Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Episode 9): Volcanoes in Paradise

The first part of the flight from Charlotte Amelie was gorgeous; the Virgin Islands are breathtaking from a few thousand feet up (and I even managed a glimpse of “Norman Island”).  But after we’d passed the last chunk of land, all that lay ahead was a lot of water. To make matters even more interesting, it was a hot, humid day, which meant the visibility dropped to a few miles and the turbulence kicked us all over the sky. We cinched our seat belts as tight as they would go, but still had to hang onto something if we wanted to stay seated.

After an hour of this, Brandon said it might be a good idea to put down at the next island.

“Which island’s that?” I asked.

“Saba,” said Brandon, pointing out the windscreen.

At first I couldn’t see anything … but as I peered out into the murk, I began to sense, more than see, a dark shape that slowly resolved itself into one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen. The volcanic hulk of Saba lay directly in front of us.

Saba

It remains the single most imposing sight I have ever laid eyes on.

The unfathomable depths of the Ocean surrounded us on every side, and yet enormously powerful forces within the Earth had pushed up this volcano until it stood 3,000 feet above the waters.

The Islands of Hawaii don’t hold the same awe for me as Saba. It was so obviously a volcano, that its out-of-place presence in the middle of an Ocean can only be described as terrifying! Even more amazing was the news that people actually lived on this thing. Not very many of them—the whole Island has a total area of only 5 square miles—but people actually lived out their lives down there.

As we banked around Saba looking for the airport, I learned there were only two small towns, the port of  “Fort Bay,” located at the foot of the volcano, and the capital city—er village—er hamlet—of “Bottom,” which was located near the top! The two villages are connected by the Island’s one and only road, which has the creative and original name of, “The Road.” And while Saba’s rocky coastline does have beaches, every one of them is made up of black, volcanic sand.

Apparently, Saba hasn’t been dormant for all that long.

As I was taking in that disturbing fact, I heard Brandon mutter, “Oh My God” with more than a little awe in his voice. Looking up, I saw him pointing at the airport, which had just appeared on the far side of the Island. I imagine all our jaws dropped when we saw it, for as we later learned, Saba’s Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport is considered to be the most dangerous commercial runway in the world.

Saba

At the time we were looking down on Saba, the airstrip measured a mere 1,312 feet long. The bulk of the volcano stood on one side of the plateau where the runway is located. The other three sides had a precipitous 60-foot sheer drop to the sea below.

To put it mildly … the airport looked horrifying!

After Brandon regained some of his composure, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to try  shooting an approach … but the lower we got, the shorter the runway looked—so I think all of us were relieved when Mike finally chuckled, “No way,” and powered us up and away from Saba.

The trip got a lot more scenic after this. We were at the top of the Lesser Antilles chain now and island-hopped our way from Saba to Saint Eustatius to Saint Kitts to Nevis. Just south of Nevis, we got our first glimpse of the island of Montserrat, but Brandon decided we’d find better accommodations—and night life—in Antigua. So we banked off to the south-east and headed for that gorgeous island.

Charles JosephI very much doubt that we would have experienced Antigua as we did were it not for a wonderful taxi driver by the name of Charles Joseph.

The moment we emerged from the terminal building, Charles Joseph was at our service, and he didn’t stop looking after us for the next few days.

We had already got used to the idea that locals viewed all pilots flying their own aircraft as “Rich Americans,” and would do all they could to separate you from as much of your money as possible. Charles Joseph quickly figured out we were all pretty much broke, but that just seemed to make him like us even more!

He quickly steered us away from the hotel where we’d planned to stay and took us to a much more reasonable location with clean rooms and great food (if he got a kickback, he earned it). After we checked in, Charles Joseph asked if we’d like to see the “Real Antigua.” We jumped at the chance, so he said he’d come back after supper and take us to the Island’s hottest night club.

A few hours later we had sampled just about every Rum drink our friendly hosts could think to make us. I was determined not to repeat my Bahamian Vodka experience, and was pleased to see Brandon and Wortsie were well “in the bag” by the time Charles Joseph took us back to the Hotel.

Next up was the island of Montserrat. We were headed there because Wortsie had rented a beach villa on that Island for his upcoming honeymoon and wanted to get a shot of the place for his future bride. However, Brandon wanted to provide Duke one last chance by giving him a full day of instrument approaches. So Mike offered to drop us off on Montserrat where Wortsie could get the picture of his honeymoon haven, and the two of us could have a breather from the non-stop travel.

Duke wasn’t interested in making the trip as he wanted to go over his Instrument Approach Plates (in the Airport Terminal), so that left an empty seat for the short inter-island hop. Brandon thought about this, then turned to our wonderful guide and asked Charles Joseph if he’d like to go along.

I don’t know how old Charles Joseph was at the time—I’m guessing late thirties (though when you’re nineteen, everyone over thirty looks old). So we were shocked to discover: a) he’d never been in an airplane, b) he’d never been to Montserrat, and c) he’d never left the Island of his birth!

That did it for us. Charles Joseph was coming, no matter what! Mike put him in the co-pilot’s seat and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a look of wide-eyed wonder as when Charles Joseph took to the skies for the first time.

Mike gave him a good ride. We did a quick circuit of Antigua (which must have taken all of 5 minutes) before heading off for the 20-minute crossing to Montserrat. As we approached the lush green island, Mike banked towards the south so we could come in around the dormant volcano.

Saba

As we peered down at the Volcano’s steep slopes, an awful smell permeated our cabin. After looking suspiciously at each other, Charles Joseph explained the stench was coming from sulphur, emitted from cracks in the volcano’s flanks.

Wortsie and I shared a nervous glance.

“Um, so when was the last time this thing erupted?” I asked.

“Oh, long time ago—1630,” answered Charles Joseph. “No worry, Man. The Soufriere, she sleeping now. No wake up again.”

Uh huh …

She smelled pretty darn awake to me.

Brandon lined up on a slightly longer version of Saba’s, plateau-top airport. This runway was also surrounded by water on three sides, and while Brandon was on the brakes the second we touched down, he managed to get us stopped with room to spare.

Montserrat Customs & Immigration proved to be interesting. They weren’t particularly interested in we three Canadians, but the presence of Charles Joseph seemed to trigger instant alarm. Even though we explained the Antiguan had just come along for the ride, the Montserrat official insisted on carefully inspecting all of Charles Joseph’s papers.

After Brandon and Charles Joseph headed back to Antigua …

Saba

… Wortsie and I were driven on a switchback road to the police station, halfway up the side of the mountain. When we asked why we were being taken there, the cop shocked us by swinging open the door of a jail cell right out of the 1600’s—complete with oversized padlock, steel bars and a small barred window at the back.

After Wortsie and I exchanged a look of shock, the cop started laughing and told us he’d made the stop so we could get our logbooks signed. He produced an elegant looking stamp, then imprinted a green shamrock—symbol of this formerly Irish island.

Logbook

He then got us a “cab,” which turned out to be one of the open-sided “Mini-Mokes,” used extensively throughout the Island chain. The driver took us up over “The Saddle,” then down another switchback to Montserrat’s western coast, home of the picture-perfect capital of Plymouth.

Plymouth

We found a great little bed and breakfast just a few steps from the beach and as soon as we’d dropped off our bags (and wondered why both beds were covered with heavy mosquito netting), headed off to check out Wortsie’s Honeymoon Villa.

Ever since Wortsie decided he was going to visit the villa, he had carefully loaded a fresh roll of film into his camera and refused to use it for anything other than pictures for his fiancé. Now the moment had arrived, Wortsie carefully retrieved his camera, checked it one last time, then headed off to get the pictures that had become the prime goal of his trip.

We decided to walk along the beach to the Villa, but as we crossed the street from our B&B, we quickly learned Montserrat wasn’t like the islands we’d visited thus far. To reach the beach, we had to make our way through twenty feet of tall grass. We didn’t think much of this until we heard something scurrying through the greenery. As the source of the sound seemed particularly large, both of us checked in wide-eyed horror. A passing Montserratian laughed and told us we were hearing Montserrat Lizards.

Lizards???

The man told us not to worry and assured us the Lizards usually ran off as soon as they heard someone approach.

Usually???

Wortsie and I started through the grass cautiously, but when we actually saw one of the big brutes, we completed our traverse in mere nano-seconds.

This lead to our second big discovery … the sand on Montserrat is black.

And when the tropical sun beats down on black sand, its temperature reaches approximately twelve point eight zillion degrees!

As our feet hit the sizzling sand, our eyes bugged open and we realized we had three alternatives:

a) Go back through the Lizard infested grass,

b) Lose all use of our pedal extremities, or …

c) Run as fast as we could to the cooling waters of the Ocean.

We decided on option C.

Wortsie was faster than me, so he reached the water first.

This turned out to be unfortunate, for—as fate would have it—no sooner had Wortsie waded into the waters than a particularly nasty “rogue wave” rose up from the depths and swept towards him.

I managed to stop on the cool sand in the Ocean’s wash, and from there I had a marvellous view of:

a) The Giant Wave.

b) Wortsie’s bulging eyes, and,

c) His desperate attempt to hold his precious camera high over his head.

Unfortunately, the wave was higher than Wortsie’s reach, a fact I know to be true as I managed to snap a picture of Wortsie’s desperate manoeuvres just before the mini-tsunami struck him down.

Wortsie

When he surfaced, a few minutes later, Wortsie discovered the salt water had completely destroyed his camera. After I finally managed to stop laughing, I told Wortsie not to worry—that I’d be happy to get the shots he wanted with my camera. But when we finally reached “his villa” and I went to take the snapshot that would complete Wortsie’s quest … I discovered I was out of film. Ironically, the last shot I took was of Wortsie and his camera succumbing to that “killer wave.”

So Wortsie never did get his picture.

We were back at the airstrip the following day, but Brandon didn’t turn up until the early afternoon. It turned out he and Duke had only managed to get in one circuit before the Apache’s generator had given out. It took them the rest of the day to get the plane fixed, so they hadn’t managed to get much flying done. Brandon also told us he wasn’t thrilled with the repairs, and suggested it might be a good idea to head north where we could get our poor old Apache properly attended to.

We had hoped to get farther down the Island chain … but with an ailing engine, and time beginning to slip by, we agreed it was time to start heading home.

I’ll never forget the take off from Montserrat. Brandon did another orbit of the island as we left and we couldn’t get over how lush and green it looked from above.

None of us had any way of knowing that the gorgeous scenery below us would soon be gone. For in 1995, old Soufriere awoke from her long sleep with a series of terrifying eruptions that devastated the island.

Credit: Barry Voight, Penn State

Credit: Barry Voight, Penn State

Our B&B, along with the entire capital city of Portsmouth, would be buried under a thick blanket of lava, mud, and volcanic ash.

Credit: Tall Order Photography

Credit: Tall Order Photography

zzz

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Texaco Storage in '68

Texaco Storage in '68

Texaco Storage

Same facility after the eruption. Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

And most of the airport where we landed would disappear under the force of a pyroclastic flow.

Credit: Lots of yarn

Credit: Lots of yarn

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

As I write these words in 2010, Soufriere’s eruption is now in its 15th year and only the northern third of Montserrat is considered habitable. And when I look at the pictures of such total devastation, it seems impossible that I once strolled the colourful streets of Plymouth, and walked along Montserrat’s black sand beaches.

It is one thing to see pictures of volcano-devastated towns such as Pompeii. It is something altogether different to have been there … before. And my heart goes out to the good people of Montserrat who wait, oh so patiently, for Soufriere to go quiet again.

 

Watch for Episode 10 of “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,” “Missing in the Devil’s Triangle,” on Sunday, May 30th, 2010.

Excerpted from Glenn Norman’s book, “Living On Stolen Time.” Due for release in the fall of 2010.

 

About the Author

Glenn Norman is a Co-Founder and the Editor of Why Fly. Learn more.

2 Comments

  1. I am loving this story!! How long until the next installment?? having 100 hours in an old Apache makes it more real, Great stuff!

  2. Hi Nigel.
    Glad you’re enjoying the tale – and the “really good stuff” is still to come!
    We are now posting a new “episode” of “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear” every Sunday. And, FYI, they are abridged excerpts from my new book, “Living on Stolen Time” – which tells the whole story – and should be out in the late fall of 2010.
    Thanks for the kind words. GN

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