1958 Climbing the Volcano

La Soufrière, St. Vincent’s volcano, erupted April 9th 2021 as it had twice in my grandmother’s lifetime, and now twice in mine. The island suffered a devastating physical, psychological, and economic blow, because of the evacuations, the air quality, the volcanic destruction, and the blow to whatever remained of the tourist trade during the pandemic. But St. Vincent is resilient. Five years after the devastating eruption in 1902, the volcano was deemed inactive and life went on. By the 1950s, locals knew it as a green mountain with a lake in the middle, although they were aware of the tragic past. Cyn explains her interest in the volcano, and regarded the climb as the pinnacle (!) of her holiday in her birthplace. We hope for healing for all St.Vincentians and hope this glimpse of the past isn’t upsetting.

We Climbed the Volcano
by
Cynthia Costain

When I was young I remember boasting proudly to my friends “My mother has been through a hurricane, a volcanic eruption and an earthquake.” I don’t recall whether they were greatly impressed as none of these phenomena were familiar to schoolgirls in the north of England, but my mother’s recollections of these events were vivid and thrilling to me. I loved to hear of her running out of the house with the earth shaking under her feet, and of the crowds in the dark hurricane cellar of my grandfather’s big house listening to the crash as the wind blew in the shutters and windows above, but most of all I liked the story of the eruption of the Soufrière with the darkness coming over the sun and the dust sifting down over everything.
Perhaps this was why when I visited St. Vincent with my husband and family last year, I was determined to climb the volcano. I had never been back to the island after leaving it at four years of age, but I had heard so many tales that it all seemed quite familiar. I knew that it was possible to climb the volcano and I had even heard of people who swam in the lake which had formed in the crater. However, it was very pleasant lazing and swimming and enjoying the lovely island, and whenever I mentioned the Soufrière no one was very enthusiastic. My mother was frankly scornful of my chances of reaching the top, as my exercise is usually limited to a stroll to the local store or getting in and out of the car. When my uncle began to talk of getting horses for the initial stages of the climb I was quite horrified as I had never been on a horse in my life. Fortunately, also vacationing in the island was a cousin of mine, Jack, and his wife, Joan and Jack having grown up on the island had climbed the volcano many times and volunteered to take my husband and me with himself and Joan.
We made all our plans for an early start, and chose the day with due consideration for the banana boat. This is very necessary in island life, as the days the boats are in the harbour all private cars stay off the roads while the banana trucks pour in from the estates in a reckless stream. The boats are only in for a limited time and the more loads of bananas that can be brought in, the more money for everyone. As Mr. Harry Belafonte says “Come Mr. Tallyman, tally me bananas” while along the winding, twisting, mountainous roads the trucks run a bi-weekly Grand Prix with their carefully packed green cargoes.
On the morning of our expedition we got up at 4 o’clock to drive to the other end of the island and make our ascent while it was still cool. Jack and Joan arrived from the adjoining small island where they were staying, and we set off in a canvas topped jeep, leaving my mother to look after the children. The drive in the early morning was beautiful, and we saw the sunrise over the Caribbean and make the water sparkle and gleam. Already the little villages along the way were stirring, and women were walking along the road towards town and the market with their vegetables and other produce on their heads. They bowed gravely to us, without upsetting the balance of their loads, and continued quietly along, while we followed the narrow road up the windward coast of the island. Being volcanic, the island is extremely mountainous and there are only three main roads, one which goes up the windward coast, one up the leeward coast, and a shorter one partly up a central valley – all these beginning at the main town of Kingstown, and none of them meeting. The coastline is very sharply indented, and in places the hills come down to the sea, so the roads turn and bend, climb and dip, follow ledges along the hillside and all along the way give one the most spectacular views of sugar-cane, coconut palms, arrowroot, sea- island cotton, nutmeg and mango trees all growing in small precipitous, terraced fields. After driving about an hour and a half we passed through a slightly larger village, Georgetown, and came to the Dry River. This is a ‘river’ composed entirely of rocks, stones and lava which has poured down from the volcano at various times. During the rainy season there is some water in it, but we were able to drive across with only a few bumps, and we came to the beginning of the biggest coconut estate in the island. The trees grow in the soft gray lava dust, which seems to deaden all sounds, and makes this whole part seem rather sinister and eerie. The dust sifts through the air continually, and as we drove through the rows and rows of palms along the dusty track, with no signs of people or houses, it felt as if we were far away from the rest of the world. As we drove we climbed higher, and I was relieved to hear that the jeep would take us up to the foothills and we would not have horses, as they could not take us much further.
At last we came to a high field, where the track became a path along a stony ridge, so we left the jeep and set out. Almost immediately the path became very steep, as we climbed on up into the range of hills, and then we crossed a narrow ridge, just wide enough for one person to walk, and below on either side we could look down on sugar-cane growing on slopes so steep that the men would not need to bend to cut the cane but would find the roots at the level of their shoulders.
I had always imagined the Soufrière as being like volcanos I had seen in pictures – Parícutin and Vesuvius – but to my surprise it was quite different. It is one of many mountains, and unless you are far away on the Leeward side of the island, it is very hard to see. The morning we set out to climb it, the whole range was covered with thick cloud, and as we climbed we were surrounded with mist, and began to think of all the pessimists who had warned us of the many people who climb the Soufriere and don’t see anything because of the cloud. All the early part of the climb was up the foothills, gradually working our way towards the main mountain itself and after about an hour we came to a river bed which marked the beginning of the real climb. The river was dry now, as the island was having a very dry season, but Jack told us tales of coming down the mountain and picnicking and swimming after the long hot climb.
After a short rest, we set off again, along a small path, always mounting between walls of tropical trees and creepers. The vegetation was luxuriant, with lovely begonias growing waist high and flowered vines trailing from the trees. On the way down Joan found an orchid, which she dug up and carefully took home for my Aunt’s garden, as it was quite a rare variety. I also found some beautiful little flowers and took them home too, but my aunt kindly told me that they were a common weed which no gardener would allow in his garden.
I have been writing calmly and cooly about the vegetation along the way, but believe me, there was nothing cool or calm about me at the time. Never in all my life had I been so hot. The air was humid and still, with the clinging mist all around and over us. A mixture of sweat and vapour drops continually dripped from every lank strand of hair, and I had long ago given up mopping my face. My husband and Jack were just the same, but Joan, born and raised in Trinidad, wandered happily along with no obvious discomfort, and looked as if the temperature was as pleasant as one could wish. I was quite pleased with my progress though, and found after the first 20 minutes, during which I thought I would either die quietly by the path or have apoplexy, that I could keep up with the others with very little trouble, and although I was always glad for the few minutes rest we took every now and then, I didn’t have to call a halt at any time. The climb is actually not hard, and anyone normally active can climb it if they persevere.
As we got higher the trees, which had been tall and completely hiding all the light so that we were climbing through a green dim tunnel, gradually became shorter, and slowly we found that all the vegetation was getting less and less tropical and becoming more of the hardy brush type. Even this, as we got higher, thinned out, so that there were only low shrubs growing knee-high along the path. As we got out onto the shale and cinders it was more troublesome, as one tended to slide back at every step, but it was never dangerous. We were thankful to have Jack as guide because the path which was at first clearly marked, gradually grew fainter, and in places disappeared. Even Jack found it difficult to trace at times, particularly as it was 25 years since he had last climbed the volcano, and during that time, he found the whole appearance of parts of the mountain had changed as the vegetation had grown. The volcano last erupted in 1902 and even in the 1930s when Jack was last climbing it, the whole area was arid with very few signs of growth, but by now this has completely changed on the lower slopes, and even halfway up there is a low shrub like growth.
We climbed on slowly through these low bushes, but still because of the cloud we could not see the summit, and it was not until we came to the dry cinders and sliding gritty dust that we knew we were beginning to get close to the top. The ground in places was deeply eroded, with great fissures, and the ascent was very steep. The cinders were of a dark red colour in places with a kind of lichen growing on the rocks, so that the whole visible landscape was dreary and depressing with the shreds of clouds drifting by, a very slight acrid sulphur smell in the air, and a dank chill wind blowing through our damp clothes. Suddenly walking along a ledge of cinders we topped a rise, and in front of us was no more path to climb but deep down below us – the crater! We had reached the top.

It was an incredible sight to stand in that burnt up wasteland, and look down – down into that still green lake with low bushes growing around with everything so quiet and peaceful and try to imagine what it had been like to cause the destruction around. The crater is a mile across and the lake 1500 feet down, the water in the lake having gradually seeped in during the years. There is a path down inside the crater on the opposite side, but the slope is very sheer, and when one gets down the water is said to be very cold.
As we could still see little because of the mist, we decided to rest and have our second breakfast, with the hope that the sun would break through, and we huddled down behind some rocks, thankful for the sweaters which had seem so superfluous earlier. By this time it was after 10 o’clock and we had been climbing since seven, so the hard boiled eggs and rum punch had an added flavour at that altitude. Just as we finished it began to get brighter and as we dashed quickly to try to take some pictures, the sun broke through the clouds and in a few minutes the whole landscape was clear and we were standing in brilliant tropical sunshine.

The Otways with Cyn.

It was a beautiful sight with the crater below us, and all around the mountains and valleys of the island with far on either side the glorious blue sea. The Soufrière is only 4100 feet high, but because it rises so steeply from the sea coast the elevation seems more, and the view of the surrounding country is spectacular. Beyond the crater on the far side is the ‘old crater’, which is even higher still, but it is difficult to reach, and during the last eruption it was entirely filled in with the debris from the first immense explosion. This eruption in 1902 was unusual in that the volcano literally ‘blew its top’, and the whole top was hurled off in a terrific explosion of rocks and cinders. It was accompanied by the deadly gas, which crept for miles around, and was the cause of the high number of deaths. The Soufrière is in a sparsely populated part of the island, but standing there I could see down to the small coves and bays on the leeward coast, and it was in one of these that the entire population of a small Carib village was wiped out, killing nearly all the last remaining Caribs in the island. Over on the windward side we could just see some of the estates, and it was on one of these that my grandfather’s friend, Mr. Fraser and his wife, were found sitting quietly on the verandah when rescuers came from Kingstown, killed by the gas from the volcano.


We wanted to get down the mountain before the sun became too hot, so at 11 o’clock we began the downward trek which seem to go so much more quickly than the upward climb. We were back to the jeep by 1 o’clock, finding a patient donkey beside it being loaded with sugar cane from the fields nearby. His master gave us each a piece of cane which I had always imagined quite soft and succulent, but I could not find much refreshment in the hard pithy dryness. We drove back through the coconut groves, and hot, damp and dirty as we were, we became even dirtier as the lava dust blew through the open jeep and settled blackly into every crease. The owner of the estate and his wife had very kindly invited us to have lunch at their estate house, although they were away, and we were very glad of this before setting out on our drive home. After an excited welcome by 13 dogs headed by 2 enormous Great Danes we were ushered into beautiful modern bathrooms with showers, and afterwards on the tiled verandah had the most delicious meal.
It was a tired, but satisfied, and – yes – rather smug group which returned home that afternoon, and proudly told our children and friends ‘Well, we did climb the volcano!’
For those of you who are interested in exotic and out-of-the-way places, and would like to visit St. Vincent, it is one of the Windward Islands in the West Indies. It can be reached by air from either Barbados or Trinidad – when we went there was no airfield on the island as the island is so mountainous, so we flew in an amphibian ‘Goose’ which lands on the sea. The Goose only takes 6 passengers, so the island never had many visitors, but since then an airfield has been made on one of the level valleys, and a regular air service is being started with a larger plane which will carry 25 passengers. There is a good hotel in Kingstown, and two delightful guest houses or inns in the country near the sea and the airport. The people are courteous and friendly, the prices are low and all authorities agree that St. Vincent is one of the loveliest islands in the Caribbean.

And a final note from Linda in the 21st century. I am so grateful to my brother for having unearthed the slides my father took of our holiday. Of course I remembered that they took slides in our childhood- and showed them boringly in the dark- but I had forgotten the mechanics of it. Obviously for the St. Vincent visit, they started off with a black-and-white film in the camera, and then switched to a film for slides. That is why the scrapbook has clear pictures without colour, but the slides were used for their adventure and the colour, though perhaps faded a bit, is better preserved than colour snaps are. However moments immortalized in slides tended to disappear into the dark that one needed to see them by. Anyone can look at photos again and again, although sticking them in an album does make it easier. Slides needed a projector, a screen, an audience, preparation- and Cec loved technology and so enjoyed this- but how much better is it now, when phones give us instant access and gorgeous colour? (And witness testimony when operated by an intelligent woman?)

My brother remembers different things about our trip, of course, including the fact that we had not been warned of our parents’ defection and were baffled by their disappearance when we got up that morning. We were placated by new toys: a plastic sink with a pump that pumped real water into the sink- Charlie liked technology too- and Linda got red plastic beads that popped together to make crowns, necklaces, or bracelets.
Cyn’s speech is a period piece, showing an agricultural St. Vincent so soon to be changed by the economic forces of the second half of the 20th century, the tourist trade, and the political drive for independence in colonial states around the world. It was her birthplace too, and she and Cec loved visiting it and my grandmother, once we were off their hands. She wrote a sadder piece in her old age, about the changes she had noticed over the years, which I will publish once the letters are finished. Meanwhile, back to 1958…

In the Botanical Gardens?

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