Don's Diary

August 4, 2000


The aircraft door opens and the heat hits you - welcome to Antigua. Time is tight and I worry that I will not get through passport control in time to board the helicopter to my final destination. Perspiration aplenty, but I make it. A short hop southwestward to the next Leeward Island in the Caribbean archipelago - Montserrat. Little can be seen of the active volcano, which is immersed in cloud.

Check into customs, which is a very hot tent, then into an air-conditioned cabin to obtain a driving licence. Stand waiting for a lift, dripping in the sultry atmosphere.


Work begins. A colleague, Georg Waldmann, and I have obtained Foreign Office funding to record and map the vegetation on Montserrat. This is not such an easy task. The terrain is hilly, dissected with steep-sided valleys, covered with dense, sometimes prickly vegetation, and the volcano is often spewing out ash.


We are invited to an organised stroll in the Silver Hills and all assemble in the relatively cool early morning. Four hours later we emerge from the dry scrubland and I am thankful that I took those three litres of water. My bleeding legs testify to the need for the footpaths to be cleared of the thorny acacia.


Walk along Fox's Bay beach, the most threatened habitat on the island. The skeletons of trees surround me. Ashing and hurricane damage is responsible for this carnage. Ponder the impact of the mudflow after the eruption in March on Belham River beach and the new development at Little Bay. Will plants such as the poisonous manchineel tree, which inhabits the back of beaches, be here in future?


Armed with a walkie-talkie, Dr Waldmann and I descend to the old sugar mill at Trant's. With permission from the Montserrat Volcanic Observatory, we are in the exclusion zone. Standing on the margin of this pyroclastic flow deposit, with the destroyed airport nearby, you appreciate the power of this volcano. The walk south to Spanish Point is eerie, with low cloud covering the volcano, black sky to the east as a storm moves on land and ash being blown all around. A few houses at Spanish Point were untouched by the ash that thundered down the hillside in 1997. Peering through the windows it seems as though evacuation took place only yesterday.


Since our arrival, rumours abound of a large cat in the north. At the National Trust we are shown a video of the beast, shot by a rambler in the Silver Hills. It is very convincing. To think we walked past that pond, where this puma-like cat was observed only last weekend.


Busy schedule for the next week. Field walking interspersed by meetings with local gardeners, farmers, foresters, the chief minister and the governor. Hoping for an eruption-free visit.

Michael Field is a research fellow at Coventry University.

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