Montserrat: The Pompeii of the Caribbean

Like Saba, Montserrat is also very green, and used to be known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. But since the 1995 eruption of Soufriere Hills volcano, the airport and port town of Plymouth were buried in ash and turned into a modern Pompeii. The capital city was abandoned, much of the island was evacuated, but 19 lost their lives, and hundreds upon hundreds of buildings were either buried under ash or washed away with one of many pyroclastic flows, which kept occurring until as recently as 2009.

the panoramic view of Soufriere Hills from the Volcano Observatory

So why would a tourist want to go there? Well for one, I´m Icelandic and we have volcanic eruptions all the time, so that wasn´t a deterrent. Secondly, driving around Plymouth (which requires an escort and police clearance) was tons more moving than Pompeii – these were people´s homes that are still alive today!

black sand tropical beach

I was supposed to take a ferry to Montserrat from Antigua, but the one day I had booked they decided to dock the ferry for maintenance. I was lucky enough to have pre-booked, so they offered to fly me instead, in a charter, and I was only one of 4 passengers going out to John A. Osborne airport, newly built in 2005 to replace the devastated Plymouth airport. I was even luckier flying back – as the only passenger in an 8 seater plane, I got to play copilot instead!

I helped fly myself back to Antigua

I walked down to Brades and Little Bay, saw black sand beaches that reminded me of home, then hitchhiked south to the Montserrat Volcano observatory. There I met a couple of nice Americans that invited me to Plymouth – all I had to do was add my name to the police registry when passing the no-travel zone!

A building still visible in Plymouth

We saw an abandoned hotel, what was left of the grocery store, and the new harbour they´ve built to export sand. The economy still relies heavily on British aid, but the future is bright: green energy from Icelandic technology should tap into the island´s geothermal power by 2024, and tourism has started increasing again. The mountainous hiking and black beaches around the island are still an attraction, although Soufriere is still an active volcano. Some daredevils have even rebuilt their homes in the no-go zone, because who knows, maybe it will be dormant for another 2 or 3 hundred years, as it was before 1995.

Roadtrip Iceland, in the plumber car

My new found home on wheels has offered so many opportunities for travel, and because of tour guiding work, I haven’t been outside of Iceland since before May, so roadtrips in Iceland where the greatest way to play. My 2-seater car, with a mattress, fridge and sink, has been fully kitted for an impromptu roadtrip thru Iceland at any moment; two friends have been lucky enough to become the plumber car’s first guests.

my home on wheels, under Hekla

I met a couchsurf host in Geneva who was on his way to Iceland for a few days, so we decided to test the home on wheels together for the first time. We drove the golden circle, had pizza and beer at Skjól, and hottubed til the wee hours of the morning at Hrunalaug, which hadn´t yet run dry. We met two Romanian workers from the Geysir shop who offered endless entertainment, and a yoga photographer from LA who I´ll probably see again in the future for a yoga workshop in Iceland. That night we slept near Fluðir on the banks of Thjorsá river, and carried on the following day on a hunt for more hot pools.

Hjalparfoss

We visited a pool that I´ve still never quite figured out why it got deserted, but it´s just there, all alone, rundown, perfectly swimmable. We went to Hjalpárfoss, which I hadn´t realized I´d never been to until I was there, looking at something I´d never seen. We drove south, under Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull until we reached Seljlanads country, and thought we´d be sneaky and sleep close to the sea on a dead end farmer´s hay field road a couple of km´s west of the infamous US Navy DC plane crash at Solheimasandur. On our midnight walk west, we realized there were a few too many unbridged rivers to make it. He´ll have to come back to see it net time.

the perfect secret lagoon

I made a friend in Thailand last November with a handful of Americans on a Travr trip, and she was coming from LA for a week long vacation to a place she´d never been, or even considered going, so I planned a full circumnavigation of the island for her… and my car. We left Reykjavik headed for the north over Kjolur, and spent our first night in Blondudalur. We arrived quite late, after a midnight dip in the Hveravellir hottub, so my pregnant friend Kristine was already sleep. When we woke up, she was gone, and her man, and it took some time to realize that they had left for Akureyri hospital, since she had gone into labour.

super preggers Kristine in between conractions, with permission to leave the hospital for a little photo shoot and virgin mojito action

We carried on to Husavik, where we visited Geosea until closing, and camped, illegally, in their parking lot, after having one too many beers at the swim-up bar. They woke us up in the morning with a knock on the car door, politely asking us not to “camp” in the parking lot.

Lauren and I at Geosea

The next night we went to Egilsstadir, my former summer stomping ground, where Nielsen Restaurant has been making waves. Run by a friend, the former head chef Kari of Michelin-starred Dill, it was a treat to eat so well, for so little, in a quiet, countryside town.

Head chef Kari at Nielsen restaurant

We drove to the bottom of Fljotsdalur to Egilsstadir farm, the last inhabited farm in the valley headed southwest to Snaefell and the foothills of Vatnajokull glacier, to stay at the Wilderness Center. My former boss and friend Denni runs a museum, guest house and viking sauna there, surrounded by horses and reindeer. We ended up, fireside, sharing stories and grass, before falling asleep in the back of the campervan, a place that had started to feel more and more like home.

at the end of the world, Obyggdasetur Islands, aka the Wilderness Center in East Iceland

The next morning we had intended on sleeping in Vik, but one of the first and worst rainfalls of the summer had started coming down like hell on earth, so we just kept driving to Reykjavik and crawled into my warm, dry bed in Reykjavik, feeling slightly as if we had cheated on the plumber car. Its hard to say, but I´m sure my apartment was happy to finally have some cuddles too.

Photo Highlight: Winter in Vestmannaeyjar

My father was from a tiny island on the south coast of Iceland where men proudly call themselves the first and most original Icelanders, since Iceland is their biggest colony. My father was born January 7th 1952 and both my grandparents were born January 11th, so January seemed like the best time to go and visit their communal grave. The cemetery in Heimaey is always lit up with festive lights until January 23rd, the anniversary of the 1973 volcanic eruption start date. If only everyone could Rest In Peace in such a paradise as this.

Photo Trips to 'hey, you forgot le yogert,' aka Eyafjallajökull

I heard about the first volcanic eruption about 1 minute after the news report was released, late at night around 1 am, and almost drove out to it that night. Hearing rumours of road closures and safety risks, I waited until the next day, and then life just carried on as usual, busy days doing nothing, until all of a sudden, the volcano was over!

I was expecting a 2 month or even 2 year spectacle and assumed I would eventually get out to it so I could also get my  photo taken with bubbling lava behind me like everyone else, but the couple weeks I waited proved to be too long. It was also because there was no sign or evidence of a volcanic eruption here in Reykjavik, as no sounds, sights or smells of the eruption reached us.

But then, we all know what happened, the real show began! The most recent eruption started at around 20 times the strength, defeaning sounds echoing around southern Iceland, and ash starting its quick and lethal journey to mainland Europe. I decided I of course couldnt miss this opporunity again, and drove out to it within a day of it blowing its top. The road was actually closed, but I was driving with an Icelandic friend of mine who convinced the authorities we had to go into Úlfsey to help a friend move horses. It wasn´t 100% true, but there was a friend and there were horses, but we were just going to take photos all night from beneath the volcano with our zoom lenses and tripods.

The lightning in the plume cloud was one of the most amazing natural phenomenons I have ever witnessed, the most beautiful, bright sight you could imagine in an otherwise horribly dark, grim volcanic ash cloud. It was red sometimes, orange other times, and even a white lightning streak sometimes lit up the whole cloud. It was soundless lighting though, and the missing thunder just made the volcano seem more scary, like a silent monster. Northern lights speckled the sky half way into the night, and the view of a billion stars all added up to make the night one of the most unforgettable I’ve ever had.

The next day we took advantage of the day light and took photos of the plume cloud, rising 10 km´s above the crater, and the endless, drifting ash cloud supposedly spreading ash in Russia and leaving ash on people´s cars in Norway. Crazy to think about.

I went back to the Volcano 2 days later, Monday the 19th, to see a much smaller, lighter plume cloud, but an even murkier, spooky ash cloud blowing straight south, barely missing the Vestmann Islands off the southcoast of Iceland.

The road closure was slightly closer, right at the bridge over Markarfljót, with the rebuilt ringroad highway that was originally torn apart to allow for glacier melting and run off water to flow. As we arrived, the time was 19:27, and the road block was officially lifted 2 minutes later. So, with a sense of adventure, everyone in the car thought we should carry on and we drive straight into the ash cloud. It was a spooky, eerie feeling, extremely silent and lifeless, and the sun looked like a radioactive ray glowing far away through the thick ash. We didnt get out of the car but took photos from the safety of our sealed windows.

After all the excitement, we started our journey back to Reykjavik, and as we drove away and nightfall set, we saw the flickering red glow of the volcano light up a pitch black sky, which we later learned was the turning point of Eyafjallajökull into a roaring lava flow eruption.