Despite a catalogue of potential pitfalls in Dominica, Suzy Bennett took on the Caribbean’s only long-distance trek – and found much to savor along the way. Here’s her report for London’s Telegraph.
In 2007, a mountain guide named Stanley escorting a group of hikers around a volcanic crater on the Caribbean island of Dominica lost his footing and fell into a cauldron of boiling water. With no mountain rescue team available, it was several hours before the hikers could arrange for him to be airlifted out. He survived, but he spent the next seven months in hospital undergoing skin grafts.
For hikers attempting a new long-distance walking trail in this little-known Windward Isle, plunging into a fiery fumarole is probably one of the more avoidable dangers. The list of others has all the ingredients of a Bruce Willis disaster movie.
Dominica has the highest concentration of active volcanoes in the world – in an area no bigger than Middlesex it packs in nine, one of which is due to erupt. Earthquakes shake the island with such frequency that islanders make a joke of it – there were 500 in one month alone. Hurricanes are a constant threat in summer, the terrain is perilously steep, the temperatures are excessive and you only need to look at a map to know something of the thriller-novel menaces that lie in the rainforests: Devil’s Peak, Mosquito Mountain, the Valley of Desolation, Massacre.
Just to round things off, ludicrously high rainfall – more than 350 inches a year in the mountains – causes often-fatal flash floods, landslides, mudslides and rock falls. So when the complete Waitukubuli trail opens later this year, it will not only be the Caribbean’s only long-distance hiking trail; it might also be the world’s most dangerous.
It is with undisguised gratitude, then, that I met Matthew, my guide for the first day of my tour sampling the two-week trail from the south coast to the north. Despite the apparent risks, I was excited.
Following old slave routes and Carib Indian hunting traces, the 115-mile path weaves from coast to coast across the densely forested Unesco World Heritage Site of the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, taking in coastal paths, Rastafarian villages, 18th-century French plantation houses, virgin rainforest, a reserve for the world’s few remaining indigenous Carib Indians and a dose of Hollywood glamour.
The trail starts at a small clearing above Scotts Head, a pretty fishing village of pastel-painted tin shacks along a beach of black volcanic sand. I had spent the previous day scuba-diving off these shores, surrounded by millions of tiny bubbles produced by thermal activity under the sea floor. It was like swimming in a glass of champagne. On dry land, it wasn’t long before I started yearning for the cool, fizzy waters below.
The ascent, marked by blue and yellow lines painted on rocks and trees, is mercilessly steep, and the rainforest air is heavy, listless and steamy – the kind that greets you when you open the door of a greenhouse. I am fairly fit, but within seconds I was a river of sweat, had finished my litre of water and needed to stop every few steps for breath. When Christopher Columbus described Dominica he simply crumpled up a piece of paper and threw it on the table. I can see why. It was a dishearteningly slow start.
As Matthew and I plodded higher into the mountains, the forest began to give way to views of the Caribbean and the cool sea breezes lifted my spirits. We visited Bois Cotlette, a dilapidated 18th-century French coffee, cocoa and lime plantation, and a reminder of the island’s brutal slave history.
The spring water is clean enough to drink so I filled my bottle. My thirst was quenched again later when a farmer handed me a freshly cut coconut, from which I slurped greedily. Mangoes, guavas, coconuts, avocados and bananas grow in lush abundance on the sides of the path, and I relished the novelty of having a tree-to-mouth interlude of less than 15 seconds. Waitukubuli hikers may risk petrifaction, but at least they won’t die hungry.
When the trail formally opens, there will be a network of guesthouses en route, with campsites in more remote areas. For now, I had the luxury of being picked up and driven to a nearby hotel at the end of each day.
The following morning, I was joined by Tiffany, a laudably game American economist I had met while diving. We hiked in the 16,000-acre Morne Trois Piton Park in companionable, if breathless, conversation. It is exceptionably beautiful – everything you might ask of a rainforest trek is there: hummingbirds sip nectar from scarlet hibiscus, lizards scamper up trees, orchids splay from tree trunks, with fresh water pools and waterfalls galore to cool off in.
The going was hard and acrobatic: we slid down ravines on our bottoms, swung over ruts on Tarzan vines, clung to mountainsides using tree roots, picked our way across boulder-strewn rivers, and clambered under fallen trees, but the hard-earned vistas were sensational: mile upon mile of rainforest-swaddled ranges untouched by human hand, a receding Caribbean Sea and the stud of Martinique, Dominica’s closest neighbour, in the far distance. Mercifully, it didn’t rain.
Specific attractions on the trail are distantly spaced, but there were enough to keep us motivated: day four took in the waterfalls of Trafalgar and Middleham, day five passed the beautiful Emerald Pool, whose paved sections date from their original use as a Carib hunting trail, and further north the path follows slave routes used by escapees, who retreated into the mountains for 40 years fleeing brutal treatment at the plantations.
We met Eric Hypolite, the path’s maker, and the only person to have trekked it in its entirety. His nickname is Papa Bois: father of the woods. He is tall and lean, and has the look of a man who has spent his life surveying an island from a mountaintop. I developed a bit of a crush on him.
“I inherited the routes from the slaves,” he told me. “They had a real instinct for land and topography and the safest river crossings. I suppose they had a long time to work it out.”
The Valley of Desolation and Boiling Lake were a three-hour detour from the trail, but made a welcome change from the sometimes oppressive forest. We hoped our guide, Peter, would be more sure-footed than his predecessor.
The valley was the most arresting site I have ever seen: a smoking, post-apocalyptic landscape of ghostly white, stinking, bubbling sulphur rivers, steam vents and geysers. Peter smeared a mud mask on our faces. Then he boiled eggs in one of the streams, which we dutifully ate, though we turned down his suggestion that we strip off and bathe in the sulphur pools. I could feel the heat of the 2,192F (1,200C) furnace below through my boots – it was like walking across a giant frying pan.
The day ended with a swim in Titou Gorge, a freshwater passageway flanked by solidified lava formations. My legs felt the lightest they had done in days, but as Tiffany so correctly put it, “the best thing about it was that we didn’t have to stand up”.
Beau Rive, a beautiful plantation-style hotel at Castle Bruce in the north-east of the island, offered some much-appreciated luxury before we headed into Carib Territory the next morning. This 3,700-acre reserve is home to the Caribbean’s 3,000 last surviving indigenous Amerindians, who live modern, but poor lives in self-made shacks, surviving off vegetable plots, and the sale of handcrafted baskets and woodcarvings. Kalinago Barana Aute, a full-scale reproduction of a historic Carib village, provides an interesting history.
From there, the path turns north-west through the most remote and densely forested part of the trail. Short of time and low on stamina, we decided instead to visit Indigo, a tree-house art gallery and guesthouse in Bornes, where Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp swung in hammocks on their days off from filming Pirates of the Caribbean. Its Bohemian French owner, Marie, has their photographs stuck to her wall. She describes Bloom as “my sweetie” and Depp as “very cool, very natural – and very short”.
The final leg of the trail meets the north coast at the Atlantic. We splashed barefoot along the shore, watching fishermen pulling in tuna and mahi-mahi, and stopping to chat to old ladies fanning themselves under the shade of coconut trees. The trail’s end point is Fort Shirley, an 18th-century British garrison that was abandoned until recently. Incredibly, we found a couple of musket shells still on the ground.
Taking stock of my bodily damage that evening, I counted 14 mosquito bites, three nips from indeterminate sources, five bruises and several small cuts. Considering the alternatives, I felt I had got off lightly.
As for the hapless Stanley, he no longer works as a tour guide and now does something that will keep him safely out of hot water: he sells vegetables.