Friday, September 19, 2014

Boiling Lake

left side: Boiling Lake steam, right side: Valley of Desolation

happy rainy hobbitses, entering Morne Trois Piton Nat'l Park
The journey began in pouring rain. Nahgie, our guide, handed flimsy pink ponchos to me, my flatmate Emese, and his friend Baronnie. We tore them promptly as we wrapped them over our damp bodies and packs, and laughed. A good start to our trip to Boiling Lake, one of Dominica’s most arduous and famous hikes.

The first hour was a gradual ascent uphill. We slipped uptrail along the earthen steps and logs slick with the torrential rainpour. Many steps are made from the timber of fern trees, which are slow to rot, and have excellent traction compared to the other trees with smooth bark. We crossed the Breakfast River and took a stop to drink the clean mountain water. This river runs down to form the Mama falls of the two waterfalls at Trafalgar. One of Dominica’s 365 rivers.

From there, we entered into the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, and the ascent truly began. Nahgie explained that the trail used to be more of a thrill, with fewer steps cut into the steep trail. Nonetheless, many of the steps that were built a few years ago were hip height, and it was still quite the scramble.

view of Morne Watt, from Morne Nichols
We climbed to the summit of Morne Nichols, at about 3,200 feet. Lha Ghelol! The rain cleared up at last and we opened up to a 360 degree view of the island. To the west was Roseau, glittering by the Caribbean Sea. To the east, the Atlantic. Four Jaco parrots flew across the valley, calling raucously. That seemed like a good sign. To the northwest, steam rose from the Boiling Lake, still hidden from view. From this highpoint in our hike, we could see Morne Micotrin and Morne Watt, both soaring up to over 4,000 feet.

Boiling Lake is certainly an important element of the island. Many local books I’ve read so far make mention of it. In his novel, Pharcel: Runaway Slave, author Alick Lazare depicts a scene where Pharcel, a young chief of a Maroon camp, escapes the militia by running through the Valley of Desolation, though he is badly wounded in the attempt. In Unburnable, Marie-Elena John comments sardonically on the disparity between tourists who ‘give up’ every day comforts to come and hike a challenging path to a dangerous place, compared to the locals, who ‘wait for the volcano to come down to them.’ (I already returned the book to the library--please forgive my paraphrasing.)

descending the landslide into the Valley of Desolation
Danger and wonder in mind, we began our own descent into the Valley of Desolation. We snaked down the east side of Morne Nichols, down from the elfin woodland with its short trees into a scene that can only be described as otherworldly. We climbed down a recent landslide, smudging our soaked hiking boots along the loose rock. I was very glad for my hiking stick.

We entered the Valley of Desolation, careful to follow in the exact steps of Nahgie and Baronnie, who knew the safe route. One misstep could mean a drop through the thin crust into boiling water. Pools of black, grey, and green water bubbled to the surface and formed pluming vents of steaming water. The pungent scent of sulfur filled the air and seeped into our clothes in the clouds of warm vapor. Chunks of burnt logs poked out of the yellow, blue, orange, and white filmy crust. No flames ever touched these logs, they simply baked in the intense heat under the ground. Amazingly, some rocks and logs had moss growing on them.

steam rising from fumaroles in the Valley of Desolation
Nahgie explained that the valley exists because the magma tube is so close to the surface that the groundwater bubbles up, reaching temperatures up to 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Many of the fumaroles of the nine active volcanoes on the island are found within this valley. Although safe to cross if one knows where to step, even these thicker spots are warm to the touch. If you visit Dominica, you must take a guide with you on this trip.

We sat on the edge of one non-boiling stream, where Nahgie gathered up a handful of mud the color of wet cement. We made face-masks with the moistened mud, and allowed it to dry on our skin. Nahgie told us that during cruise-ship season, some savvy people will gather mud from the valley or other volcanic sites on the island and sell the mud as an exfoliate for up to $10US per ounce. Good stuff.

boiling stream in the Valley of Desolation
From the Valley of Desolation to the Boiling Lake was about another hour’s hike. We passed a series of four hot pools where we’d return to bathe on the way back. Then it was down and back up and across another landslide before we rounded the last bend before the lake. There is something so magical about coming to a summit or rounding a corner in a trail and having the beauty of nature so suddenly appear before you. Takes my breath away every time.

The lake was way bigger than I had expected. From pictures, I had imagined it to be about the size of a large swimming pool. Nope. About two hundred feet long, about two hundred fifty feet wide, and nearly two hundred feet deep. Under the surface of the greyish blue water, the lake is formed like an upside-down cone. The boiling water surges up, fed from the bottom at the center of the lake. Two cold water streams run into the lake from the sides, but these cannot cool it. The Boiling Lake is the second largest of its kind in the world. (The largest is Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand.)

Dominica's Boiling Lake
Nahgie told us that the lake has dried up three times in recorded history, including in 2004, when he saw it. A small amount of cold water pooled at the bottom, and he swam in it. But, when the lake did refill, it did so overnight, and returned to boiling immediately. He told us a story of one guide who slipped into the lake attempting to retrieve a fallen camera. Although he only touched the water for a few moments, he had to be air-evacuated to Martinique and lay in hospital for six months.

We stayed a safe distance away, and admired the lake from above while eating our packed lunches. I brought avocado, bananas, and a “coconut tablet” made by my neighbor Joan, which was much like a power bar. Yumm. I felt lucky that we were the only people there (and had only passed one other group on the trail), and simmered in the feeling of open wilderness.

hot pools in the Valley of Desolation
We didn’t linger too long, knowing that we had a three hour hike back to the start site. We paused at the hot springs to take a soak, and dear god it was hard to put my wet shoes and socks on after that brief relief. We washed off our face masks in one of the few cold water trickles. This was extremely rejuvenating. My face felt soft and clean, despite how sweaty the rest of me was. We returned up the slick slopes of Morne Micotrin during the “golden hour,” facing lovely views on all sides. Though I could already feel the soreness building up in my calves and glutes, the hike down went fairly quickly.

Our last stop of the day was Titou Gorge. I totally forgot to take pictures of this part of the trip, but I guess that means I should just try and go back another day. If you want a reference, several scenes of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 were filmed at this narrow gorge. We started our swim by jumping from a ledge into the skinny but deep passage in the rocks. My legs were shaking from both fatigue and fear, but with some encouragement and the knowledge that the longer I stood there, the worse it would get, I plunged into the water!

I popped back up from the depths after that first moment of wondering which way is up, and followed Emese and Nahgie up the gorge. The black rocks swirl in rounded twists. Imagine a lava lamp if it were suddenly frozen. Sun beams shown down through the gap in the forest above, making the place very ethereal and spooky. We climbed a waterfall into an upper pool and stood under a second falls. I got a pounding massage that would have drowned me, had Baronnie not held my waist and pulled me back out.

Having had enough adventure for one day, we toweled off and drove back to Trafalgar for a late but well deserved dinner. Emese and I walked down the hill to a final warm soak in the pool ten minutes from our apartment, then ambled slowly back up, and went to sleep.

If you do come to Dominica, which I hope you do, you absolutely should try the Boiling Lake hike with an experienced guide. It does require some level of fitness, but the trail is well maintained and the landscapes are unlike anything else in the world. That level of rarity is not to be underemphasized. I’m so glad I went, as exhausting as it was.

another view of Boiling Lake

me and Emese at the Boiling Lake, wearing sulfur mud face masks

another view of the Valley of Desolation

Sending love on the winds of volcanic vents,


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