Lost (again), the new season.
Lost (again). The new season.
Readers familiar with this blog will recall how we went missing on dry land after successfully navigating across the ocean to the small island of La Gomera. Well, we did it again but this time it was our local guide who got us completely lost in the jungles of Dominica.
The plan was to travel in a minibus from the anchorage at Portsmouth on Dominica's west coast to the start of a trail at a place called Capuchin. Capuchin has remnants of a French gun emplacement and signal tower from pre-Napoleonic times with spectacular views as far as Guadeloupe. From here we would hike eleven kilometers across tough terrain to the village of Penville, where the minibus would be waiting to take us on for a swim in a waterfall and lunch. As an added bonus, Robert the minibus driver would be bringing his pet boa constrictor to lunch.
We picked up our local guide along the way. He introduced himself as Achmel, a twenty-one year old of mixed Carib Indian and African ancestry who has recently graduated from a government training program. Achmel is well spoken, energetic and a big supporter of Dominica's Labour government which, he says, has done more for the island than any previous administration since independence.
After a few jokes about how long it would take us old folks to complete the eleven kilometers, we set off on the trail. Little did we know that physical fitness would be less of an issue than mental determination as the day began to fall apart.
"You could never starve on this island," Achmel told us as we stopped every ten minutes or so to sample some low hanging fruit. Coconuts, bay leaves, wild citrus and cocoa pods were all tasty treats. The mangoes weren't ripe and a search of one of the many river beds failed to yield fresh water crayfish. Achmel is very knowledgeable about the various tree species; how they came to be on Dominica and what they are used for. The British plantation owners brought breadfruit from Tahiti to feed their slaves, a thin, spiky plant to makes whips to use on slaves who complained about the breadfruit, bamboo from Malaya, mahogany, teak and banyan from God knows where. In short, although much of the island looks like a jungle, it is crammed with imported species.
My favourite forest delicacy was the large fruit, or maybe a seed pod, of a tree whose name I forget which Achmel described as being The World's Most Powerful Fart Food. This sounded too good to resist. Prizing open the outer shell reveals a dusty, fibrous core which is quite sweet and melts in the mouth. I ate a whole one, waited for the results and slipped another into my bag for later.
Neither was the trail short of fauna. Achmel showed us termites, soldier ants and spotted a hollow log he said would be a likely hiding place for a snake. Sure enough, there was a boa coiled up inside and it was difficult to persuade Gil not to put his head in for a better look.
Local villagers use the trail to reach hillside plots where they plant cassava, yams and plantains. How this works in an area which is supposed to be a natural wilderness, Achmel couldn't explain. But seeing how they struggle to work the soil on the incredibly steep valley sides was no less interesting that the wild nature. Very soon we would know exactly how steep and dangerous those slopes can be.
After an hour of hiking over a series of ridges we came across two ladies resting on a bench. One was from New York and her friend was from Germany. They were suited and booted for hacking through jungle but looked wiped out. They were anxious to know how far it was to Capuchin, the place from where we had set out. It had taken them two strenuos hours from Penville. Achmel nonchalantly told us he could reach Penville in twenty-five minutes if he was by himself, implying that perhaps we were slowing him down.
A few hundred meters after the encounter with the two ladies, Achmel took the wrong path. None of us were paying much attention to where we were going, just calmly following the guide. We descended a track which faded away into undergrowth and loose rocks. I though to myself that it was no wonder the two ladies looked bushed after this climb. When the track disappeared completely and we found ourselves falling-scrambling down a sheer cliff, it became obvious that they had not come this way. In fact, no one had ever come this way except maybe a mountain goat.
Within minutes we reached the point of no return. Retracing our steps would have been impossible so we struggled down to a river bed. Achmel could not admit that he had taken a wrong turn of that we were hopelessly lost. Well, maybe he had taken a wrong turn but that was because some neer-do-well had tampered with the trail or one of the few signposts along the way. Not to worry, here on the other side of the river was a tethered goat. The goat's owner walked here from Penville or another nearby village, so all we had to do is find the path.
We started up what looked like a path but it soon became a nightmare. This is what the north face of the Eiger will look like when climate change really kicks in and the Swiss will be growing pineapples at altitude. We climbed on all fours by grabbing roots and saplings. Every movement set off a small avalanche of
loose rocks. Up until this moment Nirit and Batya had been good sports caught up in the spirit of adventure. But when it became clear we were in real danger of a life threatening mishap, tempers frayed. Achmel began to apologise profusely but without accepting that he might be to blame. In Nirit's eyes this only made matters worse.
Marco pointed out that we couldn't be all that lost, after all Dominica is a small island. If we keep the ocean on the same side we should eventually arrive back at the bay where the yachts are moored. He also mentioned that this was his birthday.
By this time our two hour hike begun at nine a.m. had stretched out to seven hours. With darkness just two hours away and Achmel becoming ever more disorientated, I took stock of what we had with us should we need to spend the night outdoors. One pocket knife, one flashlight, a rain poncho each, a few cell phones and bottle of water. Not for the first time had we gone into the bush leaving our most useful items behind on the yacht. Achmel had a cigarette lighter but no smokes. I still had one pod of the World's Most Powerful Fart Food. One never knows when this kind of thing might come in useful.
We struggled on over difficult ground until we stood on a high ridge. Our worried guide borrowed Marco's phone to call the Robert the driver who was waiting somewhere in the area. After a lot of shouting and very nearly tears, Achmel and the driver made visual contact across a ravine some few hundred meters deep. How to link up?
Luckily the driver had the good sense to find a local with good knowledge of the area and was directed to a small farm house from where there was an easy path to the ridge. More shouting, more phone calls and we were found. After some back slapping and more apologies, Robert the driver produced a sack containing his pet boa constrictor which, rather confusingly, was also called Robert.
Too pissed off to want to swim in a waterfall and too late for lunch, we demanded to be dropped off at the beach. Nirit already had a plan to make up for the lost day. A crab and dumpling stew had been ordered from the mother of a Rastafarian we met the previous day, Marco had some decent wine and after all it was his birthday.
Coming soon - video on YouTube