Up hill and down dale: Dominica’s Waitukubali National Trail

Simon Walsh explores Dominica’s Waitukubali National Trail ­— a fourteen-day hike from tip to tip of the hilly “Nature Island”

Green hills as far as the eye can see. Photograph by Images DominicaLooking down to Soufrière Bay from Scotts Head. Photograph by Images DominicaMuch of the trail is built on old footpaths used to get around Dominica before paved roads. Photograph by Images DominicaOne of the gentler inclines on the Waitukubuli National Trail. Photograph by Images DominicaWaitukubuli National Trail

As you fly into Dominica, the spectacular view over the island’s rugged interior may cause trepidation in the most die-hard hikers. Among the serious hiking set, the Caribbean has not, traditionally, been considered a choice destination offering challenging and diverse trails. But this may be about to change, with the opening of Dominica’s Waitukubuli National Trail, traversing the island from north to south, east to west, from beach to volcanic peaks and from elfin woodland to deep rainforest.

The Waitukubuli Trail’s fourteen segments cover a total of 114 miles — 184 km — and vary from a fairly easy three-hour stroll to an all-day slog up and over ridges and up and down steep valleys. The good news, for those of us a few years away from peak hiking age, is that the first segment is one of the easy ones. It is also well rewarded with amazing views and gentle inclines. A word of warning, however: Dominica’s idea, in this land so severely sculpted, of “gentle inclines” might not be yours or mine. The rugged terrain of “rivers, valleys, hills, and mountains” is even celebrated in the national anthem — so be prepared for some serious altitude adjustment, even on easy segments.

The beginning of the Waitukubuli Trail is found at the very southern tip of the island, in the village of Scotts Head, which you can reach easily with a twenty-minute bus ride from Roseau, the capital. If you want an early start, you could also overnight in one of the village’s local homestays.

And it is always a good idea to start early, to avoid the heat of the midday sun. So it was still early morning when, a little over an hour into the hike, I found myself looking back over my shoulder at a dramatic view of Scotts Head and the isthmus that projects out into the sea between Dominica’s windward and leeward coasts. The Atlantic side was rough, windy, and intimidating, while the Caribbean side was turquoise blue, calm, and inviting. I could see the coral heads and the underwater wall that make Dominica’s diving and snorkelling so famous.

No matter where you go hiking, good preparation is essential, and the warm tropics have their own challenges. One moment I was huffing and puffing uphill in hot sun, and then minutes later found myself slogging through a tropical downpour and sliding down muddy inclines. I was very glad my camera and mobile phone were in dry bags, as I was drenched in minutes. A breathable lightweight rain jacket would have been a good addition. Plastic rain ponchos do not work well, as they trap in heat and sweat. Those who — like me — are planning on exploring just a few segments of the trail can get away with sturdy wet-weather sport sandals like Tevas or Keens. But for those planning to attempt the entire trail, lightweight hiking boots offer better ankle support and blister protection.

At the end of segment one in the village of Soufrière, there is plenty of time to head back to Scotts Head to cool off in the sea with a little snorkelling. It may seem crazy to return to where you started hiking just a few hours before — but it’s just a few minutes by road, and well worth the experience of an effortless float over an underwater drop-off. From the water, I could lift my head and see the ridge I been hiking on just a few hours earlier. Returning to Soufrière, I soaked my aches away in the village’s natural hot springs. Camping facilities and great local food are available here, as at the end of many of the trail segments.

The equipment you carry will depend on your intentions. Many serious hikers intending to do the whole trail — it takes about fourteen days on average, or one day per segment — carry tents. On longer segments like eight and nine, many of these hikers find themselves camping in the rainforest. They love the solitude and sense of independence, while enjoying the sounds of the rainforest. Day hikers like myself can carry a lot less — just basic food, snacks, plenty of water, and some dry clothes for the end. Water bottles can be refilled in villages from roadside taps, and when at altitude — and above villages or farms — it is fine to drink the water from the many rivers and streams. You’ll seldom drink water so clear and refreshing.

One of the delights of the Waitukubuli Trail is the way it bobs and weaves through the very tapestry of local life, and allows you to meet the people who make up Dominica’s communities. You experience history first-hand, as much of the trail is built upon the old footpaths used to get around the island before paved roads. As you scramble uphill, you should remember that a few generations ago, local farmers might have trod this path on the way to Saturday market, all the while carrying a fifty-pound bag of produce.

The trail’s second segment starts with a steep climb up and over the volcanic ridge that surrounds Dominica’s southern villages. After half a day of hiking through forest and farmland, I ended up in Bellevue Chopin, known for its organic farming and cool nights. Segment four brought me to Wotten Waven and its natural hot springs and hot baths. The final segment ends at historic Fort Shirley, at the north-eastern tip of the island, near Portsmouth. No matter what segment you choose, whether you finish the trail in one visit or over many years, you’ll get to see the real Dominica up close and personal.

Before you set off

Common sense should be your guideline to best practices on the Waitukubuli Trail. Always inform someone of your plans and expected arrival times, and you should register beforehand by calling +767-266-3593 or +767-440-6125. Although many hikers choose to hike unaccompanied, a good guide can point out many things of interest you might miss, while explaining local history.

For more information, including downloadable trail maps, visit http://www.waitukubulitrail.dm.