I like to hike with Octave, a very good friend who has grown up on the island and for whom the natural world is an intrinsic part of life. He is a devoted Rastafarian who makes a living as a tour guide and who, together with his wife Rahel, runs a small eco-cottage called Hide-Out on the banks of the pretty Geneva River in Grand Bay. When the tourist season abates, Octave tends the fruits and vegetables of his cottage garden and sometimes sells jelly coconuts and lettuces at the market in Roseau. The low season is also the time he and I try to get together and hit the trail.
It was Octave’s first time on Morne Trois Pitons, and my fourth.
‘No weather,’ he chuckled, changing into his hiking boots and looking up at the near cloudless summit. This is a joke we have shared ever since one of our first hikes together. It had been quite overcast when we had started out for the top of Morne Micotrin but I had told Octave that I had checked the weather on the internet and was confident this was just local cloud cover and there would be no weather to trouble us. It had begun raining when we were about half-way up the mountain and had grown stronger and stronger as we had ascended. By the time we reached the summit we were barely able see our hands in front of our faces. ‘Imagine there is no weather and let me describe what you would be able to see,’ I had said. We had fallen about laughing. Thoroughly drenched, we had trudged our way back down again in a relentless and torrential downpour. He has never let me forget my optimistic, yet doomed ‘no weather’ forecast.
‘Absolutely. No weather,’ I grinned. The sky was blue with just a few wispy white clouds. It looked promising but I said nothing more about it.
A view of Morne Trois Pitons from below © Paul Crask
As well as being great company, I like hiking with Octave because he always takes the time to stop, point out a plant and tell me a little about it. I take him on hikes he hasn’t been on yet, and he teaches me something new; it is a trade that works well. I am very interested in bush crafts; the skills that have been used and passed down by people whose lives and livelihoods have been and still are interwoven with the natural environment. Sadly they are also skills that are at risk of being lost as new generations of Dominicans tend to become devotees of materialism and popular culture, rejecting traditional lifestyles and even trying to leave the island altogether.
On another day, we were luckier with the weather. The trail to the top of Morne Trois Pitons begins in a rainforest habitat but quickly transitions to montane thicket as you ascend. Towards the summit you enter cloud forest and a dense tangle of clusia trees (kaklen), mountain palm, low growing shrubs and thoroughworts. The first twenty minutes or so is a steady uphill climb on greasy, rounded logs that have been cut as steps. From then on the incline is more severe, the steps steeper and trickier, and the mud around them is as thick and sloppy as wallpaper paste. By the time you approach the top, you are using upper body strength to pull you up through moss-covered clusia branches and roots, as well as to negotiate three rather slippery rock faces. The summit of the first, lower peak, is a small rocky crag that protrudes upwards from the clusia and, if the conditions are right, and there is no weather, rewards you with fabulous views of the island.
‘Listen,’ he whispered.
It was the unmistakable call of the rufous-throated solitaire, or mountain whistler. Imagine a loud, intermittent squeaky bicycle wheel – now you have it.
‘There,’ he said, pointing into the bush. ‘You see it?’
I scanned the foliage following his outstretched finger, trying to trace the source of the call.
‘You see it? It’s close. Right there.’
And finally I did. There it was, much closer than I had anticipated, perched on a spindly branch, and belting out its unique and solitary song. The mountain whistler has silvery-grey feathers, a slightly darker crown, a delicate white nape beneath its eyes, and small white whiskers at the side of its lower mandible. Its belly is a rufous red and it has very distinctive throat feathers of the same colour that give the appearance of a rusty beard. Its habitat is limited to elevated woodlands and forests and it lives on a diet of insects that it finds hidden within the bark and the clefts of tree trunks and branches.
Octave at the top of Morne Trois Pitons © Paul Crask
We shared the forest with this lovely creature for a while. It seemed either not to have noticed us or not to care we were there and continued calling out across the mountain side. We moved on, heading ever upwards.
When the montane thicket transitioned to elfin woodland, the views also opened up behind us. Way down below was Pont Casse and I could trace the Imperial Road heading away to Bells and beyond the conical peak of Morne Negres Marrons. I could see Warner and the Layou Valley, the steep cliffs of Gorgona and the heights of Carholm and Kinellan, and in the distance to the north was the unmistakable blue-grey outline of Morne Diablotin.
The final stretch of the hike was a tricky climb through a web of Kaklen branches and roots that felt like they were about to topple over under my weight and tumble down the mountain, dragging me with them. My legs, hands and arms were an avant-garde painting of mud and slime, my t shirt and shorts forever stained. Octave, by contrast, was pristine and annoyingly unmuddied. He always manages this, I have no idea how. It is as if he floats rather than hikes and climbs. Perhaps he has magical boots.
Standing precariously on clusia branches with nothing but empty space below, I wriggled my way upwards ensuring I had a good grip on something solid before planning my next move. This last vertiginous section always makes my legs wobble and my heart race. No longer a hike, but a rather awkward climb, I noticed some of the earth around the clusia had eroded away and created hollows that exposed root systems. It made me wonder just how solid the trees I was climbing actually were. Were they gripping the earth with the same determination and sense of self-preservation that I was grasping onto them ? Up above me Octave’s boots disappeared as he hoisted himself up onto the craggy peak. Encouraged by the proximity of my destination I made one final effort to push the jitters to one side and heaved my way up and onto the next rather unsteady branch, concentrating on what was up ahead of me rather than what was way down below. They say never look down, and let me tell you something, they are absolutely right.
We were lucky; the summit was clear and beautiful. Often it is cold and windy but today we were able to stand upright on the rocks without fear of being blown off. Wisps of cloud occasionally drifted across from the east, but it was mostly clear and blue. All around us was a dense canopy of Clusia which, from above, looked so solid and uniform you could easily picture yourself walking across the top of it.
We stayed up there for a hour or so just looking down at the island, and picking out the places we knew. The journey back down seemed easier and it was not long before we had descended the last of the three rock faces and were in montane thicket once again.
‘Z’ailes mouches,’ said Octave, pointing at the lobed palm-like leaves of one of the forest’s most common plants. I knew this one. The z’ailes mouches (Carloduvica) is both terrestrial and epiphytic, and has traditionally been used for thatching shelters and waterproofing basketware. ‘Bird’s nest anthurium,’ he continued, pointing up into the branches of a distinctive bwa bandé tree. ‘And bromeliads. Lots of them. See ?’ Octave can continue this way for hours, days probably. It is an education to hike with him and, although I am an avid reader, it is from being on the trail with him that I have learnt most of what I know about the forest.
We emerged from the trail and cracked open some jelly coconuts that we had left in the back of my vehicle. The water was cool and refreshing, the soft white flesh delicious and filling. In appearance we were a contrasting pair for sure, but made even more so by the fact that I was covered in mud and Octave looked as fresh and clean as he was when he met me earlier in the day.
‘No weather,’ he smiled.