One of St. Vincent’s most interesting tourist attractions rising to three thousand eight hundred and sixty four (3864) feet high, Soufriere is one of the best examples of the volcanic formation found in the Caribbean.
There are two routes: via the Windward side, which is the more popular, or by the Leeward route, which starts at Chateaubelair and is longer and less-defined. The Windward route is clearly marked and leaves the coastal road at Rabacca.
The Rabacca Dry River drains the eastern slopes of La Soufriere and Mt. Brisbane and has become filled with volcanic sand and stones. It seeps through this porous fill and disappears underground about a mile upstream. The channel of this “dry river” was filled after large eruptions with scoriae and gravel underneath which the water disappeared underground as it neared the coast.
The climb to the peak is only for the energetic and takes a full day with hikers encouraged to leave early in the morning. In the morning you drive 2 – 1/2 miles through the banana and coconut plantations to Bamboo range, where the trail begins. The ascent into the crater is about three miles with the trail leading along steep volcanic ridges, verdant with bamboo and other tropical trees.
Soufriere has erupted many times since first recorded in 1812. There were a series of some twenty-five eruptions of the volcano over a matter of days in 1979, catching everyone by suprise. Today many enjoy hiking on the site.
Nearby Rabacca Farms, located at the base of Soufriere, is one of the largest single coconut estates in the world at 3200 acres. It is also a considerable producer of bananas, citrus fruits, spices, cola nuts, and aubergines.
St. Vincent’s La Soufriere shares with Mount St. Helen in the United States the distinction of being the most studied of volcanos. The two are also the same effusive type of volcano, although La Soufriere is a little smaller than Mount St. Helen.
From the rolling deck of the boat, St Vincent had the look of a magical island.
At eight o’clock in the morning, after a rough crossing from St Lucia, I came up from below and there in front of me were sheer cliffs rising majestically out of the ocean.
As we approached, the cliffs became rich, green slopes which dropped into steep ravines and impassable canyons. And towering above us, its peak shrouded mysteriously in cloud and with slopes clad in lush’ tropical rainforest, loomed Soufriere, the island’s volcanic summit.
The occasional small wooden house peeked out from the forest; boats dotted the rocky shore. Here was an island apparently untamed by the dreary run-of-the-mill tourism that has ruined so much of the Caribbean.
I spent the rest of the week sailing down the coast of St Vincent, the largest and, in many ways, least commercialised of the 30 islands that make up the Grenadines. But Soufriere had captured my imagination and I resolved to make a special trip to climb it. The volcano, standing 4,O48ft, is no dormant giant. It last erupted on Good Friday, April 13, 1979, when several thousand people had to be evacuated. The lava streams, although overgrown with vegetation, are still visible.
A large eruption in 1902 devastated crops, claimed 2,000 lives and formed the current crater. My plan was to take the tourist route up to the rim from the east, and then follow a far less used trail all the way down to the sea at Richmond Beach on the north-west coast.
I could have stayed in one of the small hotels and guest houses clustered around Young Island at the southern tip of St Vincent, but I decided to be more adventurous and headed instead for an idyllic bay I’d spotted from the boat during my cruise. It proved an inspired decision for here, in a valley accessible only from the sea, I discovered Petit Byahaut, the ultimate tropical hideaway.
This small (seven rooms), low-key, eco-friendly resort is owned by two welcoming and accommodating Canadians, Chuck and Sharon, who toured the Caribbean for two years before settling on this site. They sent a taxi to pick me up from Kingstown the island’s capital, and I was whisked through its bustling centre past a lively market, some fine 19th Century stone ware-house buildings and the elaborate cathedral of St Mary’s.
The taxi followed a meandering road as far as a wooden landing stage at Clare Valley where a motorboat took me the final mile around the headland to Petit Byahaut. I scrambled ashore in time for lunch. My new home was a luxury straight-sided tent, pitched on a timber deck. It had mosquito nets, a large bed and cotton sheets. I had an outdoor deck with a hammock, table and chairs – and my first outdoor bathroom. I discovered, to my relief that the loo really did flush and that the rampant foliage made everything very discreet.
Solar panels on the corrugated metal roof over my ‘room’ provided hot water for the outdoor shower. It was all very novel and I soon got used to using a rock as a soap dish and a bit of driftwood as a towel rail. I asked Chuck and Sharon for help in arranging my trek up Soufriere and then, after a massive dinner of fresh fish by candlelight overlooking the perfect bay, I fell into my tent and slept from 10 until 8 o’clock next morning!
There was toasted home-made cinnamon bread and fresh fruit for breakfast. In the afternoon I joined a small group whose boats had been moored in our bay for a hike along the Vermont Nature trail where we hoped to see the rare St Vincent parrot, now only found deep in the rainforest.
Elroy was our cheerful guide and, after a 30 minute drive into the mountains, we started the walk up a well maintained trail deep into the forest with almost sheer slopes above us.
We walked for two hours, climbing around 5OOft in the steaming heat. Around us massive trees shaded giant ferns, and as we followed a river-bed I heard some loud squawking and saw the distinctive yellow bands and dark green bodies of a pair of parrots.
Elroy pointed out dozens of native trees and flowers: wild hibiscus, air plants, majestic mahoe trees. He told me that apart from bananas, the big new crop was arrowroot revived for use in the manufacture of computer paper.
At a wooden look-out platform we waited silently for 15 minutes and more parrots emerged in the late afternoon sunlight. I returned to Petit Byahaut to discover plans were not yet finalised for my trek. According to Sharon, eco-tourism is in its infancy here and even the simplest plans can take ages to organise. Everything is geared to people who want mini-walks, not adventures like me.
I was disappointed but soon mellowed after a couple of rum punches and half bottle of good red Chilean wine. It was a windy night and I awoke at 1.30, then drifted off again to be woken by Chuck telling me Sharon had a new plan for me – a visit to the spectacular trinity falls.
With Elroy again acting as my guide, I was dropped off up the coast where a taxi took us on a 90 minute drive through villages of wooden houses perched higgledy-piggledy on the hillsides and, every now and then, atop its own hill, a white-painted, middle-class home with wrought iron shutters. Children filed past, immaculate in their school uniforms.
We climbed above the bays at Cumberland and then Wallilabou, where several yachts were moored. At Richmond Plantation we stopped and Elroy and I set off on a trail to a gorge where three small waterfalls cascaded into a pool while a larger cataract emptied into another pool below.
This was Trinity falls, a giant natural Jacuzzi, the water bubbling with air and the currents swirling around. I clung to a boulder: It was like bathing in fizzy, warm mineral water -very exhilarating.
Eating our picnic on a rock, we tried to catch the baby crayfish that lurked under stones, and dozens or grey mullet about six inches long fought over my breadcrumbs and even nibbled from my fingers.
The occasional rock hurtled down the sheer sandy rock face opposite – a sign warns you not to go too close.
On the way back to Petit Byahaut our taxi driver, Robert, stopped at Mount Wynne Bay where I went for a swim. Because St Vincent is a volcanic island the beaches are mainly black sand, not the pristine white of other Grenadine islands such as Bequia or Mustique. But they are invariably deserted and the water is crystal clear. In a field nearby I saw a large rock called the Calendar Stone, covered with faint carvings, cut by Arawaks or Caribs thousands of years ago.
The following day I rose early’ to meet Clint, my guide for the trek up Soufriere. Like me, Clint was born in Fulham, but he now lives and works on St Vincent, his parents’ birthplace, running a small tour business.
We drove through the Kingstown rush hour and up the rugged Windward Coast, where the undertow on the wonderful beaches is too strong for swimming. Rocky headlands reminded me of Cornwall with palm trees. A small church clung to the top of a promontory. Rundown Georgetown was once the centre of the sugar industry. Now molasses are imported to make the local rum. We picked up another guide, Springer, who works for the local forestry expert. A fanatical twitcher, he was able to identify birds simply from their call and wrote down their names for me in a little notebook.
We turned inland and drove up through the Rabacca banana plantation. When the road ran out we left Clint’s friends to drive the car all the way back around the island to meet us.
I had stowed my lunch, home-made by Clint, in my rucksack -two giant chicken rotis, wrapped in an insulating cloth, home-made fudge and two bottles of water (very important).
We set off up a well-marked trail through tropical rainforest teeming with flowers. It was a relentless slope, and even I, Miss Fit, was soon sweating profusely. My dark glasses steamed up with the effort and my T-shirt was dripping. Just as I felt I was getting acclimatised the path became even steeper, laid with bamboo steps. Apparently there are 161 of them, but I wasn’t counting.
Gradually we rose out of the forest, the vegetation became more shrub-like and we crossed a dry stream bed to make the final ascent up a bleak eroded lava field spread with a carpet of tiny flowers, ferns and mosses, all miraculously clinging to life in this exposed place. The temperature had dropped sharply and there was a strong wind.
Gingerly we branched off the main path, striking off to the east to take us to the edge of the oldest crater. I slipped into a fissure in the rock and discovered it was like a little moist pocket – many tiny frogs and grasshoppers were living in it.
Most tourists head straight up the trail, look down into the main crater and head straight back, but our route was far more spectacular. The older crater lay to the side of the main one, like a shelf at a higher level. In it, about 200ft below, sat a lake.
Showers came and went, and clouds funnelled up and down. It is possible to make a complete circuit of the volcano but not in bad weather or high winds. We headed west around the main crater, passing a sweaty group of pot-bellied American tourists staring down into it.
Following the rim meant climbing steep slopes and then inching down again. I was extremely glad I’d brought Clint’s stick.
Inside the crater was a hot core of giant boulders with sulphurous steam rising up. Around the core was a flatter section, bright green in places where moisture was accumulating. At one point a metal stake had been concreted into the rim and ropes dropped down into the crater 300ft or so below.
They are used by seismologists regularly, monitor Soufriere’s activity. Tempting though it was, I decided not to descend – I would have needed gloves to abseil down, and I didn’t fancy the slog back up with a rucksack.
We sat and ate our lunch out of the wind and a little further on a path struck off to the north-west, following a wide bare ridge down into the forest, I could see 15 miles in all directions and both coastlines. It was an exhilarating spot, the rugged landscape certainly the equal of the Himalayas.
Our descent started slowly, slipping and sliding over tiny loose rocks, following a dusty narrow trail. Then shrubs gave way to trees and we were on a narrow ridge. The earth had been terraced and calaloo-a delicious spinach-like vegetable-was being cultivated.
On the opposite slopes I could see the marijuana plantations in cleared areas of forest.
Four Rastafarians had passed us on the way up with their crop in plastic bundles on their heads. The smell had been overpowering. The growers use a secret network of trails to take the drugs down to the coast and boats or the next person in the chain of sale.
We didn’t see anyone else for hours and the trail remained dusty and slippery, with patches of welcome shade. Then we dropped down to a narrow canyon which opened out to a boiling hot dried-up riverbed.
Finally we were on a deserted beach and a little sign saying ‘Soufriere Trail’. I walked south along it about a mile, crossed the babbling Wallibou river and into the shade of the trees on Richmond Beach, where our car was waiting. I’d done it. Hurrah!
I drank two large mugs or fruit punch and went for a solitary swim on the wide beach – the perfect end to my adventure. Back to the car for a celebratory rum punch or two and I handed Springer 25 US dollars for a St. Vincent Forestry Reserve T-shirt.
It arrived in the post a few days ago and its design, incorporating a parrot, a volcano, water, clouds and trees, will long be a colourful reminder of my blissful five days in paradise.