Sunday, March 29, 2015

Volcanoes of the Caribbean

Greetings All,
We flew from Cayenne, French Guiana to Guadeloupe, part of the Lesser Antillies in the Caribbean.  Like French Guiana, Guadeloupe is a department of France so technically we had not left the European Union.  We flew into the city of Pointe-à-Pitre on the island of Grande-Terre where we picked up our rental car and drove to Deshaies on the other main island of Basse-Terre where we would spend the next week.  Here is a map of Guadeloupe so you can get your bearings:

Map of Guadeloupe

The Lesser Antilles form a long partly volcanic island arc along the eastern boundary between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.  Our main objective for visiting Guadeloupe was to climb La Grande Soufrière, the highest mountain peak in the Lesser Antilles.  It is an active stratovolcano which last erupted in 1977.  It took us about an hour and a half to drive to the trailhead on the southern end of the island.  When we arrived the parking lot was full and we had to park about a half mile down the road.  The trail climbed steadily to an upper parking lot which was empty except for one car.  We're not sure why this lot wasn't open.  There was some confusion as to which trail we should take to the summit.  We referred to the photo of the trail map we took at the start of the hike and took the Trace du Tour et Sommet de la Soufrière.  Here is the map showing our hiking route highlighted in yellow:

Our Hiking Route Shown in Yellow
We climbed above tree line and glimpsed the summit when the clouds cleared.  When we arrived at the top it was foggy and windy.

Me on the Summit
We waited for the clouds to clear and glimpsed the fumeroles spouting sulphur gas below. 

Vents on La Grande Soufrière

 Soufrière means " big sulphur outlet" in French.

"Big Sulphur Outlet"

After exploring the vents, we headed down a different trail which created a loop around the main crater.

La Grande Soufrière
The remainder of our time on Guadeloupe was spent birding in the forests of Guadeloupe National Park, visiting The Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin Nature Reserve and yes, relaxing!

The Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin Nature Reserve
From Guadeloupe, a short 20-minute flight south brought us to the island of Dominica.

Map of Dominica

The airline managed to lose Marc's bag.  We were told it may arrive tomorrow or possibly in 4 days! Our transfer was waiting to take us to our hotel in the capital city of Roseau only 45 km away.  The drive took about an hour and 15 minutes along a narrow, winding road.  The next day we decided to hike to Boiling Lake in nearby Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The weather forecast was good and we did not want to miss this opportunity to make it to the lake. We attempted this hike 2 years ago and had to turn back due to torrential downpours causing landslides. You can read more about our first attempt in our post titled "Champagne Beach and Boiling Lake".  The hotel arranged a local guide to pick us up at 8:15 the next morning.  Our guide arrived in a flamboyantly painted van and introduced himself as "The Bushman".   I could tell from the start that "The Bushman" was going to make it a very entertaining day.

The hike started just above the village of Laudat and followed Titou Gorge for the first 45 minutes. "The Bushman" pointed out several spots where we could cautiously venture to the edge of the gorge to get a photo.

Titou Gorge
We stopped to let two young couples from Latvia and their guide go ahead of us as they were moving faster.  We reached the Breakfast River and were able to hop across on rocks.  Two years ago we had to cross on a fallen log as the river was flowing too swiftly to cross on rocks.  Memories came flooding back as we steeply climbed the log steps toward Morne Nichcolls, the high point on the hike where we had our first view of the steam rising from Boiling Lake and The Valley of Desolation.

First View of Boiling Lake & Valley of Desolation

We encountered a few brief showers but the trail was relatively dry.  We reached the point where two years ago we were forced to turn back.  This time we proceeded cautiously down to the Valley of Desolation along a slippery slope which "The Bushman" called the bottleneck.  "The Bushman" grabbed  Marc's camera and skipped down the slick mud to take photos of us sliding down on our butts.

Sliding Down the Bottleneck
Since Marc's bag had not shown up he had to do the hike in sneakers which didn't have as good a grip as hiking boots.  The two couples from Latvia reached the bottom just ahead of us and continued on. We had to stop to cook eggs in a boiling steam vent!

"The Bushman" Cooking Eggs

While we waited for the eggs to cook, "The Bushman" insisted on painting our faces with volcanic clay.  I guess it was all part of the experience!  When our eggs were ready, we shared them with "The Bushman" before continuing along the valley floor with numerous boiling steam vents, mud pots and rocks coated with yellow sulphur crystals. 

Peggy & "The Bushman" Eating Eggs

We followed a stream, crossing it a couple of times before making the final ascent to Boiling Lake. When we arrived the Latvian couples were there with their guide Jeffery.  When the wind finally cleared the steam over the lake, we could see that it was indeed boiling!  

Us at the Boiling Lake

In fact this is the second largest boiling lake in the world after Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand.  It's actually a flooded fumerole where molten lava underneath heats the water to a boiling state.  The temperature along the edge of the lake measures between 180 to 197 degrees F!  We waited for the steam above the lake to clear a few more times so we could admire this bizarre natural phenomenon before heading back.  We arrived at the van with muddy shoes, clay-caked faces and big smiles after finally reaching Dominica's amazing Boiling Lake!

The next morning we joined a diving excursion going out from our hotel.  There were only 6 of us plus a 4-person crew on the 75-foot catamaran called Passion.  There were only 2 divers, most of us opting to snorkel instead.  We anchored at Champagne Beach where volcanic vents heat the water to a comfortable temperature.  This time we had an underwater camera so could photograph the bubbles and some of the brightly colored reef fish.

Parrott Fish

"Champagne Bubbles"
On our final day along the coast we went whale-watching on the Passion along with about 30 others. Two years ago we searched in vain for Sperm Whales on two excursions and this one was proving to be the same.  Our captain stood on the front of our boat searching intently for the blow from a whale. Finally, one of the crew shouts "There she blows!"  A sperm whale had finally been spotted about a quarter mile away.  We were able to reach the spot and watch this immense creature floathing on the surface to breathe.
Sperm Whale
The whale remained on the surface for about 5 minutes before diving with a graceful flick of its giant tail.

Sperm Whale Fluke
We spotted a second sperm whale on the horizon but it dove before we could reach it.  We were happy to have seen two Sperm Whales on this excursion.  You can read more about Sperm Whales on our post "A Whale's Tale & Dolphin Joy" when we encountered them in New Zealand back in 2013.  

We spent our last 2 days in Dominica at Cocoa Cottage near the village of Trafalgar.  When we arrived, we met a couple traveling with their two sons.  The woman asked "So where are you from?" "Vermont." I responded.  She said "So are we!"  "And from what town are you from?"  she inquired. "South Burlington." I answered.  "So are we!"  the woman excitedly responded.  After formal introductions it turns out that Melissa and Mark live very near us and we have mutual friends in Vermont!  

Our cottage was close to Morne Trois Pitons National Park and we were able to do a few more hikes in the park. The first was to Middleham Falls, a beautiful 300-foot cascade flowing through lush green rainforest.

Middleham Falls
We also hiked around Freshwater Lake, the largest lake in Dominica.  We had to climb several steep knobs on slippery logs to get around the lake but the views of the surrounding mountains and Atlantic Ocean far below was worth the effort.

Freshwater Lake
On our last day in Dominica we had almost convinced ourselves to have a relaxing day.  Melissa, Mark, their two sons, Paul and his son were going Canyoneering.  At the last minute we decided to join them and headed to "Extreme Dominica" next door to get outfitted with wetsuits, harnesses, helmets and life jackets for the two-hour trip down the canyon.  We loaded into a van and drove to the Boiling Lake trailhead.  The canyon we were to explore was a continuation of Titou Gorge.  Not long after entering the canyon we reached our first rappel point, a 60-foot drop into the gorge!  I almost turned back but had made it this far so decided to go for it.  Our two guides Nahjie and Beranie were very competent and made sure I was all roped in before I made the 60-foot plunge.

Peggy on First Rappel

Marc on First Rappel
You actually walk down the rock face by lowering yourself with a rope.  You're stable as long as you keep your legs straight and feet apart.  If you bend your knees too much or put your feet too close together you can swing on the rope like a pendulum which none of us did.

First Rappel
We all made it down the first rappel to a second drop of about 15-20 feet!  At this point Nahjie and Beranie explained how to jump into the pool below without hitting rocks.  I said "No way am I jumping!" and Nahjie lowered me down on a rope.

"No way am I jumping!"

I'll rappel into a pool of water but jumping into one with the possibility of hitting rocks was not for me.  We reached our second rappel point which involved dropping down a waterfall.  It was about a 40-foot drop.  I managed to reach the bottom without getting doused by the waterfall but Beranie pushed me under it so I'd get the full experience.

Julian on Second Rappel
There were more jumps which the guys were happy to do.  I opted to get lowered down on a rope or found a more gentle approach into the pool below.

Me Finding a Gentler Approach
The third rappel required a sideways approach before turning backwards and going over the edge.  This is always the most difficult part for me, trusting that the ropes will hold me as I step off the edge.

Peggy on Third Rappel
We reached the final jump where Beranie informed me there was no other option but to jump.  It was only 10 feet but was still intimidating for me.  I stood on the edge where Beranie told me "Ready, one, two, three, jump!"  I just couldn't do it.  I told Beranie  "Stop counting, I'll jump when ready!" I finally mustered up the courage and took the plunge.  I held my nose and shut my mouth but still managed to swallow water.  I came up gasping for air, my helmet had slid over my eyes and my life jacket had popped up to my ears!  I dog-paddled across the pool, where Marky, a local on the tour, pulled me to safety.

"Just one more rappel to go." I kept telling myself.  The last drop was about 30 feet.  It was pretty straightforward but I was getting cold and tired so I had to really concentrate.

Mark on Fourth Rappel
We all made it through the canyon without mishap and climbed through the rainforest back to the road.

Climbing out of the Canyon
Thanks to Nahjie and Beranie for guiding us safely through the canyon and talking me through my anxious moments.  It was an adventure that I'm happy we didn't pass up.  What an exhilarating end to our 3-month journey!  Time to migrate back north and to enjoy Spring in Vermont with family and friends.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc


Rita said...

Awesome! I don't know if I could be so adventurous! Chicken!

Shelley Walters said...

Good on you Peggy. Life is to short. Where to next.
Cheers Shelley