Canyoning on Dominica

Hilary and I spent the New Year on the island of Dominica, a small island nation in the eastern Caribbean. On the 2nd of January we took a canyoning trip with Ti Nath Kanion. Nathalie, the proprietor and guide, did a great job. The trip was easy to arrange via e-mail, once I figured out what the email was. And despite some issues with the web form there was adequate communication to get the job done.

I didn’t ask, but base on the dreadlocks and “Lion of Judha” sticker on her SUV I’m guessing Nathalie is a Rastaferian, or something like it. Dominica is mostly Catholic, but there were plenty of Rastaferians in evidence, and I saw a handbill warning against the dangers of voodoo, so I assume there is a moderate amount of heterodoxy about. Nathalie is an energetic French woman in her forties. She has been doing this for many years, and seen the river reshape the canyon many times.

She was already taking two people on this trip, leaving no room in her vehicle for two more, so we followed her into the mountains in our rental Land Rover. This was my first experience with the inland mountain roads in Dominica and they make the coast road look like a superhighway. They are not much better than bad logging roads in BC, with even more extreme hills and switchbacks, and more frequent wash-outs and diversions. There are many places where it is a struggle to get up the hill (and around the corrner at the same time) and many other places where the downhill grade is roller-coaster steep. The landscapes were gorgeous but I mostly caught glimpses while keeping the car on the road.

There was a transient detour required by a garbage truck being slowly loaded while stopped square in the road, and if I hadn’t been able to follow Nathalie back to Roseau at the end of the trip I would still be driving in circles and into dead ends somewhere the mountains.

Canyoning is the enterprise of climbing down river canyons. The Ti Tou Gorge is “suitable for beginners”, apparently, although it was quite an experience regardless. The river was running moderately after being impassable due to heavy rains last week. It can apparently rise five meters in an hour, and there are very few emergency climb-ups to get away from the rising water. To be “true” canyoning, according to Nathalie, it should be impossible to escape without going through. It is no surprise Nathalie is also a caver, spending the late summer and fall of Dominica’s hurricane season as a cave guide in France.

Frigate birds are circling in the sky, over the sparkling blue water, as I write this sitting on the veranda of the public library in Roseau, Dominica’s capital.

The first rappel was relatively simple: a straight drop on the rock down to a deep pool that you could splash off the end of the rope into. Getting to it required a roped traverse over the river, which is only a few feet wide in most places when it is low. At the trailhead–where there is room for over half a dozen vehicles to park with no problem–we got geared up in thin wetsuits over our bathing suits, and then into sit harnesses.

All the gear is supplied except water shoes or similar. The hiking part of the trip is pretty lightweight, so water shoes will do fine. They must have a closed toe for protection, though.

Nathalie is very safety-conscious. The gear was in good shape, each sit harness had double carabiners on one metre pigtails, as well as a heavy descender that goes on last, after Nathalie has inspected your harness for snugness and correctness. There was also a good sturdy helmet for each of us. Nathalie had to work to get hers on over her dreadlocks.

Then the traverse to the first rappel, and down we go!

This was Hilary’s first time on a rope, and she did very well. I watched from the pool below as she descended, and then we swam together to the rocks on the downstream side as the other couple–youngsters from Birmingham–came down, followed by Nathalie herself, after looping the rope she could bring it down after.

For our descents, Nathalie kept the tail of the rope in her hand until we were half way down, so if we did slip she could catch us. Lower than half way that wasn’t possible, but then, the fall wouldn’t be so great, either.

Dominica has no helicopter, so if you fall and break something, be prepared for a difficult extraction and hope your fellow canyoners have strong backs. The waiver you sign at the start is quite thorough, and includes a bold statement at the end, “You acknowledge that the Government of Dominica is not responsible for anything.” Really.

The first rappel completed, we came to the first–and likely the highest–jump. Due to rains the previous week, the river had risen and fallen since Nathalie’s last trip. Therefore one of us had to rappel down and check for underwater obstacles–trees or rocks–that might have washed down to make the jump dangerous. The jump is over the falls and about four metres, leaping out past the white water at the bottom. Nathalie wants to see everyone do a shallow jump back into the pool we had just rappelled down into to ensure good, safe style, which in this case is legs together, knees relaxed and a bit bent, arms close to the body. The idea is to be ready for anything you might land on, and not have your arms sticking out to catch on anything like a tree branch that might be lurking on the periphery.

Hilary volunteered to rappel down and check the bottom, wearing swimmer’s goggles under her helmet for the purpose. After she had signaled the all clear I jumped, plunging into the deep water beyond the splash zone around the falls. Glorious.

The Birminghams jumped as well, and Nathalie came down more sedately, and we moved on down to the next section.

I can’t go through the descent section by section because it is all blurred together in my mind, one amazing experience after another. We free rappelled down a waterfall, which was an experience. Feet off the rock, water pounding on my head, unable to see up, down or sideways. You just keep on descending, keeping both hands on the rope, until clear of the fall and the rocky shelf below appears.

The views are ridiculous. I didn’t take a camera, and am not much of photographer in any case, but the deep rock cuts and twisting water falls and swirling pools are burned into my memory. There was one point on a free rappel when I drifted through three hundred sixty degrees in mid-air, taking in the fall and the rock and the jungle and the sky. It was incredible.

One fall has a deep hole at the bottom where the rock is being ground away. We had instructions not to descend into it, but land on the rock adjacent and clamber down, as the hole might contain rocks or trees. By its appearance it might well have been the lair of some monster of the river, which would rise up to consume all as we descended. Either that or beg for a pat on the nose and a cookie. It is a surreal landscape, and I expect surreal things to happen there.

Several of the jumps were into water only two meters deep or so, which Nathalie recommended we do in a “bombe”, which I would call a “cannonball”. That was an abundance of caution, as the water was plenty deep in all places. It never hurts to take care, though.

The river had changed since the last time she had traversed it, before the rains of the previous week. There was a large rock blocking one narrow passage that we had to scramble over. It had been rolled into place during the high water. There was also a fixed traverse rope that had worn to the point of replacement, so we paused while Nathalie swapped it with a new one she had brought along. Sailors and climbers use almost completely different knots, and although my climbing days are long behind me I recognized enough to know Nathalie was doing the job of tying things on properly.

The trip lasted almost three hours. There were pauses while the rest of the party descended, but it was pretty much continuous motion. The water was below body temperature and it did feel a little cold to some of the party after a couple of hours. I have an internal furnace that is set permanently to “High”, so it bothered me less, but the wetsuit was a definite comfort.

This is a lovely library, full of books. On a rack adjacent to me there is a tome called “The Wisdom of the Ancients” above a history of Berlin in 1945, beside a history of the Victorians, with a scattering of Clive Cussler, Jack Higgins and Elizabeth George in between. I want to be fourteen again and read them all, safe and secure in this sacred space, knowing they were opening up the greater world, but never guessing they would lead me to a place where I would rappel and swim and jump down a deep river gorge surrounded by tropical jungle with a woman who loves me.

There was one deep pool near the bottom of the gorge that had water dripping over the cliff-top far above. Streams of droplets fell lazily under the force of gravity through the almost still air, spreading out as they fell, taking well over a second to fall the thirty meters or so to the surface of the pool. They broke up as they fell, shedding mist that was wafted in all directions by the gentlest of breezes. And the lines of falling droplets wobbled under the influence of the turbulent rills they were born from, the squiggly pattern of the water across the rock being reproduced and amplified in the stream that fell. It was magical.

At the bottom, just past a fragile natural bridge of stone, we paused for a drink and a snack, and hiked about twenty minutes up a relatively easy path to get back to our starting point. While we were taking off our gear, before she even had her wetsuit off, Nathalie stuck a cigarette in her mouth and lit it up. This is possibly the most French thing I have ever seen.

Many things were wonderful about this trip to Dominica, including some truly fantastic skin diving where I saw an eagle ray, a fair-sized lobster, a puffer fish (unpuffed, and I did not disturb it) and more. But this trip down Ti Tou Gorge was easily the outdoor highlight of the trip, full of beauty and adventure. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who is is decent physical shape, not afraid of a jump or two (all the jumps are optional, but so much fun!) and willing to take a little reasonable risk for an unreasonably beautiful experience.

About TJ

Scientist, engineer, inventor, writer, poet, sailor, hiker, canoeist, father.
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