My successful foray to Dominica’s famous Boiling Lake as part of Hike Fest 2013 was a dream come true! On Saturday May 11th, 45 willing and
enthusiastic hikers gathered at the trail-head by the Titou Gorge near the village of Laudat in Dominica’s interior. While quite a number of the assembled intrepids had previously experienced this challenging and difficult hike, a number of us had never done it – including me!
Once again this May, the weather gods cooperated and we started up the trail under partly cloudy skies, refreshing breezes and shady trees in the rainforest. We were also at a relatively high elevation (about 2,000 feet to start) so we had the benefit of a cooler temperature than that of the sea-coast.
The more-or-less gentle ‘walk’ up and down to the Breakfast River (so-called because hikers would restore themselves here before the
long uphill to the look-off on Morne Nicholls) took about an hour. The going was relatively smooth – some might dare to say monotonous, but I felt it was the perfect warm-up for the grueling trek ahead of us. We were accompanied by the melodious trill of the Mountain Whistler (Siffleur Montagne), which to me is always a sign that I am in the rainforest. As usual, my ‘pod’ of the more-or-less 50 plus club and some novices (on this trail) tagged along at the tail-end of the group. We didn’t mind because we concentrated as much on getting to know each other as on where to place our feet. The ‘youngsters’ in our crowd were all affiliated with Ross University Medical School – not as students but as staff! They were bubbling over with good cheer and energy. I think their collective pleasant demeanor helped to sustain me for the whole trip. What a lovely group of young(er) women!
The Boiling Lake Trail would take us well into the interior of Dominica and its renowned
Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 and the first of its kind in the Eastern Caribbean. This particular trek is world-famous, in terms of hiking enthusiasts and adventure seekers. It is also a notable thing-to-do when visiting the Nature Island. Its presence was first announced to the world in the late 1800’s by two British men, after whom two mountains in close proximity along the route are named: Nicholls and Watt. Shortly thereafter, a formal track was cut out of the varied terrain and thousands of people have been over it ever since. Another similar ‘cauldron’ of geothermal activity exists in New Zealand, which is officially said to be slightly larger and unofficially declared much less dramatic than Dominica’s own!
When we reached the Breakfast River after one hour, the crossing was a little tricky.
Even with help, I managed to get one boot sopping wet. Oh well, that is part of the experience. A dry pair of socks would wait until that ultimate destination a few hours further on. We did not stop here for a snack. It seems that the group was focused on the next intense uphill slog to the look-off at the top of Morne Nicholls. The trail was well-groomed and easy to manage in this area, except for the occasional too high step for my too short legs. I was thankful for my hiking pole and the occasional boost from behind! The
steep ascent to the highest point of the day’s foray (3,200 feet)was well worth it once at the pinnacle. The circumferential views were spectacular!
After this breathtaking/restorative (!) pause, we were off again – this time down-down-down en route to the Valley of Desolation. There were a few little teasers along the way – not far
from the look-off. The steam rising from Boiling Lake in the distance looked so near – and yet it was still so far – another couple of hours at least!
I really wondered about my capabilities on this section of the trail. Some of the hand-made steps had been washed away in a recent torrential rainfall. The gradient in the area was practically precipitous and the slick mud reminded me of walking on ice. Sometimes I hoisted myself over and around treacherous spots with my arms supporting the rest of my body weight. What a work-out!
I mumbled aloud: “I got down this thing, but how am I going to get back up?” “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!” seemed to be the resounding reply that I received from more than one experienced trekker.
Then, all of a sudden, we arrived on more or less even ground in the most unusual landscape I have ever seen. It was hard to believe that I was looking at and situated in the renowned Valley of Desolation. I felt as if I had stumbled upon another planet. I
can’t really put words to it- so I will let the pictures do the talking. I can only say if your spirit is willing, you’ve just got to see this exceptional place!
As we walked through it, with less than an hour to the Boiling Lake, we marveled at the seemingly extra-terrestrial appearance of the landscape while inhaling heavy sulphur-laden air.
A few people took advantage of a natural facial from Guide Cynthia. The sulphuric mud is reputed to be filled with many healthful minerals.
At this point, there was another wondrous sight to behold: the faster hikers in the group were passing us on their return from the Boiling Lake! I marvelled at their prowess, particularly that of young Andrew. He has been hiking since he was a little tot. I would only wish that more youths would experience the buzz of a day in nature, even if they aren’t as agile as Andrew!
As we passed though the Valley of Desolation, we followed along a little river and crossed over it here and there. I stuck my hand in it a few
times and was amazed at the diverse temperatures: boiling, hot, warm,cool, cold and everything in between!
By now we encountered more returnees, who assured us that we were almost there. There were high-fives from everyone we met and the excitement quickly mounted. At last, we were there!!! Although we were in the slower ‘pod’, we congratulated ourselves for our timing – just a little under four hours.
And what a sight to behold! Steep cliffs of 60 – 100 feet surrounded the steaming cauldron on all four sides. Low clouds often shrouded the entire lake and distant views. Occasionally, a glimpse into its depths revealed massive roiling bubbles which surged for a few moments and then as quickly subsided. Talk about mesmerizing!
For a short while, we lunched and laughed and lingered a safe distance from the steep cliffs where potential danger lurked below. As most of the group had by now moved off, it was Ibrahim (aka the Sign Man), one of Dominica’s most seasoned hikers and guides who urged us not to tarry. We had to do the trail in reverse, after all!
By now, we all admitted that legs were feeling a bit wobbly and it was definitely “mind over matter,” as I heard Ibrahim say more than once.
Fatigued as we were, there was no stopping us now! As we carefully retraced our steps, we only regretted that there was not time to refresh in a pretty little waterfall pool on the approach to the Valley of Desolation. I concentrated really hard so that my short little legs would not fail me. From time to time, Naila, a physician by training, kindly gave me a hand or suggested where I should place my feet. Every bit helped!
Once we were through the Valley of Desolation, the most daunting section confronted us: what seemed extremely challenging coming down Morne Nicholls must now be done in reverse. It reminded me of what it would be like to scale a cliff (well, I guess I was! ). Slowly and carefully I took a big breath and oomphed (for extra energy), crawled, clung and clamoured over and around slippery, steep steps,big stones and little streams.
Our chatter was more subdued here as a light rain began to fall. In no time (well, an hour or so), we were back at the summit!
From there, the collective focus was on the trails end and a hot meal at the new kiosk at Titou Gorge. Weary, but relaxed and happy, we chattered away to each other, occasionally broke into song and frequently ‘whooped’ and awaited return ‘whoops’ from those who were further behind us.
The last hour beyond the Breakfast River seemed endless, but that Mountain Whistler trilled us along and then we were back at the Titou Gorge trail head exactly seven and one half hours later. Did I squeal with glee! I gobbled down a delicious chicken lunch and then carefully hopped on the bus with many other weary and sore but satisfied souls. Now that I’ve finally done it, I have just have to go back there again. You should too!
But first, there are some more things in Hike Fest to do. Be sure to check it out!
* Special thanks to phenomenal coaches and guides Liz, Simon, Cynthia, Ibrahim and Naila. You definitely helped to make my long-awaited Boiling Lake hike so worthwhile!
Dominica: Isle of Adventure by Lennox Honychurch. London: MacMillan, 1998.
Hike Dominica by the Discover Dominica Authority (with the support of the European Commission). Trinidad and Tobago: Zenith Printing Services, [no date]