RADHICA DE SILVA
People normally see volcanoes as terrifying forces of nature, unpredictable and explosive which can wreak disaster on humans and properties.
But in Penal, on top of the hills of Bunsee Trace, the L`Eau Michel volcano bubbles quietly, offering a cool floating sensation for those who venture into its main pool.
The volcano draws hundreds of people there on a weekly basis. On a Destination T&T page, a private website, the L`Eau Michel experience is being advertised for US$130 per tour. The Penal/Debe Regional Corporation and Ministry of Tourism do not get a cent from this natural wonder even though millions of dollars were spent to build tourist facilities at the site in 2013. Carrat sheds were built near the volcanoes, along with concrete benches and chulhas (clay stoves).
The journey to the volcano is not for the faint of heart. You have to traverse a bumpy muddy track lined with flowering plants, which snakes through picturesque teak fields to get there. If you choose to go on a rainy day, you may get more adventure than you bargained for.
Farmer Raithraj Sooknanan said light vehicles often skid off the muddy track and villagers help to rescue them.
"Sometimes people get a pull out with the tractors. When rain falls it is difficult to get to the volcanoes if you are driving a car," he said. Sooknanan said the volcanoes remained unknown for many years until it became a tourist attraction. Apart from the volcanoes, the geology and rock formations in the forests are diverse. The colour and texture of the soil also vary.
On the edge of Bunsee Trace village, fields of cassava grow on soil which locals call "sapatay clay" (a sticky kind of yellowish dirt).
Further down the soil is reddish in colour and does not yield many crops. "We call this dead soil because you cannot plant here. The best soil is in the forests where the volcanoes are," Sooknanan explained. On evenings bands of red howler monkeys come to play on the trees near the volcano. He noted that the luxurious mud bath is an international attraction.
"On weekends people come from all over to see the volcanoes. Many people come and take a dip in the mud. It feels good on your skin. People say it cleans your skin," he added.
When Guardian Media visited the area, bags of litter were strewn around the site. Sooknanan, who owns a camp near the volcano, said it was not uncommon for people to trek through his fields and steal coconuts and other produce.
"We have no way to protect our crops. Every week people come here and park their cars and vans all over the hills. It is loud music they playing," he said.
He said some people take a dip in the volcano and then come to his camp to use up his precious supply of water to bathe off the mud. Those who cannot get water from the camp make the 20-minute trek downhill to get to the Lamoshell Beach at Papelon Point.
Chairman of the Penal/Debe Regional Corporation Dr Allen Sammy said the volcanoes are located in a Forest Reserve and are maintained by the Forestry Division.
Asked whether the corporation planned to take charge of the facility and organise professional paid tours, Sammy said no.
"We cannot do that because it is not under our jurisdiction even though we are mindful of the tourism potential," Sammy said. He noted that since 2010, two proposals were given to the Ministry of Tourism asking for the facility to be given to the corporation for management.
"Our proposal was a community type sustained tourism development thrust but it has not materialised in spite of the fact that letters went in since 2010. We are hoping to revive the effort to have it into our jurisdiction. It should earn an income so the site will be maintained. The residents should be the beneficiaries," Sammy added.
He said the volcano and the beachfront should be developed for tourism, and that the corporation was keen to have the sites brought under its control.
What's the mystery of the volcano's floating sensation?
The key factor that draws hundreds of people back into the volcanic pool is the sensation of warm mud and gas pushing upwards. So what exactly causes this cool floating sensation?
Senior geoscientist at Touchstone Exploration Xavier Moonan said the density of the mud and the entrained gas within the volcano enables the floating sensation.
"The mud is generally warm and sometimes has a subtle tinge of oil. Small expulsions of gas spray mud in the main pool upwards a foot or two every 30 seconds and adds a bit more excitement," Moonan said.
He explained that the mud is quite dense so it is difficult to actually submerge completely.
"This is simply because your body's density is actually less than that of the mud. At the same time, you are cautioned by the corporation on jumping into the mud pool as physically moving in the mud from depth will prove much more difficult," Moonan said.
He said trying to swim in the mud agitates the mud.
"As you move around in the mud pool, the gas entrained in the muds are released, similar in concept to shaking carbonated drink, releasing the trapped gas," Moonan added.
The geologist, who has done extensive research on T&T's geology, said the volcano could be marketed as T&T's premiere commercial mud spa.
"The Government could earn valuable foreign exchange from this project," Moonan said. He agreed that the beach also had potential as the 30-minute trek to Papelon Point on the coast brings more geological wonders. The beach itself is very rocky with lots of amazing cliff formations.
"Standing at Papelon Point you can see rock units along the south coast of Trinidad which were all formed millions of years by deposition of sediment from the Orinoco River," Moonan said. One of the largest rivers in South America, the Orinoco empties into the Atlantic Ocean, bringing with it mysterious seeds, nuts, plants, and even animals into Trinidad's coast annually.
He also said a fault or a crack in the Earth's crust can be seen in the trek towards Papelon Point.
"The surface geology of the area suggests that we crossed a fault known as the Cortez thrust," Moonan said, adding that one may notice a drastic change in the colour of the soils in the area as you cross the fault.
Moonan said the L'Eau Michel Mud Volcano, like most mud volcanoes in Trinidad, occurs atop an anti-form in an area dissected by orthogonal faults.
"These particular faults appear to serve as the primary conduits for the expulsion of pressurised salt water, mud, and associated hydrocarbons," he said.
"Along this same anticline, we also have the Landorf Mud Volcano near the village of Morne Diablo to the west, the Karamat and Rock Dome Mud Volcanoes along the Penal Rock Road to the east and the Marac Mud Volcano in La Lune, Moruga."
The wonders of these volcanoes will be featured by Guardian Media in the coming weeks.