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.


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