Thursday, January 14, 2016

Mother Earth

One of the most difficult yet most interesting hikes in the Caribbean lies on Dominica, and leads to the largest boiling lake in the world*.  We prayed to the weather gods and after a rainy weekend were rewarded with a beautiful sunny day on Monday when we planned to tackle this hike.

Brita & Jason (Blue Moon), Lann & Stan (Barefoot Life) and the two of us headed out at 6:30am to catch a bus to the capital city of Roseau, 40km to the south of Portsmouth, where we had arranged to meet SeaCat, our guide for this hike.  A drive up into the steep hills above Rosseau found us at Laudat and the head of the trail.

Keep in mind that Dominica was hit by a major hurricane (Erica) last August and although we weren't on this trail before we were very aware of how the landscape had been changed by the forces of water.  Parts of Dominica were heavily affected with at least one whole village washed away and still many places that are serviced by temporary road bridges.  SeaCat pointed out how the hike has changed for him and other places that he just can't go anymore.  I suppose the flip-side is there might be new places to explore.

Although the trail to the Boiling Lake is only about 5 miles in each direction, it involves traversing up and down multiple times through various ecological systems, the most stunning of which is the Valley of Desolation.  Prior to that we were hiking through rain forest and elfin forest as we crested Morne Nicholls and Sharptooth Ridge.  The final descent into the valley was nearly vertical and what awaited us was breathtaking.  Pictures barely capture what we saw but will have to tell the rest of the story.

Our hiking group for this expedition:  SeaCat, Jason, Brita, Lann, Henry & Stan (and of course me, behind the camera!)
The early morning start was refreshing through the rain forest, thankfully on a sunny morning.

It took about an hour and a half to get to the top of Morne Nicholls; looking west to the Caribbean.

The rugged interior of Dominica - Columbus likened it to a crumpled ball of paper when describing the country to the King and Queen of Spain.

Lana & Brita - are they figuring out where we go next or just taking in the stunning 360 degree view.  From the top of Morne Nicholls we could see Martinique to the south and Guadeloupe to the north.

SeaCat kept us going with ice-cold refreshments.  I don't think we knew quite what we had in store for the next section of the hike.

Our first glimpse of the sulphurous clouds of steam rising from the Boiling Lake.

Brita and I still had to try to get some wobbly yoga in, with Morne Watts in the background.

And here we go, making our way down to the Valley of Desolation.
The path wound steeply down the mountain, requiring us at times to shuffle down on our bums over the steep steps.

Halfway down we took a breather and even here were amazed by the effects of nature on the landscape around us.

Finally, the Valley lay before us with it's eerie plumes of steam, boiling streams, mud pits and the stench of sulphur.

A little note of explanation here ... The Valley of Desolation is a valley that lies below the Boiling Lake but is traversed by a number of small streams that are actually boiling and others that are cold.  In between there are fumaroles where hot gases escape from the earth and all is crusted in various mineral deposits, many of which are white or yellow with sulphur.  You have to be very careful where you walk, not to step into boiling water or worse yet, break through the crust to the hot earth or magma below.

SeaCat emerged from the hot steam that continuously wafted around us in the relatively still air of the valley.  Hot, humid and full of sulphur.

The pool in this stream was at a spitting, bubbling boil - hot enough for SeaCat to cook part of our lunch!

First though he dug up some hot clay from one of the fumaroles ...

... and we all tried a little spa treatment.
We all got into the fun - and my skin felt wonderful after!
Lunch started with eggs boiled in one of the boiling springs - the most amazing thing was that the shells turned black!  The eggs tasted just fine though.

So exotic looking, but honest - this was an ordinary white egg when it went in the water.

SeaCat joined in the mud treatment, and was then thrilled to find a new mud-pot to supply him with more mud.
Have you ever seen mud boil?

In this little stream the mineral deposits were pure black so it looked like black water running down the hill.  It was actually clear water running over the black deposits giving the appearance of crude oil.

Once we left the valley we hiked up over one final ridge and arrived at The Boiling Lake.  The lake is about 200' across and we arrived on a ledge where we stayed about 100' above the lake.  Two small streams feed the lake and a sizeable stream exits the lake on the opposite side.  The lake is in a continuous rolling boil state and is currently at a fairly low level, although the level changes at times, dropping so low at times that there is a geyser in the middle.  Clouds of steam rise from the surface of the water and as it was a relatively windless day on our visit it would waft gently over us, giving us the full steam treatment.

Boiling centre of the lake.

Henry taking a rest break at the edge of the cliff above the lake.

We gathered on the ledge for a delicious lunch that SeaCat brought in for us.  Plenty of time to take in this unbelievable wonder of nature.

Here's a bit of video that puts the size of the lake and the boil into perspective.

All too soon we needed to make tracks back through the Valley, knowing that it had taken us almost three hours to hike in the four mile trail in the morning.  The rugged terrain make for a pretty strenuous path.

One final treat before we left the valley - a dip in a hot pool along the stream exiting the Valley of Desolation.

Climbing up to the next pool along the way.  The water was wonderfully warm and we so wished this was the end of the hike.

Our final view of the fumaroles in The Valley of Desolation as the mid-afternoon sun beat down on us.

No easy way out of the valley!
With the sun starting it's descent in the afternoon, but SeaCat keeping a slow and steady pace to make sure we didn't burn ourselves out, we made our way back over the multiple mountains and ridges to arrive back at the little station at Laudat.  Enterprising ladies from the nearby village had set up a cold beer and snack stand, knowing just what exhausted hikers need!

Aching legs but oh so happy to have seen this wonder of Dominica.
We picked up a bus in Rosseau for our return to Portsmouth, weary and quiet on the ride back.  I think we were still trying to absorb just what we had seen.  We've been reminded of the force of nature with washed out bridges on the road still sitting lopsided and tipped over from their pilings and replaced by temporary Bailey Bridges, but seeing boiling water and hot gases escaping from the ground right beneath our feet and knowing that just inches below that is hot lava puts even hurricanes into perspective.  The Caribbean islands have been formed by volcanic activity but it is only when visiting places like this, Montserrat, Kick'em Jenny and other active sites that we realize that this part of the world is still being formed.

*On reading the reference in Wikipedia the lake is called the second largest in the world but Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand does not actually reach boiling temperatures so in my mind it is correct to refer to Dominica's lake as the largest.