Deep in the Belly of the Fire Beast

Island Notes 65.


Dis what happen when de volcano blow!


Geologists reckon that the last time Sint Eustatius’s classic cone, The Quill, blew its top was about 400AD.  Apparently, it was quite violent—pyroclastic flows, firebombs and everything.  Not that this was anything new.  The strato-volcano had been spewing its molten mojo on and off for about 30,000 years.  Even today, groundwater heating indicates that The Quill is only dormant, which means in geological verbiage that the volcano is still potentially dangerous.


On the rim of the Quill.

The group on the rim of the Quill. Photo-Robert Jan van Oosten.


These thoughts are only peripherally on my mind as I scramble on all fours down into the belly of the fire beast.  This is the start of the second leg of a trek that began an hour before climbing nearly 2000 feet to the rim.  My companions today are a group of Dutch journalists from major media in the Netherlands.  I won’t bore you with their publications’ names.  Unless you have lived in Holland, you probably haven’t heard of any of them.  Suffice to say, I was in the company of the Dutch clones of the Chicago Tribune, the New York Post and National Geographic.


Hannah checks out an eyelash orchid


Leading the way is my new friend and trail guru, Hannah Madden.  A UK transplant, ranger Hannah has been hiking The Quill three times a week for a half decade.  I would follow her anywhere on the volcano, even if the National Enquirer tagged along.  Inquiring minds want to know.

“This is going to be a bit dodgy,” states Hannah, as we are about to descend from the rim into the bottom of the crater.  “Hurricane Earl pounded The Quill about three weeks ago and it caused a major landslide across the trail.  Mind the falling rocks.”

My distant daydreams of the volcano awakening after 1600 years of dormancy vanish as fast as a nuée ardente, French for “glowing cloud”, a term used to describe the disastrous 1902 eruption of Martinique‘s Mount Pelée 100 miles away.  No, my main concern at the moment is the Dutch journalist (let’s call him Eppo) following directly above and behind as we drop 500 feet down into the deep.  Hannah was right.  The trail is precarious at best and it is obvious that Eppo has spent much more time in the flat, black muck of Holland’s polder land than on rocky slopes.  He repeatedly sends rolling rocks the size of basketballs past my life and limbs.  But at least Eppo is polite, if not oblivious.  After each mini avalanche, I always hear, “So sorry.”

If that isn’t enough, I have a long snake run through my legs just about the time I am reaching for a vine to prevent a fatal fall to the bottom.   My years in the New Mexico desert taught me to freeze upon site of a serpent and I do just that.  Hannah, with her reassuring English accent, calms the moment.  “Oh, don’t worry about him.  That’s just Alsophis rufiventris, the Red-Bellied Racer.  They are totally harmless.”  As the sleek snake slithers through my legs, I look back at Eppo above.  He is smiling like a Holstein cow.

We finally arrive at the bottom of the pit, sweating, and I am filled with fear.  Well, not really fear, but there is a strange vibe in the air.  The encroaching vegetation is smothering.  It is like going back in primordial time.  The crater deep down has a scary, Jurassic Park look to it and I await the ground-trembling roar of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It is eerily silent. But soon the path levels and we are treated to the magnificence of towering strangler figs and silk cotton trees.  Some of these behemoths reach heights exceeding 120 feet.  This mysterious, verdant landscape has transported me to another world.  I see Hannah repeatedly turning over stones in search of beasts.  She’s having remarkable success.  “Ah, here’s a tarantula wasp.”  And a little later, “And here is Eleutherodactylus johnstonei!” she declares enthusiastically. “It’s also called Johnstone’s whistling frog.”  Finally, I get to see the tiny animal that fills island nights with its cheery amphibian serenade.   I am not too impressed with its size, about as big as a small pea, but that’s OK.  I still am in wonder and we are not done.  Further along the path, we pass Tarzan-like vines, giant bromeliads hanging from mossy limbs, and hermit crabs in a shell.

Tree hugging the 100-foot silk cotton.

I have no words for the beauty of this surreal place.  There is nothing left for me to do but simply crawl out of the belly of the fire beast and back to my horizontal world.  I leave reluctantly.  But before I ascend, I make sure that this time Eppo is directly behind and below me for the climb up The Quill.  Onward and upward.


Two Days To Saba

Island Notes 64

It is dark and the night air is dominated by a cacophony of tree frogs.  The moon struggles to pierce through the mash potato clouds as I make my way up a narrow street in the tiny town of Windwardside on the Caribbean island of Saba.  Once again, I have sea legs and they are struggling with terra firma.  My nautical gyroscope is still bobbing and it’s slow to adjust to the rock hard steadiness of land.  I finally see the cheery lights of the Brigadoon Restaurant and hobble up the stairs.  Trish, the proprietor, greets me at the door.

“Just got in to port and I’m famished,” I say.  “I’ve had no food since breakfast.”

“Yeah, I heard you came in on the Dawn.  We know what that’s all about. Here’s a glass of wine.”

*     *     *

Let me back up a bit.  This adventure started two days ago as I left Bonaire, Saba bound.  My flight took me to Curacao and then to Sint Maarten where I was to take Windward Airlines flight #437 to Saba.  It is a 15-minute flight to the volcanic island known as “the unspoiled queen”.  But that estimated flight time doesn’t account for hurricane high jinx.  While bad boy Igor was at that moment beating up Bermuda far to the north, it had left the Caribbean in a meteorological mess.  The sea was confused and white capped.  Winds blew from uncommon directions and at velocities that challenge even the best small plane pilots.  Flight #437 was postponed three times that afternoon and finally cancelled at day’s end.  “Come back tomorrow,” urged the Winair representative.  “And by the way, you’re on your own.  We don’t cover your expenses for weather cancellations.”

I book myself into a soulless casino hotel at Maho Bay just because it’s conveniently located near the airport.  I must report the next morning at 8 for the second flight to Saba.  I do just that, but by 8:30am the first flight scheduled for seven has still not departed.  Something about increasing winds…

Not to worry, 15 minutes later they are cleared to go, and much to my surprise, there is one seat left which is promptly awarded to me.  Credit for standing in the right place at the right time by the ticket counter.  Away we go, two pilots, 14 Sabans and the lone gringo on the plane.  How do I always end up as the odd one out on these journeys?

End of the Runway

We fly to Saba, infamous for having the shortest commercial runway in the world.  It is a bit daunting.  The approach takes you to face-to-face with a sheer rock wall where the plane banks on a dime and heads for the tarmac.  The mini runway abruptly ends at a drop-off that plunges 100 feet to the sea.  It’s a real cliff hanger, a white knuckler, un casse-ball vrai-a rough French translation meaning a true ball buster, so pilots need to bring their ‘A’ game.   I had just flown to Saba two weeks ago so I know the routine.  But wait.

So close, but yet so far away...

Before the pucker factor can even begin, our plane slowly curves away from the airport and heads back to St. Maarten.  Of course, the pilots don’t say a word until we’ve landed.  By then, we are all very aware we’re not on Saba. The casinos and strip clubs surrounding the runway are a dead give-away.  “We couldn’t land,” explains the pilot.  “The winds were three times above the maximum velocity that allows us a safe touch down.” Mission aborted.

Back at the Princess Juliana International Airport, I hook up with three other Saba wanna-bees who didn’t get to enjoy my scenic cruise to the volcanic outcrop.  There is Jeroen, a Dutch IT specialist going to the island for business.  There is Hugh, the dean of the Saba medical school.  And lastly, there is Trudie, the wife of one of the medical school’s faculty.  We’re told there will be no more flights attempted that day.  Our group of stranded travelers decides take the only other option available–go to Saba by local boat.

*     *     *

She is called the Dawn II.  The name makes me wonder what ever happened to the Dawn I, but I don’t’ ask.  I want to get to Saba already and an honest answer could dissuade me from that course.  Sometime, ignorance is bliss.  Game on.  Head in the sand.  Davey Jones locker below.  Damn the torpedoes.

Not a smile to be seen. Uh oh.

There is another boat, The Edge, which connects the two islands.  It is much more modern, a speedy twin hull that cuts the travel time in half, but its captain refuses to leave port due to rough seas.  But not the Dawn II.  As she boldly glides to the Sint Maarten dock at Chesterfield, I look at the faces of the arriving passengers from Saba.  There are no smiles.  Actually, they all look very grim if not gray.  Trudie pulls me aside and says,  “You know, I’ve never been on a boat before.  I’m a desert girl.”

Just about this time, a torrential tropical shower lets loose, scattering passengers and crew alike.  This is not a good start.  But as we cast off ninety minutes later, the skies have cleared.  We have about 40 passengers aboard, plus baggage, plus someone’s new toilet and floor tile.  A short woman, clad in stiletto high heels and a t-shirt with “I’m a New York Baby”  in glittering letters, supervises the storage of her bathroom goods.  Apparently such items are difficult to purchase on Saba.

With a roar of Dawn II’s massive twin diesels, we are off.  Immediately upon leaving the harbor, the swells begin.  The ride is akin to those mechanical bull machines found in honky tonk saloons, but not quite as jerky.  Our sure-footed leader, Captain Craig, appears, pops open a coffin-sized cooler and starts handing cold Heineken beers to all who want one.  I look at the swells and consider the beer.  Oh, what the hell.  I take one.  At least I’m not a risk taker like the Chinese woman next to me.  She opens a red-striped bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and scarf downs two pieces of greasy poultry.  Bon appetit!

I clink beer bottles with two women from Virginia.  The grim looking one is visiting her brother who lives on Saba.  I look over at neophyte Trudie and she smiles back, beerless.  Smart woman.  The sea rookie is doing just fine.

Jeroen, the bartender

Jeroen and I stand to better ride the swells, but we need to grasp the canopy beams above to stay upright.  Our other hands hold the cold Heinekens.  While I limit my intake to one, Jeroen is on a mission to support his fatherland.  He goes for three more of the Dutch beers during the voyage, and becomes the honorary bartender for the group as well.  The guy is talented.  With no opener, he snaps off the top of one bottle by using another for leverage.  The maneuver takes two hands, leaving him to rely on his legs alone for balance.  He performs this trick repeatedly without taking a header.  I’m impressed.

We are about an hour out at sea, halfway to Saba, when I notice dark clouds forming near Saint Barts to the east.  An even meaner storm is forming out at sea to the west.   The Dawn II plows straight ahead between the two.  Captain Craig reappears and sees everyone partying thanks to our bartender, Jeroen.  “You guys are crazy!”  He smiles, shaking his head and returns to the comfort of the dry pilothouse.

Diamond Rock off the coast of Saba

By now, the storm to the west has closed in.  The sun is gone.  The water is slate gray.  White caps prevail and the spray from the waves starts entering the boat.  I tuck in behind the bulkhead and stay quite dry.  Those who remain seated are drenched.  I look over at the Chinese woman.  She is sitting on a stair, holding a paper towel to her mouth.  Colonel Sanders revenge.  The grim looking Virginia woman now looks grimmer.  She heads to the stern of Dawn II and begins to projectile vomit.  I look below into the sheltered cabin of the boat.  While dry, the air is suffocatingly warm and passengers sprawl over the sticky upholstered chairs like lifeless forms.  There is puke on the floor before the bathroom door.  Estimated arrival time misjudged.  The stench is bad.

Fort Bay

By the time we reach Saba it is dark.  Even at dock, the boat pitches violently making the unloading of passengers and cargo hazardous at best.  I see the toilet has made it OK.  And so has Trudie, although she is totally drenched and shivering.

“Great ride,” I say.

“This could be my last time on the Dawn II,” she responds, still smiling.

“That’s OK.  You became a sailor today and didn’t even get sea sick.”

I grab a cab, check into my hotel and head out immediately for food.

*     *      *

In the warm comfort of the Brigadoon, Trish brings me another glass of chardonnay.  Michael, the chef, delivers a perfectly done piece of mahi mahi.  It is a feast from the sea worthy of a hungry sailor.  Two days to Saba and the adventure has just begun.