Clearing the trail | Escape

Dominica’s Waitukubuli National Trail is the jewel in the Nature Isle’s ecotourism crown. 2017’s Hurricane Maria devastated the trail — along with the rest of Dominica — but now an unusual breed of “voluntourists” are helping restore it. Paul Crask meets two of them

  • The Boeri Lake Trail in the high montane forest of Dominica’s Morne Trois Pitons National Park is one of several iconic hiking routes now clear and recovering. Photo by Paul Crask
  • “It’s refreshing to my mind and spirit as well as being for a very good cause,” says “voluntourist” Richard. Photo by Paul Crask

Dominica’s Waitukubuli National Trail

The Old Logging Road is the beginning of segment eleven of the much-lauded fourteen-segment Waitukubuli National Trail, Dominica’s two-hundred-kilometre joined-up hiking route. Running from the south to the north of the island, the Waitukubuli trail takes in an abundance of natural and cultural heritage along the way. Starting beyond the high coffee and citrus farmlands of Syndicate — in the foothills of Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s highest volcanic peak — segment eleven passes through a rainforest habitat known for two endemic and endangered species of parrot, the Jaco and the Sisserou.

Last year, Hurricane Maria reduced the forest to sticks, but both foliage and parrots are slowly returning. The hiking trail, however, is still a mess of fallen trees, branches, and bush, and completely blocked from end to end. That’s why Richard and David are here.

Both men have travelled to Dominica from Britain. Early retirees, they allocate some of their free time back home to working on a range of local volunteer projects. David worked for and still maintains a relationship with the Surrey Wildlife Trust, and Richard spends a couple of days a week helping the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) as well as clearing trails in his local national parks in Hampshire.

“Having spent years as an accountant, in an office every day, and with all the pressures and decision-making challenges that went with it, there is something very appealing about being outdoors and taking instructions from someone else,” Richard says. “Cut this, clear that, hammer and nail this. It’s refreshing to my mind and spirit as well as all being for a very good cause.” He smiles. “This is the first time either of us has ever volunteered outside of England, however. It’s hot here, isn’t it!”

Knowing just how challenging and expensive it can be to get to Dominica from Europe and North America, and then how shocking the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is on both the eye and the emotions, I am keen to meet some of the unique people who travel here on holiday with the sole purpose of helping this small island nation get back onto its feet — in particular, those who spend their vacation days deep in the jungle, covered in bugs and sweat, clearing the island’s hiking trails. That’s why I find myself today on this section of the Waitukubuli trail.

“I came here on holiday in 2008,” David tells me. “Everyone at home thought I was going to the Dominican Republic — they still do, in fact — but I loved the island, and spent a couple of fun weeks exploring. Of course, it all looks very different now, and it’s very sad. But someone has to clear these hiking trails, and it’s satisfying knowing that I am doing a little to help that process.”

“We met an American who had been here before us, also clearing this stretch of trail,” Richard continues. “He was an amazing guy, and very dedicated to helping people in need. He filled his suitcase with tree saws and other tools and left them here for us all to use.”

Accompanying us, lugging chainsaws, fuel, and helmets, are Fabian and Anderson, two young Dominicans from the west coast villages of Mero and Colihaut, respectively. I ask them what they make of tourists who travel all the way here to work on clearing trails. 

“I think it’s great that they come here to help us do this,” Fabian says. “And we need all the help we can get. But, trust me, if I spend all that money on a holiday, I’m sitting by the pool with a cocktail. You know what I mean?” He flashes a grin with what seems to be a hint of embarrassment.

“Me too. I’m telling you,” Anderson nods in affirmation. “Yes, aye.”

I smile at this odd little scene, an example of what the destination marketing people in Dominica have branded “voluntourism.”

 

Richard and David have bought into a package that includes flights, accommodation, three meals a day, three days touring the island, and the rest spent trail-clearing. They are staying at the Tamarind Tree Hotel on Dominica’s west coast at Macoucherie, where owners Annette and Stephan handle all the logistics for their voluntourism guests. A Forestry and Parks Division officer, sadly absent today, is supposed to accompany them on working days and provide guidance and information about the trail and the forest habitat. I do my best to fill in.

The skeleton of the Timberjack logging vehicle we pass is a feature of this trail, and a reminder that people once viewed Dominica’s vast swathes of forest as a resource to be exploited for their timber. The 1910 Forest Company even established a two-mile stretch of railway line between Brandy, where this segment eventually emerges, and the Indian River, where logs were transported to the coast. The company went bankrupt after just three years — Dominica has a history of fighting back — and the abandoned railway iron is rumoured to hold up a number of buildings in the west coast town of Portsmouth.

Huge trees have been knocked down across the trail. Most of them seem to be gommiers (Dacryodes excelsa), also known regionally as tabonuco or candlewood, because of the flammable gum-like sap that oozes from its bark. Towering thirty to forty metres high, they are a favourite food source for Dominica’s parrots, and are also the tree of choice for Kalinago canoe-builders. Other fallen trees, and also parrot food, are the buttress-rooted chataniers, which have ripped open large scars in the earth where they crashed down in the unimaginable winds of the hurricane.

Anderson and David get to work on a large fallen gommier about two hundred metres beyond the Timberjack, while Fabian and Richard scramble past to tackle a younger chatanier that has fallen a short distance ahead. A Jaco parrot squawks loudly overhead and lands in the thin emerging canopy of a broken but still-standing gommier. We all pause to look up, and it dawns on me that the parrot is really at the heart of what this effort is all about. Nature-loving people, both from the island and afar, have been affected by the devastation wreaked by the hurricane. Under increasingly malevolent skies, they are here in this broken forest, working together, trying to put things back together again. The parrot squawks loudly in approval, flaps its large wings and flies off into the mist. 

Although “voluntourism” was conceived by suited people in an office, it is being implemented on the ground, in the mud and the rain, by private enterprises like the Tamarind Tree Hotel and generous and dedicated individuals like David and Richard, Fabian and Anderson. The marketing hyperbole echoes rather hollow and meaningless in the heavy rain that is now falling in sheets on this hurricane-ravaged hiking trail, but this incongruous team of two young Dominicans and two ageing Englishmen keep on cutting and clearing, regardless.

And that has been the innate nature of this post-hurricane period: ordinary people who care, rolling up their shirtsleeves and — despite the odds that may be stacked against them — simply getting on with things.

We have all been riding huge waves of emotions since that fateful and terrifying night in September 2017, and I feel reassured that so long as there are people like this — with the strength and determination to do the work, and not just talk about it — we may overcome all the obstacles ahead of us after all, and eventually complete our journey to the end of this very long and exhausting trail.

 

For information about the Tamarind Tree Hotel and its voluntourism packages, visit www.tamarindtreedominica.com