The Slumbering Giant That Awakes

The bay at St. Pierre Mont Pelee in the distance

The bay at St. Pierre Mont Pelee in the distance

On the northern tip of Martinique, on the west side, there is a wide peaceful bay populated by small wooden fishing boats. As we slowly approach it, the old buildings of a sleepy town at the foot of a massive bald mountain begin to take shape. The mountain is Mont Pelée: the deadliest volcano in modern history whose titanic eruption in 1902 killed nearly 30,000 people in this same town, St. Pierre.

Fishing boats in the anchorage at St. Pierre, Martinique

Fishing boats in the anchorage at St. Pierre, Martinique

The story of St Pierre and the volcano

Martinique was settled in 1635 by the French and St. Pierre, a vibrant colonial town, quickly became its most important city: ‘the Paris of the West Indies’, complete with an extravagant 800-seat theatre. By the end of the nineteenth century St. Pierre had a population of over 20,000, mostly local Martiniquans descendants of African slaves, but the wealth and political power was in the hands of the Creole and the few French colonial officials and civil servants. But in 1902 things were about to change. Very important elections were scheduled to take place on May 11 of that year to decide if the ruling Progressive party will maintain control of the island or the black candidate from the Radical party will take over for the first time.

Entrance to the theater ruins, St Pierre, Martinique

Entrance to the theater ruins, St Pierre, Martinique

When in February of 1902 the mountain exhaled sulphurous gases killing birds, and in April tremors shook the slopes and a cloud of ash showered the town and its residents, the officials couldn’t care less. Instead of evacuating, they declared that „there is nothing in the activity of Mt. Pelée that warrants a departure from St. Pierre,“ and ordered the voters to remain put and not to leave the town until after election day. On May 5 the rim of the crater lake whose water was beginning to boil broke and volcanic mudflow rushed down the slopes at 100 kilometers per hour killing 23 people, burying everything in its path all the way to the sea where it generated a tsunami and flooded the lowlands.

Mont Pelee, Martinique

Mont Pelee, Martinique

Hell begun. Snakes and insects fleeing the mountain slopes invaded the town and villages. Hordes of red ants, poisonous snakes, spiders, and huge centipedes crawled inside homes and barns as pigs, horses and dogs screamed with agony. Hundreds of domestic animals as well as children died by snake and centipede bites. People from the villages nearest to the volcano sought refuge in St Pierre, four miles directly under the crater, thinking it is safer there based on the government’s reassurances published in local newspapers. The population grew to nearly 28,000. Yet, some tried to leave the town of St Pierre and head south to the second largest city, Fort-de-France, but Governor Mouttet brought army troops to patrol the roads with orders not to let anyone leave the town until elections, on May 11.
At 7:50 a.m. on May 8, three days before the elections, the volcano erupted. The cataclysm started with a deafening roar, an atomic-like blast, and a black cloud of gas, ash and rock heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius replaced the sky and fell over St Pierre. Homes swallowed, people incinerated within minutes. 28,000 people… The 18 boats in the bay were also destroyed, their remains still lying on the bottom of the sea. Only few escaped in time. Only two survived the fury of the mountain.

Mont Pelee, Martinique

Mont Pelee, Martinique

A young girl terrified by the eruption jumped in a small wooden boat and managed to get to a tiny cave near the shore where she used to play with her friends. Later, she was found unconscious but alive drifting in her damaged little boat two miles away from the cave.

.

.

A shoemaker miraculously survived in the room of his home, badly burned but alive.

Jail and Theater ruins, St Pierre, Martinique. Mont Pelee in the background

Jail and Theater ruins, St Pierre, Martinique. Mont Pelee in the background

In the local jail, a convict who misbehaved was placed in isolation in a stone cell with thick walls and no windows, which saved his life. Later, his sins were pardoned and he joined a circus to be exhibited around the world as the Lone Survivor of St. Pierre.
Today, only the ruins of the old theatre, the church and the jail with its isolation cell remain. All other houses and public establishments destroyed by the volcanic explosion and the fires that lasted a few days have been rebuilt. St. Pierre is no longer the busy extravagant town it once was, but a small quiet fishermen’s village with a few restaurants, a church, and a French pastry shop.

Fishermen, St Pierre, Martinique

Fishermen, St Pierre, Martinique

Hiking to the top of the volcano

We take the bus from St. Pierre after waiting for more than one hour at the bus stop, and get to the village nearest to the mountain. From there we walk for over an hour on a road up to the trailhead which starts from a car park at 830m (2,700ft). We begin the two-hour climb to the summit.

Hike to Mont Pelee, Martinique

Hike to Mont Pelee, Martinique

The trail is excellent, with steps and narrow paths at places, and a few rock scrambles over old magma deposits, domes, and andesie flows. There are no trees, only low shrubs and grasses and a few frail palms near the summit. The air is misty and the mountain is enveloped in a thick cloud. It drizzles. There are snails all over the place. Small hummingbirds making tiny helicopter sounds with their wings often come very near to check us out.

hummingbird

hummingbird

The dome at the summit, 1379m (4583ft), inside the crater is covered in vegetation and there is no volcanic activity, no smell of sulfur, no gases coming out of the earth. The giant is quietly slumbering again.

Maya

Maya

Maya is jumping happily up and down the trail, leading us like usually, when suddenly she jumps sideways screaming with fear and starts crying. We freeze. There is a HUGE hairy brown spider in the middle of the path, like a tarantula!

Martinique tree spider

Martinique tree spider

The Antilles pinktoe tarantula, or Martinique red tree spider is native to Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica. He lives up in the trees where he builds elaborate spiderweb tunnels. These tarantulas are not poisonous, and are very „friendly“ and docile, as well as beautifully colored, for which reasons people capture them and keep them as pets. We think that wild creatures belong in the wild, not in captivity… In any case, this little Big Guy frightened us, as we didn’t know he was harmless; we found out that later.

Mont Pelee, Martinique

Mont Pelee, Martinique

Up at the summit we walk around the crater and the few domes, rest for a bit, and start heading back down. It’s a long way. We are at the car park by the early afternoon, but it takes us over an hour to walk down from the car park to the village. We are exhausted and hungry and can’t wait to get in the bus and sit down. We wait for a long time at the bus stop. People pass by. Finally we ask a guy when the bus is coming, and he tells us, there is no bus to St. Pierre in the afternoon, only in the morning. Great…

Hike to Mont Pelee, Martinique

Hike to Mont Pelee, Martinique

We start walking again down the road, hitchhiking. Many cars pass by. Big fancy cars with just one person in them, unwilling to give us a lift. If this was Saba or any other non-French island, we’d be home long time ago. We calculate how long it will take us to walk all the way down to St. Pierre. We tell Maya we will probably be back home, on the boat, in the middle of the night…

Fata Morgana at St Pierre anchorage

Fata Morgana at St Pierre anchorage

After a very long time, a very small car pulls over. The driver is a young French woman and she has two kids in the back. There are two spots left for the three of us, but we manage to squeeze in. We are so grateful. Some people with small cars have big hearts.
We can now imagine returning to our boat in the anchorage around sunset, the journey over, time to eat French baguette sandwiches, drink beer, and relax watching the clouds drifting down from the bald mountain and over the sea.

St Pierre, Martinique

St Pierre, Martinique

Share

Maya’s Montserrat

My Journey in Montserrat

by Maya, 10

Little Bay Anchorage in Montserrat

Little Bay Anchorage in Montserrat

Almost every one of you wants me to write for the blog again, so here we go.

Hello, it’s me , Maya, writing about Montserrat (some people call it „The Monster Rat“…)

Maya in Montserrat, Little Bay.

Maya in Montserrat, Little Bay.

The Big Fish

Our journey in Montserrat started with a huge fish.

We were heading towards the island and it was a normal sailing day until zzzzzzzz our fishing pole sounded the alarm. A fish! The fish was too big and too strong and even my dad couldn’t fight with it. After half an hour my dad managed to pull it out. But only the 15-pound head was hanging on the hook with a bit of the body. Most of it was eaten by sharks. But still we got a ton of meat out of it.

Evo with the huge King Mackerel half eaten by sharks.

Evo with the huge King Mackerel half eaten by sharks.

We made sushi and grilled fish-stakes on the BBQ and we still had a few pounds of fish meat left.

Boatmade Sushi

Boat-made Sushi

City Covered in Ashes

When we arrived in Montserrat we met a guy named Terrance. My parents traded the rest of the fish in exchange for a ride to the city buried in ashes.

Our tour guide in Montserrat, Terrance, with Evo

Our tour guide in Montserrat, Terrance, with Evo

 

The city was the capital of Montserrat called Plymouth and it had thousands of expensive houses in it, all covered with ashes and abandoned.

 

The town of Plymouth under ashes

The town of Plymouth under ashes

 

On the island of Montserrat there is a volcano. But the people thought it was sleeping so they built a city right under it.

 

Mira watching the Soufriere Hills volcano from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.

Mira watching the Soufriere Hills volcano from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.

 

One morning the volcano woke up and started coughing, sneezing and barfing ashes and rocks on top of the city. Not because it’s a mean volcano or anything like this, it’s just what volcanoes do when they wake up. They say that when this volcano started spitting ashes and covered the whole city they even had to close the airport all the way in Venezuela because the ashes flew so far away.

 

Ruins of building around Plymouth

Ruins of building around Plymouth

 

But we couldn’t go inside Plymouth because it is an exclusion zone and if they catch you walking there you go to jail.

 

.

.

 

We had to have a special permission from the police and a car and someone with a phone for emergency. Good thing Terrance had a car and a phone.

 

Evo and Terrance getting a permission from the police to visit Zone C

Entering Zone C

Entering Zone C

 

So we went up Garibaldi Hill, another abandoned neighborhood not far from Plymouth, and we looked at the damage the volcano had done from there.

 

Looking at the city buried in ashes. Terrance, Mira, Maya

Looking at the city buried in ashes. Terrance, Mira, Maya

 

It looked horrible. All these houses, some cost like a million dollars, and the people had to abandon them and to run away. I wouldn’t like to be in that situation…

 

An abandoned house, Garibaldi Hill

An abandoned house, Garibaldi Hill

 

Friends

Another cool thing that happened in Montserrat is meeting new friends.

One morning I went to do some exercises on the beach because living on a boat is pretty lazy life. I usually run 4-5 laps. On the 5th lap two random girls stopped me and asked me a bunch of questions like Where are you from?, What’s your name?, Did you come here by yourself? I answered all of the questions and then I asked them if they wanted to play with me.They said sure! So we played all day long in the water and on the beach. And the next day too. One of the girls was Angel and the other Darriana. Later another girl came, Malvelina or Mel for short. They were about the same age like me, 13, 13 and 11.

Little Bay anchorage and beach

Little Bay anchorage and beach

The cool thing about these friends was that Angel’s mother works at the bar near the beach and she sells slush, small for 3 EC dollars and big for 5 EC dollars. She told us that if we go and advertise the slush to the people on the beach we will get free slush, so we did and we got free slush. Darry’s father is the ice cream man but he was off duty that day and we didn’t get any free ice cream, and Mel’s grandma sells cookies and candy on a bench under a tree in front of the restaurant, so she gave us a pack of cookies and even money for cola. So we got everything for free.

Darriana and Maya at the beach in Montserrat

Darryana and Maya at the beach in Montserrat

Also, that was my supreme ‘liers’ day’. Only Angel and Darry knew the real me. We told lies to all the other kids on the beach because they were lying to us too. I told them that my name was Emma, that I was 13 years old, that I was the richest kid alive and that I owned a huge mansion, and that my mom’s name was Savanah, also that I am a professional surfer, and that my dad is the Guinness world record boxing champion and that I come from London. I know you must be laughing by now, I was too.

At the end of the day when I came back to the boat I was starving, but even worst, I was so sunburned I looked like the devil. My face was officially RED.

Maya's face burn

Some Interesting Facts About Montserrat

  • Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean with 102 sq km (39 sq mi) territory and about 5000 inhabitants of mixed African-Irish descendants.

 

  • Many Irish people were transported to the island in the 18th century to work as slaves or exiled prisoners during the English Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

 

  • Montserrat is the only country in the world except Ireland where St Patrick’s Day is an official holiday and is celebrated for an entire week.

 

  • On 18 July 1995, the dormant Soufrière Hills volcano became active destroying Montserrat’s Georgian era capital city of Plymouth and two-thirds of the island’s population fled.

 

  • A new capital and main port are being developed on the northwest coast of the island.

 

  • The volcanic activity continues with the most recent eruption on 11 February 2010.

 

  • An „exclusion zone“ has been imposed because of the potential for pyroclastic activity. Visitors are not permitted entry into the exclusion zone V.

 

  • A special permission can be granted by the police to enter Zone C by car only and observe the volcano and Plymouth from Garibaldi Hill.

 

  • A taxi tour of the island and exclusion zone C can be arranged for about 20 to 40 $US

 

  • Terrance McPhoy is not a taxi driver but is available to give tours for groups of up to 7 people.Cell phone (664)496-1291

 

  • There are a few great hiking trails on the island but access to Soufrière Hills is forbidden.

 

  • A geothermal project is currently being developed by an Icelandic company for making electricity with volcanic hot waters.

 

More Images of Montserrat and its People

Plymouth covered by ashes, Montserrat

Plymouth covered by ashes, Montserrat

Geothermal waters

Geothermal waters

Geothermal project

Geothermal project

 

A parade in Montserrat.

Parade in Montserrat.

.

.

 

Montserrat girl

Montserrat girl

Girls on the beach at Little Bay

Girls on the beach at Little Bay

Share

Taking the Waters at The Bath Hotel in Nevis

 

From St. Kitts we sail a few miles southeast to Nevis, the smaller and fancier of the twin islands. We drop anchor in front of the main docks in Charlestown, the biggest and most populated town in Nevis. In the backdrop, beyond the towns and villages, a small green volcano rises to meet the clouds.

Nevis

Nevis

The architecture of the old colonial town of Charlestown is impressive with a few heavy stone cathedrals and old buildings neatly restored, painted in pale cheerful colors. But the most curious site with very interesting history is The Bath Hotel, at the south end of Charlestown, where a hot spring flows down from the mountain.

Charlestown buildings

Charlestown buildings

In 1778 local merchant John Huggins, clerk of the local assembly who took care of the thermal springs, decided to build a hotel nearby. His grave stone located in St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Charlestown reads: “Not many years before his death he became proprietor of the neighbouring hot springs over which out of good will towards his fellow creatures and not for any advantage of his own he erected convenient baths and at a short distance a large and expensive stone edifice for the accommodation of invalids.”

The Bath Hotel, Nevis

The Bath Hotel, Nevis

The early years of The Bath Hotel were quite grand. Constructed of the grey volcanic stone found on the island cut into square blocks, the ballroom and dining hall were furnished with mahogany furniture, rich brocade hangings, and thick rugs on polished floors. British author Gertrude Atherton wrote in “The Gorgeous Isle,” a novel set in Nevis, that the hotel, which could accommodate 50 guests in its bedrooms, “was surrounded by wide gardens of tropical trees, ferns and flowers…Its several terraces flamed with color, as well as its numerous little balconies and galleries, and the flat surfaces of the roof: the whole effect being that of an Eastern palace with hanging gardens, a vast pleasure house, designed for some extravagant and voluptuous potentate.”

Maya and the Big Tree, the Bath Hotel, Nevis

Maya and the Big Tree, the Bath Hotel, Nevis

The Bath Hotel in Nevis was the first tourist hotel and tropical sanatorium in the entire Caribbean region attracting not only ‘invalids’ but all the fashionable of the West Indie: rich merchants and planters, military officers, as well as wealthy European aristocrats arriving here to treat their ailments and soothe their aching muscles in the sulfuric healing waters of the volcanic hot spring administrated by skilled physicians, as well as to enjoy the social scene in Nevis.

Hot Spring Pool

Hot Spring Pool

The Bath House and other bathing facilities built at the base of the hotel capture the thermal spring water with near boiling temperatures and high sulfur content produced by groundwater coming in contact with hot volcanic rock. These mineral waters, it was believed, had restorative powers able to cure gout, rheumatism and other debilitating conditions.

The Bath Springs, Nevis

The Bath Springs, Nevis

But after the downfall of the sugar production and trade and with the emancipation of slaves in 1834, the hotel lost its clientele and fell into disrepair. In the following years various owners restored it to some degree and today it is a government building housing various government offices and the Nevis Island Administration.

Inside the Bath House

Inside the Bath House

The Bath House

The Bath House

The Bath House is abandoned and in ruins, but residents and visitors can still ‘take the waters’ in the two mineral water pools outside of the hotel, at no charge.

Maya and Mira at the Bath Springs

Maya and Mira at the Bath Springs

It is noon in July, the air is burning hot in the tropical sun, but the water in the shallow pool that smells of boiled eggs is even hotter.
Slowly, gradually, painfully, I enter the hot pool. It feels like billions of tiny needles on my skin. I don’t know if these waters will heal my aching muscles, but if I remain submerged for over 10-15 minutes my heart will fail for sure.

Maya is testing the water temperature with a toe while Mira is 'taking the waters' at the Bath Springs, Nevis

Maya is testing the water temperature with a toe while Mira is ‘taking the waters’ at the Bath Springs, Nevis

It’s time to cool down with the help of a huge bucket of ice cream back on the boat and we are ready to sail again. Next stop: Montserrat.

 

Share