When I arrived at the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association office to register Hike Fest participants at 7 a.m. on Saturday May 18th, I had no idea that all 77 of us would be spending more of this trek in the water than on land! The “Maroon Heritage River Hike” would be the last of a number of outdoor adventures that were offered this year as part of the annual Tourism Awareness Month activities on the Nature Island.
At about 9:30 a.m. on that dry day in paradise, we disembarked from four buses at the village of Bells, which is located in the island’s interior, north of the Pond Cassé round-about. Anticipation and expectations were high. We listened to long-time Hike Fest organizer and professional photographer Simon Walsh , who outlined the details of this adventure and introduced our guides.
We were in for a few surprises and a load of fun – but I won’t give it all away at the top of this post! The main objective was to experience and observe a very significant, historic place deep in the forest and high above the Layou River. Our foray would take us to two nearby locales called Jacko Steps and Jacko Flats, which are named after a famous negre maron (maroon or escaped slave) chief named Jacko. He hid there in an encampment with his supporters in the late 1700’s, raided and plundered many plantations and avoided capture by the British for about 40 years!
What is quite ingenious about this maroon and his followers is that they cut over 100 steps into the stone so that they had a stairway down the 300 foot cliff to the river. However, these cuttings are far from ordinary. They are very narrow, extremely steep and excessively high, which would have made it very difficult for British troops to quickly and easily attack them. The maroons would have seen them first from their high hiding places in the dense forest. Furthermore, the remote location of Jacko’s camp on a plateau (flat land) was far from accessible. As we quickly found out, getting to and from this area involved crossing the powerful Layou River, not once, but several times, depending on the direction of one’s approach. They were well protected on three sides, because of the winding river with its forceful current and the steep, heavily treed cliffs. Jacko was a brilliant strategist, in my humble opinion!
We soon found out how clever Jacko was as we forded the river for the first (!) time
We walked up a path which met the challenging steps. Then we cautiously climbed down them to meet the river again! It was increasingly easy to understand why Jacko’s band of maroons were relatively safe from capture for so long. One would have had to have been very familiar with the terrain, accustomed to the climate and in top physical condition to safely and successfully negotiate those steps!
We definitely treaded with caution on the treacherous descent to the river.
From there, we realized that although the sun was shining, this was not a day for dry clothes. As we traversed the rushing river, we slid over slippery rocks and were often caught off-balance by the thrust of the current as its waters coursed towards the sea. Even along the shorelines, large boulders and uneven ground put my weak ankles to the test. I had switched to plastic sandals and was thinking about putting on my hiking boots again. I had carried them over my shoulder until that point. But when I traversed a powerful cascade, I tipped over with the force of the water and my boots fell into the turbulent waters and started to drift away. Simon immediately came to my aid and quickly retrieved the boots. “So much for your dry boots,” he chortled. I laughed out loud in response. If it hadn’t been for his sharp reflexes, I would have lost a good pair of outdoor footwear. Thanks Simon!!!
When I reached the shoreline after about the third crossing, I realized that while my boots had been saved, I had potentially lost some other possessions, thanks to Mother Nature. Although I had tucked my loosely plastic-wrapped camera and my cellphone into my sports bra, I had not fully anticipated that the fearsome Layou would be so high on a dry day. But I did have a few moments in waters up to my neck, so you know what happened next. The camera was already fading, after several years of good service. And as for the cell phone, it is drying out in a container of rice (!) as recommended to me by several people. We’ll see what happens… Now there is a lesson learned – for me – and for you!
As further photos on my part were out of the question, we were fortunate that Simon brought along a sophisticated camera and managed to keep it dry. To see his excellent photo journal of the day’s events, look at his business face book page for Images Dominica, of which he is a partner.
At about the midway point of the several river crossings, a powerful current and fairly high waters presented a major obstacle for many of us. I credit our guides, particularly David and Roberta, for getting us safely across to the opposite shore. I had a moment or two during that exercise when I felt as if the river were about to carry me away. I was trying with all my might to resist it and I tensed every muscle. Strong hands pulled me safely to the other side. I sat down and trembled for a few moments. It occurred to me that the challenging Boiling Lake trail was perhaps a better option for my style of hiking. But after a while I changed my mind. Some African drummers had brought their instruments and were restoring our energy through their rhythmic sounds.
The joy of hiking in Dominica is that each trek offers something different about the Nature Island.That is what makes every outing a memorable adventure!
By the time we had slogged to the sixth crossing, some of us opted to go overland, thereby eliminating at least one traverse before the grand finale. We were more than waterlogged, to put it mildly While a few people started ahead, I and a few others insisted that we wait for a guide. As I have observed and heard, it is very easy to get lost in Dominica’s dense jungle and I was not going to be party to that!
Roberta guided us through scrub, farmlands and a cow pasture. Suddenly, we were back at the river’s edge, where we waited for the water enthusiasts to catch up to us for that very last crossing. Amazingly, a small puppy, picked up at the trail-head, finished the entire journey with us. I watched people carry him safely through all the rough waters. I was also astonished that a nine-year old boy and ten-year old girl made the trip with relative ease. I was so delighted for them, although they acted as if it were nothing. Next time, I hope they will bring all their friends!
During the last traverse across the Laurent River, which flows into the Layou ,I actually began to feel more at ease with the flow of these forceful bodies of water. I seemed to be able to make moves that matched their unpredictable rhythms. As we walked down the main road through the village of Bells to relax at the nearby RiverStone Bar ‘n Grill, I thought about Jacko with the greatest of admiration and respect.
My day was not quite over, as it was time to eat and then listen to some cool’ jazz and creole’ music from live bands. I’ll tell you all about it in the next post!
*Special thanks to the Hike Fest Organizing Committee, particularly Maxine, David and Simon. A big up to the tourism and hospitality interns (Victoria and the other young lady) from the Dominica State College who helped me with registration and provided much needed support. The guides with whom I associated were very good and added to the quality of the experiences. I had a blast and I think most others did too!
** I am also grateful to those in my hiking ‘pod’, especially Liz, Christabel, Wendy and the faculty ladies from Ross University Medical School for their congenial company. Didn’t we have fun!!!
*** DO NOT attempt the Jaco Flats/Steps Hike without a knowledgeable guide. The Layou River is well-known for its flash floods, so it is inadvisable to go there on a rainy day. The river crossings are not obvious and the current can be very strong. Local guidance is essential.
Caribbean Sunseekers Dominica by Don Philpott.Chicago: Passport Books, 1995.
Dominica: Isle of Adventure by Lennox Honychurch. Second Edition. London: Macmillan, 1995.
The Dominica Story: A History of the Island by Lennox Honychurch. London: Macmillan, 1995.