Caribbean, Part II – If it’s Monday it must be… Dominica
Two days were all that we had allowed ourselves for our visit to St Pierre – extra time spent here must necessarily be deducted from that available for visiting the other isles – but the anchorage was pleasant and the company was of the very best sort, so that we reckoned we were doing pretty well when we finally got underway again on the evening of the fifth day.
As we ambled out of the anchorage and away from the bright lights of the town, Gigi and Marie and their children came racing after us in their rubber dinghy to offer one last farewell. Quite a daring feat when one considers that their dinghy didn’t even have a floor…
“See you in Cuba!”
“Mais non! But we are not going to Cuba! See you in Quebec!”
Then they fell astern, and we were on our own, slipping off into the inky night.
By dawn we were drifting along in the lee of Dominica, with the capital town of Roseau just abeam; but on this occasion we were not bound for Roseau, we were heading for Portsmouth. 19 years ago, when Nick and I came here with our newborn ship’s boy, Portsmouth was reckoned to be very unsafe and Roseau was the place to be, but now the situation has been reversed.
Portsmouth is a small town – or a large village – strung out along the edge of Rupert’s Bay in the north of the island. The place is quite busy, ant hill style, but lacks any of the facilities that a tourist might seek, such as an internet café, restaurants, a well-stocked supermarket, T-shirt shops, or a proper beach. Backed by forest covered hills, it might be considered either fairly attractive or a bit of a dump, depending on what one is seeking. Dump or not, it is certainly damp. During our week-long stay here it rained every day, and to judge by the verdant surroundings I imagine that it must do this fairly frequently. The rest of Caribbean, meanwhile, was suffering a drought.
Funnily enough, the one memory that I retain of our visit to Roseau, all those years ago, is of persistent heavy rain…
To Anchor, or Not To Anchor (and where)
Since the bay is of roughly even depth throughout one can anchor anywhere within its ambit, but the northern end is decidedly the favourite spot. Besides providing the greatest shelter should the wind or the swells slip round into the north, this area is also the one which has been identified, by the locals, as yachting territory. This is the place which they guard from any would-be molesters, thereby seeking to rectify the damage done in past-times to their reputation and to their tourist industry.
Of course, this protection is not disinterested. The boys who patrol the anchorage (on a very sporadic basis, I may say) are not doing so out of the kindness of their hearts; it’s part of their job. In all probability one of them will rush out to meet the new arrival while he is still at sea and welcome him “to paradise”.
Having arrived, one will be encouraged to pick up a mooring. The rent for the use of the moorings is about $5 US per day, and this is divided between the boys and their boss, Papa, who is the owner of one of the adjacent beach bars. It was Papa who arranged for the moorings to be laid – but we are told that they were paid for by the EC.
(Papa also offers a wifi service to customers of his bar, and he organises barbecues whose profits are also shared with the boat-boys.)
It’s always a good idea, before you pick up somebody else’s mooring, to hop over the side and take a peek at the arrangements. In this case, the ground tackle consists of a stainless steel spiral screwed into the sand. Several of the stainless steel rods extending from the spirals were bent, we noticed, and the ropes attached to the rods were weed covered and, in some cases, chafed.
Whether through ignorance or because they feel obliged, most folks do make use of the moorings. No pressure was put upon us to do likewise – the good news is that the Dominicans have evidently learnt their lesson and have realised that threats and heavy-handedness do not pay. The bad news is that the moorings are laid so close together that fitting a fifty foot boat in between the fare-paying customers is not at all easy. However, we managed it!
Note that if you want to go and anchor elsewhere, beyond the limits of the Yotty Reserve, that’s fine; you just won’t enjoy the protection provided by the scheme. So far as I am aware only one boat, anchored beyond the designated area, has been broken into lately – but this one incident (occurring about a year ago) was extremely violent.
The rest of the bay is not so attractive as the northern end and, as I see it, the only good reason for anchoring anywhere else would be to facilitate the procedure of clearing in. The customs post was evidently established, long ago, when Portsmouth was a busy working port and – no one having thought to move it – it still stands at the root of the near-derelict commercial pier. Thus, new arrivals are required to toil all the way to the other end of town, where the grickle grass grows, in order to do the necessary paperwork. If you don’t have an outboard motor and you don’t want to make this mile-long trek through the village you might want to anchor off the extreme southern end of the settlement while you attend to the legal business.
Boat Boys and Bad Boys
During the day the boat-boys offer other services, such as the fetching of water and the sale of bananas and mangos. Most of the fruit vendors paddling out on their broken windsurfers are actually seeking to sell you something entirely different… (If I tell you that these particular guys are Rastas you will be able to guess what it is.) If you insist that you want bananas etcetera they will eventually get them, but you will find that these things can be bought more cheaply in town or from the street vendors.
On the whole the boat-boys are harmless, or even helpful – depending on your requirements – but we feel obliged to publish the name of one individual who was of the old school and who ought not to be working as a part of the modern set up. His name is CHRISTIAN THE FRUIT MAN and he caused a great deal of annoyance to our cruising companion, Paul Johnson. Having followed Johnson and Xoë all around town for an hour – despite repeated encouragement to desist – he eventually grabbed hold of the dinghy painter and tried to force the old man to pay $25 US “for services rendered”.
Anyone finding themselves in a similar situation should remember that the majority of the locals are just as opposed to this kind of thing as we are, so that if you call for help (as Johnson did) your plea will almost certainly be effective. Christian fled away, swearing as he went, when a woman in a nearby house pulled out her mobile phone and threatened to call the police.
As I say, most of the boat-boys are not like this any more. They are just young men seeking to earn their living by working for the tourist industry. One of the services which they offer – and by far the most financially rewarding – is the chance to make a trip up the Indian River.
The Indian River issues into the middle of the bay, just south of the town, and a journey on its grey-green waters takes one through the banana and coconut plantations and towards those lush hills. In the past, as Johnson pointed out, in a somewhat peevish manner, “we yotties used to just row up there by ourselves, with nobody pestering us, and have a picnic”. Nowadays, rightly or wrongly, one can only make the trip with one of the boat-boys, at a cost of $25 US per person. Needless to say, this was well outside our budget – but we did want to see a bit more of the island. The bus service being inadequate for our needs we decided to splash out and hire a car.
The Best 4X4 4 Free!
The business of trying to hire a car was surprisingly time consuming – we phoned several companies before we came up with one which actually had the goods – but we eventually found ourselves dealing with a company called Island Cars. It’s always nice to be able to deal with a local business, rather than paying out to one of the international corporations, but in this case the company was not only local, it was also cheaper than the big name competition. Unfortunately the set up wasn’t quite as professional as might be desired, and our car, which was supposed to arrive at nine in the morning, didn’t rock up until three…
When we complained – in a fairly mild, resigned-to-this-kind-of-thing tone – the manager explained that two of his three staff had fallen ill that morning with dengue fever. He then presented all five of us with huge, fancy ice-creams whose value, or cost, exceeded that of the car hire; and then he said, “Take this SUV – the top car in our range – for free, and keep it for tomorrow too. I am so sorry if I have spoilt your holiday.”
Remember the name: Island Cars – (767) 255-6844 or [email protected]
Our one-and-half day tour of Dominica was one of the highlights of our Caribbean cruise. Had we not done this – had we not gone inland and explored the place – we could not really be said to have seen the island at all, for whereas places such as Carriacou and Antigua can be adequately seen and experienced by hopping from one anchorage to another, Dominica is pretty much invisible to the passing yachtsman. A spin on the Indian River will allow the visitor to glimpse the lush vegetation, but if you want to walk in the forests under the massive gommmier trees, and bathe at the foot of the waterfalls, and if you want to meet the local people as they plant their yams on the mountainside, or weave their baskets, or ride their donkeys from one little village to the next, then you need to get off the boat and get yourself some wheels.
In point of fact, we tight-fisted Mollymawks always hire the cheapest car available, but if you want to be able to reach the most remote places and find folks who don’t often rub shoulders with foreign visitors, then you need to be travelling in a 4X4. Were it not for the generosity of Mr Island Cars, in lending us such a vehicle, we would not have met the hill farmers, toiling on their near-vertical plot, who greeted us with delighted smiles and plied us with sugar cane; we would not have met the young rasta who stopped his work of chopping-up coconuts to explain how he was going to use them as bait for crayfish in a nearby stream; and we would not have found ourselves visiting a waterfall so inaccessible that the girls were able to strip off and plunge, naked, into the chilly pool.
The Care and Feeding of Caribs
Another place worthy of a visit is the Carib reservation on the eastern side of Dominica. This is said to be the only place in the Caribbean where this Amerindian people – who were some of the original occupants of the islands – have their own territory.
According to the history books, the Caribs were actually not very nice folk; they were cannibals, who preyed upon the friendly, peace-loving Arawak Amerindians (all of whom were promptly enslaved, after Columbus discovered the place, subsequently disappearing without trace.). The very word cannibal is said to derive from the word Carib; apparently it was properly pronounced and spelt “caribales”, by the Spanish explorers, but was mis-copied.
We saw no evidence of any grisly food-fetishes during our visit to this region; no big cauldrons sitting on fires, and no sign of any war canoes of the type which the ancient Caribs used when they were raiding the Arawak islands or the new-fangled European colonies. (Canoes is another word of Carib origin, by the way. Words of Arawak origin include hammock, hurricane, and tobacco.) The staple diet of the modern-day Carib people seems to be breadfruit baked on an open fire, and their main pre-occupation is in making baskets and selling them to the visitor. Happily, this particular visitor loves baskets and is always eager to add to her collection.
A Walk in the Rainforest
Our most cherished memories of Dominica are of simply walking in the rain-forest, on our own, in the evening.
The forest is vast, and a sizeable piece of it has been designated as a national park. Information about the various waterfalls and lakes and other places within the park is widely available, both on the internet and in the various leaflets made available by the tourism authority. There is something for everyone here, with the most remote features, such as the famous Boiling Lake, requiring a strenuous six hour hike, whilst others are within toddling distance of the car. You might like to note that any venue advertised as being “only a short walk” is likely to feature on the itinerary of the tour-bus companies operating on behalf of the cruise ships (which dock in Roseau).
Likewise, if you are working on a tight budget you should be aware that an admission fee is due at almost every one of the sites listed in the brochures. Whilst we approve, in principle, of a small island-nation making money out of its natural resources in this way, and thereby learning to value them and preserve them, in practice we find that we don’t want to fork out $5 US per person per site; not when all five of us want to visit three waterfalls in the space of two days. We simply can’t afford that kind of thing.
Fortunately, we found that by arriving late we avoided both the crowds and the gate-keepers; we had the forest entirely to ourselves for free!
It was not by intention that we arrived at the start of each walk only an hour or two before sunset; it was just that we wanted to cram as much as possible into each day. Farmers and Caribs go home in the evening whereas waterfalls just keep on going and trees are always there. On both evenings we arrived late (and found the gate unattended but open) and on both occasions we subsequently found ourselves making our way back to the car in the gloaming. The mighty trees, butressed by their massively tall but fantastically thin, wall-like roots towered above us like giants over a Lilliputian; strange whistles and squeaks in the impossibly high canopy defied our gaze but followed us along the path. Smaller roots, creeping, trellis-like, over the ground, had us stumbling at every step. It would be easy, lost in the forest in the dark, to find oneself reverting to a belief in spooks and spirits. Indeed, it would be pretty easy in the daytime, if one were all alone, I think…
I suddenly realised that trees – and forests in particular – are just about the only thing that I miss in the cruising life.
Drop by next week for Part III of this article.
I really enjoy your articles and to me I experience your stories as if I am there with you. I read them over and over as this is my escape to your world (from my routine as Bankmanager at Cape Town Airport). What you guys do, is what I can only dream off ! Thank you for sharing your fantastic way of living with me (and everybody else).
I laughed at loud reading the part where Johnson and Xoe were in troubles with FRUIT MAN 😀
Ever considered to sell your story to Hollywood? This would make an excellent movie. Cant wait to see it.