Into The Exclusion Zone

by Dan John on
Dan John

After the excitement of arrival day, the following day had been billed as a rare chance to relax and unwind a bit. The only task in the calendar was to check on the frogs in the morning in their ponds to make sure they had all made it through the night ok, make sure they were watered and to add in some more crickets for them to eat. Essentially the team were frog room-service for the morning.

Now, you’d have thought that simply counting ten frogs in a relatively small space would be a pretty easy job. This was not the case. It turns out that counting ten incredibly well camouflaged frogs who insist on hopping around all over the place is actually a near impossible task. Whilst filming Chris attempt this it seemed to me that one particular pen of frogs were deliberately trying to wind him up, allowing him to count up to about eight before all swapping places and making him start again. Note to self: frogs are devious.

As the afternoon came round it was time for that promised chill out time. I had, quite understandably, dressed for the beach – swim shorts, towel, beach shoes, the lot. It turned out, however, that this was not the sort of “chilling out” that the team had in mind. I probably should have guessed we would end up exploring the island’s volcano exclusion area; after all, what says ‘relaxation’ more than a trip to a natural disaster zone?

Soufrière Hills volcano
Soufrière Hills volcano exclusion zone

The island of Montserrat has been scarred by the devastating effects of the great Soufrière Hills volcano at it’s centre, both physically and socially. The volcano began erupting in 1995 and thankfully the decision was made to evacuate the South half of the island. In 1997 there was a major dome collapse which destroyed a huge part of the island, engulfing the capital city of Plymouth in its wake. There have been a number of eruptions since then, most recently in 2010. Those who stayed on the island moved north and lived as refugees as the island attempted to rebuild itself in what was originally a very underdeveloped area.

Our first stop off was to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory where we met the team responsible for monitoring the volcanic activity and setting off the island’s alarm if there are any signs of another eruption. I almost had a heart attack when an alarm started going off in the observatory room; the guy who worked there didn’t seem too bothered by it even if he also didn't seem too sure about what it meant. I have to admit I did start to question our excursion into the exclusion zone; you're usually excluded from zones for a reason aren'y you? However, the team seemed undeterred and we set off to see the effects of the volcano for ourselves.

abandoned hotel montserrat
Abandoned hotel in volcano exclusion zone

I’ll never forget what we saw as we got closer to the area destroyed by the eruption. Ash started to mount up like sand dunes and we drove past a series of holiday homes and hotels that were completely abandoned. We stopped at one to have a look around. The entire place was covered in ash, and nature had started to reclaim it in the amazing way nature does to abandoned buildings. We found rooms hastily evacuated, the remains of what was obviously the bar and a swimming pool completely filled in with ash. In one room, which must have been an office, we even found some official tourist information from a few years before the eruption informing people that the volcano was believed to be safe.

tourist information
Tourist information found in abandoned hotel

Looking over at Plymouth, which had once been the bustling capital of Montserrat, now reduced to rubble, or buried in ash and debris, littered with boulders and abandoned buildings, was a sobering moment. This was a modern day Pompeii and proof that no matter how far we progress as a human race, when we are faced with the full destructive force of nature there is nothing we can do. It was incredibly eerie to be walking around as the only people for miles around amongst abandoned and ruined homes and businesses. As the alarm went off to tell us it was time to head back (another alarm which scared me half to death!) it completed the impression that I was walking in some post-apocalyptic landscape, waiting for zombies to come running out at any moment. I’d gone from Jurassic Park to 28 Days Later in the space of a couple of days. And those two extremes really do some up what a diverse and interesting island Montserrat is.

Plymouth Montserrat
Plymouth - former capital city of Montserrat

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