Caribbean Volcanoes: Sun, Sea – And Ash?

It’s not the average tourist’s idea of fun, but Simon Lee loves the challenge of a good volcano

Illustration by Jason Jarvis

Sure you’ve heard about Vesuvius, and how it blew away Pompeii,
but what about Soufrière? And exactly which Soufrière are we
talking about? The one in St Vincent? Or maybe the one in Guadeloupe? Or quite
possibly that master blaster in Montserrat, which you can distinguish from
the others because it’s actually the Soufrière Hills. Then there’s
St Lucia’s Soufrière, and another in Dominica.

By now you’re wondering if the Caribbean’s original name-givers were short
on originality. Well, not really — place names in the islands reflect the
myriad languages and cultures of their assorted inhabitants. So Amerindian
names like Guayaguayare and Chacachacare jostle with the Spanish Santo Domingo
or Pinar del Rio, true Brit tags like Kingstown and St Georges, the Dutch-inspired
Oranjestad and Willemstad, and the French Basse Terre and — you guessed it
— Soufrière.

Don’t blow up on me just yet — another Caribbean mystery is about to be
solved. Anywhere the French settled, besides the legacy of carnival and mouth-watering
Creole cuisine, they left the name “Soufrière”, a Creole term describing
the distinctive pungency of sulphur dioxide, the bad-egg blast that goes with
volcanoes.

That’s it, folks: just take a peek out of the nearest window at the islands
strung out beneath your wings, and, with the exception of Trinidad and Barbados,
they’re all volcanoes waiting to exhale. Relax, just kidding! Although tiny
Montserrat is a reminder of the region’s largely volcanic origins, and of
course there’s Kick ’Em Jenny, the submarine tsunami-stirrer, which breaks
the waves just north of Grenada.

Which brings me to Mt Pelée (at last, a volcano with a different
sobriquet). On my first trip to Martinique I was determined to visit this
sleeping giant, which erupted in 1902, wiping out St Pierre — the sexiest
city in the Antilles — along with 30,000 citizens. Foolishly, instead of
fleeing, they remained to vote in a municipal election. My curiosity was
piqued by the story of the sole survivor, Auguste Cyparis, who’d been locked
up for the night in a thick-walled cell, for drunkenness. Who said it don’t
pay to be drunk and disorderly?

After a few moments of reverential silence besides Cyparis’s cell, I eyed
the volcano, its summit lost in cloud. Like the true sportsman I am, I bet
my travelling companion, a sardonic German musicologist, that I’d be first
to the top. He snickered by way of reply and, when we reached the foothills,
bade me a fond farewell, retiring to a nearby restaurant to study the lunch
menu.

I tackled the lower slopes with all the enthusiasm of a young goat, bounding
from boulder to boulder, waving condescendingly at a troop of Foreign Legionnaires
too breathless to greet me on their slither back down.

When I reached elfin forest altitude, I paused not only for oxygen refuelling
but to bask in solitude and silence — rare commodities in the Caribbean, especially
at sea level, where if the music don’t get you, then the trilling cicadas
or nocturnal frog chorus will. For a moment I communed with the spirits of
the island, and hummed the opening bars of Sitting on Top of the World.

Then a fine rain reminded me of my summit mission, and I pressed on through
drizzle, which rapidly transformed into a lashing rainstorm. When I lost my
feet in the thick mist it did occur to me that maybe it was time to descend;
but, I argued, the top had to be close at foot. On and up I staggered, clawing
my way over moss-crusted rocks until my final footstep left me suspended in
mid-air. I retracted my leg from outer space, congratulated myself on conquering
Mt Pelée, and promptly collapsed.

A sudden gust of wind swept the peak, long enough for me to see that the
real summit was a few metres further, and that I’d diverted onto a side spur.
Oh well, neither the German nor anybody else below the mist would be any the
wiser, and when I sloped into the St Pierre restaurant I claimed my solo winner’s
lunch without a pang of conscience.

The ascent of Mt Pelée fired me up for a volcanic trail across the
islands. Miraculously, I survived the Valley of Desolation en route for the
Boiling Lake in Dominica; I bathed in the sulphur springs at St Lucia’s drive-in
volcano; braved landing on Saba, a sheer volcanic blob; and to top it all
off talked myself into a quick trip to Montserrat, where the Soufrière
Hills volcano was literally blowing its top.

I spent a nerve-stretching but exhilarating dusk at the foot of the volcano,
watching plumes of dust belching starwards, while rivers of lava and pyroclastic
flow streamed downhill.

The next morning, armed with my danger zone pass, I drove into Plymouth,
Montserrat’s deserted capital, which lay silent under several feet of volcanic
ash. It was a perfect Caribbean day, blazing sun in blue sky, turquoise sea,
a narrow strip of sand washed clean by the waves — sun, sea, sand, and ash.