Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Dominica




Well we did get up reasonably early around 0800 and we got into town around 0930 BUT we missed the morning bus to Laudat, the village which forms the base for exploring the mountains and waterfalls in the Trois Pitons National Park. However, all was not on this occasion, lost. Mick spotted a bus stand for Trafalgar nearby with a bus waiting to fill up. Trafalgar was a few miles from Laudat and so we thought it would be worthwhile getting the bus there even if we would then need to get a taxi. One of the excellent qualities of the local bus service in addition to the friendly drives and passengers is the flexibility. Once the driver understood where we wanted to go he cut a deal to taxi us the remainder of the journey himself and so for the very reasonable sum of $EC30 (about £12) our transport was arranged. The deal turned out to be even better due to the very extensive diversion the bus had to take due to a recent landslip having closed the main road which was still under repair.

An aside on the Dominican “buses”. They are actually mini-buses in various states of repair, owned and driven by enterprising individuals who have raised the necessary investment to buy the vehicle. The fares and routes appear to be proscribed by the state but that still allows for a great deal of additional enterprise and additional services to be provided. On our travels the buses were often waved down by someone and a package handed over amidst a good humoured conversation and it would then be delivered miles down the route with similar bonhomie. Women with babies and old ladies would be driven right up to their front door before, with much tooting, waving and good natured shouting from both parties the bus would speed off once more up some increasingly impossible mountain track. The suspension and transmission of those vehicles take a tremendous battering. Thankfully the ones we travelled on all got to their destinations without mechanical failure or other mishap but either seemed almost inevitable! Finally a word on the drivers. All ours were men. The younger ones seemed to consider it a matter of honour to drive as fast and as dangerously as possible. On our first bus trip out of Roseau to Scott’s Bay, one of ours spent about 10 miles on the wrong side of the road desperately trying to over-take the two others slightly slower vehicles in front. He never managed it. No one appeared to consider his driving remarkable apart from me and Mick, not the other passengers nor the drivers of the other vehicles. Not a cross word was uttered by either party. Thankfully, our drivers up to and returning from the mountains were of more mature years and driving styles. Perhaps the youngsters are limited to the relatively straight and flat coast roads before being let loose on the mountains.

Anyway back to our trip up the mountain. Another benefit of our special bus/taxi ride was that the bus driver took us to a nearby kiosk to buy the necessary weekly passes (about $15EC) needed to enter the park and then drove us down a very bumpy track to the beginning of the trail to the Middleham Falls, being the main objective of our day out. Our passes were inspected by the local Park Ranger and off we set up the track towards the falls. Our sailing guide suggested it would take about an hour and half each way but we soon came across a sign proclaiming the Falls were a mere 45 minutes away. Having forgotten to bring any sustenance apart from a bottle of water I was immediately heartened by the prospect of an earlier than anticipated lunch. 45 minutes later we were in the midst of dense rainforest without the slightest hint of the sound of falling water! The forest was breathtakingly beautiful as were the occasional vistas that opened out between the trees. What wild life there was, was keeping to itself however, and I only saw a couple of birds flying through the greenery.






A few minutes past the 45, we came to a resting place with a sign indicating the falls were a mere 20 minutes away. This one proved more accurate and after a very steep descent we came to the foot of the spectacular Middleham Falls. The sight and sound of the falls was well worth the hike.





After taking in the experience we commenced our hike back. After a similar period returning on the trail we past the Ranger's shelter climbed the bumpy track – goodness knows how the bus made it without coming to grief – and turned left up the road towards Laudat where we hoped to find lunch. On the outskirts of the village we were greeted by another ranger who checked our passes and told us where we could find sustenance. We got to the village shop first and bought a beer to quench our thirst before continuing on in search of the promised restaurant. Within 10 minutes we were there and were 'treated' to well made sandwiches by our very friendly hostess and of course another beer! 



Her equally friendly son(?) engaged us in conversation and both football (of course he supported Manchester United – but we were also impressed that he knew of Charlton Athletic, a club with which Mick has some affinity being a South East London boy).

After lunch the big decision. Should we continue further into the park to visit Tito Gorge where one could apparently swim in crystal clear cold mountain water, or retreat back to the shop from where at some point we could expect to get a bus back to Roseau. We had enquired about the bus schedules with a few locals and got a different estimate of when and how many buses there were likely to be returning to Roseau on each occasion. All they agreed upon was that there was actually only one bus and it would return to Ladaut at some point. It was 1545 by this time and we were both fairly knackered and decided caution topped valour on this occasion. We did not fancy being stranded in the mountains when darkness fell!

The bus arrived at about 1645 and we commenced our circuitous route back to Roseau.

Once back in town we had another wander around to look for an alternative place at which to eat. However, the cruise ship that had been in and which had encouraged the local taxi drivers and other vendors to a state of some considerable excitement and persistence that morning had left. It seemed that the whole town had fallen into a state of collective exhaustion after the morning's feeding frenzy and every bar and restaurant except for the Chinese (there's a moral in that state of affairs) was closed. We therefore decided to walk to the southern end of town to the well named Anchorage Hotel mentioned in our sailing guide. We passed the scene of our previous two evening meals – the very pleasant Loft Bar and Restaurant at the end of the dock we used to moor the dinghy, but hoped to find an alternative.

It was quite a trek down a poorly lit main road through less well-heeled residential and commercial premises but at no time were we treated other than with friendliness and courtesy. Oh and we were also frequently drenched by heavy rain showers.

On arrival at the Hotel we found it to be over-run by American Ophthalmologists! It turned out they were touring the island offering free ophthalmic diagnostic and treatment services to the locals. It's part of a regular programme run by Michigan University. Good for them. We got chatting to a couple of the students on the programme who were as impressed by two blokes of mature years sailing across the Atlantic on a little boat as we were of their and the University’s good works. Our chat with the girls was cut short by their call to dinner. We weren't overwhelmed by the fare on offer at the Hotel and so after our beers we re-traced our steps through more heavy rain showers in the dark to the Loft Bar and Restaurant and had another good meal there.

During the course of the meal we got chatting to a sailing family on the next table and it turned out that we were rubbing shoulders with a well know German Ocean Racer – Henrik Masekowitz. He had sailed almost the same route as us in just over half the time in his racing machine and was now enjoying some more relaxed sailing with his family. His boat was one of a 12 Metre Ocean racing class (a 64) capable of speeds of up to 19 knots! He had previously had to curtail an attempt at the world circumnavigation record for the class due to breaking his leg whilst sailing the boat!

The next morning we got the boat ready to leave and after filling up with fuel and water at the local dock we eventually got away around midday.

The short passage was a mixture of gentle sailing and motoring, so gentle in fact that we indulged in a very dilute rum punch with the first ice we had managed to buy during the whole trip.It was quite delicious.

We entered Prince Rupert's Bay and after being greeted by a member of the Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services (PAYS – an organisation about which we subsequently developed a great deal of respect) dropped anchor off Portsmouth, Dominica around 1700 local time. We ate on board that evening.


This Portsmouth is still a very small town unlike Portsmouth, UK. It's heyday was probably at the height of GB's presence in the Caribbean in the 18th Century. Originally the capital it became something of a backwater after disease – mostly malaria from the surrounding mosquito ridden swamp lands – forced the relocation of the capital to Roseau. What we later discovered was the renovated Fort Shirley in the Cabrits national park, overlooked the bay from the north, an impressive reminder of Britain's imperialist past. The small town of Portsmouth was situated in the middle of the bay surrounded by gorgeous tropical rainforest. Looking around the bay from our anchorage it seemed highly probable that the view was little changed from that which the sailors of Nelsons' Navy would have witnessed as they arrive in the bay. Indeed as we later discovered the Cabrits peninsula would have been a hive of military activity and buildings. The restored Fort that we could see was only a relatively small part of the original site. 







Over the last two hundred years the Forest had reclaimed the terrain....



The Dominican government restored the main Fort buildings in the 1990s and did a very impressive job of it too. Unfortunately it seems that since then there have been insufficient visitors to keep the Fort open to the public. We visited the following Saturday and whilst we were able to roam freely around the site all the buildings were locked up. During our visit we saw only two other small parties of visitors. It seems that significant cruise ship traffic was anticipated because a now largely disused cruise ship dock built in 1990 sat at the base of the complex. Next door was a once smart and still informative museum cataloguing the history of the island.












The next day, Friday, we took the dinghy to the town dock and explored the town. It was little more than two streets of low rise buildings – none more than three stories. Many of the buildings were colourful – some were rather dilapidated. The people were the most friendly, courteous and helpful I have met. Yes, some like the guy who paddled out on his board were most interested in making money by selling us something. He was offering something I wanted, a Dominican flag and so even that was fine. Unfortunately, he rather wound us up on his return by announcing that in addition to the price of the flag ($35 EC) which we had accepted, he also expected to be paid a “service charge” of $5 EC. It was very little and had he advised us up-front I would have paid but this smacked of deviousness and I refused. After a slightly heated exchange he accepted defeat and paddled off having sold a flag but without the benefit of the service charge. In town we were engaged in conversation a number of times by people who were simply interested in us and in helping us find what we were looking for.

After exploring the town we walked along the almost deserted beach and enjoyed a cool beer under the palm trees and I went for a swim and found some treasure...




We got back to the boat for 1500 having previously accepted an offer by one of the locals to take us on a tour of the Indian River (where Europeans first encountered the local indigenous people). He didn't turn up until 1600 by which time we thought we would have insufficient daylight for the trip and so we declined to go. He was rather off-hand about the whole thing and so we also declined the grumpy offer to go in the morning. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon fixing eyelets into the sun awnings that Chris had stitched for me and then we swam off the boat. That evening we went for drinks in a Reggae bar at the north end of the beach where an excellent guitarist/singer entertained us as the only visitors plus a crowd of locals. We ate in one of the beach restaurants before returning to the boat.

On Saturday we explored Fort Shirley by taking the dinghy over to the Cruise Ship dock where we were able to moor at no charge/

We met a most impressive local ....



and hiked across the headland to the Douglas Bay Gun battery. On our return leg we met another local ......







On Sunday morning we hailed another one of the PAYS boats to arrange our trip up the Indian River. This one was manned by Andrew who turned out to be a most helpful and informative guide up the river. The trip took about 2.5 hours and was fascinating. The river wound its way gently through tropical rainforest and we were transported back in time as Andrew rowed us up the river pointing out various plants and animals of special interest.







The turn around point was marked by a tasteful Jungle Bar where the locals had made an excellent job of providing a place of refreshment without spoiling the natural beauty of the river and forest. 



We enjoyed a local rum punch – Andrew accepted only a beer because he was working. Andrew and the Bar's manager, Roy discussed the state of the island's economy and politics with us. They were both of the view that the government should do more to advertise the island and attract more visitors which is perhaps not surprising given their livelihoods depend on tourism but most impressively they were adamant that the expansion should be carefully controlled. They did not want their island ruined by hotels and concrete and were quite against the establishment of a major airport hub. Getting in and out via other islands was fine with them.

That evening we attended the PAYS beach barbecue laid on for all the yachties for $20 per head which covered as much food and drink as we wanted. We met up again with Richard and Bridget, fellow members of the Cruising Association whom we met earlier in the day. 






We had a most enjoyable evening. Mick developed relations further with the PAYS to the extent that Andrew introduced him to the President of the organisation. With very little capital PAYS runs a very helpful service for visiting yachts people and will hopefully continue to do so.

We left Dominica the next morning bound for Isles de Saints, just south of Guadeloupe. We both suspected that our time there would turn out to be one of the highlights of the cruise. Anyone thinking of taking a genuine Caribbean holiday will be hard pressed to find a more authentic, beautiful and friendly island.