Saturday, May 5, 2012

Adventurous Hiking in Dominica

How does a peaceful walk in the woods become one of the most strenuous (and scary) hikes on the island of Dominica? That's what I'm still asking myself as I wait for my sprained knee to recover and the blisters and wounds on my hands to heal.

It starts innocently enough. I'm lounging beside the saltwater pool at the eco-friendly, ultra informal Rosalie Bay Resort when I mention to someone that I'd love to hike a low-key trail. Nothing with treacherous river crossings or knife edges that drop precipitously to points unknown. Nothing that lasts more than four hours round-trip. It's not that I'm an aerobic weakling. Quite the contrary, I'm a long distance cyclist, hiker and cross country skier. I'm just not someone with a Type T personality; aka, I'm not a thrill seeker. I'm not interested in ending up on one of those legendary Dominican hikes, such as Morne Diabloton, which translates to Devil's Mountain. Enough said. Or Boiling Lakes, a hike with scalding sink holes lurking about and one that just about everyone who visits Dominica tackles. As a volcanic island coated with jungle-like foliage that climbs to over 4,000 feet above sea level, Dominica isn't necessarily for the faint of heart. Instead, I'm seeking a trail that was scenic, full of botanical wonders, under the radar (of course), and nothing that would land me in the hospital. After all, I have a 2 pm lunch date at the Riverside Cafe that's said to serve amazing coffee beverages as well as smoked fish pie and a homemade lime sorbet.

Oscar, the older gentleman who becomes my guide, mentions Boli (or Bolive, as it's also called) Falls. "It's perfect for you," he says. "No river crossings. No knife edges. No one knows about it. And it's an easy three-hour round trip." Sounds like a no brainer.

Though it isn't the rainy season, which doesn't start for another two months, the day starts off with tumultuous showers. (A bad sign.) And it turns out that Oscar hasn't done the hike in seven years. (Turns out it's more like 10 years.) He feels it's safer -- hmmm, wonder what that means -- with a local who knows the trail well. In the nearby hamlet of Casgory in La Plaine, we meet someone who is referred to us. This bare chested younger man doesn't seem anxious to do this trail, however. Haggling ensues in the middle of the petite lane framed by boldly hued wood framed houses encircled with crotons, ornamental ginger and heliconia. "It's bad weather," says Augustus. "What's bad about it? It's rain," says Oscar. "Bad weather," replies Augustus. This goes back and forth. Somehow an agreement is struck and we drive through the bush to a flat "parking spot" rimmed in vine-like plants. Oscar confides in me. "I don't know how our Dominican men have gotten so soft."

Augustus doesn't look happy. He looks at the now drizzle. "We have to cross a river." I'm sure I've misheard. River, what river? Oscar says, "When I did this trail seven years ago, I didn't cross a river." "There's a river," says Augustus who takes off through the grass.

What starts off as a perfectly flat, pasture-like trail quickly slopes to 70 degrees of slick mud, gnarled roots and thick vines. But, since I know it would only be 1.5 hours of this Stairmaster exercise and a gorgeous waterfall (actually three) awaits, I keep climbing. I must admit that, in the back of my head -- at least it's in the back for the first 1.5 hours -- I'm thinking how I'm going to get back down. This is, by far, the steepest trail I've ever hiked. (And I hike all over the world.)

Somehow, while desperately grasping at vines and using the roots as steps on a ladder to nowhere, I spy the verdant La Plaine Valley through the trees. Massive Sloanea trees with impressive buttress roots pierce our path that becomes increasingly flooded. The air is filled with the sounds of the mountain whistler and other bird squawking and twittering. Amazingly, through this dark canopy, a small window opens, revealing the Atlantic. I manage to take a micro break and ask Oscar what's up ahead. "The worst is over," he says. Though it becomes less steep, it's only for the briefest time. Soon, we're back on the 70-degree slope where, at times, I feel like I'll fall backwards, perhaps all the way to the pastoral trail head. Clearly, Oscar misremembers this hike.

And yet, there's much beauty. We pass a bois diable tree that's considered one of the hardest woods around. (It's commonly referred to as the Devil's Wood.) Gommier trees with their sticky sap dripping down their trunks are around every corner. The pungent resin is used to start a fire while the wood is traditionally carved into boats. All the baskets I saw in the nearby Carib villages the other day were made from the fiber of the Larouma tree that stands in front of me. The fronds of tree ferns flutter above our heads -- Oscar tells me the island is home to 65+ fern species -- and somehow despite the thick shade, an orange tree manages to bear small fruits.

The views of the ocean become better and better while my anxiety grows with each new toe or hand hold. Now I dread the return journey even though the iced latte beckons. When Oscar points out a White Wood tree that the economically disadvantaged use to fashion a coffin, I wonder if this is an omen.

It's not all about climbing, however, We have stretches of the path that plummet down, making it difficult to remain upright.  (This portends what I can expect on the return journey.)

Though Oscar is the strong, silent type, I know he's also worried when he asks Augustus if we could take the fork to the right, to cut off some of the climbing. "It's a steep downhill," he warns. "Steeper than we've already done?" asks Oscar. Augustus nods. "We're not doing anything steeper than what we did." We plod on and Augustus, who says little, reveals that it was his father who cut this trail a long time ago.

Suddenly the air is filled with the crashing of water -- it's the Sari Sari River, I'm later told. (Hopefully it won't be crashing much when I have to fjord it.) A green Sisserou Parrot, the national bird, flits by.

More than 1.5 hours has passed and, yet, each time we ask Augustus how far, he says "Man, we got to climb a mountain and then straight." He demonstrates our trajectory with an arm gesture depicting a slope of a hill and then a beeline for the waterfall. The only problem is that this is what he's now told us three times over the past hour or so. Clearly, his idea of one mountain to climb isn't the same as ours.

Once we hit the two-hour point, I'm very worried. But, I have to put aside these ruminations in favor of the immediate task: crossing the tumbling river. We plant our feet on some precariously placed rocks and still have to step into the icy waters to get across. And the climbing begins afresh.

Oscar pulls me aside and says that Augustus doesn't seem confident as to the trail, which is now difficult to follow. Plus, the 3 hour round trip has ballooned to almost 5 hours!

Finally, I spy a waterfall cascading dramatically down a cliff in the distance. Actually this is the third (and the one with the steepest drop) in the triad of what makes up the Bolive Falls. When you follow the trail that terminates at the emerald transparent pool of Bolive, you'll only be able to see the top two cascades, and not this third one. But it would take another 30 minutes or so to reach the refreshing pool. And, again, Augustus does his little arm gesture of another mountain we have to navigate and then the straight-away.

Suddenly the sky darkens and Oscar says "The weather is changing. We have to turn back now." He's worried about the river rising. How prescient, considering in an instant, we're hit with torrential rains that don't let up for over an hour. This is when the trek becomes decidedly a hike on the wilder side of wild. No, not the river re-crossing which, though it's much higher than before, is very manageable. No, it's the descent with slippery roots, thick mud, no place to get a toe or heel hold, and nothing to hold me upright. So, faced with falling on my face either straight down or careening over the edge, I opt for sitting on my butt. (That doesn't work great either, which is why my hands become lacerated,  my legs and arms are stained with the odoriferous sap and I sprain my knee.)

Just as suddenly, the thunderous rains halt and the sun blazes through the trees. A light mist settles over the forest, which is now soundless. Finally, the birds reappear and the trail reverts to the flat pastoral landscape where we started so many hours ago.

Thankfully, Oscar did regular weight training because he managed to get a death grip on my arm during each of the many treacherous descents, making sure I made it safely back to the car, and my much needed latte. Though I'm covered in mud, and limping and bleeding, I head to the Riverfront Cafe for a very late lunch. Since I didn't eat or drink anything on the entire 5+ hour hike, I end up having two iced lattes at the Riverfront Cafe, smoked fish pie, a piece of onion pie, chocolate cake and the lime sorbet. 

Back at Rosalie Bay, whenever I tell anyone where I trekked, they exclaim, "Bolive! You did Bolive?" And then they proceed to relate how they would never do this hike. Someone says there are three things he knows about Bolive: It's long, it's beautiful and it's challenging. Only when I check online do I find out that Bolive is considered one of Dominica's most difficult and adventurous hike.

At least now I can stand confidently in front of all my friends who've visited Dominica and regalted me with tales of their testosterone-laden hike to Boiling Lakes. They'll know that I didn't wimp out. I did Bolive.


Hal Peat said...

This particular account of your really resonated with me not because, as I already mentioned, I'm on a perpetual voyage throughout the wider Caribbean, but also because I had a very similar first-hand hiking experience about 18 months ago on Grenada. It was a one-on-one hike with a guide into a national reserve in Grenada's interior, and with our final destination being an extraordinary tier of waterfalls. Making it even more significant to me was the fact that my guide had discovered these spectacular waterfalls himself during his twenties - and here he was decades later approaching his seventieth birthday, still going strong and dedicated to his island's natural glory. It was a powerful few hours of walking - on more than one level. I think it's this side of both the natural and the human that provide something extraordinary about this more distant end of the Caribbean, and I hope Dominica also continues to find a way to attract those who appreciate that aspect of it, while also preserving its most precious assets.

Hiking Dominica said...

Clement Rabess
As a certified tour guide specializing in hiking Dominica I find this tail somewhat disconcerting. I do understand that the recounting of one's outdoors experience may entail some embellishment, and that is OK and to be expected. However there seems to have been little or no planning for this trek to Bolive. Moreover it appears as if the knowledge base and opinion of the guide was taken with a grain of salt. This is a hike which should not be undertaken when there is the possibility of rain. If the river does not get you the mud and exposed roots will. Given the circumstances, as described, this is a hike that should have been put off.

I have done this hike on several occasions and am of the opinion that the Carse Gowrie/ Bolive hike is one of the more challenging common hikes in Dominica, I find it more tiring than the Laudat/ Boiling Lake hike. By no means is the hike to Bilive 1.5 hours. For the very fit, this trek is a 5 hour return hike assuming one does not stick around to enjoy the pools and explore the area.

Hikes must be tailored to the hiker’s abilities and interests. Be it an unguided walk along a well beaten path or a planned expedition to a hidden jewel in the depth of the rainforest or on the top of a mountain, the safety and satisfaction of the hiker is my objective.

Cuts, scratches, bruises, cramps and even sprains can and will result from hiking. The occurrences of these and other more significant trail injuries will be minimized through proper planning and good guidance.

Dominica is a unique tropical island whose terrain, flora, fauna and natural sites are best explored on foot. That said, hiking Dominica safely requires a current knowledge of the trails and site weather conditions, proper planning and good guidance. It is this observation that has led to the formation of Hiking Dominica. The principals of Hiking Dominica are avid hikers who have a passion and reputation for exploring beyond the beaten path.

Brette Sember said...

Wow! That is quite an adventure!

HeatherL said...

I would have been terrified. Glad you made it out semi-safely anyway.

J The Travel Authority said...

Hi Hiking Dominica, Actually, though embellishing one's travails is common among many writers, it's not my style at all. This article is a blow-by-blow account of my actual trek. And, noting that there was little or no planning for this trek is an astute observation and one that I was clear about when relating this tale. Clearly, given that I hadn't hiked in Dominica, the guide was responsible for accessing the appropriateness of the trail and should have been informed me of what to expect, including that the trail should not be attempted in the rain. That's why I ended up with the adventure I had. Thanks for your comments. Maybe next time I'll have the opportunity to hike with one of your guides. I'm sure the adventure would be much less arduous but maybe it won't make for as great a story.

J The Travel Authority said...

Hi Heather, I was terrified. But I wasn't frozen with terror, otherwise I'd probably still be on the trail. :-)

J The Travel Authority said...

Hi Brette, Yes. It's always fun to talk about these adventures weeks after the fact when the pain is a distant memory.

MyKidsEatSquid said...

Sounds like such an amazing trip. So is your knee better now then? What an adventure.

J The Travel Authority said...

Hi MyKidsEatSquid, Thanks for asking about my knee. It's getting a lot better. (Had to see my physical therapist, though.)

Anonymous said...

Whoa. Don't know what I would have done in that circumstance. Probably I'd have gone down on my butt like you did. You sure deserved those lattes and everything else!

J The Travel Authority said...

Hi Anonymous, The latte spot couldn't have been a more welcome retreat after this adventure, or mis-adventure, as the case may be.

Tenancy said...

Dominica has been always for me a place related to amazing beaches and tropical climate, as I am coming from UK, where we do not happen to have none of these:) But you just made me say, really "wow" with the adventures you have been going through! That is really such an experience, Im hoping that your knee will recover soon!

J The Travel Authority said...

Hi Tenancy, Thanks. My knee is pretty much all better. If I were you, I'd make Dominica my next destination in the Caribbean. It presents such variety of landscape and activities.