12. January 2023

Dominica: Nature paradise

Finally, the real Caribbean again! That’s my first thought as we drop anchor in Prince Rupert Bay in the northwest of Dominica. We are immediately greeted by local fishermen offering buoys, fish, vegetables and everything else.

After endless shopping weeks in Martinique with its French package tourists, catamaran charter strongholds and European flair, I had longed to finally leave this France in the Caribbean. After all, we are in the Caribbean to get to know new and different things.

But now back to the beginning. Approach anchorage. I am at the helm, Karin is getting the anchor ready at the bow, when I hear a beep. A beeping I already know: The engine reports overheating! No, again?! Throttle back and short check: Seawater pump works, so this time it’s not the V-belt. Temperature still just under 100°C, uncritical one could say. A decision must be made. Continue, anchor in as short a time as possible and keep the engine temperature under control or set the genoa and cruise under sail in the bay until I have fixed the issue? I decide on the first option and hope for the best.

At standing throttle we creep deeper into the bay and the depth gauge still reports 25m depth. Dominica is a volcanic island with steeply sloping coasts. We have already been warned that anchoring here is not the easiest exercise. Then suddenly the alarm goes silent and I notice with relief that the engine temperature has dropped slightly. Uncritical now for the moment, we can concentrate again on anchoring, which then also succeeds without problems in just under 10m depth.

View of the sleepy town of Portsmouth, in the north of Dominica

Already from the anchorage we can make out the small, colorful houses, past the masses of multi-story residential and vacation concrete blocks. Instead, lush green wherever you look, sparse development, crystal clear water, high mountains and, unfortunately, a few trash fires.

Dominica is a largely untouched natural paradise, far from mass tourism and our otherwise familiar, highly developed environment. Actually, only cruisers, hikers and divers stray here to the north to Portsmouth, in the capital Roseau, located to the south, also small cruise ships moor from time to time.

We came here to experience Dominica’s unique nature in the Caribbean. There are nine volcanoes, three lakes and 365 rivers. The highest peak of Morne Diablotin is 1447 meters above sea level and the rainforest stretches all the way to its top. Due to the many high mountains, clouds constantly hang over the island, making for two rainy seasons. In winter it rains less than in summer. And why the island is so green, we soon realize. Not a day goes by without several, short, intense rain showers.

We are here with my mother and the crew of SV My Motu and together we will explore Dominica for a few days with a local guide. So we book Kish, who was highly recommended to us by other cruisers. She will show us the highlights of the island. That means: lots of nature and hiking in various places, waterfalls and local cuisine and also lots of history(s) from and about Dominica.

Before we start, I want to clarify the cause of the engine overheating. The seawater side of the cooling circuit is fine, also the pump on the coolant side is doing as it should. My new main suspect: the thermostat. When this no longer opens correctly, the coolant is only pumped past the radiator through the bypass and thus no longer cooled in the heat exchanger. To be sure I will remove the thermostat in the coming days, clean it and test it.

Northwest round with Kish

We meet Kish the next morning in Portsmouth, the small town in Prince Rupert Bay. She is already waiting with her van, in which we will be traveling for the next five days. She greets us warmly, but then shoos us into the van so that we can move forward. After only five minutes we stop and are served a Dominican breakfast by Kish. Lard pastries with tuna, for me there’s the mushroom version, plus sweet, creamy cocoa tea.

Kish points across Prince Rupert Bay

Kish points across Prince Rupert Bay
While we are eating contentedly, Kish gives us our first history lesson, and it’s already clear from the way she tells it: this woman has it all, and the coming days with her are sure to be super entertaining and incredibly funny. If you want to hear Kish and our Dominica adventures in original sound, then listen to BoatCast 23. Kish is, like most on the island, a “Chocolista”, as she proudly points out, a mixture of descendants of African slaves, the Caribs who originally lived here, and she also has English and French blood flowing in her veins, after all, the English and French also fought over Dominica, with the British finally winning. Dominica has been independent since 1978. The approximately 70,000 inhabitants speak English and especially the older ones still Creole.

Our first hike in Cabrits National Park takes us one bay further into Douglas Bay and then on to Fort Shirley. From here we have a gigantic view into the south of the country, the fort itself is surrounded by rainforest and looks absolutely out of place. Much too dressed up and neat it is probably mainly the demands of cruisers.

So now I like to drive with our colorful troop deeper into the island, off the beaten path, as they say. We meet Aubrey Bynoe at the UpFarm n the mountains of Dominica’s north. He and his wife started from scratch after the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017, buying a piece of land here and building a permaculture farm. You can listen to his story and other emigrant stories in BoatCast Episode 24.

The soil is fertile, thanks to the island’s volcanoes. “Spit on the ground and a plant will grow,” is the popular saying. The flora is incredible. Everything is bright to neon green, plants of all kinds grow everywhere and most of them are gigantic in size. Ferns are the size of German apple trees and trees are so tall that you have to crane your neck to see their crowns.

Aubrey Bynoe has created a permaculture garden with his wife

After a long tour on the farm and a final smoothie, we drive further inland to hike to the Syndicate waterfall. After about an hour we reach the waterfall in the middle of rainforest. We can hardly get enough of the intense green of the forest that perfectly frames the waterfall. I let the drone go up, and from the bird’s eye view this natural landscape looks even more perfect and complete.

Syndicate waterfall

On the way to the Indian River, the next highlight, Kish continues to tell us about the land. Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit the island hard in 2017. Ninety percent of all buildings were completely or partially destroyed, all plantations and much of the forest were destroyed, and the largest employer, Ross University, a private American university and a major employer on the island, was closed and moved to another country. The university buildings are still standing, but they are empty, and much of the equipment has been looted. Those who had worked at the university – Kish also worked there in security – lost their jobs and with them many other businesses that had done business thanks to the students: supermarkets, restaurants, student housing, apartments for visitors…. The list is long.

Unemployment rose to new levels as a result, Kish says, and so did poverty. Dominica is not a rich country, but no one goes hungry. Everyone has a home because there is plenty of space and cohesion, but few people. And food is given directly by nature, even in times of need. Fruits hang everywhere, avocados and vegetables sprout from the ground. To earn money, however, many had to come up with something new. Kish took the opportunity to reorient herself and started working as a tourist guide, founded a restaurant and a small laundry.

Uhu, our man for the Indian River

At the Indian River, Andrew, better known as Uhu, welcomes us on his fishing boat. Kish serves a round of Rum Punch, a mixture of local BB Rum and Pink Grapefruit juice. Then Uhu rows us into the mangroves where the second part of “Pirates of the Caribbean” was filmed. Not without pride, he tells us how he helped as oarsman and feeder during the filming. In the film to see, however, he is not. Since Kish’s mixture is strong and our stomachs are empty, we unfortunately don’t give Uhu the attention he deserves. Kish talks mainly about black penises and Karin is surprisingly buzzed after two sips.

The mangroves of the Indian River

After dinner together in Douglas Bay and more sausage talk, as Kish calls her coarse remarks, we drive back on Mabul and fall exhausted into bed. I don’t waste any more thought on the engine thermostat today.

Northeast round with Kish

The next morning it’s back to the beach and into the van. The program sounds tight: volcano, waterfall, beach, goat farm, chocolate “factory”, sugar cane mills, Red Rocks and dinner.

Dominica is home to nine of the 19 volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean, we drive up to Cold Soufriere in the north to the crater rim and descend into the crater from there. Even in the crater it grows and thrives like in a fairyland. This volcano, as well as all the others on Dominica, have not erupted in tens of thousands of years because they all have natural venting valves, Kish tells us. In some places, they are simply holes in the ground; in others, they feed warm sulfur baths. The crater floor of Cold Soufriere is gray and in some places water or mud has collected, everywhere it bubbles in and out of the ground and it smells beastly of rotten eggs, or more precisely, of sulfur. One looks for lava or fire here in vain.

We continue to the next waterfall. From the parking lot we walk over hill and dale, through lush rainforest vegetation to a small valley near the Atlantic coast. The humidity is extremely high, the path slippery. In general, everything here is always wet everywhere. No wonder that everything is so green. After about an hour we reach the spectacular Bwa Nef waterfall. It must have eaten through the lava rock for thousands of years. In the crevice above our heads is a huge boulder. It would only have to turn and it would come crashing down.

Bwa Nef Waterfall

On our drives along the Atlantic coast, we stop every now and then to enjoy the incredible views over the rugged cliffs with enclosed beaches in between. Everything looks as if it is exactly as nature has produced it. Only at a closer look you can see isolated clusters of houses.

View of Calibishie Bay

We drive to Number 1 Beach, also here scenes for Pirates of the Caribbean 2 were shot. Again we find pure nature, no houses, food stalls, vendors or tourists. We plunge into the high Atlantic waves and enjoy the bath in the wild, bubbling water.

But the highlight of the Atlantic coast are the Red Rocks. This is the name of a cooled lava flow that flowed directly into the ocean here. The whole formation has an intense rust or copper color and surfaces abraded by wind and weather. You can hardly see any vegetation.

Red Rocks at dusk

After this tight, but still totally relaxed day, we go for drinks and dinner still in the middle of nowhere. The Rum Punch is an exquisite creation and I even get something other than side dishes for dinner! Kish does a dream job! We see a lot, but it never seems hectic and she responds to all our wishes.

Christmas! Or also: South round with Kish

Christmas! Wow, really now? We’re going to keep it American this year and not do the gift madness until tomorrow, although in our case it’s not really madness. For now, we’re off to the south of Dominica, more specifically to Middleham Falls. Again we hike for about an hour until we get there, again it’s incredibly beautiful, but the falls are completely different from the others we’ve seen so far. They are multi-tiered and smaller and nestled in a round valley.

Middleham Fall

After a proper snack, we head back to the van and on to Titou Gorge. Also here a waterfall is waiting at the end, also here scenes to Pirates of the Caribbean were shot, but still everything is different again. Hiking is not possible here, but we have to swim into the gorge to get to the waterfall at the end. Moreover, the river originates from a spring and is accordingly cold! We grit our teeth, jump in and swim through the estimated 10 meter high and partly only 1 meter wide crevice. Above our heads the leaves and branches of the rain forest hang into the crevice, only here and there the blue sky flashes through.

What we need after the refreshing excursion is something warm, and what would be better than a hot sulfur bath? Kish takes us to her favorite “thermal bath” and manages to get the owner to open up for us, even though it’s Christmas Eve. The water is wonderfully warm and the smell is bearable.

Warming up in the natural sulfur bath

Pleasantly exhausted, we go to a small beach restaurant right at the dinghy dock for Christmas dinner and look forward to a quiet, next day without a program.

Gifts and boat work

Sleep in! Drinking coffee in peace! We start our day off relaxed and there are also a few little things to exchange. My mother had even brought a small Christmas tree in proper style.

Giving presents on the water

Then, however, the boat everyday life catches up with me fast and I disassemble the thermostat unit of the engine. To test the thermostat, I put it in a water bath and heat the whole thing on the stove. While doing this, I constantly check the water temperature and hope that the valve of the thermostat does not open. Then the fault would be clearly found and I know what to do. Of course it comes differently and the thermostat opens as specified just below 80°C slowly. Crap! Somehow…

I clean the thermostat as best I can, reassemble everything, check the flow again with the engine running, but idling. Everything does as it should. Now it’s time to test it while driving with normal load. Probably the heat exchanger itself is simply dirty or partially clogged. But that’s a topic for later, the Youtube videos don’t make me want to do more of that.

Batibou Bay

After our rest day we continue with Kish. Today we want to go to Batibou Bay. Beach day with picnic, drinks and swimming. Again a lonely dream beach at the Atlantic coast is waiting for us. Directly on the beach grow coconut palms and behind them begins a dense forest. An incredible scenery, you could stay the whole day and just look out to sea.

The perfect beach

Back on Mabul we enjoy a sundowner in the cockpit, when a fisherman comes with his boat and calls: “Hey guys! Glad you’re here and enjoy the sunset!” As quickly as he came, he is gone again. This island and especially its inhabitants are so honest and positive!

Waitukubuli National Park

Fifth day with Kish. Once again we go into the rainforest today. We hike on narrow trails from Syndicate through the rainforest back to the university. Again we are fascinated by the flora and fauna of this land. Here, too, everything is wet, muddy and slippery. Kish already announced that today definitely one of us will land on his ass.

Kish in trekking dress

After walking along a ridge for some time, we now start the steep descent into the valley below. We can already make out a banana plantation and also the whole Prince Rupert Bay can be seen.

It does not take long and it catches my mother in a particularly steep piece. She lands softly in the growth and mud. No problem just a little dirty. She will not be the only one…

In a moment it goes downhill again…

After four hours of mud and sweat we all arrive at the banana plantation without major injuries. From there it is a stone’s throw to the main road where Kish’s van is already waiting for us. Today she will come to Mabul for dinner and there will be “white people’s food”, more precisely risotto from Karin.

We have an incredibly fun evening, the BB rum is flowing copiously and Kish starts to explain to us how the dating thing works here. You can listen to some of the dirty details in BoatCast Episode 24.

Sundowner before “white people’s food” is served.

The next morning, as I’m making a repair in the belly of Mabul, I hear shouts outside. First I think it’s Hamilton again, who wants to sell vegetables from the market. Then I look into the cockpit and can hardly believe my eyes. Three fishermen are pulling our dinghy behind their boat, obviously looking for its home. I ask them what’s going on, where they got our dinghy. “We saw it drifting out near Douglas Bay and now we want to bring it back,” one answers. Still somewhat speechless, I accept the line, thank them profusely, and want to make my way down to get rum or money. But by then they are already turning away, still shouting “Blessings!”

What a contrast to the French islands! If you forget to lock your dinghy there, it’s your own fault, Tony from SV Utopia III once told me. In fact, it seems to be the order of the day that dinghies get lost, especially in the area around Le Marin in Martinique. Here it is different.

Underwater worlds

Finally, another highlight: we go diving! It’s our first real dive since we left with Mabul in August. Unbelievable actually, we finally need a second dive tank to become more independent.

Dive guide Fabian picks us up from the boat and we drive to the next bay. I have probably never dived so uncomplicated before. He doesn’t want to see logbook or certificates. After a short briefing we jump into the water and dive down. The visibility is incredible! Crystal clear water, the likes of which we have never seen in Southeast Asia, and a coral garden stretching across a gently sloping plain. The corals are all intact, no bleaching to be seen. This is thanks to the cool fresh water of the rivers, Fabian explains later. It is also teeming with life.

Crystal clear water and lots of life

Fabian goes hunting for lion fish. They apparently spread like the plague here, which is why the government allows their hunting. Fabian spears them with his harpoon and puts them in a bucket that he drags along. Back home, he plans to freeze them to make a big barbecue for his dive students someday. While Fabian hunts, Karin and I explore the fish and coral world, following Fabian at some distance. For experienced divers this is very pleasant, but for beginners I would not necessarily recommend such a thing.

A buffer fish is watching us

During our two dives we get to see a lot: Octopus, moray eels, lobsters, barracudas, reef fish of all colors and shapes. More underwater photos can be found in this gallery.

With this colorful dive in memory we lift anchor the next morning and set sail. Next destination: Guadeloupe, more precisely Les Saintes. Here we will celebrate together with the crew of SV Take 5 into the new year.

You can find more photos from Dominica in this gallery.

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