Walking Dominica

The following is a description of a 1998 round-island walk by Polly Pattullo.

The roads of Dominica were fashioned against the odds, against a mighty presence of rainforest and volcanic mountains, rain and raging rivers, sheer slopes and deep valleys. Until the 1960s there was no proper road from the capital, Roseau, either up or down the west coast; and a harsh trek across the mountains, through the monumental green spine of the island, was the only route from one side to the other.

Everything about Dominica, the largest of the Windward Islands and the most mountainous in all the Caribbean, has been a contest: the French against the British (who owned it from 1763-1978), the indigenous Caribs against both, slaves against the plantocracy in the struggle for land and liberation, old-time courtesy and conservatism against a robust radicalism, a boom and bust agriculture, rain and hurricane alternating with rainbows and the gentleness of trade winds.

Jean Rhys, who was born in Roseau, set part of her intoxicating novel Wild Sargasso Sea in her home: “Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near,” said her character, the Englishman Mr Rochester, as he climbed the track towards his honeymoon home. But then the island has often overawed European visitors – like Columbus, the Victorian imperialist J.A. Froude, Patrick Leigh Fermor – by its physicality, its power to beguile. Sometimes its beauty makes outsiders uneasy. To walk around Dominica was a way to learn more about village life (most Dominicans live on or near the coast) on an island I had visited many times, since my first trip in 1984 when I went to see another white Dominican writer, Phyllis Shand Allfrey.

It was her novel, The Orchid House, as luscious as her island, that had drawn me to Dominica, and to her tiny stone home huddled in the yellow-green shadows of the Roseau valley. On that visit I had also interviewed Eugenia Charles, then Prime Minister and the Iron Lady of the Caribbean. Much later I learned that in 1935, she and her doctor brother, then a medical student in Edinburgh, had also walked around the island. Dr Charles wrote to me about their trip: “Day Four. Off early for more ups and downs, dipping in the small rivers all of which had to be forded. There were no real roads, but we reached Marigot just about sunset. Destination: police station.” The Charles’ had taken less time than my 14 days; but perhaps they were fitter, and they had omitted the west coast. I had no such excuse.


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Quick Facts

Capital: Roseau

Population within the Roseau environs: 14,000

Largest towns: Portsmouth, Marigot, Grandbay

Wettest part of the island: Interior

Driest part of the island: West coast

Did you know?

Dominica is more vertical that horizontal making it the most mountainous island in the Caribbean. Because of this, roads can be steep and curvy, so use extra caution while travelling our Nature Island!

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My journey of “ups and downs” began at 5.30 one morning when I left the comforting wooden frame of Cherry Lodge Guest House, the oldest hostelry in Roseau. I headed north towards Canefield (it once was just that), a rare finger of flat land a small airport, industrial estate, and new housing that spreads itself on stilts up the ridges that buttress the dark mountains of the interior. Where there was once sugar and slavery there are now suburbs for a new Dominican middle-class, which holidays in Miami and uses the Internet. But then Dominica’s history would be found at every stopping-place, in my every encounter. Next to Canefield, for example, are the two expanding coastal communities of Massacre and Mahaut. Massacre (pronounced the French way) was close to where Caribs were wiped out by a posse of English militia in 1674; French families, early settlers, from Guadeloupe and Martinique, gave the place its name, a way, perhaps, of embarrassing the English. And what of crowded, bustling Mahaut? It had evolved after emancipation when former slaves from the nearby sugar estate squatted on the only land available to them, a narrow strip of coastal Crown property known as the Queen’s Three Chains. Mahaut still has a huddled feel. And village life, said a friend, who had prepared me a breakfast of sweet hot milk and scrambled eggs, continued to be fraught with a certain mistrust, a legacy, he said, of a divisive plantation culture. That first morning, through swathes of sunlit coconut and cacao trees, I reached the mouth of the largest of Dominica’s many rivers. The Layou flows from deep within Dominica. In the dry season, water courses over boulders like a Scottish salmon river; when there is heavy rain, it is red, swollen and takes everything before. Suddenly, past the bridge, the vegetation changed. The cliffsides were not of dazzling, dancing rainforest but of cactus and thorn trees. There, on the west coast there is 50 inches of rain compared to 300 inches in the interior. I stayed that night at the village of Coulibistrie with a forester, Bertrand Jno Baptiste, his wife, a pre-school teacher, their two children and Spikey, a Dalmatian puppy. Despite television, holidays abroad, education, and a sparklingly modern home, the Jno Baptiste’s world is rooted in traditional ways of doing things. Bertrand took me to visit his wife’s family, to a yard of rural pastimes: his mother-in-law was picking the fruit off stems of wild gooseberries (bigger, yellower than the European version), a young woman was making a broom out of a vine, a cousin ate a large meal of ground provisions (the ubiquitous root vegetables of the Caribbean), a child played with a home-made toy. There were coffee beans to be prepared before roasting so I learned to “fane” (to split in Creole) the beans, passing them from hand to hand while blowing on them to remove the chaff. Such a life is made possible by a close relationship with the land (national motto: Apwes Bondie c’est la ter, After God it is the Earth). Even before emancipation, Afro-Dominicans (like the Caribs before them) were clearing the forest and cultivating their “gardens”; a strong, independent peasantry emerged, who remain the backbone of Dominican agriculture. Bertrand, whose passion is birds, and, in particular, Dominica’s two rare endemic parrots, walked with me to the next community, Colihaut. He pointed out the coral in the creamy red limestone strata, circling Caribbean swifts, citronelle grass and sea island coffee by the roadside. On the road, we found a squashed female iguana, now a protected species, its eggs spewed out over the tarmac. Colihaut, like other west coast villages, was there before the road and seems hidden away. Yet it is a substantial little place, with Frenchified gingerbread houses and Place Aux Dames, a former slave market; once the French hung out there conspiring with the Maroons (the escaped slaves who lived free in the forests) to bring down the English; in 1828 it had 16 bars and 12 billard tables. It is the French presence that melded with the African to produce Dominica’s culture (the Creole language, music, dance, story-telling); while the British, who controlled Dominica for a far longer period, left their administrative and political system. Continue on Next Tab


© Polly Pattullo 1998 First published in the Guardian newspaper Weekend section on April 4, 1998. Polly Pattullo is co-author (with Anne John-Baptiste) of The Gardens of Dominica. For more information visit the Papillote website.

Even in the first hour after dawn it was a long hot climb, out of Colihaut towards Portsmouth, Dominica's second town. Portsmouth should have been Dominica's first town - its bay is one of the most stupendous in the Caribbean. But Plymouth never made it - its swamps were malarial - and it remains a classic second town, proud and a little stroppy. The beach at Portsmouth was almost empty. Behind me was the mighty backdrop of Morne Diablotin and, on the headland, the Cabrits peninsular whose eighteenth-century British fort sits broodily in the stillness of the forest. A German woman with a brown baby on her hip offered me an overpriced lunch. A group of French tourists waded ashore from a yacht and ate a beach-side picnic. A young Dominican, his hair in soft locks, watched them eat their food, bought and prepared in Guadeloupe, with some dismay. He said he was eager for tourism to get going in Portsmouth. Tourism is all the talk now. When I first went to Dominica, it was hardly mentioned. Then, the economy was making the most of a banana boom. There were into mini-buses for a quick gawp. Cruise-ship tourists spend little money, cram up the "sites"; and discredit the government's proclaimed policy to be an "ecotourism" destination. North of Portsmouth the road wiggles onwards to Capucin, the furthermost northern village. A woman and her teenage daughter, on the way to market, sold me mangos and a pawpaw for almost nothing. ``From Roseau you coming, oui! Mon Dieu. Papa. You walking alone? Since when you coming to Dominica?" A gangly fisherman, who joined the conversation, said: "To Capucin, you going. I personally know, you going Capucin." The early-morning road was usually empty. A mini-bus (public transport) might pass, a farmer's pick-up truck, a lorry with construction workers hanging from the back, or the Japanese saloon of a civil servant on the way to town. Sometimes there were other walkers to chat to: school-children in crisp uniforms (like the sombre little boy who declared: "All white people have cameras"); farmers with machetes and waterflasks; once, two teenagers with a bleating kid goat apiece draped round their shoulders. But usually the only sounds were of cooing zenaida doves, chattering yellow bananaquits or tree frogs. Gentle, rural Dominica. On my way to Capucin, I met a tall man with no teeth: he told me he was a retired carpenter, he read the Bible every day and his brother loved a white woman called Jean who lives in Hackney. Nearly everyone in Dominica has links with Britain (or more latterly Canada and the United States). Some who had "gone up" are now returning to build comfortable retirement homes after a working life away. They are called returnees or, more colloquially, "innits", because of their use of a London vernacular. In one remote spot, I came across a new white, balustraded building with the sign, Little Venice; the owner had lived near London's Little Venice; now, back home, he was putting the finishing touches to his guesthouse. In Capucin, a breezy village gloriously spread out high above a sparkling sea, I stayed with Steve and Marvalyn, a young couple whose tiny, wooden two-room home was decorated with pledges of love and religious motifs. Religion is a powerful presence in most Dominican homes. As darkness fell we walked to church for charismatic Catholic hymn-singing. Next day was Mothering Sunday. In a shopwindow at Portsmouth, I had seen a poem celebrating Mother's Day, written by one Sister May. It began: "She shall not be beaten by the rod; Nor shall she be pierced by the sword".   Continue on Next Tab


© Polly Pattullo 1998 First published in the Guardian newspaper Weekend section on April 4, 1998. Polly Pattullo is co-author (with Anne John-Baptiste) of The Gardens of Dominica. For more information visit the Papillote website.

Capucin was the end of the motorable road where Dominica falls away in shaven cliffs. The silky grey and blue waters of the leeward coast give way to a sea that is dark and oceanic. We climbed hard, past hidden waterfalls. Leo, the guide, was going to visit his mother for Mothering Sunday, in Pennville, the village at the end of the trail. We passed the abandoned hamlet of Grand Fond where Leo had been born. But he had not abandoned his land. There was coconut water to drink; golden oranges and grapefruits to eat off mossy trees; newly fallen mangos, pawpaw, bananas, the over-ripe pods of the cacao. Whatever was in the garden of eden was in that fairy glade in Grand Fond. Leo threw some coconuts to his friendly black sows and we moved on until we reached the road and Reposoir, an old, boarded up estate house. Dominica's old French coffee and cocoa estates have names that sound like sighs - Malgre Tout and Temps Perdu. Such colonial estates were modest affairs: no grandee white plantocracy, no guaranteed riches from that unpredictable landscape. Dominica wore the colonialists out. By the turn of the century much of the land and some influence had shifted in to the hands of the town merchants, the coloured elite. Foreigners still occasionally buy land for their dreams; the scoundrels come and (mostly) go; the best ones stay. The air was sweet at Pennville. The church had just emptied of its congregation and the road seemed full of small girls in pastel tafettas. In the rum shop, where Leo greeted his mother, a massive lunch of chicken pelau and ground provisions was being prepared on a battery of stoves. Visitors were welcomed by a smiling one-eyed woman. Close to Pennville is the village of Vielle Case, where, in 1646 Father Breton, a French missionary, performed the first mass on the island. From there, the jagged north coast came into view, with its red literite rock, occasional white sand beaches, and "dry littoral vegetation", a Presley quiff of green swept back by the force of the wind. I was bound for pretty Calibishie, a fishing village lapped by a sheltering sea, memorable for its homes garlanded with red hibiscus hedges. Beyond Calibishie lies Dominica's banana country. One morning when sky and sea briefly became indistinguishable in their greyness, I sheltered from the rain (you can hear it before you feel it as it drums its rythmns on banana leaves) in a banana shed, an open-sided little wooden hut, with galvanised roof, a sloping table and bench; bunches of rejected green fruit on the floor. Those boxes of spotless fruit in British supermarkets have been packed in one of many such simple sheds: cut green from the plant, the fruit is carried up and down steep slopes, gently washed and treated, then packed into boxes. ``A banana is like a baby,'' farmers were always telling me. ``They need constant attention.'' And despite all this care, the price is going down, driven downward by the greed of American-owned multinationals who demand even more of their large share of the European banana market. "When he sell a pound of bananas for 20 cents he cannot buy a box of matches for 30 cents," said forthright Edith James, of Marigot, who had been to the post office to collect a video of Bugs Johnson (?) sent by her brother in Texas. Edith, who is in her early thirties, took me to her parent's home for lunch. Most of her siblings are in North America; she has never worked in Dominica; only when she went away - to the British Virgin Islands or to Canada -has she found work. If the banana industry "goes down", the next generation will find it even harder. The alternative to a legitimate trade is drugs. The Caribbean's banana islands will, so it is said, be destabilised and will, as Miss Charles once told me, make Haiti look like "apple pie".Already cocaine has arrived in Dominica; occasionally I would see an unlikely mansion fit for a rock star built, I was told, on the back of the drug trade. South of Marigot, Dominica's third largest town, the character of the windward side begins to take shape: the Atlantic hammering into high cliffs and the occasional wide bay of dangerous currents and foamy breakers. To landward, there are coconuts and bananas, beyond a roadside always edged with damp banks of rare ferns and vines. Here, too, is the Carib Territory, an area of land set aside for the Caribs in 1903. They are the survivors of the Amerindian peoples who inhabited the pre-Colombian world of the Antilles; their mixed descendants live only in Dominica (and St Vincent) where they farm and fish like any other Dominicans, their ancient culture most clearly expressed in their basketry and canoe-making. Carib homes, in the seven villages within the boundaries of the Territory, are small and neat, the earth swept bare around them. Carib gardens are brightly planted; canna lilies, roses, yellow alamandas and hibiscus set against patches of red soil. Kent Auguiste, a member of the Carib council, has planted his yard with trees and shrubs associated with Carib traditions. He has a gommier, for example, the massive tree whose trunk the Caribs have always used to make their canoes. And herbs for curing illness, and larouman, a fleshy-stemmed reed, for basket-making. Continue on Next Tab


© Polly Pattullo 1998 First published in the Guardian newspaper Weekend section on April 4, 1998. Polly Pattullo is co-author (with Anne John-Baptiste) of The Gardens of Dominica. For more information visit the Papillote website.

South of the Carib Territory are the east coast villages of Good Hope, San Sauveur and Petite Soufriere; they are more isolated than most, strung along a road that goes nowhere except to Petite Soufriere. There, like in other villages, old-world courtesies, quietude, hard work, domestic certainties and no doubt, for some, boredom, are the constancies that mark the days. I reached Petite Soufriere on a Saturday morning. Teacher Marjorie was waiting for me and took me to her pale pink house, surrounded by coconuts and bay trees. Below was a sea of dense blue. Everywhere smelled of bay. That afternoon Marjorie's teenage son, Eddie, showed me around the village. We visited Mr Coipel, who was preparing for next day's Sunday feast of St Isadore, the patron saint of farmers, when men and women parade to church in national dress with baskets of fruit and flowers. Then to a friend of Eddie's who climbed a mango tree for me to taste a particular variety of fruit. Then across a stream to the home of bandy-legged Peter Bambou, who has fashioned baskets, brushes and brooms all his long life. I asked him to make me a conta, a sort of pre-Colombian back-pack. Then past a fiendishly narrow cricket pitch - the cliffs rise at mid-off and mid-on - and down to a rocky cove where small boys were having fun hurling themselves into the roaring waves in Saturday afternoon abandon. An old man in an isolated blue and pink wooden house leaned on his window sill: he had a white plastic telephone jammed to his ear. A new world has come to this coast only recently: no television service yet (although there are videos), electricity since the mid-1980s, and, of course, a road for only the last 30 years. "Good morning, my lady," said Wylie St John of Boetica, who was off to tend his cattle. As a young man he either took his boat, under sail, to Roseau, or he would walk, his produce on his head, over the mountains, returning the same day. His life had been hard, the road had brought blessings; and he remained content: "When I go to bed I have no fear," he told me. The last major link in Dominica's road chain is about to be completed, joining the two south-east villages of Delices and Petit Savanne. From Delices, I waded across the White River at Pointe Mulatre where the new road begins its tortuous, zig-zag climb. Inland, you can look towards the steaming Boiling Lake, the second largest in the world (to get there is a spectacular hike). And finally down to the village of Petit Savanne, another pristine community dominated by baytrees and bay-oildistilleries. I was now within a day's walking of Roseau, and I spent my last night with two Canadians, who have lived in Dominica for many years; they are building a little hotel on the edge of their land with its majestic set-piece view to the village of Grand Bay. Dominicans from other parts speak of Grand Bay with pride and sometimes alarm. It has its own mythology, of solidarity and self-esteem. Three times its people burned down Geneva, the local estate house (the first time when it belonged to Jean Rhys' family; an event she described in "Wide Sargasso Sea") in grievance against the owners. The last time was in 1974. In the early morning light I walked up L'Allee, Grand Bay's main street, with its mural of Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey, with Rapho Raphael, my guide on the trail over the mountains. Rapho is a keen local historian and anxious to restore the old sugar estate workings (cast iron machinery stamped "London and Derby) at Bagatelle, his own south coast village. As we walked through trails of bamboo and cool forest, Rapho told me of Ma Toutou who beat her bele drums on moonlit nights in the heights of Grand Bay, of his hurricane experiences, and of how an old slave-built cobbled road had been destroyed much to the disgust of the Grand Bay folk. Then it was down through an avenue of ancient mangos, once the windbreaks of E.L. Rose's lime estate, when Dominica was the greatest lime producer in the world. Then on into Soufriere, with its sulphur springs, where a scuba-diving business has recently opened. There, there were white tourists in day-glo bikinis. Across the road, an old man sat selling breadfruit. More meetings of tradition and modernity. More history lessons. The walk was nearly over and, in the cooler hours of that afternoon, I set off for the last lap back to Roseau and Cherry Lodge. As the tropical night fell, I knocked on the door and called to the owner, Miss Tavernier, "I reach". As Phyllis Allfrey had written: "Love for an Island is the Sternest Passion." And in spite of, or perhaps because of, all those "ups and downs", in rain and sun, my own passion for Dominica had survived. End.


  © Polly Pattullo 1998 First published in the Guardian newspaper Weekend section on April 4, 1998. Polly Pattullo is co-author (with Anne John-Baptiste) of The Gardens of Dominica. For more information visit the Papillote website.

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Island Regions

Recommended Reading

The Dominica Story: A History of the Island by Dr. Lennox Honychurch Buy on Amazon
Dominica: Isle of Adventure by Dr. Lennox Honychurch (Macmillan Caribbean Guides) Buy on Amazon
Archaeology of Dominica By Dr. Lennox Honychurch