Natural Wonders on the Caribbean's Island of Dominica
Newly discovered by adventurous travelers and the eco-minded, Dominica is a Caribbean pearl that harbors jewel-like rare parrots and a boiling lake.
Hot, subterranean gases scald the sands of Soufriere Bay on Dominica's southern tip and bubble from the seafloor at nearby Champagne, one of the island's more popular dive sites. But south-central Morne Trois Pitons National Park is, quite literally, the hotbed of geothermal activity: five volcanoes, 50 fumaroles, innumerable hot springs and sulfurous vents, and the second-largest thermally active lake in the world. The park is also largely forested, nurturing the greatest biodiversity in the Lesser Antilles. Because of this rare combination of natural features, in concert with its spectacular waterfalls, the 17,000-acre wilderness was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997--the first ecosystem so recognized in the eastern Caribbean.
Several easily accessible attractions lie near the park's perimeter, including Emerald Pool, a 40-foot plunge off a fern-lined grotto, and Trafalgar Falls, a pair of cascades--the "Father'' is 125 feet while the "Mother" is 75 feet--tumbling from the escarpment. The park's centerpiece is the unusual Boiling Lake, a cauldron of superheated water bubbling and steaming away on the slopes of 4,016-foot Morne Watt, Dominica's most active volcano. The challenging five-mile lake hike is best undertaken with an experienced guide. I find my pathfinder, Kelvin "Kello" Noel, in the rural village of Laudat, where he also owns a 17-acre vegetable farm. "This is my backyard,'' says Noel, 30, who's dressed for this arduous bushwalk in baggy blue-jean shorts, a LeBron James replica NBA jersey, and black high-top sneakers. "I've hiked to Boiling Lake over a thousand times.''
His urban attire belies Noel's woodsman's expertise. We spend the first 45 minutes gradually ascending from 1,600 to 2,100 feet while Noel notes wildflowers, detects the minor-key serenade of a rufous-throated solitaire, and points out an agouti, a large, guinea pig-like rodent running through ferns along the forest floor. After a brief, steep descent, we bound on boulders across Trois Pitons River, pausing to top off our bottles with the pure water of this surging Trafalgar Falls tributary, then begin a taxing climb up ski-jump-grade slopes. Rainforest gives way to montane forest as we trudge the difficult, though well-maintained trail. Harsh cries float across the valley . . . sisserous? Noel shakes his head. No. We stop anyway to watch several jacos feasting in the canopy.
An hour later, 1,000 feet of elevation gain puts us atop a narrow ridge of elfin woodland that offers little shelter against the chilling winds buffeting the summit. To the east, clouds envelop the peak of massive Morne Watt. To the west, a clear view extends to coastal Roseau. To the north, steam rises from Boiling Lake, still a mile away and obscured by a small ridge. To reach the lake we'll first have to clamber 500 feet down a path better fit for goats and cross the hellish Valley of Desolation.
An 1880 eruption here spewed volcanic ash as far as Roseau; where once thick forest flourished there is only a sulfurous, smoldering canyon with scattered mosses, lichens, and a few hardy bromeliads. A smaller geothermal burp took place in July 1997, and scalding-hot water still gurgles from beneath rocks stained red, white, yellow, and black with mineral deposits, while noxious gasses sputter from cracks in the bare mountain slopes. We carefully cross a percolating stream, which mixes with a cold-water spring to form a tepid brook, then traverse a pair of ravines to arrive at the lip of Boiling Lake.
Through the thick, roiling steam, I can make out slate-gray water furiously bubbling away and the far shore, some 200 feet off. The phenomenal lake is a natural, stream-fed basin that collects water, which then seeps through porous rock until it encounters hot lava and is heated to teakettle temperatures. Our timing couldn't be better: Foul-weather adventurer George Kourounis, who hosts the cable-TV showAngry Planet, is gearing up for the first-ever attempt to cross Boiling Lake on a zip line, a pulley suspended on a cable. Since this is television, he's also carrying a bag of eggs, which he'll lower into the water and hard-boil for his crew. We have the death-defying stunt all to ourselves; it ends successfully.
There are just a few other hikers; in almost three hours we've encountered only one small group. It's a far cry from the crowds clogging Trafalgar Falls and Emerald Pool, especially on cruise-ship days. In 2006 the big ships delivered 379,503 passengers to the island; the same year just 79,971 foreign visitors spent a night on Dominica. During the high season, extending from winter into spring, as many as three liners sometimes tie up for a day in Roseau, their gleaming superstructures dwarfing the tin-roofed, two-story wooden buildings of downtown. The island's entire taxi and bus fleet seems to turn out to ferry hordes of sunburned day-trippers along narrow roads to the same handful of attractions.
The cruise ship footprint is still fairly light, and largely restricted to two areas on the island where passengers can get in and out quickly and easily. "Trafalgar Falls and Emerald Pool have to be considered sacrificial sites,'' says Reillo. "The impact is significant, but it is very well contained. The system is geared to give tourists a captive experience and return them to their ship.''