Andrew took me out again the next day, his last night in the country. I was humbled by his generosity, as I was sure he should be with his family, packing or at least getting some rest. But he told me he hated packing and was not taking much, even for a year. So he was content to show off his country to me. He had described a landslide to me and wanted me to see it. Now that does not sound much, Dominica is like a steep sided blancmange that wobbles every time it rains and another piece falls off. With the tallest mountains in the Windwards, even the most vegetated slopes are unstable and the island is gradually eroding into the sea. I looked out of my hotel during storms to watch brown streams flowing down the roads, and the coast turned into milk chocolate. But even by Dominica’s standards, this landslide Andrew wanted to show me was big.
We drove about half way up the coast, past the mouth of the Layou which had transported much of the silt displaced by the landslide. A huge gravelly dune sat at the mouth of the river (it was now supplying aggregate to the nearby French Departments). The river’s meanders had been changed by several silty banks in its channel, and during heavy storms more silt was being flushed down the Layou River.
A few miles further north he turned off the main road and we immediately started to climb. From the outside Dominica looks like one big lump, but as you explore some of the hillsides you see how heavily incised the volcanic rocks have become. Vast quantities of water have washed away the loose material and dug deeply into the soft rocks. The shrubs and trees grow quickly and shroud the surface in a thick bright green layer, but occasionally, the water cuts deep in and another exposed area is brought out. The resulting landscape is a series of deep valleys and high narrow ridges. The few roads which go up into the interior follow these ridges. They rise steeply and then flatten out. Like the vegetation, the asphalt loses to the water from time to time and the road has to be rebuilt. At best the road sits precariously between two deep valleys, in a couple of places there was hardly more than two feet either side of the tarmac before a sheer drop.
As we climbed from the coast we left behind a relatively dry scrubby shrubland and entered an agricultural zone. Although few people live in the interior of Dominica, many families have been given pieces of land that were once plantations. Because of the height and the combination of rich volcanic soils and a plentiful water supply, almost anything can grow up here. Breadfruit, mango, apricot, peach, grapefruit, orange, lime, lemon, jackfruit, sugar apple, pineapple, papayas, spices, vegetables, soft fruits ( I saw wild hairy raspberries up here), and of course bananas and plantain. Each little plot had four or five large trees and hundreds of smaller bushes. Each plot had a tiny shack where tools or produce were stored. Some people may even sleep up here a few nights during the picking seasons. The amount of food here was astounding, and its mixed cropping made the scene look like a beautiful garden. Fruits heaving from trees here, another set flowering, patches of fully grown vegetables, some areas just tilled ready for the next crop. It was an incredibly rich landscape.
We drove to a point where the road veered off to the left. Andrew backed the car off the road into a patch of tall grass. I read a sign behind the car which said “landslide warning – This road and adjoining lands are prone to landslides. Sightseers keep away, By order of the Office of Disaster Preparedness.” What road I thought and then looked at my feet. Below the tangle of grasses were the remains of the metalling. The road had given way in 1997, four years previously. In that time the jungle had almost completely reclaimed it, nothing behind the sign gave the indication that there was a right of way. Following the sign’s order to the letter, Andrew and I walked past it down the remains of the road to go and sightsee said landslide. The route took us down around the hillside, steeply falling. Inside the forest it was humid and wet, we had to step carefully over rotten branches and prickly shrubs. Water clung to the leaves, so it was not only the exertion that made us wet by the time we emerged. Andrew had a heavy stick with which he blazed our trail. Huge tree ferns towered above us, the rocky sides of the road were carpeted in thick moss. At a clearing in the road, we could see the steep sided drop to our right and across the valley, I could see the smear of a scar. Even from this angle it looked enormous, but Andrew said “That’s not even the start of it”.