Marcel is careful to manage my expectations from the start.
“The first part is the easiest,” he calls over his shoulder, as he bounds up the rocky trail ahead of me. “It’s the Valley of Desolation that you’ve got to worry about.”
Half an hour into the trek, the rain-slicked steps have become so steep that I’m more climbing than walking, but pride makes me fight to conceal my shortness of breath. The prospect of an even steeper incline, however, does nothing for my heart rate.
A challenging three-hour hike is the only way to reach Dominica’s Boiling Lake — a bubbling, sulphuric basin in the volcanic peaks of Morne Trois Pitons National Park.
The rainforest is living up to its name today, with a steady drizzle that slowly soaks me through. An occasional bare slope, denuded of vegetation, is a reminder of the destruction that Tropical Storm Erika wreaked on this Caribbean island last summer — but this exuberant ecosystem won’t be kept down for long.
Marcel points out delicate ferns, heliconia of pillar-box red, towering gommier trees and colossal buttress-rooted chataigniers decorated with bromeliads —although I’m a little too dizzy to be able to take it all in. The rufus-throated solitaire, whistling mournfully as we climb, seems to be the only bird undeterred by the unrelenting rain.
After Trois Pitons River — often known as Breakfast River — the mountain rises ever more steeply. As we trek up Morne Nicholls, it feels as though individual muscle fibres in my thighs are tearing with every step.
Eventually, at 3,000ft above sea level, the forest gives way to a wind- and rain-swept ridge; in better weather, this vantage point would offer spectacular views across Martinique. As I peer down a sheer drop into the Valley of Desolation, a rotten wave of sulphur assails my nostrils. Far below, ominous clouds of steam swirl in the wind like bulging flocks of swallows.
Just as Marcel had warned me, the descent is harder than the climb, and I have to sit down to tackle some of the steps as we continue on towards Boiling Lake. The verdant slopes surrounding us peter out into a rocky wasteland of ochre, red and grey, while spitting geysers and gurgling streams mix with the wind to create a gentle thundering noise. Sodden moss comes away in handfuls and chalk crumbles in my fingers as I leap from rock to rock and slip on loose scree.
Tropical Storm Erika increased the desolation in this valley ten-fold: the blackened skeletons of uprooted trees lie in milky-grey water that, I’m told, was once a vibrant turquoise.
As I gaze around at the scenery, Marcel hurries me on, informing me that the valley is prone to flash floods and landslides and is no place for ‘skylarking or dilly-dallying’.
Finally, we reach our destination. The lake is a steep-sided witches’ cauldron of opaque grey, bubbling violently in the centre. At 60 metres across and 60 metres deep, it’s the second-largest hot lake in the world, beaten only by New Zealand’s Frying Pan Lake. Its inaccessibility, however, means few visitors tackle the trail, and I catch sight of barely a dozen other mud-splattered hikers throughout the day.
An experienced guide is essential for this trip, as is a good level of fitness; Marcel admits some hikers turn back after the first hour. Smug in the knowledge that I’ve made it to the lake in impressive time, I sit down to rest for a while, mesmerised by the churning, bubbling water. And, stretching my aching leg muscles, I wonder whether familiarity will make this journey any less painful when I have to do it again in reverse.