Liming – The Emerald Isle – The Rockley Beach Bathers

So Dominica was for trekking and wildlife.  Other islands were more suitable for bumming on a beach.  There are fabulous beaches in the Caribbean:  Savannah Bay in Virgin Gorda, Buccoo Bay on Tobago (despite it being overdeveloped), Loblolly Bay in Anegada, Orient Bay in St Martin, Meades Bay, Anguilla, Pigeon Beach in Antigua, Choc Bay in St Lucia.

Each has their own characteristics, and the beauty of them is that if you get bored of one, there is another stunning one a short walk away.  For sheer convenience and early morning pleasure, the most wonderful beach for swimming I know is Rockley Beach in Barbados.  I’ve stayed in a couple of hotels nearby and each time I have loved that feeling of getting up real early, just as the sun is beginning to lighten the sky, and head down to the beach with just a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and a towel.  So much of the south coast of Barbados is built up and unless you are in a hotel it is relatively difficult to get access to the beach (a universal right but one which is becoming increasingly infringed in several islands).  At Rockley though, a grove of palm trees allows a lot of liming to go on, dominoes to be played and Jo Everybody and his family can get down to the bay.  A gentle crescent just over a third of a mile long, Rockley Beach is pure sand.  It gently slopes down so you can get in carefully, but it continues to drop so you are don’t have any embarrassing places where you think you are drowning and stand up in three inches of water.  Neither Caribbean nor Atlantic, the south coast has sizeable but non-damaging rollers that come in at a regular pace.  You can bounce up and down on them put your head in amongst them, swim into them or parallel.  The water is tepid and it makes you do some exercise, so by the time you emerge you feel refreshed and invigorated.  I would generally share the beach with about a dozen other freaks at that time, some other early risers from the hotels, a couple of residents, Black, White or Asian, who make it part of their morning regime.  The camaraderie is brilliant, as you know what is so important that you are sharing.  Later in the day it gets crowded, full of screaming kids, dogs running loose and not a place to put your beach towel, but at that early morning swim you can own the whole beach.  I would come out, dry myself down and put on the t-shirt, cross back to the hotel, have a shower, be down at breakfast and then go to work.  What a way to make a living.

Rockley Beach, Barbados

Rockley Beach, Barbados

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Liming – The Emerald Isle – Searching for parrots

Dominica exposed me to new Caribbean experiences.  Whereas other islands were heavily touristed, and offered beaches, yachting and other water activities to tourists, Dominica had little to offer in that way.  The beaches were black and often rocky, you could sail to or away from the main port, but could not go dancing in amongst islets, and although there was a lot of challenging diving, there was little for the amateur snorkeller to get excited about.  It meant that Dominica was for its inhabitants still, a richly agricultural and fish based society, and any tourists that did come in were still richly rewarded for searching out its gems.  They lay in its interior, in the thick largely unbroken forests that clad the two main mountain ranges, split by the Layou River.

 I visited one of these during a day trip from the hotel.  Left much to my own devices during the last weekend, I was trying to go trekking with a local guide, but he had to work that weekend at his bar, so I hurriedly organised something through the Garraway.  It all looked horrendously expensive for one person, but I managed to get in with a bunch of Guadeloupe weekend trippers, a family of four, and I set off with an old bearded gent in his minibus taxi.  The route followed the west coast further than I had been before, to Dublanc, almost by the northerly town of Portsmouth.  We turned inland and went through a similar garden environment that I had seen with Andrew.  We walked down through one of these gardens, the guide telling us of all the names of the trees we passed by.  We crossed a fresh stream, he placed new rocks across to act as stepping stones and took delight in steering the two nubile daughters and their equally shapely mother across, and leaving the father and me to our own devices. The light dappled in amongst the tree ferns and huge tropical hardwoods as we walked, and in the occasional breaks, soft fruit bushes such as strawberries and raspberries were growing.  We entered a dark gorge which came to an abrupt end where the river toppled down a fifty foot fall.  The spray played in the light and made rainbows in the sky, the rush of water filled our ears.  Below us, yellow and white land crabs played hide and seek in the rocks, and numerous birds darted in the gaps between the canopy.

 Our next stop was a reserve, where two of the rarest parrots in the world are being protected.  The Sisserou, which appears on Dominica’s flag, and the Jaco were not particularly abundant since they only occurred on the island, but with plantations and forestry, their ranges have been severely curtailed.  In the Northern Forest Reserve, near the curiously named Syndicate Estate, there is a special protection area.  We walked along an easy trail through the rainforest to a point which dramatically looks out over a deep valley, thickly cloaked in trees.  We stared for ages at the scene, and saw some eagles, a few smaller birds, a couple of inquisitive hummingbirds which got close up to us before darting back into the undergrowth, but no parrots.  The guide tried to cheer us along, like the Magic Eye artist who knows you will see it in the end, but we were unlucky.  At one point a noisy flock of Jacos could be heard as they flew over the canopy above us but we never got a glimpse of their bright plumage.

 At a second viewpoint we were equally unlucky, but got an idea of how patient you had to be to see endangered species.

Parrot-watching Perch

Parrot-watching Perch

On an old dead tree in front of the view point, along a branch that stretched out over the gorge, were small planks of wood nailed in.  A scientist from Jersey Zoo spent nearly half a year perched in a small hide at the end of these steps, day after day and night after night counting and observing the parrots in the valley.  Below him a near sheer drop of three hundred feet followed by canopy, bush and hard ground.  There is some devotion needed to get through that, but I was sure the sightings of the birds and particularly observing and increase in their numbers was the just reward.

Liming – The Emerald Isle – Soufriere and Scott’s Head

The last stop of the day was at Soufrière.  The name is common in the eastern Caribbean as it is French for Volcano.  Many of the islands I visited had been influenced by French at certain times and the Creole language, which was especially widely used in Dominica and St Lucia, derived many of its words from the French.  This Soufrière was close to a bunch of sulphur springs which blew bad egg smells over the town from time to time.  We were here because a marine protected area had been set up.  It was managed mainly by Al Philbert, an old fisherman himself, and was guarding the finest dive sites and the only extensive snorkelling reef in Dominica.

Soufrière Bay, within which the reef sat, was protected from the rough waves from the channel by a small hill called Scott’s Head, connected to the rest of Dominca by an isthmus, the same isthmus I could see from my hotel room in Roseau.  From a distance, I could see it was low and guarded by only a few palm trees, but I only got the sense of how thin it was when Jullan rumbled the truck over the cobbles to the foot of the hill.  Looking back, the berm was less than thirty feet wide.  To my left was a calm bay with myriad colours of reef and a number of snorkellers.  To my right, the open sea was bashing against the pebbles and you could see nothing beneath the white surf.  The whole isthmus was looking vulnerable from breaching by the first big storm.  Indeed, Al had told me how it had got narrower over the years, the palm trees which had once protected its whole length had been reduced to a few at the town end only, and the vines had been cut back so now it was just bare rocks.  But he also said that although they knew it was getting narrower, the evidence seemed to suggest that it was happening from the sheltered side, and not from the rough channel waves.

 We climbed to the top of Scott’s Head.  Jullan had insisted he could drive up half the hill, but the narrowness of the ridge we climbed and the lack of turning places at the top made me feel his driving skills were not up to it, so I got out the van while he was still arguing at the bottom of the hill.  As with many coastline hills in the Caribbean, this was topped by a fort, Fort Cachacrou.  It jutted out beyond the generally straight coastline of Dominica so you could get at least  a 270 degree view of any French or English misdoings, depending on which of them had the island that week.  Now it served as a fabulous viewpoint, a light beacon and liming joint.

 The town of Soufrière below was remarkably similar to its namesake in St Lucia, nestled in amongst the green mountains, fringed with palm trees and with brightly coloured fishing boats on the beach.  It poured with rain when we approached, the wonderful view of the head was obscured for ten minutes and all I could see was a solid sheet of water as it fell from the sky.  Mud and gravel were washed from the backstreets out onto the beach and muddied the waters.  We took shelter in the Marine Protected Area headquarters and chatted to some of the workers there.  As quickly as the storm had started it dissipated and we were able to get some lunch.  Jullan ate nothing but accepted a drink from me.  I tried Seamoss for the first time.  A curious plant clinging to rocks in the intertidal zone, the juices are extracted and sweetened with cane juice to make a syrupy, almost milk shake like drink.  Like Mauby, it has a curious aftertaste, like a childhood medicine, but all in all it is very refreshing.

Liming – The Emerald Isle – Surveying the West and South Coasts

Jullan took me out on another trip one weekend.  Ostensibly to check the sediment in the rivers, it was really just an excuse for him to drive the van and me to see the country.  We went up and down the west coast, past Layou but not quite as far as Portsmouth.

While the west coast was interesting in itself, a series of fishing villages along the main road, the south coast was far more dramatic.  Not far south of Roseau, beyond a stretch of widened road hugging the coastline, a major road snakes up the valley to Bellevue Chopin, a straggly little village full of everything you expect from a Caribbean community.  Chickens crossing the road, big busted mamas hanging up the clothes, gossiping to their neighbours in backyards full of old bits of metal, broken furniture and interspersed with the occasional pot of flowers.  Young guys, their baggy jeans round their knees revealing some branded underwear, would be lying under a wreck of a vehicle trying to fix it.  The old men sat around under trees playing dominoes and waiting for dinner, arguing about cricket or politics or the old times.  Boys and girls dashing around the house, the backyard, the village, trying to think what bit of mischief they can get up to next.

 Once down in the valley on the other side, a series of banana plantations opened up before us, shaded by palms and other fruit trees, the Geneva estate.  The wide river drained much of the south end of the island, and toppled over a pebbled bed in a series of pools.  As almost everywhere else in Dominica, people were bathing in these pools (Jullan pointed out the Minister for Agriculture taking a dip in one place).  We stopped where the river rippled over the beach into the Martinique Channel and I walked over to its banks.  A man was floating in the pool below me, his head face down in a rubber ring, as if dead.

A bunch of kids were throwing stones at each other and laughing fiercely above.  The beach itself, like many in Dominica was a mixture of dirty black sand and pebbles of many sizes, backed by palms and sea grapes, but the sweep of Grand Bay was impressive, topped by a magnificent cliff above Pointe Tanama.

 Jullan hammered the little pickup along the road, which although it clung to the coast still was seriously inclined every few yards.  Little liming joints hugged the hillsides above the waves – not much more that a simple hut, a few whitewashed stones and a couple of tree trunks painted up in bright colours.  We stopped at Fond St Jean, where Jullan’s family lived and I was introduced to various friends and relations.  We dropped down to the rugged coastline and met up with a few fishermen who were gutting and cleaning their catches in the newly built fish landing site.  Below, a tiny harbour had been carved out by the waves, a few jagged rocks barely breaking the surface of the water was all that protected the little coloured pirogues from the current, the storms and the waves.  The village itself hid in the smallest of clefts in the coastline, twenty houses on the flat and others precariously placed up the hillslope.  The interior of the island began a few hundred yards to the north of us, even at this time in the morning shrouded in thick low cloud.

 This was not the end of the road, it climbed steeply above Fond St Jean in a series of hairpins that Jullan found difficult to control the pickup on.  First he took me to the very end of the track – at the far end of Petite Savane village.  Here I nearly died.  Jullan’s driving was a bit suspect at the best of times, his impetuous and slightly fiery nature made him lose concentration while dashing along in the government vehicle.  The pickup was not the best vehicle on bad roads, although it had four wheel drive, the lack of weight in the back of the truck made it lose traction easily on steep slopes.  We were now on a 1 in 4 incline, parked on gravel and Jullan did not have the patience to do a proper hill start.  He sliddered and slided on the gravel, the wheels spinning furiously and kicking up a cloud of grey dust. We inched nearer the crash barrier that protected us from a 200 foot drop.

 We escaped, but he insisted on taking me down another steep gravely track to Petite Savane Bay where the Fisheries Unit had established another shed, again supplied by some Japanese money.  It sat well above the waves on a grassy patch, a small stream seeping out from the hillside and bubbling under huge boulders to the sea.  To our left the rocks themselves were oozing water, the fishermen had fashioned bamboo stalks into pipes to control the flow.  Ice cold freshwater from well within the rocks quenched our thirst in the stuffy heat and I stood mesmerized as a few feet beyond, the waves from the Martinique Channel crashed against the rocks.

Liming – The Emerald Isle – The Layou Landslip

We saw where the road had been completely wiped away by the slip, and carefully stepped over several wide crevasses where the tarmac had been shredded by the force of the mass movement.  We veered off the road to the left, across some slimy soil.  I had no walking boots with me, my ordinary shoes were good but the huge wads of clay stuck to them now got rid of any grip I had.  The soil was soft, sodden and gave way with every footstep we took.  Since we had left directly from work, the pale cream trousers I wore were smeared with dark red soil and coated in a thousand sticky seeds.  We eventually found our best vantage point, having clambered over several more stress cracks (several feet deep – we would have broken ankles if we had stumbled into one) that were covered in a thick mat of vines.

 Despite this the vista was incredible.  The mountain landscape of deep valleys and high narrow ridges was all around, still coated in that lush green veneer, except in one place.  For half a mile, it was as if someone had taken a huge butterknife and sliced down into a hillside.  A sheer cliff of brown soil, about two hundred feet high had been left exposed when the whole hillside had given way.  A classic rotational slip, the remains of the hill had crumpled up in the foot of the valley.  The landslide must have happened in one sweet movement as several fully grown trees survived on the pile in the valley bottom, their roots still in the original soil.  The transported hillside had dammed one of the valleys below and a 2 mile lake had formed behind it.  A milky lake had also formed on the other side, in our valley.  The old shape of the hill could be seen in cross section from our vantage point, above it trees grew as if the land was whole.  Over four years some moss had started to grow on the revealed cliff face, but it was far too unstable and severe to support much life, and there were examples where more recent mudslides had cleaned off another piece of hill.  Indeed there seemed to be an active slide to our right, probably from the heavy rain of the past couple of days, which was obvious from the bright orange smear of soil down the side; it was probably this slide that had caused the smaller lake to turn milky.

 Amazingly, we saw a herd of goats picking their way up the sides of the scar, with incredibly sure footedness they were nibbling at any scraps of greenery on the face.  The whole scene was astounding, and Andrew told me how people down the Layou Valley, which was what this river fed in to, were worried that the land could fail again and instead of a pile of sediment, the broken dam would allow the lake to drain straight down to the sea, flooding everything in its path.  But he thought the slip had wedged so firmly in the gorge that it was unlikely to fail in such a devastating way, instead the overflow would gradually erode the dam and control the release of water.

 The sun was beginning to set, amongst the haze, curious vertical wisps of cloud played in the valleys and across the hills.  The gathering dusk brought out some vociferous creatures, the noise of the crickets grew, and frogs started croaking everywhere.  A strange gargle came from the mountain chicken, not a bird but a sort of tree frog, a crapaud, a delicacy in Dominica ( I had tasted its legs, coated in lime, a few days before).  All our talk stopped and we listened to the voices of the night.  Andrew whispered that he just loved to come up into the forest at this time and spend some time alone.  He was a rather private man, and I felt incredibly privileged to share one of his most special places.  The changing light, the fabulous scenery, including the powerful landslip scar across the way, showed me a new side to Dominica, one which made me think, I could live here.

 The light was failing and we had to get back up under the forest canopy to the car.  We made slow progress across the slippery soils until we reached the road, and then retrod the footsteps we had made on the way down.  Well almost.  At one point, Andrew jumped three feet backwards onto me, I had to catch him to avoid us both tumbling to the ground.  I knew instinctively what it was but he didn’t say a word, he just lifted a large leaf with his stick.  Below a medium sized boa constrictor was curled up.  Andrew said he put his foot down and felt it wobble in the way it could only be skin.  The boa, probably terrified that it had been trodden on, appeared unharmed and stayed rigid.  I was quite glad when we reached the relative safety of his car.

Andrew in the forest

Andrew in the forest

Liming – The Emerald Isle – Andrew takes me around

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”.

Landslide Sign

Landslide Sign

Liming – The Emerald Isle – Roseau and Drinking to forget Chantilly

Unlike any other Caribbean capital I have been to, Roseau looked more local than touristy.  It had some remarkable architecture, hundreds of neat cobblestone and wooden houses with ornate balconies and hanging gardens.  The cluster of streets in the centre were run down, with wires of all kinds forming a tangled net above us.  The developing country feel of the town was not helped by the fact that the Sewage Corporation were involved in connecting the whole place to a pipe system, and almost every road in the town was dug up.  Dust and mud were everywhere and we had to carefully ease our way along the highways to my hotel on the waterfront.  The Garraway is a garish green hotel near the historic Fort Young.

Garraway and Fort Young

Garraway and Fort Young

This part of town had been done up, the new cruise pier had been plonked on the heart of the waterfront and the associated promenade beautified.  From my bedroom window I looked across the fort and down the coast southward to a narrow isthmus.  A few palm trees were all I could see of this peninsula, until it rose again in a distinctive hilltop that marked the south west corner of Dominica.  Every day I would watch the fast ferries appear from behind this lump from Martinique and either pull in to Roseau or speed across the horizon towards Guadeloupe.  On Tuesday, the Carnival Holiday would make its regular hurricane season stop at the cruise pier and for one day the island was another Caribbean holiday destination.  For the rest of the time it was largely undiscovered.

 Andrew turned up in my second week there, and I was so pleased to see him after a gap of over a year.  Despite the fact he was leaving for Canada in two days, he insisted he show me some of his favourite haunts.  Tropical Storm Chantilly was crossing the Windwards, and for a time it looked like it might turn into a hurricane.  For the first time I watched the Caribbean be methodical, quiet and efficient.  People began to take the loose items off their balconies, boats were sailed round to safe harbours, everything on them stowed away and where possible masts brought down.  Shutters were closed.  The eerie calm of the weather heightened the little tension in the back of your mind that this might be it.  At ground level the wind was still, the water like glass, but above us, some clouds were hurtling across the sky east to west.  The prediction put the storm crossing St Lucia, some hundred miles south.  As the afternoon dragged on, the wind got up.  I was conducting some training in a large room off the main fisheries unit.  The louver windows started to rattle as occasional gust blew in.  By the time I headed off for the hotel, hoping to meet Andrew after a shower, rain had started.  This was nothing new in Dominica, it rains at least once a day there.  But rather than the heavy shower, this was persistent rain, and it got heavier as the evening approached.

 Andrew picked me up in his car and we drove north back along the main road towards Melville Hall.  He talked seriously with me about his work at Fisheries, how it was a mainly junior and inexperienced team that Harold and he had to supervise.  He had high hopes of my training, but was worried with him off to Canada, he was not sure how it might be taken forward.

The rain pelted down as he drove carefully up the hairpins into the mountains.  About five miles up he pulled in and we dashed into a local roadside bar.  Like so many bars in the Caribbean, it had a few chairs and tables, a high wooden bar concealing a fridge and a stack of liquor across the back.  Andrew was greeted by the bar staff as a long lost friend – it was ages since he had been up here.  I perched on a stool and drank some Kubuli, the national beer. As we chatted various people came dashing in from the storm, a local farmer, the brother of the bar staff, the Chief of Police.  All greeted Andrew in the same way, and we limed for hours.  The beers stopped and the rum shots started, first the official Soca Rum, also Dominican.  Then the local rums from the top shelf came down.  There were no labels on these large glass bottles, you only had the whiff of pure ethanol to guess how strong they were.  Pieces of vanilla, cinnamon, peach and other spices and fruits had been put in the bottoms, and allowed to flavour the rum.  I tried a shot of each, decided on the vanilla and warmed my cockles on several more glasses.  Andrew smiled at me, saying I should not forget I was teaching in the morning.  But the next morning, I was fine, and what is more, Chantilly had blown over with little more than a rain storm.  It did pick up in the Caribbean Sea and cause trouble further west but the Windwards escaped.