Exploring the natural beauty of Dominica ~

By Laura Bijnsdorp

I was very excited to sail and anchor next to Roseau, the capital of Dominica. I had been to Dominica a few years ago and loved it. Though we could only stay a few days, we had a lot planned and wanted to Champagne Reef, the hot springs, waterfalls and Chita – a good family friend who lived in the middle of the rainforest.

Dominica was the last of the Caribbean islands to be colonized by Europeans due chiefly to the fierce resistance of the native Caribs. The Caribs, who settled here in the 14th century, called the island Waitikubuli, which means “Tall is her Body.” Christopher Columbus, with less poetic flair, named the island after Sunday (‘Doménica’ in Italian) – the day of the week on which he spotted it – on November 3, 1493.

Daunted by fierce resistance from the Caribs and discouraged by the absence of gold, the Spanish took little interest in Dominica. France laid claim to the island in 1635 and wrestled with the British over it through the 18th century. The British finally won and established sugar plantations on Dominica’s more accessible slopes. On November 3, 1978 (the 485th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery”), Dominica became an independent republic within the Commonwealth.

After we were safely anchored, Max, our captain said: “Let’s go to Champagne Reef.” I had heard of this attraction, but had not been able to visit it on my last stay in Dominica. We put our snorkelling gear in the dinghy and were off. Getting closer the location, we already saw a small tour boat with snorkelers exploring the area. Tying up our dinghy to a buoy, we put on our fins and masks and jumped in. We were told that we should look out for rising bubbles.

I started swimming calmly at first through the water when, suddenly, I felt a sting on my leg. OUCH! “Oh, well, it happens,” I thought. But then it happened again and again. I also heard the others making pained noises. After getting stung a dozen more times, I thought: “I am heading back to the dinghy!” Fighting my way through a few more stings, I plopped myself into the small vessel. A bit further, Max waved his arms.

I drove the dinghy towards him. Max had found the bubbles! It also seemed that the water in the same place as the bubbles was quite a bit warmer, and the stinging creatures were nowhere to be seen. I jumped in again and we swam around through the bubbles created by underwater geothermal springs that vent gasses. Hot tub or a giant glass of champagne, we now knew why the reef had earned its name. It was a lot of fun, and I saw a few strange creatures, including a huge white hairy worm crawling around the vents.

After all that swimming and dodging of underwater stingers, we were hungry! And guess what we were having for dinner. Lionfish! Max and Sven had caught about eight large lionfish. Their natural habitat is the Indo-Pacific Ocean. But now, lionfish have been spreading in the Caribbean. Invasive in our waters, they are a threat to the marine eco system because they have no natural enemies and because they devour native fish and crustaceans like there is no tomorrow.

Foundations, such as St. Maarten’s Nature Foundation, have been hunting lionfish and organizing other hunting activities with dive companies to keep their population down. Unfortunately, we cannot eat lionfish in St. Maarten as the fish may contain the ciguatera toxin, which is found in high levels in our waters. In Dominica, however, it was said to be safe. Carefully cutting of the venomous rays, Max and Sven filleted the fish. Kippy, the star cook on board, decided to fry them in her amazing beer-batter. The result might’ve been the best fish-dish I have ever tasted!

The next day, after exploring a bit more of Roseau and relaxing in a few hot springs, Dani and I decided to head to a nearby waterfall sight called Trafalgar Falls. Situated east of the picturesque village of Trafalgar, the falls are one of Dominica’s most popular natural attractions. Taking a 20-minute bus ride to the entrance, we had to pay a small fee and walk only 10 minutes to get to the viewing platform. It was a gorgeous view.

The panoramic view gave us a perfect look at the twin waterfalls which plunge about 125 feet and 75 feet. The once taller waterfall, the one to our left, is referred to as the "Papa Falls"; and the shorter but stronger one is called the "Mama Falls”.

As we walked down the trail towards the falls, we also saw orange coloration in the small spring that flows across the trail. This is caused by iron compounds in the clay and not by sulphur, although the stream was nice and warm and pooled into small baths. A major rockslide in September 1995 buried the once popular larger hot springs and pools. But there were still a few pools big enough for us to bathe in. But before we sat down and relaxed, we climbed over, under and around large boulders to a bit sweaty stand at the base of the Mama Falls. It was gorgeous and the combination of mist coming from the powerful falls and the sun made rainbows in the water. Although the water was freezing, we both took a plunge and got a tough massage by the cascading water.

It had been a good day, and the good times in Dominica kept on rolling. The next morning, Max took us along the coast and dropped us off on Meru Beach. Chita picked us up with her old but trusty pickup truck and we were off. Chita had moved to Dominica a few years ago, and lived on the edge of the thick Dominican rainforest. Now that her house was almost completed, I was super excited to see what it looked like and to spend some time on her property.

Driving along a very narrow road and crossing many humps and bumps, we started going more and more up the mountainside. The vegetation got lusher and lusher and we passed many farmlands growing mainly bananas.

Agriculture, with banana as the principal crop, is still Dominica's economic mainstay. Banana production employs, directly or indirectly, upwards of one-third of the work force. This sector is highly vulnerable to weather conditions and to external events affecting commodity prices. The value of banana exports fell to less than 25% of merchandise trade earnings in 1998 compared to about 44% in 1994. The country in now trying to diversify and exports small quantities of citrus fruits and vegetables and the introduction of coffee, patchouli, aloe vera, cut flowers, and exotic fruits such as mangoes, guavas and papayas.

After the rocky 40-minute ride, we arrived at Chita’s place and saw that she was growing many of these fruits, vegetables and herbs on her property herself. We spent the afternoon exploring her large garden and doing a short hike to a nearby river where we took a bath. It was cold and I’m pretty sure that crabs bit me on my butt cheeks twice, but it was worth it seeing the fresh water and colourful flowers that surrounded us.

That evening, Chita made a bolognaise sauce combining all of her freshly grown veggies. It was delicious and truly organic! We slowly fell asleep, occasionally having to pull a large beetle looking for company out of our sheets.

I think we all would’ve wanted to stay at Chita’s and her magical property for a few more weeks, but alas we had to move on once again to our next destination. We closed off our amazing time in Dominica with a Corina IV boat party and all decided we would be back to explore more of the Nature Island.

On Friday, June 26, we returned from the two-year journey circumnavigating the world! We would like to thank Budget Marine, St. Maarten Yacht Club and Antillean Liquors for their support. Check out www.readysetsailnow.com and facebook.com/readysetsail for stories, pictures and videos of our adventures.