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Monday, 10 December 2012

Get to the chopper! Montserrat by helicopter.

The helipad at Caribbean Helicopters, St John's Fort Road, Antigua.

I developed a fear of flying after 9/11. My vivid imagination told me exactly how it must have felt for those people to be on board a plane they knew was going to crash. To know that their lives were over. That they would never see the people they loved again. These images and feelings wiggled into my brain and ate away at me. I never didn’t fly when I had to, but I spent the majority of each journey in a fit of terror, clenching my hands, sweating and crying. It was worse if I was with someone. If there was someone whose knee I could grip, and whose loving concern for me could feed my fear. Booking holidays became a mental and emotional battle, and I would spend weeks beforehand building up my anxiety.


I have my indomitable mother to thank for finally shaking me out of this fear. After many years of not travelling together, we found ourselves in each other's company on a flight across Spain. She hadn’t seen my near-hysterical take-off behaviour before, and she looked at me like I was sprouting scales before her very eyes. She gently distracted me, and when I had calmed down and the plane was cruising, she said, simply: “Don’t be one of those people.” With those words, I saw what my fear was doing to me, and how I was allowing it to exert control over my life. I decided, in that very moment, not to be one of those people. I’m not saying I love flying, and bumpy take-offs or patches of turbulence still make my palms sweat and my pulse accelerate. But I have learned to look into the faces of the cabin crew, and take comfort from their absolute nonchalance. If they’re not showing any signs of alarm, there’s probably nothing to worry about. Besides which, anxiety never stopped a plane from crashing…

I hope you enjoyed that brief interlude into my psyche, plus my example of the power of tough love. I have many such examples, including “no, you absolutely cannot have a Cadbury’s Flake until you have learned to tell the time” – my mum is one darn smart cookie. 




But I digress. I should probably get on with telling you about my latest challenge, which was to take a ride in a helicopter. The more observant readers among you may have guessed this from the title of the blog post. And the picture of me at the helipad. I may need to work on my suspense-building...

Anyway, let’s start by saying that just because I have attained a level of Zen when it comes to 747s, I am not suddenly of a mind to spend my life in flight. My happiest moments are still when the plane touches safely down, and the idea of a helicopter has always had an added level of terror attached to it. Something about the noise, and the strange manoeuvrability, I think. Below you see my very first excursion in a helicopter. You can just glimpse my hands, gripping the rudder like grim death. What you can't see, thanks to the chopper's windscreen, is that I am absolutely bawling my eyes out. I bawled my eyes out the whole time. I remember it vividly. There's that maternal tough love again, merrily taking pictures...

So began a lifelong aversion to helicopters. And fairground rides.

Apart from the early trauma, also in the helicopter cons column was the fact that part of my mission for this blog was that the challenges shouldn’t be too expensive. Helicopter rides do not come cheap. In this case, $250 for a 45 minute flight. Ouch.


But putting all that to one side, how many times in my life am I going to have the opportunity to ride a helicopter around an active volcano? Not that many, I’m guessing.

Montserrat is a small island in the Leeward isles. It was virtually decimated by the eruption of the Soufrière Hills Volcano in 1995. The latest eruption, in 2010, wiped out the 19 Montserratians who had staunchly, doggedly refused to leave their homes. Most of the island is now an official exclusion zone, though a small settlement is springing up in the northwest corner. Caribbean Helicopters only has permission to fly over Montserrat because it dedicates at least one day per week to taking a team of scientists to the island to study the volcano. All things considered, and since I’d already braved the flight from London to Antigua for some winter sun, it would have been churlish not to cough up the cash, don a headset and fasten my seatbelt.

Looking sexy with my lifejacket.

Facing backwards. Motion sickness GUARANTEED.
It’s a real shame helicopter rides are so expensive, because I am going to tell you now that despite falling victim to the worst case of motion sickness I have experienced since 2008, I absolutely LOVED travelling by chopper. Firstly, the take-off is a total breeze. There’s none of this horrible run-up business required by aeroplanes. The thing simply floats up into the sky. It’s magic. And then, instead of disappearing beyond the clouds, you stay close enough to the ground to become completely absorbed by the view. Of course, the Caribbean Sea and the white sandy beaches of Antigua make for a pretty stunning view, but I honestly think that seeing almost anything from a helicopter would be enormously exhilarating. Minutes in and we were surrounded by a double rainbow.

You don't see one of those every day.
Beautiful Antigua.


And then, Montserrat. The jagged cliffs, streaked with ash. The houses whose roofs have clean melted off, revealing rooms once loved and lived in. The five storey building, only three of whose storeys show above the mud. The W.H. Bramble Airport, now nothing but a spread of lonesome grey. Not a trace of its runways, terminal buildings or control tower remain. The churches, the schools, the home of the governor, the hotels, all of them lifeless. It is the perfect ghost town, its roads untrodden. It is disturbed only by the shadow of the helicopter passing overhead. 


The five storey building...




And then the volcano. The fumaroles and the stink of sulphur. The great gash of a scar from the 2010 eruption, ripping through the rock. The ash and the boulders, crumbling and exploding from the force of the gases still trapped inside. The pilot revved the engine and raced close to the ground, to let us feel the speed at which lava travels as it spills and bubbles and destroys all in its path. 

Fumaroles.

The scar in the earth,

Jurassic Park.




Yet there is also the lush, emerald green of the vegetation which has grown back. The tenacity of life, clinging to the sides of the burning hill. I gazed from the window, eyes straining for a glimpse of the dinosaurs I was sure were being cloned by mad scientists and left to roam this primal place. I felt sick as a dog, but awed, reverent, thankful to have been granted the privilege of such a sight.

 Of the three tours we did whilst on holiday in Antigua, this was the most expensive by far, and yet the only one that I feel was worth every last cent. The helicopter itself was a blast, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to ride in one again, should a passing pilot/rock star/random multi-billionaire ever offer me a lift. That early phobia is well and truly done with (though my fear of fairground rides definitely isn't. That's another story). But what will really stay with me from this challenge is the volcano, and the haunted houses prostrate at its feet. Those memories aren’t going anywhere in a hurry.



Thanks to Justin for this great picture, and for coming flying with me, even if you did get the front seat, you lucky sod.

 Fourteen down, sixteen to go…