On the morning of April 1, 2017, I made coffee in the kitchen area of the room using the Nescafe I’d purchased the night before. I put together a meat and cheese sandwich and went out to sit on the front steps to eat breakfast looking out across the bay. Cali, Sara and Yanis’ cat, came to join me, meowing hungrily and invading all of my personal space. Her friendly demeanor was very welcome, though I suspect it was a ploy just to get food out of me. I pet her goodbye and hopped in the Volkswagen to make my way across the island to Les Gorges de la Falaise, a waterfall hike I didn’t know too much about but seemed like an interesting adventure.
This would be longest drive so far in Martinique, and I was appropriately nervous. I’m sure there are plenty of countries where the drivers are far more insane, but as this was my first exposure to foreign driving, it was no joke to me. First, islanders drive fast. They don’t mess around. Not only do they drive fast, but they drive fast on narrow, windy, steep roads that make up about 90% of the roads in Martinique. And if you’re not going fast enough, they have no hesitation in letting you know, coming right up on your tail and flashing their lights or honking their horns. In those situations I would quickly let them pass – I had far more patience than they. Second, I only saw one stoplight, once, on the whole island, and that was due to a lane closure from a landslide. Every intersection was a roundabout – even those on the highways. Imagine driving on I-66 and suddenly having a roundabout. Let’s just say I got really good at them really quickly. Third, I had no idea what was going on with the street signs. Posted speed limits would be 90 or 30, I wasn’t sure since the signs were basically next to each other. Was one a minimum? That’s quite a speed difference, not that anyone paid attention to the signs. My favorite sign was just a triangle sign with “!” on it. “!” what? What am I “!”ing about? I never actually knew. Finally, you never knew what you would encounter around the next bend. People take parking where they can get it on an island, even if it means right on the road, or even straddling those impossibly deep ditches. I’m honestly surprised I never saw a cow or goat on the road itself. They tended to wander aimlessly, though evidently all had owners despite looking wild. On top of it all, I had a constant hum of panic that I wouldn’t be able to get gas due to the gas strike and impossibly long lines at the stations, so I’m as surprised as you I got through the trip with nary a scratch.
As I drove across the island, I decided immediately that I liked the eastern side of the island more. Still in the shadows of the pitons, the east is less crowded and more quiet. It seems to me it’s the real Martinique, though that’s never a fair statement, because no place can be a false idea of itself. I drove for over an hour, listening to my American music on my phone as well as Google’s horrible directions. I learned to take Google’s advice with many grains of salt, since clearly it was confused by the roundabouts and often would cheerfully say “turn left” when in fact, it meant turn right at the roundabout. Eventually, I ended up on a very bumpy dirt road that tested the limits of my car’s suspension that led into sugarcane fields, in all appearances the middle of nowhere. “There is no way this is right”, I thought, bouncing up and down over the potholes. I was surrounded by sloping farmland and sheep. If not for the sugarcane I could have believed I was in Ireland. And yet, I persevered, and lo and behold, at the end of the road, a sign for the hike. Never underestimate the landscape of Martinique – it can change on a dime.
I parked in the empty lot and walked up to the desk out in the open air. A man with dark skin and bulging muscles greeted me. He seemed a bit past middle-aged, with a brace on one knee and severely limited English, yet I could tell immediately he was the real deal. He confirmed I had to leave all my belongings in the car, and I was soon ready with nothing but a bathing suit. My guide graciously allowed me to wear his water shoes, since all I had were my walking shoes (though their blissful dry existence would only last two more days anyway). He pointed to indicate I should follow the young French couple who had just arrived down into the forest, and to then wait with them at the “cottage”.
I approached the tree line and found the entrance to the hike – easily missed, past some coops with chickens that had perfected the side-eye. The trail began with steep stairs leading down into the rainforest – so steep and huge, I had to hang on to the rope and pipe railings to ease my way down. I was plunged into a raw wilderness. The towering cliffs on either side made me feel small and insignificant, in good company with the tiny lizards that scuttled away from me as I made my slow descent.
I soon caught up with the French couple and fell in behind them. They were silent, as adventuring French couples usually are. We soon came to the river itself at the bottom of the valley, and heard dogs barking at us through the trees – large, rough ones by the sound of it. Whistling pierced the thick air to call them off – the source of which was a man in a rough white shirt and pants who looked like he was born of the the rainforest itself. The “cottage” was a rudimentary shelter and not much else – just some tables and a barbeque pit. A rest area for the tour guides, I imagine. He said something in fast French to the young couple which I couldn’t understand, so I followed them onwards to stop right where the steep cliff sides became the gorge itself – narrowing intensely to meet the river before a sharp turn.
As the young couple sat on a boulder to wait, I peeked ahead around the corner. I was overwhelmed – an unreal sight before me, something I could only dream of, or at least just see in movies. To my left and right, the gorge rose four or five stories. Sunlight trickled down through the foliage brave enough to stick to the rock, creating an unearthly shimmering on the water and rock wall sides below. Birds, loud and musical and numerous, flitted back and forth all the way up the cliffs as they went about their business. The crystal clear water came up to my knees, and I could see several mini-waterfalls tumbling down before me before the next turn. It became clear to me – this was the hike. No trail, no path. Just up the river. I was ecstatic.
Our guide soon joined us – the one who had loaned me his shoes. He himself was barefoot. He wasn’t much for talking, simply indicating with gestures we were to follow up the river. Not that talking made much difference, really. The crashing of the river soon drowned out most other noises. The three of us hikers made our slow way up the river and over the small waterfalls. Our guide rarely stuck to the paths that we took – in fact, several times he clambered over us on ledges mere inches wide, or even laying himself out across the gorge and using the leverage of his hands and feet on either side of the river to shimmy his way over our heads. The water got deeper and deeper, forcing us to swim at some points. The waterfalls we scaled grew larger and larger. At one point, we had to climb a ladder tied to a boulder next to one of the taller ones. The ladder was lashed to the rocks with thick ropes, yet still loomed precariously out into the air with the cold falls crashing down right next to it, making the rungs slick.
I remember thinking at one point that I could choose to be afraid. These was unlike anything I’d ever done before. It was dangerous, unknown, and I was alone. I had fear, of course. I leapt headfirst into this trip with a certain level of apprehension. But I felt I was at a turning point. If I chose to be scared in this moment, it meant fear would decide my adventures. Nerves would crush opportunities, and erase memories before they happened. So in that moment, as I glanced at the ladder, I pushed off the rocks to swim towards it with hardly a second thought. I chose, in that split second, to not be afraid, and that would define my remaining days on Martinique.
After a solid amount of wading and climbing, the gorge suddenly opened up into a cavernous space, the falls before us. These were the largest of the hike, and insurmountable. Most of the sky above was covered by the gorges jutting out over us, but a good amount of sun came through – more than enough to make the water droplets look like diamonds tumbling down. Our guide gestured that we each needed to go walk beneath the falls three times – whether this was tradition or all he had patience for, I’ll never know. The young couple hesitated just enough for me to take the plunge and go first.
I clutched at the the sides of the gorge and made my way under the crashing waters. It was painful – it felt like being pelted with hundreds of cold, wet tennis balls, and the force was so great I could hardly breathe. And yet, it was powerful and free and beautiful. I did it twice more, making a wish for good measure, in case it was actually a Martinique tradition.
We made our way back down the river. I wouldn’t say going back was any easier- especially going down the waterfalls. Our guide indicated that we could jump off of one into the pool below. He firmly gestured that we only had one spot we could land in – anywhere else would be bad news. Of the couple, the man took the leap, the woman the ladder. My turn – the guide turned to me and asked if I was afraid “Avez-vous peur?” I smiled and said “non”, firmly. That was the first time I saw the guide smile. “Ah, bon” he said and pointed. I leapt off the rocks and plunged into the cold water, as if catapulted by the waterfall itself.
We arrived back at the hut, where billows of smoke suggested the other guide was starting their lunch of smoked chicken. He and our guide waved us onwards to go back to the entrance, eager to get to their meal. I changed quickly, got contact info from the young couple in hopes of getting some of their Go Pro footage (which they did actually send!), took a deep breath, and pulled up the address of my next stop, adrenaline pounding through my veins.
I drove half an hour through rolling sugarcane fields and banana plantations to the Banana Museum, which was tucked away in the center of the island. I was still a bit dazed from my morning experience, but slowly wandered through the park that had hundreds of types of banana trees on display and soaked up the atmosphere. I’d never even seen a banana tree before, let alone so many different varieties. I appropriately ate a banana for a snack and headed towards my next stop – Presqu’ile de Caravelle, a peninsula on the east side of the island that housed Chateau Dubuc, the ruins of a sugar plantation and manor house. I took a gamble and pulled off onto a narrow road that led down to a beach in search of lunch, and found the Cocoa Beach Cafe, where I ordered lunch. Of course, my French is already dubious, and my knowledge of seafood even in English is bad, so I stupidly felt safe ordering cuttlefish. Cuttlefish are, in fact, not normal looking fish. Lesson number a million on ordering in a foreign country. Naturally, I ate it, and I’m glad I tried it, but I shan’t be doing that again in a hurry. I dipped my toes in the ocean in front of the restaurant just because I could, then continued towards the end of the peninsula to reach the Chateau Dubuc.
Like at the start of most of my great adventures in Martinique, the road I was on became rather tumultuous. I drove up the dusty, unpaved road, following the twists and turns and signs for Chateau Dubuc. I reached a slew of parked cars and left mine with them, walking down the hill towards the historic site, passing one or two tourists along the way. The site itself was, I suppose, your typical historical ruins site. I purchased a ticket and audio log from the front gift shop and meandered through the rough stone buildings, which included the manor house, sugar mill, stables, (suspected) slave dungeons, warehouses, etc. From the top of the hill where the manor house sat, I could see a lighthouse perched on a piton off in the distance, surrounded by forests further down the peninsula. I enjoyed the well that had been completely overgrown by a tree, so it seemed as if the well was built into the center of it. The plantation was right on the coast of the bay, and the weather was clear and hot. Not humid though, which I appreciated, as it would have made the sweat already creeping out of my clothes even worse.
I wandered down to the tree line by the coast and discovered the old canal channels built for ferrying the sugar out to the bay. Across the plantation, as I came upon the giant rum vat (?), I encountered my first moving ground. I think of it that way because if you unfocused your eyes, it seems as if the ground in front of you is shifting. In reality, the movements and the scuttling noises are coming from hundreds of crabs of all different colors and sizes scurrying out of the way and back into their little holes.
I made my way back towards the exit, a little at a loss on what to do next. It was mid-afternoon, and I’d done all on my agenda for the day. I wanted to squeeze more in while there was sunlight, since the day before I had learned that once the sun set, it got lonely and a bit more questionable. But what was there to do?
A giant signpost outside the gift shop caught my attention. Completely in French, (of course), it was a map of hikes that one could do on the peninsula. There were two options, a 1.5 hour hike and a 3.5 hour hike. The sign indicated that the trails were marked. I glanced at my watch – exactly 3.5 hours until sunset. I knew once it got dark I wouldn’t want to be out on a trail, but I figured I could make the call where the trail split, and besides, I was in shape. It was just a walking trail. I bet I could do it even faster.
I purchased another bottle of water from the gift shop and set out. I had my walking shoes, a bottle of water, some guava pastries left over, and my little travel purse. I felt as prepared as I could feel heading out into the wilds, thought that’s not saying much.
For the first half hour of the hike, I could almost believe I was back in Virginia. It was like any woodland trail. However, the soundtrack of rustling leaves was caused by the numerous crabs, not an errant squirrel or fellow hiker. Every now and then the tree tops above me buzzed with a strange fervor – I never hung around long enough to find out exactly why, but I’m guessing it was with insects I’d rather not meet. Yellow and blue dots were painted on random trees indicating that I was still on the right path, and had yet to make my decision. So far the hike was pleasant and calm, so when I reached the split, I decided to go the long way around. I wanted to see the coastline, not just woods.
The landscape slowly became more unfamiliar. The trees became thick, with trunks that split into roots at waist height and pierced into the soil like tentacles. The ground became moist, loose. Instead of walking on the dirt trail, I was on a wooden walkway, with signs warning hikers to stick to the raised walkways. I encountered several clearings that looked…suspicious. Devoid of trees or plants, they looked like giant patches of dirt, but branches would be sticking up every now and then, as if they had fallen into the earth. My brain worked to convince my heart that it was just wet, unstable soil, and not the quicksand we’re taught to fear as children.
I had entered the mangrove forests, and unknowingly chosen the longest path. The trees with the stilt-like roots became so thick, they would be impossible to cut through if I had left the path. The ground they were covering turned into shallow water, and it rippled and shimmered beneath the roots with the movement of wildlife. The rustling of leaves turned into the drip, drip of the water and the crash of distant waves, hinting that the coastline was near.
Excited to see the ocean from a hiker’s perspective, I soldiered on. Suddenly, the path broke out of the thick mangroves onto a narrow ledge that I was to follow directly on the beach, overlooking a bay. I had to watch my footing, as the ledge was covered in white pumice stones. Brilliantly, (read: stupidly), I picked up a pumice stone that reminded me of something right out of a Miyazaki film and put it in my purse, using the empty ziploc bag that had housed my recently eaten guava pastries. So, keep in mind, I now had a rock in my purse, with about 2.5 hours to go.
I continued down the coastline, still headed towards the eastern tip of the peninsula that jutted out into the Atlantic. I had yet to see another soul since the path split. There were some boats out in the bay, and as water carries sound so strongly, I could hear shouts and laughter of those on board. A giant, dome-like island loomed up at the entrance of the bay, blocking most of my view out into the Atlantic. It looked completely devoid of human activity, but lush with greenery.
The tree line soon disappeared, and I was at the Atlantic coastline at the end of the peninsula. The path quickly turned from relatively stable and straight to extremely rocky and narrow. The blue dots showing the way were now few and far between, and more than once did I become nervous that I was not actually following the correct trail. With all the rocks strewn everywhere, it was so hard to tell. But the scenery was breathtaking. The ocean crashed into the rocks on my right, and I was at the first of several small inlets that would characterize the coastline of the peninsula. By this time, the sun was beating down hard on my shoulders. I was thirsty, but my water was almost completely gone. Sweat drenched my shirt and shorts and dripped down my face. My hands would burn each time they had to touch the rock to help me over a particularly difficult ledge. I had never felt more alive.
But it was at this point I began to worry a bit. This was no easy jaunt through the woods – this was getting treacherous. I had no cell phone service, my water was almost gone, and I had greedily wolfed down my pastries in the mangroves. If this was the landscape I would be stuck in when the sun went down, it did not bode well. I picked up my pace a bit, though I still felt as if I was picking my way through the rocks so slowly.
The trail began to climb, as did my anxiety level. Yet suddenly, a voice. “Bonjour Madam!” I spun around, swinging sweat droplets in a neat arc, to see a man casually jogging up the steep incline towards me. Before I even registered, he was past me and continuing up the hill. He had barely broken a sweat. I stood there a moment, mouth agape – what a poor showing I was making, with my exhaustion and nerves. But how could he be that in shape? Was I hallucinating? This fear of hallucination wasn’t made any better when I encountered my first thirty foot cactus. “There are no cacti in the Caribbean!” I mused, drawing upon my extensive ecosystem knowledge of this foreign land.
I made it to the top of the cliffs, which is what I found out I was climbing. I was much higher than I thought I was, and at this point, because superman had gone well ahead, I was completely alone. The Atlantic pounded the rocks of the cliffs below with the deepest blue waves I’d seen yet in Martinique, and behind me, the island stretched out into the horizon. The sea wind felt so good on my sun-soaked skin, and I felt on top of the world. There is nothing else that I can say to describe that experience, except that there is a unique beauty in solitude and wilderness.
Off into the distance I could see that same lighthouse I had first spotted at Chateau Dubuc. It looked no closer – in fact, it looked farther away (it was), and I anxiously recalled that I would need to pass it before getting back to my car. Mild panic, as the sunlight was shifting to that deep gold that meant its source was beginning to sink lower.
I’m not exactly sure how I made it down that rocky coastline in such a state. I remember rushing over volcanic rocks, eyes wide whenever I saw signs touting the dangers of the cliffs and sheer drops into the rocky sea, from which there was no protection. The volcanoes had left strange rock formations – one boulder looking like a joystick right out of the ground, and others were out at sea in bizarre shapes, one called the “devil’s table”, perhaps because it would be so easy to sail into and resulting in shipwrecks. My favorite sight, that I wish I had more time to appreciate, was an inlet where the incoming waves had created a sort of oceanic cave into the cliff. It looked like it was right out of a pirates movie. If I could climb down the cliffs and into the caves, I’d find some lost city or trove of treasure. But this was not the time. I remember thinking that this whole situation was how hikers died on their travels – it does happen. No water, no cell service, no clue. The blue dots were so far apart – my anxiety levels reaching new heights every time it had been a while since I’d seen one, then the relief washing over me whenever one popped up unexpectedly on a random stone or branch.
The sun was setting on the other side of the island and I was in shadows now. Another hiker came up behind me at one point – a lone Frenchman in a yellow shirt. (Strange what details you remember). My fear of being caught out after dark overruled by fear of strange men in the middle of nowhere, and I asked him if he thought I could make it back before sunset. He looked at me and replied that I might be able to, but if I hurried. And then, hesitantly, “Are you foreign?” I nodded. He seemed shocked. “Why are you out here alone? As a foreigner?” I thought to myself, “wow, I have absolutely no idea, this is insane”, but responded aloud that I was “looking for adventure”. He inhaled deeply, paused, then shrugged, probably thinking “well, you found it”, or, more likely, “crazy Americans”.
He continued on at a quick clip and I upped my pace so I wouldn’t be too far behind him – some human contact had made me a bit more bold, and I didn’t want to lose it. The light was fading quickly. I tripped more than once over the rocky footing, and the thought of twisting my ankle and losing valuable time made me slow down, but not too much. Suddenly, over the crest of a hill, and the road was paved. This was the place I’d been looking for – the straight road that led from the old weather station across the mountain, past the lighthouse, back to the car park. I momentarily debated going to look at the weather station, but a cursory glance told me that it was pretty off limits. The rusty gates at the entrance made me feel like I was part of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot – the setting certainly fit, and I felt a bit like Lara Croft, if only in my optimistic, delusional exhaustion.
Although the road was paved which made my footing much surer, the path still climbed upwards. My thighs were screaming. I thought I was in shape, but this three hour trek was no joke. I cursed gravity until I remember that because of gravity, the hill had to eventually end. Someday. Somewhere. That positive thought kept me going.
I began to pass more and more people, either on their own casual walks or jogging. I suppose that many people come to park their car and just walk or jog up and down the paved path that makes up about 1/6th of the whole hike. They all seemed fresh as daisies, out for a calm evening stroll. I must have looked a picture, pouring with sweat and huffing and puffing as I passed by the other way.
I approached the turning for the lighthouse, and figured I’d made it this far, so I could afford to veer off a bit and see it. I climbed up to the top of the hill that jutted out of the forest where the lighthouse was placed. The lighthouse itself was closed, but I followed the steps that led around the back to the lookout area. Lo and behold, my yellow-shirted hiker friend was there to greet me. He seemed pleased that I had made it, but he couldn’t have been more pleased than me. We stood staring out over the island together for a while in silence, watching the sunset in the distance, the entire island between us and it. I rummaged in my pack for my phone for a picture, which he offered to take for me. He must have noticed my empty water bottle, and asked if I was thirsty. Immediately, visions of crystal clear water teased my imagination, and I would have given my left arm for a sip of water. Yet out loud, I mumbled “a bit, but I’m almost back to my car”. He offered me an entire water bottle. I tried to politely refuse, but he must have seen the deep desire in my eyes and didn’t take no as an answer.
That yellow-shirted man probably saved my life. That was some of the sweetest water I have ever tasted in my life. Just remembering how good that water tasted and how thirsty I was has me sipping cold water right now as I write this, just relishing the fact that I have water right here with me. An entire glass of that precious resource, which I’ll never be stupid enough to bring only a small bottle of on a three hour hike again.
I returned to my car and drove back to eat at the restaurant I had stopped at for lunch. I was more careful ordering dinner – no cuttlefish this time. I suppose I could have found a new eatery, but I didn’t think I could handle any more adventure for the day than was necessary. I had a glass of wine, coconut chicken and salad. My next test for the day was driving back home in the dark. It was a Saturday night, and drunk driving is a real problem in Martinique. Not to mention most of the drive was in the country, and pitch black through banana and sugarcane fields. With much holding of breath, I made it back safely, seeing several accidents and police chases en route.
And my final adventure of the day was in simply attempting to take a shower. I hopped in, at my most vulnerable (as you are when about to shower), and remember thinking how odd it was that part of the shower wall was moving. And there, swimming terrifyingly into focus, the largest cockroach I have ever seen in my life. Attempts to drown it in water was futile. The drops just bounced right off the exoskeleton as a minor annoyance. I had no desire to be brave, immediately caving and messaging Sara to come help me. She graciously came downstairs, saw the roach, and whacked at it a few times with her tiny flip flop. As it scurried away, she grabbed it with some toilet paper and took it outside. Her bravery next to my cowardice was laughable, but I suppose she must have been used to it. I’ll at least tell myself that. And I’ll be glad that the one obstacle I could not overcome that day was a roach in the shower, and not anything else out in the wilderness.