The Caribbean's long distance walking trail offers a fascinating journey through Dominica’s mango orchards, boiling lakes and ancient Carib culture
When Christopher Columbus was asked by the Queen of Spain what Dominica was like, it’s said he crumpled a sheet of paper and replied: “Like this”. Yet during his voyage through the Caribbean in 1493 he sailed straight past the island without setting foot ashore.
I have a theory as to why Columbus didn’t drop anchor: he was suffering exploration overload. Sailing past on a Sunday, he’d no doubt endured a long hard week naming islands and thought, let’s just call it Dominica and be off. Thus the rather unimaginative Latin name for ‘Sunday’ stuck.
Had he squeezed into his 15th-century hiking boots and delved into this petite Windward isle, he’d have met the native Carib-Kalinago tribe who called their home Waitukubuli, which poetically translates as ‘tall is her body’ in deference to Dominica’s soaring volcanic spine. Although in hindsight it was probably just as well he didn’t call in – for centuries after Columbus the Caribs proved fiercely protective of their little slice of paradise in the face of British and French colonialists who enslaved, squabbled, plundered and finally left.
Jetting in from neighbouring Antigua, I suspected Dominica’s craggy lushness has changed little since Columbus’s days. The volcanic terrain below was blanketed by impenetrable-looking rainforests, surging like green lava flows to both Dominica’s eastern Atlantic coastline and the western Caribbean side. Knife-edged watersheds delineated the gullies, filled by stripes of vaporising mist. The only roads I saw concertinaed inside the extreme contours.
With almost 70% forest cover, abundant rivers swollen by high rainfall and relatively few beaches, Dominica (pronounced ‘Dom-i-NEE-ka’) promotes itself quite differently to fellow Caribbean islands. Its tourist board brands it the ‘Nature Island’ – another potential moniker missed by Columbus.
The island is rated the Caribbean’s premier hiking destination and possesses numerous well-marked footpaths. I’d arrived to investigate the new 184km-long Waitukubuli National Trail – the Caribbean’s first long-distance hiking route. In Tardis fashion, Dominica has somehow squashed this route into its modest 47km length. The route sashays between the island’s most southerly and northerly points, taking in volcanoes, coastal cliffs, muddy rainforest scrabbles and villages with names longer than their roll-call of inhabitants.
The Waitukubuli was been funded by the EU to promote socio-economic growth in the wake of the demise of Dominica’s banana-growing sector. Much of the trail reprises the footfall of generations: from routes used by escaped slaves (maroons) to Carib hunting trails and colonial plantation tracks wide enough to drive a horse and carriage through. Its 14 segments offer those who don’t have time to walk the entire length (estimated to take around ten days) a choice of day hikes.
It didn’t take long, however, to discover that the Waitukubuli was no calypso stroll in the sunny Caribbean.
“Oh… My… God,” panted 26-year-old local dive-instructor Francesca, who I’d met at Scotts Head, on Dominica’s southernmost tip – the start of Segment 1. “I’ve been looking at this mountain all my life but never realised it was so steep.”
In between breathlessly ascending the murderously vertiginous Morne (Mount) Crabier, and attempting not to splatter the footpath with crustacean pâté as thousands of flailing land crabs shimmied sideways underfoot, there was time to pause and look down on the diminishing Scotts Head peninsula. Martinique floated beyond on a Caribbean Sea as smooth as liquid mercury.
On Morne Crabier’s plateau, a farmer tended a sumptuously green field where Jersey cows chomped contentedly under mango trees. “You looking tired, man,” he noticed. “I do this walk every day.”
Thereafter, we moseyed through undulating farmland where cashews and guavas ripened alongside disintegrating ruins of 18th-century French colonial farmsteads. Near Soufriere village lay sulphurous vents, which act as pressure-release valves for the brooding volcano chain ahead. “I remember in 1990 when everything was shaking,” recalled Francesca, “there were green and pink glows coming from these vents – it was so beautiful.”
Before setting off, I explored the capital a little. It’s retained the sort of happy-go-lucky vibe that is fast disappearing across the Caribbean as the cruise-liner industry all but gentrifies these port cities.
I loped around town trying not to walk too fast – because nobody else does. The noisy music-filled King George V Street retains dainty wooden houses with patterned fascias and balustrade balconies reflecting 18th- and 19th-century French influences. In fact, French forms the basis of the island patois even though Dominica remained a British possession until 1978.
Fuelled on breakfasts of bakes (fried dough balls) and cocoa-water tea, I laced up my boots and left the city behind, heading into Morne Trois Pitons. I trekked to bludgeoning waterfalls, luxuriated in trailside hot springs and swam in subterranean caves – all accompanied by tropical downpours, which Dominicans endearingly call ‘liquid sunshine’. But what really staggered me was the riotous fecundity exploding from the volcanic hills. It was as if God didn’t quite know what to do with his post-Genesis leftovers.
Around the start of a tough six-hour scramble to Boiling Lake, the forests hybridised with cocoa, banana, mango and breadfruit trees. “The breadfruits were brought from Africa to feed the slaves,” explained Peter Green, my wiry hiking guide who possessed mountain goat athleticism.
As we hiked by Breakfast River, overhead sunlight was extinguished by an extravagant thatch of dripping rainforest biodiversity: swan-billed heliconias, dreadlock-rooted mang blanc trees and giant tree ferns, which provided umbrellas during downpours. Every bough seemed so smothered in mosses, tree orchids and bromeliads that they might give way at any moment.
Yet after scaling Morne Nicholls’ 935m summit it appeared that hellish forces had obliterated all greenery. The biblically named Valley of Desolation was shrouded in eggy-smelling mists that partly obscured barren scree-slopes stained yellow and pumice-grey. Fumaroles burped little scalding fountains while Peter boiled an egg for our lunch in a superheated pool.
Boiling Lake lay ahead. The 61m-wide pool bubbled furiously, swirling as if somebody had pulled out the bathplug. “Sometimes the plate opens and sucks all the water out,” said Peter. “It’s eerie, man, I’m telling you.”
Had I walked Segment 6 of the Waitukubuli several hundred years ago, I’d have aroused suspicion. This 15km jaunt from Castle Bruce to Hatten Garden, further north in east Dominica, follows picturesque basaltic lava bays, pummelled by the Atlantic’s crashing surf, along an old colonial-era track through the Autonomous Carib Territory, granted to the Kalinago in 1903.
I performed double-takes whenever encountering the Caribs: so different from the otherwise overwhelmingly Afro-Caribbean population, their lighter skin and Asiatic features betray their past as humanity’s great travellers – they arrived from Latin America by canoes thousands of years ago, yet their ancestry has been traced back to Mongolia.
Sadly, my European ancestors were less enthusiastic about them. Four hundred years previously the Spanish issued an edict to enslave all of the Caribbean’s Caribs; by the 1760s, most had been removed along the Lesser Antillean chain, as these became plantation islands.
“The French and British massacred our people and wanted rid of us completely,” explained Prosper Paris, my hiking guide and community activist. “My ancestors retreated back to Dominica in the 1780s because it was easier to hide amid the terrain.” The total Carib population sunk critically low at this time, to around 400, but now Dominica’s 3,500 Caribs are spread across eight coastal villages.
It’s worthwhile calling in on Kalinago Barana Auté, near Crayfish River, while walking Segment 6. A model village has been set up with historical displays and crafts made on site, all centred on a Karbet – a thatched tribal meeting hall.
“How can Columbus have discovered the Caribbean when we were travelling through it a thousand years before?” voiced Kevin, the centre’s manager. “The Waitukubuli Trail assists us to preserve our culture by bringing in local revenue from hikers,” he said.
Beyond Hatten Garden, the trail enters challengingly mountainous terrain in the uninhabited Northern Forest Reserve surrounding Dominica’s highest volcanic peak – the 1,447m Morne Diablotin – but I made do with Waitukubuli’s final two segments around the northern coast.
These segments provided the calypso saunter I’d envisaged prior to arriving. My penultimate day from Penville hamlet meandered along an old plantation track, through coconut stands and overgrown plantations where I squished fallen mangos underfoot. The prevailing winds had backcombed the cliff forests into verdant quiffs, and I halted for views towards Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante, the latter island named after Columbus’s galleon Santa María la Galante.
Along this undemanding 8km stretch, sharecroppers used the 250-year-old trail daily to access their little vegetable gardens. I asked Bernadette Benn what she was tending. “It’s tania,” she said holding a tuberous root, “you can bake it, boil it or mash it into porridge.”
Such opportunities to stop and chat with islanders really endeared the trail to me. I was able to sense the historical vibrations within the footsteps of modern Dominicans still using these tracks to pursue their daily lives.
At the end of Segment 13, the lovely Gilles Carbon awaited me at Capuchin. “I walk 90 minutes every other day to tend my garden; it keeps me healthy and is in my blood,” she beamed with a broad smile.
Gilles offers one of the first homestays set up along the Waitukubuli. I spent the evening at Gilles’s house, discussing island life as she cooked me Dominican broth, flavoured with chunks of mahi-mahi fish and starchy tania.
The final segment the next day followed a boulder-strewn beach to Fort Shirley. This coastal section witnessed the biggest naval engagement ever fought in the Caribbean: ‘The Battle of the Saintes’ between the British and French in 1782.
The solid 18th-century Fort Shirley seemed a fitting end. From cannon-lined battlements there was a sweeping panorama across Prince Rupert Bay, the spot where Sir Francis Drake harboured in 1565 less than a century after Columbus passed by during his headlong rush to discover the Americas.
I was fully topped up with ‘liquid sunshine’ and vitamins from all the wild fruit I’d eaten. But I was also tired enough to know I’d seriously stretched my legs. And from Fort Shirley’s walls, I imagined standing there five centuries earlier, watching the great navigator whizzing by with his mini-armada. I think I’d have been tempted to yell: ‘Oi, Columbus! Over here! You don’t know what you’re missing!’
This article won Best Consumer Feature at the 2011 Caribbean Travel Journalism Awards