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Adrift in Dominica

The ground underfoot is so hot, I am actually wondering if my flip flops will melt. I have to hold a spare T-shirt over my nose to avoid inhaling the rather foul odour of sulphur that spurts from the ground in clouds of steam, making me wonder whether it is, in fact, such a good idea to take a stroll on the slopes of a still-active volcano. So active, I now recall the dive master this morning telling us, that residents of the southern part of the island of Dominica cannot take out volcano insurance on their homes.

Not to be confused with the much larger and more commercial Dominican Republic, this little-visited West Indian island lies between the French departements of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Viewed from the sea the rugged mountains, which rise almost vertically to heights of  5000 feet, lend it a forbidding look. The Caribs, who inhabited the island before Columbus discovered it, called it Wai’tukubuli, meaning “tall is her body”. But it is these peaks, which attract a plentiful rainfall (as much as 300 inches per year in the interior) coupled with the volcanic nature of this island nation, which make it outstandingly fertile.

Beyond the rather shabby and charmless coastal settlements lies a land that showcases nature’s bounty at its best. Dense rain forest covers the mountains, tumbling down steep hillsides into the sea. This verdant carpet of greenery harbours an incredible array of wildlife: trees and  ferns seem to cover every square inch of the interior and are home to over 170 species of birds. Tropical fruits of every description weigh down the branches of the trees and the sweet, heady scent of jasmine hangs in the air. This lush landscape is criss-crossed by hundreds of rivers – the locals will tell you that there is a river for every day of the year and this may well be accurate. Some of these rivers are fed by tranquil lakes high up in the hills and scores of waterfalls thunder down below the tree canopy. Thermal springs spew out hot, mineral-laden water all over the island – a constant reminder of the molten magma which bubbles not all that far below the surface.

The natural beauty and dramatic topography make Dominica a destination for nature lovers and adventurous travellers. There are enough hiking trails, ranging from easy to arduous, to keep you busy for several weeks. Some of the better-known sights such as the Emerald Pool and Trafalgar Falls are well-marked and entail a ten to fifteen minute walk along maintained paths. However, a local guide is essential for the harder trails such as the six-hour round trip to the through the grey and seemingly lifeless Valley of Desolation to the Boiling Lake, a bubbling sulphuric crater lake or the steep climb to the highest peak, Morne Diablotin.

Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of visiting Dominica, is the fact that, because it has not yet become host to mass-tourism, many of the sights are, as yet, unmarked. Forget the travel guide and ask the locals. They are understandably proud of the land they have dubbed the “Nature Isle” and will happily direct you to places you would not otherwise find. The stall holder who sold us red bananas and giant avocadoes at the Saturday morning market told us about a special bathing spot along the Layou River. Following her directions we stopped the car just before a rickety bridge and walked along a path on the river’s bank until reaching a sandy ‘beach.’ As promised, on the opposite bank was a man-made stone enclosure into which hot water from a thermal spring had been channelled –  a brisk, refreshing swim across the cool river and then jump into the warm water to relax and contemplate the rest of the day’s activities.

Henry’s, my personal favourite, is such a unique spot I am loath to share the details….. The drive up to the remote village is bone-rattling stuff and I was convinced we had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way but the young Rastafarians all nodded enthusiastically when I asked for Henry’s house. “Oui, oui, Ti Kwe” (French Creole for ‘petit coin’) and pointed further up the appalling track. 

The entrance to Henry’s home is unassuming and one would be forgiven for thinking the directions were mistaken. However, upon entering his little garden of Eden one is transported into a magical wonderland. Here every conceivable tropical fruit from passion fruit to mangoes to green oranges drips from the trees. Flowers of every type and colour vie for attention and brightly patterned butterflies dart in and out among them. It is almost like stepping into a Disney animated film, so enchanting and bursting with life are the surroundings. 

But this is not the only reason one visits Henry’s. Follow the path through this wonderful riot of colours and scents and you arrive at a small wooden hut where you are left to get changed. From then on you are not disturbed until such time as you choose to leave.

Below the changing room Henry has channelled steaming mineral-rich water from the nearby hot springs through his home-made bamboo plumbing system so that it disgorges into three claw-footed bath tubs he has arranged in a clearing at the bottom of the garden. Whether through a feat of clever engineering or a lucky coincidence I do not know, but the temperature of the water in the tubs is just perfect – neither too hot nor too cool – and remains a constant temperature as hot water continually pours in. Some visitors prefer to take a soak after dark – take a bottle of bubbly and watch the fire flies dancing through the foliage. Far better than any cutting edge designer hot tub.

This abundance of nature continues below the surface of the water where the steep sided mountains plunge down to thousands of feet below the surface and the tropical foliage gives way to corals and sponges teeming with marine life. Look carefully and you may see frog fish and sea horses. The dive operations are very well run and the dive masters professional and informative. In between dives the boat will take you on a slow tour of the coast, and if you are lucky you may get to take a dip in Champagne – a spot offshore where the build-up of pressure from the Soufriere volcano escapes through fissures in the seabed in the form of warm bubbles. As long as the bubbles keep coming the locals are happy. The absence of the bubbles would be an alarming indication of a potential eruption.

Don’t expect to find gourmet cuisine or sophisticated restaurants in Dominica. It is a relatively poor nation and facilities for visitors are not luxurious. However, in a land as fertile as this, fresh fruit and vegetables are abundant, and totally organic. A pick-up truck announces the catch of the day by blowing through the top of a conch shell as it makes its way through the villages. For a few months of the year, you may also be able to try the ‘crapaud’ or ‘mountain chicken,’ in fact a large species of frog, considered a delicacy by locals. It may not be haute cuisine, but it is definitely healthy.

Dominica is not going to pamper you, but it will allow you to immerse yourself in unadulterated nature and introduce you to a people who live in harmony with their surroundings. The riot of life from the lush green of the interior to the reef fish and marine mammals makes you wonder at the forces of Mother Nature that have come together by some amazing coincidence to create, on such a small landmass, this island idyll. And yet, the periodic rumbling from the volcano reminds you that man has not harnessed nature here, and nature is nothing if not unpredictable.

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