Three Saturdays in May: Dominica’s Hike Fest 2013 – Part 1

Hike Fest enthusiasts started to gather outside the DHTA office in Roseau from 6:30 a.m.

Hike Fest enthusiasts started to gather outside the DHTA office in Roseau from 6:30 a.m.  This is the 6th year of the annual event, which forms part of Dominica’s Tourism Awareness Month.

When a group of 71 Hike Fest enthusiasts of several nationalities set off  from the DHTA office on Saturday May 4th by bus en route to the start of  Segment Seven of Dominica’s Waitukubuli National Trail, we were collectively saying prayers of thanks for a gorgeous day on the Nature Isle.  As we travelled from Roseau through the interior to the trail-head at Hatton Garden on the east coast, we chatted excitedly about our adventure-to-be on Hike # 1 of this year’s event.

We disembarked after an hour’s drive at around 9 a.m. and were anxious to hit the  12.6 km/ 7.5 mile trail immediately.  The sun was quickly rising higher in the sky and

Seventy-one people from various countries around the world (some visitors and some residents) took part in Hike # 1 on WNT Segment 7.

Seventy-one people from various countries (both visitors and residents) took part in Hike # 1 on WNT Segment 7.

the temperature was starting to soar at that early hour. However, we did not rush off without a’ prep and pep’ talk from long-time Hike Fest organizer Simon

DHTA Past-President and fromer Hike Fest Cooridinator Simon Walsh instructs the group about the day's hike.

DHTA Past-President and former Hike Fest Coordinator Simon Walsh instructs the group about the day’s hike.

Walsh.  He introduced our guides for the day, described possible hazards on the trail, noted unique exit markings and most of all, encouraged us to take our time and have fun!

We crossed a small river very near the start of WNT Segment 7.  I got a lift across the river, thanks to a very strong young man.  I wonder if anyone captured that on camera!

We crossed a small river very near the start of WNT Segment 7. I got a free lift across it, thanks to a very strong young man. I wonder if anyone captured that on camera!

It was about 9: 20 a.m. when the group set off en masse.  By the time we crossed the first small river, all the intrepids had basically split up according to their pace.  I knew that I would remain with friends and acquaintances of similar step who had been in my previous hiking ‘pods’ and I was happy with that arrangement.  In this congenial company, I was bound to have a wonderful time socially, as well

Nigel, proprietor of a popular snackette beside ACS in Roseau and Tamara, an instructor at Ross University in Portsmouth are two  lovely people that I met on this adventure.

Nigel, proprietor of a popular natural foods snackette beside  the ACS grocery store in Roseau and Tamara, an instructor at Ross University in Portsmouth are two lovely people who I met for a few moments on this adventure.

as a physical work-out that essentially suited my age and ability – in the  50+  year olds club!  The added bonuses were reuniting with some similar hikers from other years and getting to know some new faces.  Seven of us were content to remain at the end of the group.  What a stroke of luck , as the person at the very back of the hike turned out to be a fantastic guide by the name of Lenny Sylvester from Woodford Hill, a village on the northeast coast.

Lenny is an awesome guide!  We were lucky to be in his company.  He knows this trail very well as he was one of the people who built it.

Lenny is an awesome guide! We were lucky to be in his company. He knows this trail very well as he was one of the people who built it.

From the 'get-go', the trail has a steep uphill climb immediately after crossing the river.

From the ‘get-go’, the trail has a steep uphill climb immediately after crossing the first river.

He proved to be an exceptional coach and teacher.  Without a doubt, he was also the epitome of patience as he walked along with some of us that he respectfully called

“grannies!” (And don’t get me wrong – I think he truly was impressed with our abilities, good cheer, interest in his instruction, and determination to complete the trail!  He was emphatic that most women our age would not attempt such a trek!)

In reality,  it was Lenny who really “mothered” us along the way.  If someone’s pack was too heavy, he took it. If someone needed extra help, especially on the slippery downhills, he was right there!  He was always telling  us what to expect next on the trail: about 5 “ups’ and 4 ‘downs’; a couple  little rivers to cross; three bridges (one submerged); the time it would take to exit the trail and get back to the meeting point at Melville Hall (1 1/2 hours!);  and what to do if we got lost on the trail! (There are signs posted every now and then that show the GPS locations).

That first big climb took me and some of my hiking partners by surprise . I was very familiar with traversing steep terrain, but in this instance, I was winded once I reached the first ridge.  Under scorching sun and high humidity, my lungs burned, I huffed and puffed like a novice and my legs felt weak.  My face turned beet red and sweat dripped from my cap.  I turned around and saw that I was not the only one in this situation.  Perhaps we had started too quickly  with the big group. Maybe it was the moist  salt-laden winds. Possibly, it was this newer experience of  intense heat and  sun exposure in the open fields at the start of this hike on the eastern side of  Dominica.

The social aspect of Hike Fest is definitely part of the fun!

The social aspect of Hike Fest is definitely part of the fun!

Anyway, we seemed to regain our momentum once we took a breather on the first high ridge as we plunked ourselves down on a picnic table, ate a few snacks and admired the

From a high elevation ,the view of Pagua Bay and the Hatten Garden are breathtaking even on a hazy day!

From a high elevation ,the view of Pagua Bay and  the Hatton Garden area are breathtaking even on a hazy day!

stunning view of Pagua Bay ‘beneath’ us.  As the trail took us further inland we oohed and aahed over the vistas to the northeast.  There was not doubt in my mind that our efforts were

Our 'walk' took us above the Melville Hall Airport (runway in foreground), with views to the village of Wesley with the northeast coast approachig Calibishie in the distance.

Our ‘walk’ took us above the Melville Hall Airport (runway in left foreground), with views to the village of Wesley and the northeast coast approaching Woodford Hill in the distance and Calibishie Ridge at the upper left.

Majestic Morne Diablotin featured prominently to the north and west of our track.

Majestic Morne Diablotin featured prominently to the northwest of our track.

more than worth it as we surrounded ourselves in the stunning beauty of the Nature Isle.

We passed through a number of farms,

The trail passed through a number of farms.After cheery greetings, we respected  their privacy and refrained from picking any fruit!

The trail passed through a number of farms.After cheery greetings, we respected their privacy and refrained from picking any fruit!

including a large one owned by Mr. Walter Williams.   He was cultivating oranges and cocoa in that area. We stopped to chat with him briefly and then took a look at the birder’s observation tower on his property.

A birder's building is found on Mr. Williams's farm.  It can also be rented as a stay-over abode while traversing the WNT from one segment to the next.

Liz looks out from the bird observation tower, which is found on Mr. Williams’s farm.

It is also available to rent overnight for intrepids going through on more than one segment of the trail.  (For more information, contact the WNT office in Pond Cassé (767)

266-3593;email: wntp@dominica.gov.dm).  From there, we wended our way down to a small river,

It was a hot day for hiking and Wendy took the opportunity to refresh herself at the next little river after the Williams farm.

It was a hot day for hiking and Wendy took the opportunity to refresh herself at the next little river after the Williams farm.

Beyond the farms, we entered the seondary forest and continued our climb - for the second of sevefral times!

Beyond the farms, we entered the secondary forest and continued our climb – for the third of five times!

where we splashed our faces to cool off for the next challenging ascent.  Along the way, we admired abundant heliconia flowers.

We admired different heliconia flowers along the route.

We admired different heliconia flowers along the route.

The red heliconia is a stunning contrast to the ubiquitous greens around it

The red heliconia is a stunning contrast to the ubiquitous greens around it.

Some of their varieties are only found on Dominica.

When we paused at a picnic table on the top of the next ridge, we thrilled to see a pair of Jaco parrots flying in our direction.

Lenny shows us a 'water lemon', one of the preferred fruits that parrots eat.  Dominica's two endemic parrots, the Sisserou and the Jaco are sometimes seen along Segment 7.  We saw two Jacos in flight!

Lenny shows us a ‘water lemon’, one of the preferred fruits that parrots eat. Dominica’s two endemic parrots, the Sisserou and the Jaco are sometimes seen along Segment 7. We saw two Jacos in flight!

“People should be more like parrots,” mused Lenny.  “What do you mean?” we asked ensemble.  “They only have one partner for life!” he enthused.  I can assure you that a lively discussion ensued, after which we tackled the next descent where we came upon a farmer working in his field.  We admired the plentiful, fat coconuts on his trees and openly longed for a refreshing taste of their healthful water.  The others ahead of us must have benefited due to the pile of husks near the track.  Suddenly, he called out, “Anyone for a jelly coconut?” “Yes please!!” we enthusiastically responded. For $2.00 EC dollars each, we fortified ourselves with the refreshing juice which

A friendly farmer along the trail offered us refreshing coco.nut water

A friendly farmer along the trail offered us refreshing coconut water.

restored our energy levels, thanks to the bountiful nutrients in it.

Gwendominica delights in delicously sweet coconut water.  It contains electrolytes which can become depleted by excessive sweating.  I was completely refreshed after that treat!

Gwendominica delights in deliciously sweet coconut water. It contains electrolytes which can become depleted by excessive sweating. I was completely refreshed after that treat!

Coconut water is nature’s Gatorade, many people say!

We were thankful for our ‘power refreshment break’ as we took on the final descent through the forest, which would bring us to a big bridge (that Lenny helped to build) over a rushing river.  This part of the track proved to be the most challenging of all.  But we had received some advice by text message from Wendy’s husband Simon, who suggested that this section was very muddy ( as 63 people had already been over it!) and steep and that it would be best to go “off piste”  (down-hill ski term for ‘off the trai’l)when necessary.  As we narrowly slolamed back and forth down the tricky track,  that   ski expression was aptly applied in this area.  We hung on to whatever tree or vine was within reach. Hiking poles and walking sticks provided extra balance. Occasionally the” bottoms-up” technique was the best approach to this challenge.  Of course, Lenny was there to lend a much appreciated hand to all of us when the going got a little too tough!

Liz completely cools off after a very steep, muddy and tricky descent in order to refresh for the next (and final) ascent.

Liz completely cools off after a very steep, muddy and tricky descent to refresh for the next (and final) ascent.

By the time I got to the bridge, some of my ‘pod’ were in the  cool waters beneath it. I resisted the temptation, because if I had gone in, I probably wouldn’t

Our trail guide Lenny helped to build this substantial bridge.  We walked over it easily on this dry day, but we were told that these structures can be very slippery when wet.

Our trail guide Lenny helped to build this substantial bridge. We walked over it easily on this dry day, but we were told that these structures can be very slippery when wet.

want to get out!

Finally, Lenny assured us that the “worst” was basically over and that there was only one more ascent before we connected with a farm feeder road that would take us back “down” to our meeting point with the rest of the group.  We took a big breath and started to climb.

Our final ascent took us deeper into the forest in Dominica's interior.

Our final ascent took us deeper into the forest in Dominica’s interior.

For some reason, this last stretch seemed much easier.  I even broke into song  sometimes.  But fatigue was setting in for all of us.  We had been more than five hours on the trail and there still remained a few more! While one couple went on ahead, the rest of us paced ourselves.  Sore swollen knees, burning red ant bites, heat exhaustion and excruciating headaches were taking their toll, but still we put on brave faces and helped

The vanilla orchid (vine) can only be pollinated by hand!  It grows wild in the forest, but there are some farmers who painstakingly cultivate it

The vanilla orchid (vine) can only be pollinated by hand! It grows wild in the forest as a parasitic plant, but there are some farmers in Dominica who painstakingly cultivate it.

each other along – in the true spirit of Hike Fest.

Lenny informed us that parrots like to nest in 'holes' in trees (dark area) either created by termites or a rotting section of a ree

Lenny informed us that parrots like to nest in ‘holes’  (dark area) either created by termites or a rotting section of a tree.

A brilliant red mushroom brightens up the forest floor.  I don't think I would eat this one, because I don't know if it non-poisonous!

A brilliant red mushroom brightens up the forest floor. I don’t think I would eat this one, because I don’t know if it’s poisonous!

.

When we emerged from the forest onto farmland and brilliant sunshine again, the stately Gommier trees stood out beautifully against the blus sjy backdrop.

When we emerged from the forest onto farmland and brilliant sunshine again, the stately Gommier trees stood out beautifully against the blue sky backdrop.

At last, we broke out of the forest and faced the last river crossing – a submerged concrete bridge.  No worries – I’ve never taken my boots off faster !

We passed by a pretty and prolifci nutmeg tree on the farm feeder road towards the end of our journey.

We passed by a pretty and prolific nutmeg tree on the farm feeder road towards the end of our journey.

The final river crossing involved boot removal.  I didn't mind one bit.  the cool wtaer felt so refreshing on my feet!

The last river crossing involved boot removal. I didn’t mind one bit!

  The  cool waters revived my hot, tired, achy feet for the upcoming  1 1/2 hour last lap!

At this point, there was concern that the couple who had gone ahead of us on their own might have gotten lost.  Lenny sent another guide  to find them and alerted the Hike Fest Coordinator.  We continued along in an area called First Camp, admiring the sensational views in every direction, while Lenny tried to find out where the two visitors had gone.  There are many farm feeder roads there, apart from the WNT, and we were not sure if they had turned onto the wrong one!

Wendy points to the highest peak in the distance, from whence we came on WNT # 7. It was a long way!

Wendy points to the highest southerly peak in the distance, from whence we came (!) on WNT # 7. It was a long way!  And that wasn’t  even the start of the trail!

A northerly view, as we headed back to the east coast.  I can never get enough of looking at Dominica's mountains!

A northerly view, as we headed back to the east coast. I can never get enough of looking at Dominica’s mountains!

Towards the end of our hike, the shades of green looking south were simply spectacular!

Towards the end of our hike, the shades of green looking south were simply spectacular!

Quietly, we moved along in the  gorgeous afternoon sun, now behind us.

We focussed on putting one foot in front of the other and hoping for  the quick return of our ‘pod’ members who had taken a wrong turn.  As we neared Melville Hall Airport, we stopped to watch a LIAT plane make its final descent.  We could also hear  music in the distance so we knew it wouldn’t be too much longer.

With less than a half hour to go, we came upon Red Cross volunteers and other guides who were on their way to pick up the lost hikers.  They stopped for a few moments to check on us and offered jelly coconuts, which I eagerly accepted and quickly drank for instant refreshment.

By the time we reached the Melville Hall River and a hot lunch, which was prepared by the Marigot  Community Association, almost 8 hours had elapsed since we started.  That was a record for me – about the same length of time on this trail as when I had climbed up and down Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s highest peak many years earlier.

We devoured the delicious food – I had mahi-mahi fish in coconut milk with provisions ( starchy  vegetables) and  plentiful greens. At first, I wasn’t sure if I could consume the substantial meal but I surprised myself by eating it all!

Good feelings abounded after our challenging but successful day on Segment 7 of the Waitukubuli National Trail.  I was pleased with my performance and felt ready to take on Hike Fest # 2 the following week – the famous Boiling Lake Trail.  Watch out for my  next report!

*The lost hikers were quickly and safely found, thanks to a team effort.  Moral of the story:  Always stay with your guide when hiking in unfamiliar territory!

**Lenny Sylvester, our excellent guide on WNT  Segment # 7 (who also knows Segment # 8 very well) can be contacted through the Waitukubuli National Trail Office ( 767-266-3593) or at 295-1144.

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‘Dr. Birdy’ and the Kachibona Lake Adventure on Dominica’s Waitukubuli National Trail*

The trail is well marked by prominent signs on every segment.

The trail is well-marked by prominent signs on every segment.

On Sunday April 14th, friends Wendy, Liz and I tagged along with tour guide extraordinaire Bertrand ‘ Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste on a true Dominica adventure: a long  section of a hike  regarded by experts as extremely difficult and highly challenging on Segment 9 of  the Waitukubuli National Trail.  A few days later, I am proud to acknowledge that  I realized a dream that  I  had once thought impossible to achieve!

We set out early on a beautiful day in paradise with no rain in the forecast.  Birdy’s son Yuan drove us high above the village of Morne Raquette near Coulibistrie on

It took several hours to hike from the heights of Morne Raquette to Kachibona Lake, which is located a short distance off of Segment 9 of the Waitukubuli National Trail.

It took several hours to hike from the heights of Morne Raquette to Kachibona Lake, which is  about 3,000 feet above sea level.  It is located a short distance from Segment 9 of the Waitukubuli National Trail. The name of the lake is derived from a Kalinago word for escaped slaves/maroons.

a farm feeder road.  After about half an hour, he dropped us off a short distance from the actual trail.  We admired the stunning views all around us before disappearing into the cool and inviting rainforest.  Our objective was to hike for several hours until we met up with an intersecting trail that would take us to the intriguing Kachibona Lake.  We were curious to see the small body of water, which played a role in the island’s history.

In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s,  escaped slaves/maroons (called Negres Marons) hid in this area. Under the leadership of their chief named Pharcelle,  they supported Republican Frenchmen  during the French Revolution and  raided the British  who occupied the country at that time.  But then Pharcelle is also documented as having liaised with “British black rangers.”  Interestingly, his alliances were never consistent!

The views looking inland en route to the WNT Segment 9 junction above Morne Raquette.

This view of the south side of Morne Diablotin (Dominica’s highest mountain), was photographed from the southwest side of middle Morne Raquette Heights en route to the WNT Segment 9 junction.

Bridy (l), his son Yuan (our driver), Wendy and Liz relax for a moment before the big hike.

Dr. Birdy (l), his son Yuan (our driver), Wendy and Liz relax for a moment before the big hike.

Liz, Wendy, Gwendominica and Birdy are set to start on their adventurous trek.

Liz, Wendy, Gwendominica and Birdy are set to start on their adventurous trek.

We hadn’t been moving for too long before Dr.  Birdy, who is a forestry and wildlife officer by profession and a leading authority on

    Trees welcomed us on the farm track that took us to WNT Segment 9. It was a beautiful day for a hike!

Tall Gommier trees  that can grow up to 135′ welcomed us on the farm track that took us to the WNT Segment 9 trail. It was a beautiful day for a hike!

birds in Dominica (hence the nickname) stopped us in our tracks.  “Look, look up there -in that tall tree – by  the mistletoe plant -do you see it?” he asked excitedly.  After a few moments and some more patient pointers, we caught a fleeting glimpse of a pretty Antillean Euphonia with its ” blue hood and hind neck.”   Only a few minutes earlier, we had been blessed to see the female blue-headed hummingbird, which is only found on Dominica and Martinique – and we hadn’t even started the hike yet!

English: Blue-headed hummingbird photographed ...

Blue-headed hummingbird (male – which is more colourful than the female we saw!) photographed in its natural habitat in the Morne Diablotin National Park. Guide was local expert ‘Dr Birdy’ Bertrand Baptiste (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Birdy and I have been acquainted since 1997, when he was recommended to me as a superb and knowledgeable guide.  Over the years, he has taken me all over Dominica and I credit him with teaching me more about the Nature Island’s flora, fauna, geology and geography than anyone else.  From our first few steps on the trail that day , I knew that  another learning experience would form part of  this

adventure – and Liz and Wendy would no doubt benefit from it too!

Wendy photographs the pretty    flower, which was found on the way to the trail.  It matches her shirt!

Wendy photographs a pretty David’s orchid, which was found by the farm feeder road en route to the trail. It matches her shirt!

As we traversed the dense  jungle, plentiful endemic Jaco Parrots  screeched overhead and Ground (Zenaida) Doves plaintively

Bertrand Jno Baptiste (aka Birdy) always takes time on the trail to' show and tell' about fascinating flora and fauna that are found on the route.

Bertrand Jno Baptiste (aka Dr. Birdy) always takes time on the trail to’ show and tell’ about fascinating flora and fauna that are found on the route.

cooed in the distance.  For the first time, I actually saw the melodious Mountain Whistler, which usually perches high in the treetops – all thanks to Birdy’s exceptional visual and auditory acuity!  House Wrens, Brown Tremblers,Thrushes, Flycatchers and other birds  accompanied us  through the tropical rainforest and the higher elevations of montane forest.

Liverwort (centre of the rock) is said to have detoxifying properties.

Liverwort (centre of the rock) is said to have detoxifying properties.

There was so much to see – innumerable plants, trees, herbs, mosses and fungi held our fascination when we paused for a breather.

One could never really starve in the rainforest if one knows what is safe to eat, such as this 'Chicken of the Forest.'

One could never really starve in the rainforest if one knows what is safe to eat, such as this ‘Chicken of the Forest’ mushroom

Wendy and Liz study  the 'chicken of the forest' mushroom' that Birdy has described.

Wendy and Liz study the ‘chicken of the forest’ mushroom’ that Birdy has described.

This chatannye tree is being "choled" by a parasitic vine. Look at the rainforest canpy above it!

This chatannye (sha-ta-ney)tree is being “choked” by a parasitic vine. Look at the rainforest canopy above it!

Cat's Claw is an herb which is used to treat a wide range of health problems.

Cat’s Claw (on the leaf) is a plant  which is used to treat a range of health problems.

Gommier trees are tall and strong.  They have a sap (lighter areas) that is a waterproof resin used in teh building of canoes by the Kalinago indigenous people.

Gommier trees are tall and strong and can thrive for hundreds of years. They exude a waterproof resin (the white substance), which is used in the construction of dug-out canoes by the Kalinago indigenous people.

Massive chatannye (cha-ta-nay) trees have huge buttresses and love for hundreds of years.  This one is said to be one of the largest on the island.

Massive Gommier trees have huge buttresses and can live for hundreds of  years. This one has a circumference of 28 feet! It is said to be one of the largest on the island.

Along the way, we occupied ourselves with good-natured  banter and even broke into song several times.  The deep breathing seemed to help us climb and crawl up steep ravines, where at their pinnacles, we  welcomed respites of breezy ridges and relatively easy walking on level ground.    This is where Birdy gave us a break and  a good deal of nature instruction.  Most challenging were the severely steep descents to small river valleys, where we paused a few moments before climbing up the next steep incline.

The buttresses of the prolific Chatannye tree enable it to withstand hurricanes and remain firmly rooted in the soil.

The expansive buttresses of the prolific Chatannye (sha-ta-nay)tree enable it to withstand hurricanes and stay firmly rooted in the soil.

Wendy hangs on tightly to a supportive rope on a steep incline.  Liz follows a safe distance behind her.

Wendy hangs on tightly to a supportive rope on a steep incline. Liz is a safe distance behind her.

Fortunately, there were ropes placed at strategic locations to steady us in our precarious positions.  I was thankful for  a  dry day, because I think parts of this trail could be extremely treacherous when wet and muddy.

By the time we reached the junction of the trail with the track to Kachibona Lake, about 4 hours had elapsed.  It was time for lunch!

After about 20 minutes, we arrived at an oasis of complete serenity and stunning greenery. We seated ourselves on conveniently placed benches and admired the  verdant splendor of nature, as we rewarded ourselves with some sustenance for our gargantuan efforts to reach this intriguing goal.

Birdy takes a break at Kachibona Lake, after hours of patient instruction to his 'students' on the trail!

Dr.Birdy takes a break at Kachibona Lake, after hours of patient instruction to his ‘students’ on the trail!

The shades of green at Kachibona Lake are absolutely stunning.  It is hard to tell the land from the reflection!

The shades of green at Kachibona Lake are absolutely stunning. The plants are perfectly reflected in the clear, still water!

Once we were fortified, we hit the trail for the last lap before arriving at our destination, Savanne Gommier in Colihaut Heights, where Birdy’s son Yuan would pick us up.  While the terrain was drier in this area, we were faced with one last incredibly

Liz and Wendy tackle the final ascent towards the end of WNT Segment 9.

Liz and Wendy tackle the final ascent towards the end of WNT Segment 9 with hands and feet!

precipitous ascent.  It was definitely a final test of our stamina and we all passed with flying colours!  We were amazed that this area was once farmed extensively at this high elevation, as there were a number of ancient citrus trees that continued to thrive.

We enjoyed a southerly view after we emerged from the dense forest close to the conclusion of WNT Segment 9.

We enjoyed a southerly view towards Morne Trois Pitons (which may be the hazy mountain in the distance) after we emerged from the dense forest close to the conclusion of WNT Segment 9.

Exhausted but exhilarated after six and a half hours on the trail, we drove down the mountain with another objective in mind.

Birdy relaxes after a long day on WNT Segment 9 with Gwendominica, Wendy and Liz.

Birdy relaxes after a long, but fun-filled day on WNT Segment 9 with Gwendominica, Wendy and Liz.

After professing heartfelt thanks to Birdy for escorting us on this amazing “walk through the woods,” we headed for Mero Beach and soaked our sore muscles in the calm Caribbean as the sun sank slowly in the west.

A sunset swim on Mero Beach was a well-deserved reward after our challeging trek on the Waitukubuli national Trail.

A sunset swim on Mero Beach was a well-deserved reward after our challenging trek on the Waitukubuli National Trail.

We all agreed that we had passed that strenuous test and were now ready to take on Dominica’s annual Hike Fest, to be held a few weeks hence.

Stay tuned for our next  trekking adventures on the Nature Island!

* This post is dedicated to Brian, who recently departed this earth. We shared many fantastic intrepid adventures in Canada’s great outdoors. Happy  heavenly trails, Bri!

** Special thanks to Birdy for his endless enthusiasm, good humor and patience in assisting me with flora and fauna ID!

*** To contact Bertrand ‘ Dr. Birdy” Jno (pronounced John) Baptiste for an extraordinary hiking or birding experience on Dominica, email: drbirdy2@cwdom.dm or call (767) 245-4768 or (767) 446-6358.

**** DO NOT attempt this trail without a knowledgeable guide.  Use EXTREME CAUTION during inclement weather as  the trail can be very treacherous in wet conditions.

References:

Dominica’s Birds by Arlington James, Stephen Durand and Bertrand Jno Baptiste. (Produced by the Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division of Dominica in collaboration with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation, Wildlife Without Borders – Latin America & the Caribbean Program, and the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds) 2005.

Dominica (Other Places Travel Guide) by Anna McCanse (former Peace Corps volunteer). (Other Places Publishing) 2011.

The Dominica Story: A History of the Island by Lennox Honychurch. (London: MacMillan) 1995.

Plants of Dominica’s Southeast by Arlington James, in collaboration with the Southeast Environment & Tourism Development Committee. (La Plaine, Dominica). 2008.

Dominica’s Hike Fest 2012 Continues: Hike # 2 in Review – (Relatively) Short and (Simply) Sweet!

On an overcast, drizzly Saturday, about 70 hiking enthusiasts boarded three coaster buses at Roseau and headed up Dominica’s west coast to the village of Colihaut.  Our objective on Hike Fest‘s second outing this year was to complete Segment # 10 of the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT), which covers terrain between Colihaut Heights and Syndicate, and then follow  a section of Segment 11 that would take us to our final destination  at Ross Castle Estate on the Picard River, near Portsmouth.

The steep uphill ride on the dumper to the trail-head of WNT Segment 10 was awesome!

Part of the intrigue of Hike Fest (for me) is the adventure, including  unexpected “diversions.”  When we disembarked from the buses, we discovered that in order to reach the trail-head of Segment 10, we would have to “hop on” a dump truck, which would take us up steep and rough farm road.  With only a little trepidation, I took a deep breath and cautiously climbed the steps on the side of the dumper. I lifted one leg  very high and then the other over the side panel and landed safely on the floor of the dumper, where I took a standing position at the front, just behind the cab.  A few others took the front row view beside me, while about 2o more sat down or hung on behind me for the uphill journey.

My initial fears vanished as the dumper climbed higher and higher.  The courteous and careful driver blew the horn whenever we approached low-hanging branches  or heavily laden mango trees, so I was able to squat safely out of harm’s way. A fresh cool breeze caressed me  as I gazed with awe at the stunning scenery all around me – lush valleys, verdant hills, an azure blue Caribbean Sea.

After half an hour, we arrived at the start of the trek and I confidently climbed down from the truck .  Then we realized the trip would be slightly delayed, as we had to wait for the dumper to return  again with the rest of the hikers.  With patience and good cheer, we easily conversed with each other, made introductions to the visitors in the group and fortified ourselves with  snacks from our packs.

Northwesterly valley view from the start of WNT Segment 10.

Hike Fest Coordinator Simon Walsh always urges participants to take their time, socialize and have fun!

The time passed fairly quickly and finally everyone gathered around to hear final instructions from Hike Fest Coordinator Simon Walsh.  Then we were off!

Even misty views have exceptional beauty.

The sights along any segment of the WNT are a nature photographer’s dream come true.

Most of the hikers took off at a quick pace.  I lagged behind, as usual, mainly so that no one would have to wait to pass me on the trail.  Of course I was not alone.  Very early on, my little pod of lady trekkers assembled – both old friends and new ones of varying ages and experience.  With a collegial spirit, we  kept each other company over the next four hours.  You can be assured that the rain commenced early on the journey.  Although our views were somewhat diminished, we were accompanied by the sounds of the occasional screeching Jaco parrot(endemic to Dominica), melodious chirping thrushes and warblers, as well as an actual sighting of a Blue-headed hummingbird, which is only found on Dominica and Martinique.

Gwendominica proudly recalls an earlier time (1999) when she and her brother successfully climbed the mighty Morne Diablotin. Photo taken by Liz Madisetti.

The trail was wet and muddy, but the going was fairly smooth on old and newer farm roads. We arrived near the Syndicate Visitor Centre and the end of Segment 10 in exactly two hours.  Along the way, we stopped briefly to admire lovely flowers, take photographs and discuss our previous hikes up the majestic Morne Diablotin, which towered above us in the mist.  We generally agreed that one trek up (and down) the challenging slope of Dominica’s tallest mountain would suffice.  I admit that I was proud to have successfully accomplished this eight hour feat many years earlier.  I have the pictures to prove it!

WNT trail-heads and the trail itself are well marked. The first section of Segment 11 from Syndicate is completely downhill.

When we arrived at the trail-head to Segment 11 two hours after our start, I guestimated that it would take us two more hours to complete this hike. I figured that the day’s outing was estimated at four hours, and as an average hiker with others of like step, I felt confident that we could finish it in that length of time.

Magnificent buttresses of the Chatanneye (sha-ta-nay). These trees are abundant in Dominica’s rainforests.

Hike # 2 didn’t get tricky until about the last hour, when the descent became fairly steep in spots.

For the next hour or so, it was a gentle (but wet and muddy) downward slope on an old farm road.  But then the going got a little trickier as the path diverted into the thick forest, passing by ancient chattanneye (sha-ta-nay) trees,  where the angle of descent became much more acute.  We carefully picked our way down, grasping trees for support and planting our feet carefully around roots and some loose rocks.  At one point, I applied my bottoms-up technique rather than risk an abrupt slip on the slick ground.  By now, the rain drops pelted us relentlessly.  But we were not deterred.  As our boots slogged along, we  lifted our voices in song –  about rain and sun, of course!

Portsmouth in the distance indicated that we were close to the end of our hike on that part of WNT Segment 11.

All of a sudden, we stopped dead in our tracks.  Out of the blue (I mean gray), a spectacular sea view appeared before us.  And Portsmouth was in plain sight.  We were practically there! The final few minutes were a respite for us as the weather cleared and we quickly passed through a banana field, crossed a road, and arrived at our destination –  Ross Castle Estate.  And yes, we made it down from Syndicate in exactly two hours!

I  delighted in another Hike Fest accomplishment as I devoured a hearty  callaloo (like spinach) soup and danced for a few minutes to the jumpy West Indian beats coming from loudspeakers nearby.

Now, there is just Hike # 3 to go!

Recalling Dominica’s Hike Fest 2011: Wet, Challenging, Fun!

There’s still a week  to go before the next trek in 2012’s Hike Fest.   Our sore muscles from last week’s trek on Segment 5 are mending and energy levels are being restored in anticipation of our ‘walk’ along Segment 10 and part of Segment 11 on the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT).  Expect a full report post-hike.

In the mean time I’ve had a chance to pause and reflect on the challenging but rewarding experiences encountered on the trails last May.  As the WNT was nearing completion at that time, we tackled Segments 2, 3 and 4, which were receiving finishing touches for their official opening in June 2011.

Southerly coastal views of Dominica – on a clear day! Photo by Edwin Whitford.

We started the season at the Soufriere Sulphur Springs eco-site where the trail-head to Segment # 2 is situated.  The first part of this track was familiar to me, as I have always enjoyed the steep ascent to the village of Tete Morne (and then back to the springs for a hot soak!), with its spectacular views of the south coast.

But there was one big difference when I hiked it this time.  You guessed it – torrential rain!  I believe there were about 60 participants, all of varying levels of physical fitness.  After an hour, some of us squeezed under a little shelter,(called an ajoupa in Kalinago) near Tete Morne where we waited for the slower walkers and late-comers.  We were quickly drenched and hadn’t even gone too far!  Although we hoped for brightening skies, there was only a respite long enough for me to huff and puff my way up the Morpo Road, an extremely steep section of the trail where the reward is the view along the south coast of the country.  When we were offered an option to hitch a ride on a pick-up truck and thereby avoid the duress of this excruciating climb, I and a few others declined because we wanted to “go for it!”  For me, that was an accomplishment!  But once I arrived at the zenith of the hill, there were only a few moments to rest. Most of the group had waited about an hour for those of us who had chosen the more difficult method of ascent.  And there were still miles (I mean kilometers) to go before the finish at Bellevue Chopin,  a lovely mountain village.

The next part of the trail passed through rainforest and heavy rain drops pattered upon us again.  The track was steep in spots and the going was a little tricky along narrow precipices.  Thick low gray clouds prevented us from being tempted to raise our heads to look for hidden sights.  Instead, we concentrated on carefully placing one foot in front of the other and sticking closely together for safety’s sake.

Looking down upon Roseau from the village of Bellevue Chopin – on a clear day! Photo by Edwin Whitford.

By the time the soggy gang arrived at the Bellevue Chopin Community Centre five hours after we started, we were thoroughly chilled and bedraggled.  We eagerly devoured a tasty hot lunch prepared by  welcoming villagers (who are perhaps more accustomed to this type of micro-climate!).  Although the inclement weather  prevented us from  seeing the spectacular bird’s-eye view of Roseau from this vantage point, we hoped that it would be a fine day when we returned to take on Segment 3.

Our next foray was not Segment 3, but 4, and we did it in reverse.  I guess I don’t have to tell you what the weather was like when we arrived at Pond Casse in the centre of the island.  This route would take several hours, as we worked our way back to the Middleham Falls Visitor Centre  near the village of Laudat. There, we would be rewarded with a delicious lunch prepared by Joan of Le Petit Paradis in Wotten Waven.

The first big hurdle on Segment 4 was the mini-rappel of about 20 feet or so down a precipice  along a river, as the crossing bridge was still under construction.  At least 50 of us patiently waited our turns to descend with the aid of a rope and assistance from a couple of our strong male colleagues.  As it was raining cats and dogs, I pulled out a little umbrella from my pack.  Although I thought I looked foolish, a number of my friends admired my forethought!  Be assured that it didn’t help for long, as it too became waterlogged in the relentless rain.

I admit that I was scared about clinging to a rope and bouncing my feet off of the vertical rock face.  When it was over (in  about 5 minutes),  I couldn’t wait to do it again!  I actually enjoyed it and was proud of myself for overcoming that particular fear.  On the other hand, I didn’t have a choice.  With safety precautions in place, verbal  support and such jovial camaraderie in the group, it was “a piece of cake!”

Once we had hopped from stone to stone to cross the river, we encountered a steep muddy slope,a seemingly endless uphill slog.  We clung to solid rocks, grasped tree roots and often offered a hand to anyone in need.  At about the midway point of this 5 hour plus hike, we fortified ourselves under another ajoupa in preparation for a slippery descent which did eventually level out as we forded a few more rivers and easily walked the track, which was a short distance from Middleham Falls.  By the time I was in the area not far from the cascade, it was getting late and I had walked through the forest for almost 6 hours.   When a friend and I emerged from the bush at the Trail Centre, one bus load of happy tired hikers was pulling out.  But I was not distressed, despite my dirty attire and wobbly legs.  A small group of us lingered, chatted, laughed  and filled our faces with the local dishes that Joan (see above) set on the table.  We did it!  One more to go.

By the time our third and final hike rolled around, we accepted that fact that sunshine was not a likely occurrence.  We travelled by bus and offloaded at the Community Centre in Bellevue Chopin to begin the day’s journey on Segment 3, a 6 – 7 hour foray that would finish at Wotten Waven in the Roseau Valley.  We were motivated by the rewards that awaited us there: a hot soak in the natural hot pool at Ti Kwen Glo Cho, just across the road from Le Petit Paradis, where Joan would once again be serving up something scrumptious.

Spectacular views of the Roseau Valley and beyond can be seen from Morne Prosper – on a clear day! Photo by Edwin Whitford.

On this mountainous trek, we truly experienced the “hills and valleys” of the Nature Island.  From Bellevue, we climbed higher and higher for about an hour in teaming rain, thunder and lightning.  By the time we  reached the village of Giraudel, we were drenched but eager to continue, as there was much more ground to cover.  When the clouds lifted a little, we could see across the valley to our next main point on the trail, Morne Prosper.  But getting there was nothing short of an extreme adventure. For an hour (or was it two?) the group slipped and slid down a treacherously steep ravine as we clung with all our might to a strong rope that was secured along the side of the trail.  At some points, I opted for an easier method – bottoms-up, with my feet serving as brakes!  The rain continued.  Once we arrived in this valley , we quickly crossed  the raging River Claire on a strong bridge above it.  Then we met another  seemingly vertical climb, sometimes narrowly skirting a steep precipice. Finally, we encountered some constructed steps which enabled us to go a little faster and we eventually arrived in Morne Prosper in merely damp conditions.  As we walked through the village, we admired the abundant  garden plots, which offered up a variety of vegetables and even some pretty flowers.

From here-on, the going was  easier and the slopes more gentle as we spent the final hour looking forward to lunch and a hot soak.  It was mid-afternoon when my party stumbled into Joan’s, devoured  dinner,  and then limped across the road to submerge ourselves in the hot mineral waters at Ti Kwen Glo Cho.

As our muscles relaxed, we raised a cheer and giggled with glee.  Hike Fest 2011 was not a wash-out after all!

P.S.  By now, you must have realized that I did not take any pictures during these three hikes.  Perhaps you’ve also figured out why! 😉

Dominica’s Hike Fest: It’s “The Best!”

When I awoke on Sunday morning to torrents of rain hammering on my roof, I thanked the Almighty for sparing us such a persistent deluge on our lengthy hike through the rainforest less than 24 hours earlier.

Of course we experienced some showers.  That would be expected, as ‘rainforest’ ‘is aptly named.  But even if it had poured relentlessly, die-hard Hike Fest enthusiasts would not have been deterred.  Over the past couple of years,  collective determination and good cheer have always enabled sopping wet participants to complete each trek, despite unrelenting inclement weather.

There is something really special about getting together  in Dominica’s great outdoors, with both old friends and new ones – to take on different treks over three Saturdays in May.  It’s always an adventure!

Fortunately, sunshine accompanied us on our first hike of this year’s Fest, which took us into the interior of Dominica on the Waitukubuli National Trail’s (WNT) Segment # 5, a 12.5  kilometre (7.5 mile) journey between Pond Casse in the centre of the island and Castle Bruce, a village in the east coast.  Seventy-one people, comprised of Dominicans and an amazing assembly of returnees, expatriates and visitors from South Africa, Canada, the United States, Australia, China, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, England, Martinique and St. Martin convinced me that hiking  certainly has universal appeal.  In this day and age, that’s  a really  positive vibe!

Some of these trekkers demonstrated great skill and familiarity with rugged terrain, as they raced on ahead to the finish an hour or two ahead of me and my party.But  we were not distressed about our own moderate pace.  There was plenty of time and we enjoyed congenial conversation, lots of laughs and a few R+R (rest and relaxation) stops along the way.  Despite our leisurely strides, we arrived in Castle Bruce after six hours on the trail, right on target as the estimated length of time noted by WNT officials.

Little streams abound in the rainforest.

Morne Negres Marron (aka Morne Laurent) in the central mountain range as seen from WNT Segment 5 on the Pond Casse side before approaching the Emerald Pool. (Reference: The Dominica Story: A History of the Island by Lennox Honychurch, PhD (MacMillan, 1995), p. 95).

This particular track is historic, as well as beautiful.  It was once an ancient Carib (Kalinago)trace (very narrow old road) and in the 18th century it was a route used by escaped slaves (called Negre-Mawon in Creole)  as well as the troops who sought to capture them.  In this  central mountainous area,  the slaves hid from their captors, often for many years.  The path in this area was once marked with stones  (some are still there).  This route crisscrossed many  little streams and even bigger rivers, as we quickly discovered.

The lovely Emerald Pool

About one-third of  the way along, the trail passed through the  pretty Emerald Pool eco-site, much to the delight of visitors in the group.  We then gently descended for some distance until the trail intersected with the main road to Castle Bruce.  There, under a sheltered picnic table, we fortified ourselves for the last half of the day’s adventure. After a few minutes on the road, we again disappeared into the forest on the well-marked trail.  After another hour, we collectively “cooled out” in a forest stream and emerged after 20 minutes much refreshed for the final couple of hours left on the journey.

The brilliant Heliconia flowers stand out against the greens.

As we continued to descend, we skirted  the shoreline of the beautiful Belle Fille River and marveled at magnificent heliconia flowers.  They’re such a brilliant contrast with the ever-present shades of green.

The suspension bridge across the Belle Fille is part of WNT Segment # 5.

For me, the biggest thrill was bouncing along a strongly built suspension bridge  over the mighty Belle Fille. As we made our way along increasingly level lands, we admired a lovely farm and its bountiful plants.  We thought we were nearing the end of the trek, when the trail took us back to the main road for a good half hour or so.  We slowly sauntered along the very last bit, which passed through pastures leading into the village of Castle Bruce.

Just as we arrived to enjoy a hearty fish broth, the heavens opened up so we quickly boarded the bus and headed back to the city (Roseau).  Despite extreme fatigue and sore feet, we looked forward to seeing each other at the next hike two weeks hence.

To be continued!

A Peek at Peeps on the Path:

A very fit Mr. Dominica 2012 (Nigel Peters) briefly pauses for a pose on the path .

Moving through the rainforest en route to Emerald Pool, about 1/3 of the way to the trail’s end at Castle Bruce village.

A number of bridges make the many river crossings much easier!

Picking up the pace on one of the sections of the trail closer to Castle Bruce before it goes into the forest again.

Tackling Dominica’s Waitukubuli National Trail*

SPECIAL NOTICE:  WNT Segment # 1 is blocked due to a massive landslide on Morne Crabier resulting from the torrential rain storm on December 24, 2013.  Please confirm its accessibility before attempting it. Further information is contained in this article: http://dominicanewsonline.com/news/homepage/news/environment/landslide-waitukubuli-national-trail/

Every May, hiking enthusiasts of all ages and abilities look forward to Dominica’s annual Hike Fest. Three  hikes are  organized on Saturdays by the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association, with support from other public and private sector tourism organizations.

Dominica = ‘Waitukubuli’ (Tall is her Body)as seen from the Caribbean Sea.

The three treks that we tackled in 2010 took place on the unique Waitukubuli (pronounced why-too-koo-boo-lee) National Trail (WNT), an island-long hike of about 184 kilometers (115 miles).  It is actually split up into fourteen segments that traverse the island from north to south.  As the WNT was still under construction at that time,  the participants in Hike Fest were able to give some of the segments a “test run!” (Note: The WNT officially opened in December 2011. ‘Waitukubuli’ is the Kalinago (Dominica’s indigenous people) word for Dominica, which means “tall is her body.”  No kidding!)

The second hike that year featured the WNT’s Segment # 1, which is located in the southwestern tip of the island, near the villages of Soufriere and Scott’s Head.  On an overcast, drizzly morning,  thirty-six hikers ranging from children to seniors, including Dominicans as well as visitors collectively agreed that the weather was perfect for our “walk” over Morne Crabier, a dormant volcano.

From the parking lot of the Soufriere Sulphur Springs eco-site, we set off on a gently ascending rough road consisting of loose stones and dirt, ideal for pick-up trucks and four-wheel drives.  Initially, the going was easy along this well-worn farm route.  Nearby, a privately owned historic estate called Bois Cotelette, which dates back to the early 1700’s aroused curiosity and  became a topic of conversation  as we did not go directly by it on this route.

Soufriere from the heights of Gallion village near WNT Segment # 1. Photo by Edwin Whitford.

Some minutes further along, we traversed an easy footpath along a steep precipice, which passed through agricultural lands.  After an hour or so, everyone came to an abrupt halt.

Many of us gazed with trepidation at the top of a steep tree-lined ridge in the distance.  The most agile and experienced among us coaxed the others good-naturedly into taking the next step(s), which required a seemingly vertical climb of about forty-five minutes through the forest on a clearly marked track.

Some of us moaned while others gritted their teeth with grim determination. Meanwhile, young boys climbed fruit trees to check out the “pickings”: red cashew; soursop; mangoes; and pommerac (like a small apple) along with other native fruits.

The steep ascent with its rocky terrain had the longer-winded hikers, including me, huffing and puffing in a companionable way at a moderate pace.  We conversed sporadically and called out to people below when we encountered loose stones.  This climb was no easy feat.  The physical challenge to lungs, heart and legs was extreme.

Three quarters of an hour never felt so long, but finally a few of us arrived at the pinnacle of Morne Crabier.  We restored ourselves with goodies from our packs and some quiet conversation.  With polite patience, we early birds awaited the rest of the group, who stumbled over the summit some time later.  They received resounding applause and cheers for their accomplishment!  After a brief rest, we were off again.

View of the southern coast of Dominica and the Martinique Channel near WNT Segment # 2. Photo by Edwin Whitford

From here on, the sharply descending track zigzagged hither and thither. After about 20 minutes ,we arrived at a stunningly verdant valley, with a breezy view to the Martinique Channel.

At this remote area known as the French Quarter, Dr. Mark Hauser, an American anthropologist from Northwestern University explained its fascinating history to the group.  He told his attentive audience that in the eighteenth century, some French settlers had thrived in this serene setting.  Dr. Hauser’s research team had excavated and recovered shards of pottery and other relics from the surrounding area, which revealed previously unconfirmed information.

After having been fortified with historical anecdotes and light refreshments, we easily walked down an ancient agricultural track, which skirted old stone walls and abandoned soursop trees.  For reasons that remain unclear, we never did see any crabs on Morne Crabier that particular day.

We ended up in the seaside village of Scott’s Head.  Upon our arrival, a hearty homemade local lunch rewarded us for our four-hour-long exertions.  Although fatigued, we were elated.  Segment One accomplished!

N.B.  I have hiked seven of the fourteen segments of the WNT as of 2011.  Three more moderate segments (5, 10 and part of 11) are on  this year’s (2012) Hike Fest agenda.  I am saving the toughest ones (Segments 8 + 9) for last…

* This piece was first published in Blue Caribbean, Volume 1, October 2010 in a slightly different format.

*Apologies for the previous incomplete post on this subject, which I published in error.