I adjusted my wide-brimmed hat to block the blinding early morning sun in front of me. The mud stuck to my boots like suction-cups with each step I took on an open path. Two tire-tracks were imprinted into the soft ground, evident of a vehicle having recently driven up the path. Beyond the various types of trees on either side of the trail, mountains rose over the top almost as if to peer down on from above.
This weekend I went on my first hike with the Institute Hikers group on Grenada. A group of local hiking and nature enthusiasts go on a hike once a month through various locations around the island. Many Peace Corps Volunteers here have participated in this group’s hikes in the past and it was a no-brainer for me to continue in that tradition.
We were on our way to see Mount St. Mitchell’s Waterfalls in the parish of St. Mark’s. Prior to beginning the hike, I had no idea what was going to be in store for me. But honestly, that’s almost the best way to approach a hike such as this one with a group of experienced locals who know the area well.
A short time after beginning the hike, a hillside dropped off to our left spilling into the valley of Grenadian mountainsides as the blue haze of the Caribbean Sea loomed in the distance. The open sky, however, soon gave way to a dense canopy over the trail. The patches of sunlight that came through the trees speckled the soft ground at our feet. A faint rush of water echoed through the trees off to our left. As we kept walking, however, the sound grew louder and louder as a rushing river appeared through the trees, running parallel to the trail. The path continued winding through the trees, rising and falling with the terrain but remaining loyal to the river on its left. We continued on until the river abruptly cut off the narrowed path in a sort of junction of streams. We clung to the rock-wall on our right before tactfully stepping out onto the rocks on the river. One-by-one, we danced across the rocks, careful of our footing to the point it seemed like we were playing a childhood game of “the floor is lava.”
After coming around to the other side, the path opened back up wide so as if to make way for a welcoming parade. The ground became soft again, my feet sinking and sliding with each step along the way. The trees continued to reach for the skies, the canopy of branches forming a tunnel around me. My pace slowed to a stroll as I must have looked like a high school senior visiting a college campus for the first time, taking in the new scenery with awe. The first wave of hikers was about thirty yards or so ahead of me, and the last wave was behind me. Consequently, at this point I found myself at a happy medium. For much of this leg of the hike I was on my own, out of sight from the rest of the group. Now, I was perfectly safe being on my own as the path was well-marked and the rest of the group was still in earshot if I called. However, the foliage of the bush around me was so dense it narrowed the path and those up ahead of me would disappear around every bend.
I enjoyed this part of the hike, particularly because of one thing that really stood out to me–the silence. Outside of my heavy breathing and the squishing of my boots in the mud, there was complete and utter silence. I paused frequently, taking in each stretch and appreciating the quiet, peaceful serenity it offered.
I wagered on, however, and pushed through the path that was now overcrowded with branches, leaves, vines, and fallen bamboo shoots. Light began to shine through the branches ahead, indicating an upcoming opening. Pushing through the last of the branches I stumbled into an open hillside. It felt like I had been dropped into a scene from an episode of Lost. The knee-high growth of foliage covered the hillside, with no clear path outside of the downtrodden foliage that everyone followed. The hillside was a part of the crease in which mountaintops peered down on us like gods all around us. A few, free-standing palm trees spotted an otherwise open field. At this time we paused, re-grouping ourselves for the last stretch of our hike to the falls.
Once re-grouped, we were on our way and like a snap of the fingers the terrain changed dramatically once again. Leaving the open hillside behind us, we immediately found ourselves crouching and ducking through a closed-in path with steep drops on either side of us. To the right you could hear another rushing river, but the foliage was so dense that you could not see it down below. We carried on, working around all the trees that blocked our way and began hiking down a narrow hill. Meticulously choosing our footing and relying on various branches and vines for balance, we managed to work our way down to the river without anyone falling in the mud. (That being said, there were a number of close calls).
Upon reaching the river, whereas beforehand we danced across the rocks so as not to get our feet wet, it was time to suck it up and hike through the water; as now, the river became our path. Ensuring each step was firm, we weaved our way through the fallen trees and rocks that riddled the river. This part of the hike was much like the last stretch to reach it, where the use of all fours was required in order to make sure you didn’t fall.
Shortly thereafter, a foul aroma of rotten eggs drifted through the air. I couldn’t help but wonder what could smell so bad in a place of such isolated beauty. However, what I soon realized was that we had reached our destination. At our destination there was not only a series of waterfalls, but a sulfur spring as well. The foul smell was coming from the sulfur, a nonmetallic element that is found in minerals and volcanic deposits in nature. There are sulfur springs hidden throughout the Eastern Caribbean islands, and visiting the sulfur springs was the one thing I failed to do during my time on St. Lucia.
Coming down from a rock ledge off to the right was one of the local hikers, caked in a shimmering gold substance that was the sulfur. He looked other-worldly. Once realizing he had found the sulfur spring, I climbed up around the rocks where a little stream and pool was collected. I reached down and scooped up the rough, clay-like substance of sulfur and rubbed it on my arms and face. Sulfur is supposed to have benefits for your skin, and so is widely-used for skin care purposes. It also added a beautiful touch to the nature that surrounded us, shimmering in the sunlight as its golden color cascaded down the rocks and into the water.
As I finished applying the sulfur to my face, a whirl of excitement erupted as cheers came from around the corner. I climbed down from the rock to find that the waterfall we reached had a natural slide to it. I watched eagerly as I saw a few of the hikers sit in the crevice of the rocks, letting themselves be taken by the river down the rocks and drop into the spring below. I quickly jumped in line and followed suit. A part of me was concerned it would be a bit of a ‘rocky’ ride to say the least, but it was just too exciting of an opportunity to pass up. To an extent the waterfall slide was rocky, bumping me around like a pinball as the water took me through the shimmering rocks before tossing me through the air into a deep spring. As I plunged into the cool water, the spring provided a soothing relief for my hot and aching body. One by one, the hikers took turns riding the waterfall slide into the spring as everyone cheered on.
Then off to the side, one of the other local hikers tethered a rope to a tree and tossed the line down the next set of waterfalls. At this point it came to my attention that not even this was the destination, as three or four more waterfalls continued like a staircase down the river. I took note of where the hikers placed each step as they carefully rappelled their way down and leapt into the next spring below. I picked up the rope and straddled it, meticulously working my way down the wet rocks and checking my footing with each baby step. After reaching the bottom and jumping into the next spring, the hikers tossed the end of the rope even further down; only this time, the rope went right through a waterfall. I was a bit baffled as I admirably watched them rappel down the waterfall effortlessly, even as the water was rushing so hard you couldn’t even see the rocks underneath their feet.
Taking a deep breath, I gripped the rope tightly and gave it a little tug to test its strength. Content with the strength of the rope, I slowly began my descent. I placed my foot delicately on the rock face on either side of me. With quiet, easy shuffles I worked my way into the waterfall itself. The white water rushed over the top of my boots as I lost sight of my feet beneath me. All my weight was entirely on the rope at this point, which right now was my only saving grace from a rocky fall to the bottom. I figured this is what Bear Grylls might feel like when he is filming an adventurous episode of Man vs. Wild. I was disappointed, however, as my GoPro camera wasn’t fully charged and ran out of battery earlier on the hike. Nonetheless, I slowly worked my way down the waterfall, but as I did so it became harder and harder for me to find solid footing. The rushing water was up to my ankles now and every step was a guess. I shifted my left foot down a little bit more, but as I did so the water swept my foot out from under me. I held my breath and braced for impact as I crashed into the heart of the waterfall. Clinging onto the rope, I tried to stick my head out from the rushing waters to catch a breath as the water pummeled me. As I did so, I took a glance down to see how far I was from the spring…I was not even a foot above it.
Realizing I was pretty much at the bottom, I simply turned my shoulders and let go of the rope, dropping into the pool. Upon surfacing the hikers that went ahead of me were laughing, and I laughed along with them. After all, I made it tremendously more difficult for myself by rappelling all the way to the bottom when I could’ve jumped in after going a third of the way like the others.
I swam through the rest of the spring and climbed out on the other side. Upon pushing myself up to my feet, I found myself standing at the top of another waterfall that was higher than the others. Word was that you can jump off the top, of which I was definitely interested in trying. But I waited for one of the other local hikers to go first, wanting to see how it should be done. He climbed down to a small ledge with two rocks sticking off the top, above of the water. Squatting down and then launching himself far out over the falls, he splashed into the water fifteen-twenty feet or so below. Now it was my turn, I carefully made my way down to the point he jumped from. Measuring the fall as I peered over the edge, I saw that the rockface slanted farther out than my jumping point. Consequently, I would have to make sure I jump out as far as possible because a normal jump would finish with a crash-land on the rocks and a probable trip to a hospital. Mustering all that I had, I counted to three and launched myself out as far as I could. I fell through the air, my weight falling forward as my arms flailed in circles. I splashed into the water right at the foot of the falls and narrowly avoiding a belly-flop finish.
Swimming to the end of the spring and climbing out, there was even still another waterfall that was highest of them all. But that final waterfall deemed the point where we cross the line as too dangerous to jump. Turning around, I look back up the staircase of waterfalls that I slid, rappelled, and jumped down. Trees of various sizes and shades of green surrounded the waterfalls on both sides. The raging white water cascaded down the rock crevices of the river, straddled by streaks of golden sulfur on either side.
Having grown up hiking and camping in various National and State Parks, I have always loved the adventure that comes from exploring our natural surroundings. There is a sense of serenity that comes with being isolated from the hustle and bustle of towns, cities, and people to instead be fully enveloped by nature in something bigger than yourself. The stillness of nature provides a necessary escape from the responsibilities and stresses of our often too-preoccupied lives. It provides a step-back into our origins, our roots. It is an escape to a world that doesn’t revolve around you. It’s a place where you can get lost, only to find yourself.
When I first learned that I would be coming down the Eastern Caribbean, it was only natural that I was excited to see and experience the beautiful beaches they’re so well-known for. However, the majority of my excitement was for the hikes, waterfalls, and natural springs that are the Caribbean’s hidden gems. I want to take advantage of every opportunity I am blessed with in my time here. Thus, in a tremendously short and busy seven weeks on St. Lucia, it was priority number one for me to hike to the summit of Gros Piton, of which I successfully accomplished. I have been on Grenada for just over two months now, and have just recently gone on my first hike. I look forward to the many more to come.