Soufriere Hills II

Montserrat tour, March 2006 

Richard Roscoe, Martin Rietze

in deustch

 

Things started badly with the BA plane circling so often over Antigua that we were getting rather dizzy.  Finally, having landed and endured the slothful immigration procedure we managed to run with our luggage and check in to the last Winair flight of the day with 20 minutes to spare.

Maps for orientation

After the short hop to Montserrat in the trusty old DHC-6-300 plane, we quickly exited the airport and grabbed a taxi to go and stock up on water and get some additional food.  Then we drove to the Jack Boy Hill observation point (Fig.1) to be greeted by the glowing dome of Soufriere Hills Volcano with only a small cloud cap sitting on top (Fig.2a, 2b, 2c).  Since weather conditions often  prevent any viewing for lengthy periods, it was a great relief to see so much so soon after arriving.  This was the first view of the volcano for Martin, whereas it was already my third visit to the charming little Island with its ever-changing volcano.

1(rr)   2a (mr) 2b(mr)  2c(rr)

The first night was spent at the viewpoint getting the first nighttime shots of the dome which is still about 5km away from this position.  As morning approached we each shouldered 2 rucksacks, one front, one back, with a combined weight of nearly 40 kg per person, and descended down the winding road towards the deserted Bramble Airport and surrounding settlements.  Crossing old pyroclastic flow deposits and erosion gullies (Fig.3a), we gradually, and in some discomfort due to the heavy load, made our way towards the deserted settlement of Bethel (Fig.3b) in the hope of passing through this overgrown area and progressing towards Long Ground which we hoped would provide a good safeish (although certainly not safe) position for pyroclastic flow observation.

3a (rr)    3b (rr)    4 (rr)    5a (mr) 

Upon reaching what remains of Bethel it became immediately apparent that plan A was going to fail.  The area is densely, and practically impenetrably, vegetated with thorn-bushes and the buildings are in poor condition and full of wasp nests (Fig.4).  The machete hardly could be said to have cut through the thornbushes like butter and consequently progress was painfully slow.  Our hopes that at least the roads would remain in a walkable condition were also soon dashed as short sections of road just disappeared into thorny thickets.  Well, thank God for telephoto lenses (but not for creating thornbushes ;-)..).  We decided to find a position where our view was not obscured by vegetation and then set up camp for the next two nights (Fig.5a, 5b, 5c). 

5c (mr)   5b (rr)

Viewing conditions were difficult and heavy rainfall on one afternoon resulted in a cramped and frustrating spell in the tent.  Nevertheless, at least at night we managed to get some fine views of the dome (Fig.6a, 6b, 6c) and on several occasions PFs were visible entering into the top part of the Tar River Valley (Fig.7a, 7b, 7c).  However PF activity was and remained disappointing since activity had shifted to the Northern part of the dome, distal to Tar River valley, in recent weeks.

6a (mr)    6b (mr)    6c (rr)

7a (mr)     7b (mr)     7c (rr)

On the third day we progressed to a position nearer the coast to get a different view of the dome and in order to position ourselves for a brief visit to the Tar River Valley via the coastal route (Plan B).  The morning provided the best daytime views of the dome (Fig.8a, 8b, 8c, 8d), but low cloud arrived in the afternoon and only part of the dome was visible from this time onwards. 

  8a (mr)

8b (rr)    8c (mr)   8d (rr)  

Nevertheless, in the evening we proceeded along the beach with light backpacks to the small fan of land created by PF deposits at the bottom of the Tar River Valley (Fig.9a, b, c).  It should be repeated at this point that Tar River Valley is very dangerous at any time and progressing to this point and into the valley could be near suicidal if activity was higher or more concentrated in the southern part of the dome.  Nevertheless after having observed the activity for the previous days we decided to cross the Valley, which contains some deep erosion gullies which would make a quick escape impossible, and set ourselves up for a night of photography at a point overlooking the valley. 

9a (rr)    9b (mr)    9c (mr)

After a brief shower and in spite of gusty winds blowing sand around it was possible to take a number of photos of the Tar River Valley with at least the bottom part of the dome visible (see Fig.10a, 10b, 10c, 10d).  Note the small PF cloud on Fig.10c (!). 

      10c (mr) 

   10a (rr)   10b (rr)  10d (mr)

As morning broke, the clouds descended even further but due to the low angle of the sun, the yellow and reddish pastel-coloured landscape presented a wonderful picture (Fig.11a, Fig.11b, 11c).  Deposits from a recent PF could be seen like a light-coloured claw on the valley floor  (Fig.11b).

  11a (mr)  11b (rr)  11c (mr)

After this brief visit we returned to our previous position. Since water was running a little low we went to collect some coconuts.  The foray was successful apart from 5 wasp stings to my arm and numerous thorn-scratches due to rapid flight from the scene of the attack.  This had resulting from trying to pick up a coconut about 1m away from a wasp nest which had previously fallen to the ground.  This was surprising since the wasps generally seemed to be quite tranquil and approachable.  Nevertheless, it had been worth it and thanks to a major effort by Martin with the by now blunt and bent machete, coconut juice and flesh was in plentiful supply.

The final night was uneventful and provided only little photographic opportunity.  One had to settle for a few shots of a house with a boulder perched on its roof (evidence of the tremendous force that can be developed by Lahars) with a little glow in the background (Fig.12).  The climb up Jack Boy Hill was hampered a little by a newborn goat which decided to adopt me as its mother as we passed.  Well i wouldn't have minded adopting the little fellow, yet my inability to lactate would have rapidly become a problem.  Thus, after carrying it to its mother failed, gently prodding it with feet and telescopic sticks until it ran into the bushes at the side of the road did the trick (luckily we saw it several days later reunited with its mother).

  12 (rr)    

After 4 days at the east side of Montserrat, it was decided to briefly visit the deserted capital Plymouth and as the opportunity arose to take a drive up St Georges.  We installed ourselves in the View Pointe Hotel which provides a comfortable and friendly base for exploration of this part of the island.  The drive up St Georges hill can easily be arranged by Taxi (unless the Exclusion Zone is extended to this area again), however costs are high and best shared with further visitors.  Since we visited in the afternoon, the volcano presented itself in bright sunlight (Fig.13a, 13b).   The view from St Georges Hill provides a good impression of the extent of lahar damage on this side of the Island (Fig.14a, Fig.14b).

 13a (rr)  13b (mr)

 14a (rr)  14b (mr)

After a relatively relaxing day involving stocking up again on food and water and the St Georges Hill visit, we walked into Plymouth the next morning.  Due to increasing danger from the volcano, the workmen present in January are no longer entering the town.  After nearly running into what appeared to be a police patrol (this could prove very expensive since fines of approx. 800 USD are apparently levied on unauthorized exclusion zone entrants), we decided to spend much of the day inside buildings looking for photo motifs.  Several interesting motifs were found in the workshop and classrooms of the Montserrat Technical College (Fig. 15a, 15b, 15c, 15d) and in and around local stores (Fig. 16a, 16b, 16c, 16d). 

15b (rr)   15a (mr)   15c (rr)      15d (mr)

16a (mr)   16b (mr) 

16c (rr)   16d (mr)

It is noted that we did not break into any locked buildings (the majority are open anyway), neither were any items removed from the site. In the afternoon we ventured towards the former center of town and had a relatively clear view of the volcano in the background.  The following figures show buildings in the center of Plymouth (Fig.17a, 17b, 17c, 17d).

17a (mr)  17b (rr)  17c (rr)  17d (rr)

After sunset we left town, machete in hand in case of pig attacks, and after a brief walk got a ride on the back of a pickup truck to the Belham River Valley crossing from where we proceeded on foot back to the View Pointe Hotel.  People who choose to enter the exclusion zone should be aware that there have been a number of reported attacks by large (formerly domesticated) pigs.  Forget "Babe", this is big mean marauding bacon.  Rumour indeed has it that a number of people have disappeared in the zone in recent years.  Some claim that the pigs may be responsible, although there is no direct evidence of this.  Nevertheless, it would certainly not be a very glamorous way to go !  Consequently, it seems wise to carry at least a machete to provide some protection.  Certainly, holiday in the exclusion zone at times seems like a holiday in a farmyard, with pigs, cows (incl. large bulls), donkeys and large numbers of goats wandering around (Fig.18).

18 (rr) 

On the penultimate day of our visit we descended again to the vicinity of Bramble Airport in the hope of catching further glimpses of the dome (Fig.19).  Unfortunately the entire dome remained in cloud for the much of this visit and we encountered a rather unpleasant number of biting insects. 

19 (rr) 

The next day we left for the airport somewhat disappointed and after the short flight to Antigua spent a couple of hours in its capital St John before getting onto the BA flight back to London.  Interestingly, the style of many of the buildings in St John is similar to that of many of the buildings that have been lost in Plymouth (Fig.20a, 20b). 

20a (rr)  20b (rr)

The Soufriere Hills Volcano is currently again in a phase of rapid dome growth.  Entry into the exclusion zone is illegal and is not encouraged by the author of this report.  Those entering anyway need to be aware of the dangers from wildlife, building collapse and in particular pyroclastic flows or lahars.  In particular the area around Tar River Valley should be avoided, yet as the dome breaches other parts of the wall formed by remnants of the 2003 dome, further areas will be at very high risk of pyroclastic flows.  All areas around the dome would be at high risk in case of a major dome failure even at the present time.  Visitors should remember that Pyroclastic flows have reached as far as Bramble airport (about 4km from the dome) in previous eruptive episodes.  Recent activity reports can be viewed on the informative Montserrat Volcano Observatory website (www.mvo.ms) .  It is noted that staff at the MVO currently strongly advise against any entry into the exclusion zone.

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    2006 photos and text by Richard Roscoe (rr) photos by Martin Rietze (mr), web Boeckel, last modification 14.4.2006