Monday, August 16, 2010

Hiking in the Caribbean - Take a Local Guide!

AAAaaah..... wonderful. Stretched out on a comfy lounger, gentle waves lapping by your toes, cocktail bar not too far distant. Dreamy days, languid nights, palm trees whispering in the breeze--everyone’s idea of Caribbean bliss, the stereotype plugged in a traveller’s memory bank. And why not, it’s an image which has sold the region to countless millions of prospective visitors. But wait, look over at them thar hills, that hazy mountain range, what mysteries and delights therein to discover? Thankfully, over the last decade or so Tourism Authorities have come to realise this too and hiking has become a far more high profile diversion, an actively encouraged pastime that adds so much to the participant’s appreciation of a country, the land, its people and wildlife. Get that gear on then, stretch the sinews......... and feel the difference. Most of the islands lend themselves to hiking in some degree, even Barbados and Antigua, the flatter ones, have great coastal walking but it’s the mountainous interiors of the Windwards and Jamaica which are really rewarding, that set the heart and mind a pumping.

The flagship hikes around the Antilles are pretty self evident—if not easily achieved---- the trek to the Boiling Lake via the Valley of Desolation in the fastness of the Morne Trois Pitons National Park in Dominica has a singular allure that the adventurer finds irresistible, if only for the place names, the ascent of Gros Piton in south western St Lucia looks fairly straightforward from distance then is ever more daunting as the true scale of the pyramidal massif becomes evident at its scrub covered base. The twin apex peak of El Tucuche in Trinidad’s Northern Range is quite challenging, Mount St Catherine at 2756 feet in Grenada equally so while St Lucia’s Mount Gimie is no cakewalk either. And then there’s Jamaica, specifically the Blue Mountains. The Danish philosopher Kierkegarde said he’d often walked himself into his best thoughts, which was a nice way of putting it. If hiking nurtures peace and contemplation, even upliftment, there can be no greater theatre than this place, the midnight hike to Blue Mountain peak its apotheosis.

Theoretically you can hike in the Caribbean at any time of year of course, but it’s sensible to temper things on occasion and the rainy season causes all manner of complications. Mountain walking is hazardous if not downright lethal after heavy rainfall and the optimum period is always going to be the relatively dry period between November and April, outside the hurricane season. Daytime temperatures hover around 85 degrees tempered by cooling trade winds but at higher elevations it becomes significantly cooler; no specialist equipment is usually necessary, water being the sole essential requirement with lightweight cotton clothing, rainwear and a solid pair of trainers perfectly adequate for most terrain. Climate is changing around the islands like everywhere else though, and it’s wise to keep a weather eye open at all times. Many years ago I had cause to climb Mount Liamuiga, the volcano in St Kitts, and all seemed set fair as a wispy wreath of cloud encircled the summit on a bright sunny morning.

My guide advised against it however, shaking his head doubtfully, sensing something in the air I hadn’t but, fearing an editor’s wrath, an hour later after much discussion I decided to strike out alone. Ah the folly of youth, a gross error of judgment. I reached the top without too much trouble but commencing the descent the heavens opened without warning, water, water everywhere, in biblical proportions, the steep track quickly becoming a raging torrent, carrying with it mud and tree debris, and nearly myself. It was deafeningly noisy in the thick confines of the forest, disorientating, terrifying briefly till I gained a grip. Six hours later in pitch black I somehow staggered into a canefield miles below, cut to ribbons, safe, but definitely unsound. A rescue team was about to set forth. It was a salutary lesson, never to be forgotten---always, ALWAYS heed local advice.

1 comment:

  1. I love hiking in the islands. You can't sit in your villa or resort the entire time. You need to get out and explore the island and it's land.

    St. John in the USVI has some good hiking trails for all levels. One of my favorite islands.

    I long to take the hike to the boiling lake on Dominica. You're right...the name along (the Valley of Desolation) inspires the trek.



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