A Guardian reporter is one of the first visitors to tread a walking new trail which runs the length of Dominica, through virgin rainforest, over mountainous ridges and to a boiling volcanic lake.
Friendly jungle. Isn’t that an oxymoron? But as we stand beside the vast buttressed trees, each festooned with entire ecosystems of bromeliads, creepers, orchids and vines, Eric is adamant. “No poisonous snakes, no nasty spiders, no creature more dangerous than a guinea pig.”
“They do bite.”
He grins. “But rarely kill.”
Columns of sunlight come stepping down from above, and each leaf that they touch becomes a brilliant glorious emerald. A yellow land crab scuttles off through the forest litter. Underfoot everything is either bursting with vitality, or busy with decay.
I reach up and take hold of a liana. Putting my weight on it, I find it gives a few inches then holds firm. I have a small experimental swing, then a bigger one, and bigger. When I come back to earth, I scramble back on the path and catch up with Eric. “You like the path?” he asks. A hummingbird thrums past, heading for a patch of yellow and red heliconia flowers.
“It’s an old trail that was used by runaway slaves – the maroons – who came up here in the mountains to escape the coastal plantations. Some old people in the village told me about it.”
We move on, heading up to the ridge for views, across lower forested ridges, of the Caribbean Sea. I like the path a lot, but will it work, I wonder. Set on one of the less well-known islands of the Caribbean, the new 115-mile-long Waitukubuli National Trail has the potential to be one of the world’s great long-distance footpaths, but Dominica is an island that has resisted development for centuries. In the first wave of colonisation it lost out because its precipitous slopes were unsuited to large-scale sugar cane, tobacco or coffee production; in the second wave it had no white sand beaches to compete with other islands, nor an international airport. So how, I wonder, gazing at the rampant vegetation, will it ever attract the numbers of feet required to hold back the jungle? In a couple of years, this could all vanish without trace if the hikers don’t come.
Terrace at the Beau Rive guesthouse
During the 1980s an inhabitant of the lush volcanic island of Dominica, Bernard Wiltshire, was studying in Britain and got into hiking. He especially enjoyed the long distance paths such as the Pennine Way and decided that his Caribbean island, bereft of tourists for lack of beaches, would do well for a big long path. What was required was a trail that would stitch all the island’s great natural wonders together: the volcanic lakes of boiling water, the awesome ridges and the sheer gorgeous tapestry of its jungles. Bernard was determined. He got people motivated and eventually the EU coughed up some money.
That was 2006. Staff were recruited, vehicles and offices leased, paperwork generated, and a bit of path was cut. They called it the Waitukubuli Trail. It was going to be a world-class bit of hiking. With plenty of money and political will, a footpath was about to be created – wasn’t it?
Well no – not necessarily, because a hiking trail only exists when it is walked. It doesn’t matter how many millions you throw at it. Back in Britain, I struggled to find if the path was even complete. There were no triumphant blogs – “I conquered Dominica” – no guide books or online photo albums. What had happened to the Waitukubuli Trail? Had it, like so many development projects, wandered off into the bush, never to be seen again?
There were reasons to be hopeful, however. In early 2010 the EU had enforced some changes and the footpath was back on the agenda. I decided to go. I wanted to see this project at a critical moment, the point of victory or failure, the moment when it needs the first pioneering visitors to start pounding along it.
Flying in to the island – on a small plane via Antigua – we tore through some ragged storm clouds and were abruptly over the jungle. I caught a glimpse of a rocky indented coast, then a few red tin roofs in a riot of emerald green. A ridge whipped by close under us, then my window reared up and I saw forested slopes disappearing into the clouds and a brief glimpse of jagged peaks. One thing was immediately obvious about the island: the small human presence was on the coast, wild nature was up in those dramatic hills.
That night I stayed with Ophelia, one of Dominica’s most renowned singers of creole music who runs a small guesthouse in the jungly outskirts of the capital Roseau. We sat in her living room eating mangoes and discussing the island’s music while rain hammered down – a glorious torrential douche that set every broad leaf gleaming and shining with joy. Not me, however, I expressed doubt that I would be doing any walking the next day, but Ophelia laughed. “Well, we are used to it. There is a reason why they call it rainforest, you know.”
Next day I arrived in Roseau. The rain had stopped. Outside the Waitukubuli Office a small group of people were waiting for me, ready to see me off on the first stage of the trail. We drove south along the rocky coast. The clapboard houses looked like they had been pushed to the water’s edge by rampant wild vegetation charging down the mountains.
Martin, our driver, talked cricket. Dominica has just got a new stadium, courtesy of the Chinese, and as a result the island staged its first one-day international when the West Indies took on South Africa. That, I gather, is a development that Martin and every other Dominican wanted – along with some decent roads. Thank you, Beijing. As for the historic colonial masters – the British and French – their contribution is this footpath I’ve come to see, a path through the uninhabited interior, a path that might provide a small selection of their own people with a holiday. Right. Thanks.
When we got out of the car, the rain began in earnest. We floundered up a steep path. No one seemed too sure of the route and there were several mobile calls to a character called Eric. That man, I decided, was the person I needed to meet.
The rain then became so torrential that we gave up. I headed back to Chez Ophelia in low spirits. Why fight it? The Caribbean is about beaches, rum punches and reggae.
Next morning, the clouds were fractionally higher. Martin reappeared and ferried me down to Roseau again. As we pulled up, a smiling face appeared at the window. “Hi, I’m Eric.”
Trained in forestry at Oxford University, Eric Hypolite is the man I needed to find. With his intimate knowledge of the Dominican jungle and a passion for hill-walking discovered while in Europe, Eric was the vital ingredient: a man who understands why this path is going to be an incredible experience. He knows because, he told me, he is the only person to have walked the whole thing.
“What?! No outsider has done it?”
He shook his head. “Not yet.”
“But is it possible?”
“Yes, the way is actually cleared. The problem is that there is no precise map and guide book.”
I grinned. “So any tourist could arrive, hire a guide, and become the first visitor ever to walk the length of Dominica? Let’s do it. I want to be the one!”
Eric shook his head. “Sorry – it’d take a week and you’ve only got four days. But we can give you a flavour of it.”
And that is precisely what we did. We went high up in the mountains and headed north, one moment we glimpsed the Atlantic, the next we were watching the Caribbean. We followed the old slave trails and stood in awe under vast rainforest giants. It was wild and wonderful, and extremely wet. In places we met the path-building gangs: well-muscled men doing dauntingly tough work with smiles on their faces. Waterfalls cascade all around. Here and there small gardens were cleared with a few yams growing. “In the 1970s a lot of people came to live up here,” Eric explained. “It was the height of the Rasta movement. The coast was Babylon, up here was purity.”
It was an attitude reinforced by history: the lowlands meant slavery, the hills were for runaways and outlaws. Eric ought to know as his parents were divided on how to deal with Babylon: his mother stayed on the coast, working a nine-to-five job, but his father took to the hills for a pure life unsullied by civilisation. “Or shampoo,” added Eric.
As a boy Eric lived in both camps, learning a love of the forest from his father and an appreciation of social progress from his mother.
By the late 1970s, however, a militant group called the Dreads were causing mayhem in the hills. A crackdown ensued with army units scouring the jungle to arrest all Rastas whose dreadlocks were forcibly cut off. The Rasta movement was over, and with it went much of the human presence up in the hills. As we walked we were constantly reminded of this, finding lost gardens and abandoned fruit orchards. Like many others, Eric’s father left for the US, but a few souls have drifted back. We bumped into Loftus Letang who lives the forest life.
“Tell them western governments,” he said, “to quit their bombin’ – Iraq an’ Afghanistan. The wind come from de east here an’ we feelin’ it.”
His three dogs got a scent: not a bomb, but an agouti, a small rodent. They set off in hot pursuit and, after several handshakes, Loftus went too.
“Dominica’s most famous musician is a Rasta called Chobby,” Eric told me, “Sometimes we see him up here too, playing his guitar and singing – stark naked.”
We didn’t run into Chobby, but we did find plenty of other characters: Joey Magloire who extemporized a calypso for me, well-known local guide Peter “Bushman” Green, Didier, a Belgian hotelier who runs an amiable guesthouse on the coast, and 80-year-old Anne Jean-Baptiste who has fashioned an astonishing hotel and botanical garden – Papillote – a place conveniently located on the trail. Local hot springs means that she has managed to create both hot and cold plunge pools at the foot of a waterfall.
At the peak of Dominica’s mountains lies its greatest attraction: the Boiling Lake – a 100m wide tarn of bubbling, steaming water. The island is actively volcanic though there has been no major eruption since 1880.
Next day, we walked the last section to the bay at Portsmouth where the 18th-century Fort Shirley has been magnificently restored by local historian Lennox Honychurch. “All the great explorers stopped here,” he told me, waving an arm towards the bay with its backdrop of volcanic peaks. “Drake, Hawkins, the Jamestown settlers, and the rest.”
He believes the trail will become a classic. “What Dominica has is a wonderful natural environment. The terrain has saved it from development and now it can attract visitors.”
On my last night I got to stay with Mark Steele, who owns the guesthouse Beau Rive near Castle Bruce, surely one of the Caribbean’s greatest hideaways, with its cool broad verandahs, vast ocean panoramas and wonderful cooking. I slept with all the doors open. Outside the sky staggered with lightning, the palm trees shook, and huge black storms sailed in like galleons from the Atlantic.
The next day I had to leave. Not willingly – all I really wanted to do was get hold of one of those jungle hammocks and hike that trail from start to finish. But I did leave, and behind me there remains a challenge.
Who will be first? Who will fight their way through the poor infrastructure, the lack of decent maps, the bureaucracy and – yes – the jungle? Who will be the first outsider to walk the length of this fabulous island?
For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2010/oct/02/dominica-walking-waitukubuli-national-trail