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
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
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!
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
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.
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.
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
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
more than worth it as we surrounded ourselves in the stunning beauty of the Nature Isle.
We passed through a number of farms,
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.
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: email@example.com). From there, we wended our way down to a small river,
where we splashed our faces to cool off for the next challenging ascent. Along the way, we admired abundant heliconia flowers.
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.
“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
restored our energy levels, thanks to the bountiful nutrients in it.
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!
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
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.
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
each other along – in the true spirit of Hike Fest.
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 !
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!
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.