“Can you use a chainsaw?” Annette Peyer Loerner asks as seven of us pile into two pick-up trucks in Salisbury, a small community on Dominica’s undulating west coast. Sadly, I can’t, but that’s no problem as in the back I spy a formidable arsenal of tools ready to be employed in what seems a Herculean task — restoring the overgrown, tree-blocked forest trails that were devastated when Hurricane Maria blasted this mountainous Caribbean island on 18 September 2017.
Cutlasses, saws, log picks, bush-cutters — I feel like a gladiator deciding what weapon to choose before entering the arena, only in this case our audience is thousands of trees stripped bare as toothpicks by 160mph winds. “Maria was a hard lash,” taxi-driver Irvin Tavernier had explained as he drove me from the airport to the clifftop Tamarind Tree Hotel where my voluntourism project is based. The 90-minute journey gave me ample time to contemplate the wild interior of this mighty volcanic island, which has peaks soaring to 4,747ft and an eerie Boiling Lake set inside the World Heritage-listed Morne Trois Pitons National Park. While other parts of the Caribbean go in for golden beaches, all-inclusive resorts and mega-cruise ships, Dominica — which lies between Guadeloupe and Martinique, just a half-hour flight south of Antigua — offers an invitingly different experience with its black sands, creole sounds, potent bush rums and 365 rivers.
Until Maria stormed in, this towering isle of just 73,000 citizens was steadily building its reputation as ‘The Nature Island’, firmly committed to ecotourism with excellent hiking, diving and whale watching. Now I’m shocked to find leafless forests, bridges snapped in half like broken biscuits and valleys scarred forever by terrifying landslides. On the coast, Maria chucked 40ft containers around like toys, boats flew into the hills and cars crumpled up into balls of metal.
Where do you start after a night like that? For Annette and her husband Stefan, who came to Dominica 22 years ago from Switzerland to open Tamarind Tree, a relaxed, three-star hotel, Maria was a traumatic experience that’s had some positives. With no prospect of electricity for months, they were motivated to install solar panels and are now happily powered by renewable energy. Eager to help with the island’s recovery, they also decided to restore a section of the epic 115-mile Waitukubuli National Trail that runs the length of Dominica. This flagship attraction weaves through its forests and gorges, crossing rivers and running along cliffs, pausing at hot springs and former sugar plantations. While few visitors walked the entire route, which takes two weeks, many used the trail for day trips to admire its birds, trees and flora, or to enjoy a long, tough hike that ends with a jubilant dip in a freshwater pool.
Money was raised, equipment sourced, and local villagers hired to tackle eight miles of arboreal mayhem known as Segment 11. Volunteers like me are a crucial and ongoing part of the plan — once cleared, the trail will need recutting every three months. “Sometimes guests hear what we’re doing and decide to help,” Annette explains. “Others fly in specifically to work on Waitukubuli.”
As I don my hard hat and get stuck in with the cutlass, I soon realise this sort of volunteering is as hands-on as it gets. With no forest canopy to provide shade, trail-clearing is hot, tiring work where you’re guaranteed to burn the calories. First the chainsaws go in, slicing through the massive fallen gommier trees. Then a team of clearers (including me) follows on, rolling the logs away, removing branches and hacking down vines. Finally, the bush-cutters move in, strimming a clear path that you couldn’t exactly play golf on but along which future walkers can certainly make breezy progress.
Is this really worth doing? After six hours’ sweat and toil, we manage to clear a 800ft strip. “Definitely!” says Alice, a 60-something designer from London who admits to “an unhealthy love of putting on gloves and slashing stuff”. As she puts it: “On another hurricane-hit island we might be clearing debris off a beautiful beach — but for Dominica this national trail is just as vital.” I find it encouraging that we’re not doing this alone. At lunchtime a cheery volunteer crew clearing the neighbouring segment drops by, followed by some government foresters who lend a hand by cutting up the tree-trunks too large for our saws.
There’s a deeper value, too. After a natural disaster that killed at least 65 people, destroying roads, buildings and farms and leaving 90% of homes without a roof, a simple, grass-roots project like this is helping bring the island back together. “Volunteer workers are most valuable,” confirms Jacqueline André, a forest officer with Dominica’s Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division. “Help from overseas means we can get jobs done faster, and it’s an important morale boost for islanders who feel tired and stressed.”
Cycle of nature
It’s not just humans who have to cope. I’m assured that Dominica’s celebrated sperm whales, which call by from November to March, were unharmed, but the island’s reefs and dive sites were damaged. Another voluntourism initiative, Toucari Debris Dives, invites certified divers to swim down and pick up tin roofing and garbage from the seabed. Birdlife also suffered, and there was concern that the endangered sisserou, an endemic parrot that forms the centrepiece of Dominica’s national flag, might have been wiped out or had fled to neighbouring Guadeloupe.
“It was 13 hours 20 minutes before I heard one again,” reflects Bertrand Jno Baptiste of Maria’s aftermath. An ornithologist and guide known as ‘Dr Birdy’, her birdwatching business fell apart overnight as clients cancelled and cruise ships diverted. Maria also dealt a harsh personal blow. “I had just enough time to grab my passport, money and computer,” he tells me. “Then the river swept away the three-bedroom house I’d had for 28 years.”
As someone close to the cycles of nature, and a witness to previous tropical storms and hurricanes on Dominica, Dr Birdy accepts all this with a gracious smile — but it’s obvious how the restoration of the Waitukubuli National Trail is crucial to the livelihood of such talented guides, along with the farmers, drivers and accommodation providers in its orbit. Maureen Horrick, a Canadian who runs a voluntourism project in the fishing village of Mero, has no doubts about this trickle-down effect. “If just one volunteer or traveller comes here,” she explains, “as many as 10 families can benefit.”
After the work, comes the play — and Dominica is a thrilling island to explore. Its ramshackle capital, Roseau, has poignant associations with author Jean Rhys, best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, who lived here as a child. In the north west, the impressively restored Fort Shirley, built by the British in the 18th century, stood firm in the hurricane. “All we lost was the flagpole,” says local historian Dr Lennox Honychurch, who takes the long view of such calamities.
“Floods, hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes — events like this have often happened,” he reflects, “yet Dominica continues.”
There’s a similar sense of resilience over in the Kalinago Territory, a 3,700-acre east-coast reserve established in 1903 for the last indigenous people of the Caribbean. Historically described as Caribs, but today known as the Kalinago, they are of Amerindian ancestry and out of a community of 3,500 some 10% still have pure blood. “After Maria we all came together and helped each other,” explains Kenrick Auguiste as he shows me their heritage village beside the Crayfish River, which is on the Waitukubuli National Trail. This is now being rebuilt to showcase their traditional lifestyle which includes such skills as making canoes from gommier trees, weaving reed baskets and using bush medicines.
Already, many natural attractions and trails have reopened, including a superb hike to Middleham Falls where I climb through the rainforest, passing massive chatannier trees and yanga palms to reach a 275ft waterfall that cascades off a cliff in a long, silvery mane. At its base lies a reputedly enchanted pool where butterflies flit, and the only decent thing to do is jump into its refreshing waters and enjoy a blissful power-shower.
So, what have I learnt from my week here? Firstly, I have a new appreciation of the arduous work that lies behind the forest trails we all take for granted. See all those steps and cleared paths we merrily yomp along? Someone’s grafted hard to make and maintain them. Secondly, I’ve discovered the wonders of Dominica, an island that happily usurps the Caribbean cliches. Finally, I’ve not only witnessed the awesome force of hurricanes, but also the countering power that arises when islanders and their international friends come together to pick up the pieces and move forward. Fittingly, if there’s one thing you’re guaranteed to see when you come here, it’s lots of rainbows.
How to do it
Motmot Travel has seven nights from £1,900 per person based on two sharing. The price includes flights via Antigua, transfers, all-inclusive accommodation at Tamarind Tree Hotel, up to four days of supervised work in the forest and two days of guided island tours.
Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)