cross the Belham River. Whenever there is heavy rain, this area is prone to lava flows.”
That all the dangers were this.
On the other side of the river, we passed the abandoned Cork Hill Medical Center.
Ahead, on the edge of a grassy open space, we passed a guardian under a precarious guardhouse made of a large wooden board supported, in a fragile balance, by bars.
Sheltered from the punishing sun and, with a lot of luck, from projectiles launched by the volcano, the man secured the inaugural control of the Montserrat Exclusion Zone, almost a third of the island.
Jermaine greets him and gets an implied authorization. Before long, we arrive at a sand extraction site.
A gate in the extension of an iron house establishes a final Check Point, at the entrance to the forbidden sector.
Jermaine steps up the walkie-talkie communication and stops them. We await the arrival of the authorities, who were supposed to follow us closely.
“Okay, here they are. Let's go!" instructs Jermaine. “Attention that they have half an hour. Don't walk away. They charge hefty fines.”
We moved forward, constrained by the rules, by Jermaine, and by the prospect of the volcano erupting, a threat as latent and real as that of the famous White Island.
This, a volcanic destination, at the time, too touristy in New Zealand, a fortnight later, took the lives of sixteen visitors and guides.
Discovering the Famed Capital Plymouth
Once inside the exclusion zone, Jermaine takes us to a once popular Plymouth hotel. We found it awash with the compacted ash that had invaded the rooms, the pool and other rooms.
There is an old calculator on the reception desk.
And a logbook, hand-filled, with the details of newly arrived guests who were forced to anticipate the check-out.
From the hotel and its almost seaside, we moved to a sector of the slope much higher up, which a greater height and concentration of ash and lava kept free of weeds.
From this point, we have the first panoramic view of the Soufrière Hills, from the volcanic river that it had flowed from it and from the houses of the reckless Plymouth, buried in a sea of ash and lava.
Plymouth has long been the lofty capital of Montserrat, the only port of entry to this island, an autonomous overseas territory of the United Kingdom and one of the Lesser Antilles that enclose the Caribbean to the east.
The Relentless Awakening of the Soufrière Hills Volcano
In the 90s, it was still recovering from the destruction caused by the Hurricane Hugo (1989) which killed twenty-one inhabitants and left much of Montserrat destroyed.
By the end of June 1995, supported by international (mainly British) assistance, the island had already recovered from the worst.
In July, during the hurricane season, instead of another cyclone, it was the Soufrière Hills that inaugurated a period of successive eruptions.
With homes and businesses at the foot of the volcano, residents had to be evacuated urgently. They held out some hope of returning.
New eruptions released pyroclastic flows and lahars that burned and buried the now ghost town we had around.
Nineteen people were caught off guard and perished.
Plymouth remains doomed to an abandonment that probable new eruptive phenomena justifies.
Ash, mud and time have not completely erased the tracks of their lives.
New Incursion into the Abandoned Capital
That late afternoon, just before sunset, already masters of a rented jeep, we agreed to a quick and rebellious incursion into the hotel area, where dozens of villas were concentrated, homes of lives, once wealthy and resplendent.
We scrutinize them. We find the most distinct traces.
A bathroom still with Colgate packaging, a glass and a can of deodorant, next to a semi-melted shower curtain.
A golf bag labeled with the owner's name and loaded with white balls that the heat had made to burst.
Cassette archives and so many other items that were once commonplace, now mysterious, lost among forests of soaked ferns.
Darkens. As we feared, we are anxious to, in the labyrinth of twinned streets, recover the path that had taken us there.
Finally, we made it back to the cozy shelter of Olveston House.
An Unexpected Horror with Little Volcanic
For the next day, Jermaine had planned an approach to the volcano that would once again assure us that it would be forbidden and that only us would provide.
As a preamble, we woke up at seven o'clock, panicked by an unexpected roar and smoke that filled the room and made us suffocate. Still sleepy, we could have sworn it was a new eruption.
Still almost as scared as we are, Margaret yells at us from the courtyard: "Don't worry, it's not the volcano!" She explains angrily to us that the authorities had scheduled anti-malarial and anti-dengue spraying actions.
To the detriment of our sins, they remembered to start at dawn, without warning the residents.
We survived the scare. We got up ready to continue the discovery of Montserrat.
Jermaine appeared an hour later.
Guided by him once more, we returned to the sulphurous surroundings of the Soufrière Hills.
Fortunately, to date, none of the villages on the island have been on the lava path between the volcano and the final destination of the Atlantic Ocean.