Three Saturdays in May: Dominica’s Hike Fest 2013 – Part 3

Gwendominica hams it up for the camera on one of several crossings of the Layou River during Hike Fest's 3rd and final Saturday adventure in 2013.  Photo taken by Simon Walsh, professional photographer at Images Dominica.

Gwendominica hams it up for the camera on one of several crossings of the Layou River during Hike Fest’s 3rd and final Saturday adventure in 2013. Photo taken by Simon Walsh, professional photographer at Images Dominica.

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.

The trail is well maintained and signs do point the way on land  - but the river is another matter!

The trail is well maintained and signs do point the way on land – but the river is another matter!

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.

At the start of the hike, about 80 enthusiasts strolled down to the Layou River en route to Jacko Steps and Jacko Flats.

At the start of the hike, about 80 enthusiasts strolled down to the Layou River crossing en route to Jacko Steps and Jacko Flats.

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

The first crossing of the Layou River was only knee-deep.  The worst (best?!?) was yet to come - for us, but my camera had already begun to fade out before it succumbed to the river...

The first crossing of the Layou River was only knee-deep. The worst (best?!?) was yet to come – for us, but my camera had already begun to fade out before it succumbed to the river…

Trudging through the plateau hig above the rive rwas relatively easy - until we met the  Jacko steps!

Trudging through the plateau high above the river was relatively easy – until we met the Jacko Steps!

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!

These hooks were put in place over a couple of centuries ago to assist with a cable mechanism to pull goods up and down the steep steps.

These hooks were put in place over a couple of centuries ago to help with a cable mechanism to haul goods up and down the steep incline at the steps.

David (r) is an incredible guide who moved with swiftness and strength and saved a number of us from trips or topples over treacherous terrain.

A section of the Jacko Steps. David (r) is an incredible guide who moved with swiftness and strength and saved a number of us from trips or topples over treacherous terrain – both on land and in the river!

The start of the descent seemed easy - but of course Jacko would have planned it that way!  It was the  bottom up that was almost impassable - with good reason!

The start of the descent seemed easy – but of course Jacko would have planned it that way! It was  from the bottom up that was almost impassable – with good reason!

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.

REFERENCES:

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.

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10 comments on “Three Saturdays in May: Dominica’s Hike Fest 2013 – Part 3

  1. lizziemad says:

    Once again a colorful rendition of our adventure! Thoroughly enjoyed all three hikes and so happy to have you capture the experience for us.

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    • gwendominica says:

      Thanks! I really had a lot of fun on our adventures too! It`s a pleasure to write about them – that way I can never forget the great times I`ve had during Hike Fest!

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  2. lizziemad says:

    Hey, I hope your camera and phone survive!!

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    • gwendominica says:

      Thanks. I think the camera was going that very day – before it got wet! And as for the phone, well – perhaps it`s early days, but I did take your advice about sticking it in a bag of rice. The battery still works but that`s about it. Lesson learned, for sure!

      UPDATE: It works! It works! (the cell phone, that is) Thanks for your helpful suggestion, Liz. You are the best Hike Fest buddy! : )

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  3. Maxine says:

    Sounds like such a wonderful day Gwen! Only wish I could have been there myself. Many thanks to the community guides – Roberta (lead guide), Desmond, and David from Crescent Moon…. , without you, this could not have happened! Also to the family who lives along the trail – Eddoe, Uniss and the others,, for maintaining the trail, and for doing the signage.

    PLEASE!!! If you hike this trail…MAKE A CONTRIBUTION to the family for it’s maintenance and upkeep!!! It is not an easy job, nor is it without cost!! Nuff respect to all….

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  4. Maxine says:

    PS – the DHTA, organisers of Hike Fest, WILL be making a contribution to the trail’s upkeep. This was included in hikers’ registration fees.

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    • gwendominica says:

      Thanks Maxine! I did wonder who was maintaining the trail. I am glad DHTA is making a contribution towards assisting the fine folks who care to keep this historic site in good condition. I REALLY appreciate their efforts and I am happy that they are there. Big UP to these good people!

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  5. belle says:

    Hello Gwen
    What a pleasure to stumble upon your blog! I was on that very hike with you actually and will cherish it as one of my most memorable Dominica experiences (and I have many). I too felt at times I would succumb to the force of the river and was being swept away at one point when strong hands plucked me out but my cell phone did die and I wish I had the rice recommendation, because the sim card died too. The Riverside Jazz and Creole was a welcome reward afterwards and I highly recommend the whole experience. cheers. Belle (Barbados)

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    • gwendominica says:

      Thanks Belle. I expect that we must have casually met, but perhaps did not formally introduce ourselves. I am glad that you found Ti Domnik Tales! I do appreciate your interest. Perhaps we will meet on the trail during the next Hike Fest, if you happen to be on the Nature Isle. Cheers!

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