WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAUL CRASK
With justification, this is Dominica’s signature trail and the one all visiting hikers want to walk (or at least should want to walk). Although it is just a single-day, there-and-back hike, in my view it beats all 14 segments of the Waitukubuli National Trail, hands down, and can rightly be considered world class. Sections of the trail can sometimes be in poor shape, especially around the Valley of Desolation, where harsh weather conditions and river erosion have had their say. It is usually the trail guides themselves who figure out workarounds rather than anyone in officialdom or with trail management expertise. These quick fixes often become permanent ‘features’ of the trail and, while they may be food and drink to twenty-year-old local guides, they can quite often be rather more daunting for older, less experienced walkers. But they all add to the bucketloads of adventure and interest that is already present on this trail; from rainforest, through montane thicket and cloud forest, up close and personal with fumaroles and hot rivers, right to the lake itself. If you make the massive effort to come to Dominica, then you may as well go several steps further and take on this challenge.
The question of guides
If you want to take a guide – and I recommend you do – it is always much better to plan ahead and do a bit of research. There is a good selection of seasoned guides who not only help to make the hike a pleasant and safer experience, they can often tell you quite a bit about the local flora as well as entertain you with anecdotes about life in Dominica. If you turn up in Laudat unprepared, then guides will often assail you with offers of their services. This is more of a lottery. Agree a fee up front and tell your guide that you want to pace your self and take the full day to enjoy it. Many of the younger guides like to walk fast. Take some time to make your requirements clear and don’t be rushed, either into decisions, or on the hike itself. A good guide will figure out your most comfortable pace and adjust his/hers accordingly; it should not be the other way around.
A mental and physical challenge
The mental challenge of this walk can often be as daunting as the physical one. To manage this a little better, you should think of the hike in three sections (to be repeated in reverse on the way back). The first section is a rainforest hike from the trailhead at TiTou Gorge to the Breakfast River. The trail makes a gradual ascent and then a sharp descent into the Breakfast River valley. It takes about an hour. Freshen up at the river, take on water, have a breather. The next section is the ascent and then descent of Morne Nichols. From the Breakfast River the trail goes steeply up the side of this peak and rainforest transitions to montane thicket, with occasional sections of cloud forest. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the clearing at the top where you should rest again and enjoy the panoramic views of mountains and coast. The descent down into the Valley of Desolation is both steep and tricky. It can be very muddy, steps may well have fallen away or are waterlogged and slippery. At the bottom, carefully negotiating the boulders and rocks and then a very narrow, eroded ledge, all require your full attention. With the Valley of Desolation before you, the third and final section begins. From here, it is about an hour to the Boiling Lake. The valley section is in two parts, separated by river and forest. There is a trail through the valley though it may not be obvious. This is where a guide is very helpful (ditto on the return journey). The river and forest section can be difficult. Sections of the trail have eroded badly and there are some steep and tricky climbs. The second part of the valley is much easier and you can enter it knowing the lake is just 20 minutes away.
This trail is full of steps, so if you are thinking of doing some physical prep for it before you come, bear this in mind.
The whole hike should take somewhere between six to eight hours. You should start not much later than 8.30. Earlier is better.
What’s going on ?
The Valley of Desolation is actually classified as an active volcano, and it is easy to see why. From above, you are clearly looking down into a crater, with the floor venting steam and gases in numerous places, and with rocks painted in the colours of the chemicals present in this environment. The smell is sulphur dioxide. Although an interesting name, to me the valley is far from desolate; it is full of life – like the beginning of time. Take a moment here and absorb it; walking through the Valley of Desolation is a highlight of the Boiling Lake hike.
The Boiling Lake is a flooded fumarole. A really big one. Essentially the lava at the bottom of this fumarole is super-heating the ground water and forcing it up beyond its natural level, forming a lake in this naturally eroded basin. The fumarole is continually fed by two streams and it has a lip on the far side where water cascades down a rock face and becomes the beginning of the White River, which nears the end of its journey to the sea at the Victoria Falls near Delices in Dominica’s south east. Occasionally the lake empties. This is probably because of a blockage in the fumarole vent which means there is not enough force to push up the ground water. When the blockage clears, the lake refills but it can take some time to ‘boil’ again. If this has happened when you go there, whatever you do, please don’t swim in it !