Hiking in Dominica

"Victoria Falls" as much about the journey as the destination
by Monte McCord, Roundup outdoors writer
Friday, January 5, 2007

It's 7:30 a.m. and my family and I are awaiting the arrival of our guide for the day, Wendy Marcellin. Wendy is a 33-year-old native of the island of Dominica, located in the Windward chain of islands between Martinique and Guadeloupe. Wendy has been working as a tour guide for the past 15 years and we're told by the manager of our hotel that he knows the island as well as any of the other tour guides, if not better.
When he arrives, I can tell by his physique that he is in good shape, readily attributed to his years of taking visitors to many of the island's exotic and remote sites for which it is so well known.He is lanky, muscular and wears a perpetual smile. I shake hands with him and introduce him to my family. I tell him that we are interested in seeing some of the Central Forest Reserve and the Morne Trois Pitons Park that contain over 17,000 acres of near-wilderness of dense vegetation found in the island's rain forest. Wendy informs us that about 75 percent of the island is conserved as park land or preserves and is practically untouched or developed.

He suggests that we visit the Victoria Waterfall, as it is representative of why Dominicans call their island the "Nature Island." We agree, and climb aboard our rented 4X4 vehicle and head for the falls. My son is driving and has quickly become accustomed to driving on the narrow, winding roads that are common to all of the islands in this part of the Caribbean. Along the way, we pass by small villages that lie close to the road and hug the mountain slopes that drop sharply down to the sea. Inhabitants walk along the roads or stare out of their small homes at us. Children play precariously near the road and my son slows down as we drive through.

At one village, a young boy reaches out toward the car as if he intends to touch it. My son stops the car and Wendy leans his head out from the passenger side and says to the boy, "Are you a chicken?" The boy folds his arms and shakes his head. "Why do you call me a chicken?" he said. Wendy responds that chickens are dumb and wander out into the road and get run over. He tells the boy that he is acting like a chicken when he tries to touch our vehicle. The other children nearby laugh at the boy and tease him. Wendy's subtle reproach has been very effective.

It takes almost two hours to navigate the winding road before we reach a sign that indicates that the falls are at the end of a side road. Wendy tells my son to turn onto the road, which quickly becomes little more than a rutted track that ends after about a half mile at a dirt parking area near a farmer's field and home. We get out of the vehicle and Wendy informs me that I will have to pay the farmer for parking there before we leave.

Wendy strips off his long pants, revealing a pair of walking shorts underneath and puts on a pair of boots he brought along.My family and I are already dressed in similar attire and we are soon on our way down the trail to the falls. After walking for about 100 yards though dense vegetation and a variety of trees overhead, we come to the banks of a rushing river.We stop long enough to admire the scenery before heading on down the trail, which I cannot locate anywhere along the river. At this point, Wendy points to the river and indicates that we must ford it in order to pick up the trail on the other side. Hesitating, we watch as Wendy walks out into the fast-moving water and beckons us to follow him.Realizing that we have no choice if we want to see the falls, we join hands and work our way out to him.

The water is cool, not cold, and would actually be pleasant if not for the fact that it is murky and it is difficult to see what we are stepping on. Also, the rocks in the water are slippery and crossing over them is a challenge.We eventually reach the other side and Wendy guides us across to the other bank. Once we are all out of the water, he again proceeds along the trail. On the way, he turns, smiles, and tells us that we will have to cross the river four more times before we reach the falls.I consider what he has said and wonder if this hike was a good idea.

When we reach the next ford, the river is wider than at the last one and the water appears to be even a bit swifter. I have a digital camera in my pocket that I am certain will not make it past this one without ending up waterlogged.So, I leave it behind underneath some leaves to protect it from possible rain, which looks imminent.Stumbling, groping for handholds, and basically getting wet up to our waists, we managed to make it across this one as well.For a while, we pass along the river on a portion of the trail. The air is wet, the surrounding vegetation is wet, and we are equally drenched.We are surrounded by trees so tall that you have to strain your neck to see their upper branches.

Vines, large ferns and roots are everywhere along the banks and the roaring river is only footsteps away. Wendy moves ahead of us with the grace of someone who has made this trip many times and patiently waits for us if we fall behind. We ford this river the required four more times before reaching a bend in its course. By this time, we have stumbled across or over rocks and boulders ranging in size from a basketball to some as big as a car.

They are wet and slippery and we have to stay focused and cautious in order not to become injured. My concern for my family members becomes more and more heightened as we move through this area, expecting at any moment for one of them to cry out in pain.

Ever present in my mind is the thought that, should one of them fall victim to an unseen loose or slippery rock, getting them back to the car would be extremely difficult. Wendy hovers over us like a mother hen with her chicks as he jumps from one boulder to another with the ease of a gymnast. I envy his ability even though his experience makes it look easy. Fortunately, fate is with us and we finally reach a point, basically unharmed, where we can observe the falls itself. It drops down 30 to 40 feet from a ridge above us and crashes into a large emerald pool at its base. A thick mist of spray from the falls hangs over the area and our baptismal is completed as rain also begins to engulf us. We sit or stand on nearby boulders for a while, taking in this breathtaking scenery. Even though I have seen much larger falls, I realize that I have never had to endure anything like what I just have to reach one.

Seeing the falls becomes a minor climax to the effort of getting to it in the first place. Having satisfied our interest in the falls, we begin our return back along the river. We have gained a certain amount of confidence, having made it all the way, and I caution my family not to let down their guard.

The round trip to the falls and back covers less than two miles, but it seemed like much more because of the strenuous effort it takes to make the hike.When we, at last, exit from the lush rain forest environs and reach the car, we all high-five and rejoice. Soaked through and through, we retrieve a change of clothes from our vehicle and look for a place to put them on. Wendy points to the farmer's home and says that there is place to change behind it. It is basically an open area surrounded by a wooden lattice that only partially hides us from the parking area. My wife and daughter change first, followed by myself and my son.

We pay the farmer who tells us to come back again and we head back to the road. As we near the main road, Wendy calls out to a farmer working in a nearby field. They negotiate a price for something and he asks us to wait. When he returns, he is carrying two large plastic bags, each filled with a white powder. I wonder if our guide may have another occupation that is suspect. Wendy sees that I am concerned and laughs.

He explains that the powder is processed arrowroot. He is taking it home to his wife where she will mix it with strained fruit and feed it to his 3-week-old baby girl as a formula.

On the way back, Wendy has us stop occasionally as he points out many of the fruits and vegetables that are abundant in the forests of Dominica. Ripe breadfruit, cassava, mango, oranges, limes, the ever-present bananas and coconut, and others that I don't recognize, hang from trees and bushes by the road and beyond. My wife complains of a mild headache and asks Wendy if he has something for it. He tells my son to stop the car. Getting out, he walks over to a small tree and tears a stem of leaves from it. Returning to the car, he hands each one of us a leaf and tells us to crush it. The car is soon filled with the pungent aroma of bay oil. Used in the United States as a dried spice in cooking, I have never held a fresh leaf of it before. Wendy says that my wife should rub the leaf on her forehead.

We also visit a small shop where two men are feeding large bales of the bay leaves into a still-like contraption that reduces the leaves to a steady stream of hot oil. My wife buys a pint bottle of the oil for about 75 cents. As we travel back to our starting point, I study the villages we pass through. By our standards, they are impoverished.Many of the buildings are old and unkempt. Some are little more than shanties.And yet, I often see someone standing in the open door talking on a cell phone. Parked alongside the building is a fairly new vehicle.

Dominicans accept readily what our world offers them and apply it to a lifestyle that has existed on this island for several centuries. It occurs to me that they appreciate what the rest of the world provides, but often see us as being excessive in our needs. In other words, they will embrace the trappings of the modern age, but are content with what they have.

My daughter asks Wendy if he has traveled to other places. He tells her he has been to nearby islands on occasion. She asks him if he has any desire to visit the United States. He says that he would like to do that perhaps, but he is more content to stay on Dominica and wait for people to come to it, so he can show them his homeland. It is obvious that he believes that Dominica is truly the greener grass on the other side of the fence.

Back at our domicile, we shake hands with Wendy and thank him for helping us visit a small part of his beautiful island. I tell him I will come back to Dominica someday and will want him to be our guide when we tackle the Valley of Desolation/Boiling Lake hike, which we are told is even more difficult than what we have just encountered. Having survived the hike to Victoria Falls, we are confident we can handle anything Dominica has to offer.

Wendy smiles and I see a twinkle in his eyes. That look tells me that we have a lot to look forward to on our next visit.