This week I put the adventure back into The Adventures of Tarka after what had been a relatively relaxing time on the islands of Guadeloupe and Les Saintes. Tarka and I had arrived in the much-hyped Dominica, and to my surprise, it blew away all expectations.
Arriving in Dominica was a bit of an adventure in its own right. After anchoring in Portsmouth, putting away the sails, stowing gear, and completing all the other post-passage chores, I sat down for dinner. I still had my radio on the general hailing and distress channel (16) and heard an urgent-sounding report of a boat adrift in the anchorage. I learned later that the boat had broken free of its anchor, and drifted into the boat making the distress call.
I felt I had to do something. My response wasn’t exactly expedient, as I had to unlash my outboard motor from Tarka and put it into the dinghy. Nonetheless, I made it over to the hailing vessel and offered my assistance. Their vessel is named Tanagra – we’ll get back to that. There wasn’t much my 5hp dinghy could do that their 15hp one couldn’t. However, I was able to use my green laser pointer to light up the other boat, which how now drifted about a mile out to sea. Luckily Mike (from Tanagra) had alerted the locals, and they were able to successfully retrieve the boat before it was too late.
Mike and his co-captain Megan offered me a cold beer and shelter from a sudden burst of tropical rain. Down below, in their roomy 47-foot boat, I decided that I liked Mike and Megan. They’re young like me, and are having an adventure of a lifetime. They also responded admirably to the boat adrift, when they very well could have shrugged their shoulders in apathy. But most importantly, they named their boat Tanagra! For those not in the know, this is a Star Trek: The Next Generation reference – easily one of my all-time favorite TV series. The overlap in the venn diagram of people who love Star Trek, and people who sail the oceans, has to be small, so Mike and Megan are keepers.
Tanagra sailed off the next morning heading south — I’ll be seeing them again in Grenada. Meanwhile, I went ashore with Alex and Aneta to clear-in through customs, and do some exploring. Dominica is vastly different from the other Caribbean islands I have seen. It feels much more like a developing country than the other former European colonies. It also feels less safe, and I’m not sure I’d wander the streets too much by myself after dark. Then again, there are plenty of cities in the US I also wouldn’t wander at night.
After getting our papers stamped, we headed up along a local river by foot. The trail was somewhat swampy and carved a path through the rainforest. Some passages were muddy and led over and along complex root systems. Others passed through tropical gardens of various orange, red, and purple flowering plants. Eventually my inadequately equipped flip-flops failed, and I did the remainder of the hike barefoot. After crossing a stream, and climbing out of the jungle, we found a “road”, which led back to a real road. Then it rained. Then it rained a lot. Then we were wet. As they say, without the rain, you can’t have the rainforest.
That evening, my American friends Tom and Pat on Lone Star invited us over for a 4th of July celebration. I was hoping we could fire our expired flares into the air, but Tom thought better of it. In any case, we had a good-ol’ American potluck dinner, with other boats on the anchorage bringing different dishes, each amazing. And yes, there was cold beer. For someone who has been (on occasion) eating uncooked packages of ramen and Nutella straight out of the jar, it was heaven.
Our first waterfall encounter at Bwa Nef Falls
The next two days were spent finding different pockets of paradise around the northern part of the island. Using a combination of busses, hitchhiking and walking, we found our way to various trailheads. Dominica may just have more waterfalls than it has buildings. We hiked to several, and at each, we saw no other humans. Hot and sweaty, we rewarded our efforts at the end of each trail by bathing in the crystal clear water all to ourselves. It truly was paradise.
Finally, it was time to explore the southern half of the island and we departed Portsmouth for the capital city of Roseau. Upon arriving in Roseau I was told I couldn’t anchor and was forced to pick up a mooring. Interestingly, Tarka broke free of one of these moorings several years ago, and washed onto the rocky beach. As a result, I didn’t feel at all safe on the mooring that I was paying $10/night for. The next morning I relocated to a different spot — that King of Bongo had found — and put out two anchors for extra security.
Safely hooked, I went ashore for a cold beer and some Caribbiean-quality WiFi. It took two hours to upload the three-minute premiere of “The Adventures of Tarka” – which sort of calls into question my plan to release a 5-10 minute video each week. The next day was Sunday, and in the Caribbean, that means all the shops are closed and the busses don’t run. However, I did find an open, and very out-of-place KFC, which at least satiated my thirst for a cold drink.
I woke up early enough the next day to see dawn’s butt crack. It was important to get an early start, because we had dedicated the day to tackling the hike to Dominica’s famous boiling lake. Everything I read said that a guide was absolutely essential, but hey, we were on a budget. Aside from one or two spots, the trail is extremely obvious, and it’s virtually impossible to become lost. That said, it was a moderately difficult hike up and down dense rainforest covered mountain ridges, with several stream crossings, and culminating with a slippery descent into the Valley of Desolation.
We hit the valley at about hour three of the hike, and boy is it appropriately named. The rocks felt semi-permanent, crumbling in my hands as I used them for support. The steep valley walls were red and orange and, after lush jungle, were starkly devoid of any plant life. In the valley there streamed a hot river of blue-gray water, heated by gasses spewing out of the ground all along the valley floor. The air smelt strongly of sulfur, and the rocks were stained white, yellow, black, red, orange, and an assortment of colors generally missing in the jungle palette. It certainly wasn’t a place I’d want to have stumbled upon if I were lost and thirsty.
After trucking it a bit more, we finally arrived at the boiling lake. The lake is crater-shaped, and is actually a flooded fumarole — which is a fancy word for a crack in the Earth’s crust. Hot gasses escape here and heat the lake to the point that it is actively boiling. Every now and then the wind blew the cloud of steam away to reveal the bubbling water below. Frankly, it was underwhelming in comparison to the other sights along the way, but it was still a very unique experience.
On the way back we stopped at one of the emerald hot pools that are tucked into little pockets of jungle downstream of the Valley of Desolation. Here we enjoyed a bath in nature’s jacuzzi that was absolutely divine. We tried to convince a French couple that we bumped into to take a dip, but they seemed confused over our obsession with the hot water. When it could be months until your next hot shower, you get a little crazy when an opportunity presents itself.
The hike out of the jungle was knee-breaking – at least for me. Maybe I’m old, maybe the hike was tough, or maybe I’m doing it all wrong, but one thing is for certain: my legs were not happy with me. Perhaps three months building my sea legs was more literal than I anticipated. Back at the trailhead, we swam in bone-chilling water through Titou Gorge. This is a spectacular swim, as the walls of the gorge are tall, vertical, and wind their way through the distant forest above. However, the water is also immensely deep, and the steep walls provide no footing or hand holds to rest. I would not have gone in alone.
Thoroughly exhausted, and with big passage to Martinique the next day, I went to sleep early. In the twilight of the next morning, I prepped my sails, tensioned my halyards, checked my rigging, and topped off my diesel. At the crack of dawn, I lifted my anchors and set sail to Martinique.
Martinique is a point of transition for me. It marks the point where King of Bongo, and its crew Alex and Aneta, end their journey, and I continue with mine alone. But, those goodbyes will have to wait until next week.