A story in tribute of Thomas ‘Punch’ Winspeare as told by Dr. Daniel Joseph.
Some strong language included.
I’ll tell one Thomas story.
Early 2000s when volcano was still popping off and intermittent dome collapses were a thing, a select few of us would still hike into Harris’ for breadfruit, coconut water, the thrill of it, or just for the sake of seeing our homes and village.
It was usually me, Thomas ‘Punch’ Winspeare, and one or two other people.
Now this undertaking was of course incredibly brave, some might say reckless, but hey…it is what it is and was what it was.
At the same time, for better or worse, with anything related to human exploration and discovery, you’re going to push the limits to see how far you can go. Consequently, each time we’d grab cutlasses and backpacks with a glint in eye for adventure, we’d head increasingly deeper into the unsafe territory. Initially we’d only go as far as Harris’ Hill…but then the next time we’d go past Hill and down into Harris’ Center…then the next time we’d go past the village center and continue to Garden Hill by the cricket field. We were taking our inches by happenstance, feet by curiosity, and miles by adrenaline.
Eventually, inevitably, we decided to ‘go for it’…the ultimate prize…that of trekking all the way through the interior of the island i.e. go past Harris’, Farrell’s, Streatham, Dyers, Lee’s, then up St. George’s Hill. This was around 2005.
Three of us set out into uncharted territory that day. ‘Uncharted’ in that, volcano was f*****g shit up on the regular, the fiery output continually warping the contour lines on the map. None of us had any idea what to expect along the road past Harris’ – if such a route even existed.
Me, Thomas, and another guy from Harris’ it were.
Thomas was always the unofficial leader on these expeditions – and rightfully so. No one I’ve ever met knew ‘bush’ like Thomas Winspeare. Dismissive of suggestions of impasse, Thomas knew how to get any and everywhere in that ever more tangled jungle, regardless of whether the obstacle be tree, slope, or stone. In his possession was one of them cutlasses sharpened on both the front and back of the blade, the ones sharpened so often for so long that the cutlass was noticeably shrunk in girth from when purchased. As you would no doubt expect, the cutlass was incredibly sharp, slicing with utmost ease through any tree or errant finger of the distracted. Depending on your level of expertise, after three chops and you’re either drinking coconut water, or rushing to the emergency room.
Thomas Punch also always seemed to know where next to step in what one would suppose would have been forgotten topography. Be mindful of the fact that Harris’ and every path towards Harris’ is completely overgrown with trees. The village had been abandoned for near a decade at that point in time, and nature was relentlessly reclaiming what was originally hers. But none of this mattered to Thomas Punch, he’d be effortlessly blazing a trail ahead of the group. I’ll emphasise the word ‘blaze’ to instill within you the incredible rate at which he traversed the mossy, entangled forest. Me and the other guy would be resting on rocks grabbing desperately for the already emptied water bottles in our backpacks while Thomas would be hundreds of meters ahead shouting at us about something interesting he had just seen. He was much older than us.
Not only did he ‘know bush’, as in being able to navigate his way through it, he also ‘knew bush’ in that he knew what medicinal properties they provided. I’m walking and just seeing faceless leaves, faceless plants – meanwhile Thomas is identifying every plant and tree and saying their [local] names and what health benefits they provided or were thought to provide. I’m talking of a level of flora knowledge beyond the common plants that the average person knows. He never pursued, or probably had the opportunity to pursue, a more formal version but he was highly educated in his own way.
Moreover, he knew every location in the village where many of the commonly known trees are/were. Mango trees etc. We’d be going up Smokey Hill, Thomas would randomly say “Me a come back; me a go mit a you”, then just divert sideways, off the main [and clearest path] we were on, and head into the undergrowth to the side.
[Remember once again that even the paved roads in Harris’ were themselves incredibly overgrown, hardly visible, and barely navigable. See pic provided. That’s Thomas himself on the paved ‘clear’ road coming up Smoky Hill. Thomas would randomly head off to the left or right in that picture]
The rest of us would continue on the clearer path…in a straight line…and not stop. But yet, somehow, when we reach the top of Cross Road, not only does Thomas emerge from the bush from another direction at the very same time as us, but he would astonishingly have stuff like breadfruit, mangoes, and even coconuts in hand! It remains unfathomable to me today how he had the time and wherewithal to accomplish this.
In the heart of Harris’, we’d then proceed to climb some coconut trees, drink and bottle some coconut water, and relax for a bit. Believe me when I tell you, sitting in the middle of Cross Road, surrounded by ever encroaching green, volcano right ahead of you, drinking coconut water, and reminiscing and telling stories about people and happenings Harris’, is a religious and cathartic experience.
Alas, eventually, we finally left Harris’ for the great unknowns of the interior.
After some simply spectacular and outright imposing scenery and sights heading up Courting Rock, and the remarkably contrasting serenity and green beauty going past Farrell’s Estate, we arrived in Streatham Village.
What I can tell you with respect to animals in the unsafe zone is that you don’t easily see them. Sure you see ‘evidence of them’ – goat paths, cattle and donkey shit, uprooted trees, etc., but you hardly ever see the animals themselves. I can only surmise that they have a heightened sense of smell and hearing and can thus detect that people are coming long before you actually arrive where they originally were. Having being abandoned to their own devices, they’ve most certainly become increasingly ‘wild’, unfamiliar as they are with humans. Although you would not see the animals, at the back of your mind you knew the alarm had been sprung, the message passed amongst them, and that they were watching you from somewhere in the distance.
But guess what happened that day – when we reached Streatham we happened to see this wild pig/boar near to the entrance of Streatham Village by Harewood’s Church of the Living God. Pig had a bunch of piglets running behind it. Thomas gets excited and says “Ley a we ketch dem”.
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any expertise in pig-catching and would go so far as to say that I make a concerted effort to avoid them when possible. Therefore I have no idea how he expected to accomplish this pig-catching neither did I know what he planned to do with the pig if he were to indeed catch any. Regardless, Thomas quickly gave chase to the wild boar and…well…it’s not like we had anything better to do…so the rest of us indulged in the same impromptu pig rodeo.
Of course the pigs are more familiar with the abandoned territory they’ve now colonised so they easily got away. Well all except one. This one little piglet got stuck trying to go through the underbrush at the side of the road. Thomas grabbed the legs of the squealing piglet sticking out the bush and hauled it into the road. Caught!
But…let me tell you this; I never knew that pigs were viscous so. Jeez. Man that thing was a wild, scary, mofo. Piglet firing bites like the most viscous of Rottweiler dogs. Thomas there fighting valiantly to get the tiny piglet under control and avoid its snapping teeth. Was a thing to behold. Tiny pig was wildin! Three of us had to hold the thing in order for Thomas to get a piece of plant vine or something and tie up the pig’s mouth. lol.
Even then the pig still wrassling with Thomas but ultimately Thomas prevailed, stuck the pig under his arm and we were once again on our way to Dyers.
We started three but now we were four, making our way through that beautiful but troubled land wondering what lay ahead for three men and a pig. Who would witness the ridiculousness of what had just happened so far from civilisation? A tale likely to be lost to the wilderness and animal folklore. I’m there looking on with quite a bit of bemusement at the wiggling and rudimentarily restrained pig Thomas was carrying…making sure that I steered clear of it, mind you.
As I had previously stated, while we walk, Thomas would randomly just head off the main path and go into the bushes sometimes where the only evident reason is “why not?”. Hence it should have been no real surprise that at some point somewhere past Streatham Village, Thomas said “Danny. Hole de pig. Some guava up dey”
I’m like “Wuht? Say wuht?” hoping I’d heard incorrectly.
Thomas: “Hole de pig. Me a come back”
Danny: “Uhm…hold…the pig?”
Thomas: “Yeh. M’a come back”
Thomas handed me the pig and I’m telling you I latched on to that pig for dear life. The pig had calmed down somewhat while Thomas was the one walking with it, but when Thomas was handing it over to me, suddenly the pig got all active again wrestling like crazy. Me and that pig there battling in the remnants of a road in the unsafe zone for who was the baddest. Did I mention the little piglet was so unexpectedly strong? I could barely hold on to the damn thing. Plus I swear them ropes binding the pig’s mouth were going to break loose – had me there freaking out. Meanwhile I’m there praying that Thomas ‘hurry up come back’ from picking the guavas because I’m increasingly feeling it wise to just dash the little pig down the hillside rather than risk inevitable blood and tears at my expense.
Luckily I survived unscathed. Lol. Thomas eventually returned. With guavas. Grabbed the pig and we continued on to Dyers.
We turn a corner somewhere approaching Mrs. Hughes Corner. M. Hughes corner was a famous corner halfway between Dyers and Streatham. It was dangerous even before volcano. Quite a bit of dumper trucks and vehicles had gone over the hillside at that same corner down into the ghaut. Note that this ghaut was probably 50 -100 meters deep! Montserrat is a mountainous island. When tourists would take a rental from Airport and reach the junction in Harris’ by the Anglican Church, sometimes if you were standing there they’d ask you for directions to Plymouth. I’d tell them just ‘drive straight’ you can’t miss it. I pray none of them went over Mrs Hughes corner because of my instructions.
Either way, so we come around the bend…what’s ahead of us? Naught but this massive bull cattle!! I’m talking HUGE! Biggest most ‘muscle-up’ cattle I’ve ever seen. I’m not exaggerating. Don’t know what the hell that cow was eating up in unsafe zone but that thing was brolic! That cow looked like it lifted weights at the neighbourhood gym. Damn thing was a monster. .
Even worse. It was standing in the middle of the road ahead of us, about 20 meters away, directly in the path of where we needed to go. What do we do?
Ha! As if we get to decide. Bull cattle immediately charged right at us.
Now. I’m not a complete stranger to being charged by cows. I used to help a neighbour ‘shiff cakkle’ down by Spanish Point close to Airport and, while that shit can be intimidating, sometimes you have to stand your ground to show them cows who’s in charge.
So here we are now, with this beast of a cow charging at the three of us. Now bear in mind we’re representing a brave lot and I didn’t want to look like the punk in the group running away and have them laugh at me afterwards. As such, I’m watching the movement of the others to see what they would do. They were standing firm.
Bull cakkle keeps coming. I look at them.
They’re not moving.
Bull cakkle keeps coming.
THEY’RE NOT MOVING!
BULL CAKKLE KEEPS COMING!!!
Thomas Punch bolts!!
Man I’m telling you, I ran for my life! Lol.
Shout out to my fellow adventurer Thomas Punch. Good guy. Journey on.