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Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Live Volcano

Ropey lava covers the landscape near the Kona airport, Hawai'i
We had been up close to an active volcano before this one—the Hawai’ian Kiluea Volcano has been putting out hot lava for many years. After we were married, 17 years ago, we took advantage of a professional conference scheduled in Hilo, Hawai’i, to circumnavigate the Big Island. Following the circumference of the island, we were able to see different types of lava in various stages.  
Lava rolled across the roadway to the ocean

On the southern end, we carefully walked across lava that spilled across the highway as it snaked it’s way to steam in the ocean. That lava looked like miles of ropey sharp-edged licorice. 
Volcanic sulphur gas leaks from many vents

We had driven over older lava fields which were like miles of giant spilled pepper as far as we could see along the eastern shore. And of course, we’d seen ancient lava flows smoothed by time and weather in which tropical plants now grew between the cracks.
Plant life inside a crater

But this volcano, the Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat is a different kind of animal.  It had not spewed molten (liquid) lava but rather, over the course of the last 20 years, has coughed up flaming boulders, sand, ash and gases.  
Soufriere Hills Volcano, 1997 eruption
(brochure photo, Montserrat
Volcano Observatory

The major eruptions have occurred a handful of times and generated clouds of gases and ash many thousands of feet high. But aside from major eruptions, the volcano routinely emits ash and gases alone.  We could in fact, see and smell the sulfur emissions from a couple of miles offshore as we were sailing away.
Deep trenches carved into the mudslide by tropical rains

With each major eruption, the mountain would grow another knob upward higher and higher, building onto itself with each belch from the opening. Eventually the growing pile could no longer balance where it grew and toppled over. During the next major eruption, the growing pile of rock from another  vent would lose its’ balance and fall in a different direction. 
A more recent eruption which covered Plymouth

With daily tropical rains, all that stuff became slow rivers of mud oozing down the mountainsides, along with the occasional house-size boulder.  Layer upon layer of mud spread out over huge expanses of land, filling valleys and rivers and slowly covering up everything in its’ path.
Many feet of mud, sand and ash filled in rivers, valleys

In some areas away from the direct flow of the mud, the billowing clouds of ash would accumulate in layers over days and months.  Now and then, a burning boulder would come flying from thousands of feet in the air away to land on a rooftop, incinerating it and all that is wood.  

Ash covers much more of the island than the two enormous swaths chosen by the mud paths.  The ash fertilizes the land already verdant with trees and plants, and speeds along the process of the jungle retaking the towns that it smothered.  
A home in what was Cork Hill, half buried in ash.

We went on a “volcano” tour with a gentleman who has been a guide for 30 some years on Montserrat.  He showed us photos and videos of the island and the towns before the volcano woke up, breaking its’ 400 year hiatus. 
Piles of mud and sand narrowly missed this house

On steep and windy little paved roads with curb and gutter, he drove us through an area where the only noticeable sign of prior human habitation was an elevated cricket field which someone had continued to keep free of jungle growth.  
Jungle reclaiming the land

In order to “find” the rest of the village he stopped multiples times to point out what were once nice homes, but now were burned-out roofless shells hidden behind dense jungle vegetation. 
A garden planted on fertile ash where Cork Hill once stood.  

The village had been Cork Hill, and our guide had lived there. With the exception of that cricket field, his village has been swallowed up by jungle growing on top of fertile ash.
Abandoned home overlooking Plymouth

We were taken to what was once, a lovely home overlooking the town of Plymouth, now labeled an Exclusion Zone. The abandoned home was still coated in ash and grime. Modern furnishings and utilities were left behind along with a house key.  
Occupants left in a hurry

A couple hundred feet below was a sports stadium, but only the elevated stands were visible.  
New waterway sliced through the many feet
of mud to reach the ocean

The remains of Plymouth, once the capitol of Montserrat, now seem as a dystopian moonscape of brown block houses, most without roofs.  Here and there, a roof remains as the only evidence of a house that lies entombed in mud beneath it. 
In the Exclusion Zone.  Most of the brown "blocks" on the horizon are shells of homes, businesses

Travel is forbidden within the Exclusion Zone but for the companies with heavy equipment that go in to harvest the rainwater washed sand which is now the island’s only export.  The mountains of clean sand sparkle with silica.
Rainwater cleaned sand, Montserrat's only export

On the other side of the island, the miles of mud and boulders had filled in what was once a bay adding an unknown (to me) number of acres to Montserrat. In so doing, it enveloped the airport.  From a distance we could see the top of the old airport control tower rising out of the mud.
Look for the air traffic control tower on the far right of photo

We talked about the thousands of people who fled Montserrat after the first major eruption.  The 11,000 citizens of Montserrat at that time, were British subjects.  They were welcomed, in fact, encouraged to leave the island to become permanent residents of Great Britain with talk of the island being unsafe to live on. At the same time, however, there were mainland Brits who were grabbing up prime properties on Montserrat for a pittance of their previous value. 
This old church is being repaired for families to live in. Churches
and schools served as residences for years.

Many, like our tour guide, refused to leave the island.  With the loss of so much housing, he was obligated to live in a school classroom with his family for two years. 
A small-farm owner who remained on Montserrat tending his pigs.

Now the island’s inhabitants number only five thousand, and of those, only two thousand are natives of Montserrat.  
Nobody lived on the north end of Montserrat before the volcano erupted. New towns sprouted up here.

I will conclude with a light-hearted tidbit that just may come in handy during a game of Trivial Pursuit or during one of those awkward lulls in conversation after meeting a future in-law.  
Wild goats, as well as donkeys roam Montserrat mountains.

Along with Ireland, only Montserrat celebrates St. Patrick’s Day as a national holiday!  And, if you were of a mind to earn a degree in Irish Step dancing, you would have to go to Montserrat to study because that is where the professional school exists.  Who knew?
"Like SHE said, 'Who knew'?"

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