The Road to Nowhere: Driving into the Unknown in Dominica

I felt a knot of excitement develop in my stomach as land came into view outside my round plane window. I could see a roughed coastline which consisted of a mixture of black boulders and valiant cliff-faces. The shoreline was wild and remote. I couldn’t see a single hint of development. In-between rocky outcrops lay hidden black-sand beaches, backed by tall, spindly palms.

Dominica.

I first laid eyes on this island exactly 10 years ago. It was an unexpected and fleeting visit. Whilst journeying from the small island of Anguilla to Barbados, we had a stop-off in Dominica. I had gazed in awestruck wonder out of my plane window as our tiny plane navigated through deep valleys coated in dense jungle. I felt like I was in a scene from Jurassic Park, coming in to land on a completely uninhabited and untouched island.

Landing had been an experience in itself. We angled this way and that, out of the way of high peaks, almost as if completing some form of acrobatics.

In that moment, I vowed that one day I would visit the island.

Well, that day had finally arrived.

We were coming in to Dominica from a different angle this time, hitting it from the coast instead of journeying over the north of the island. This meant that the views were few and far between, especially if you were sitting on the right of the plane which, of course, I was.

As a result, I didn’t see Dominica until we were practically there.

I soaked up the view of the coastline and watched as huge waves buffeted the rocky shores. Behind the forests were majestic mountains of a variety of shapes and sizes, one after another, turning into a mass of green which extended over the horizon.

The sky was dark and the faint haze which lay in front of the island told me it was raining pretty heavily.

Storm Karen had headed north after grounding flights in Barbados. This must have been the remnants of per passing.

The runway lay beside the coast, shielded only by a few rocks. Before I knew it, we were hovering just above the runway before coming down with an almighty crash. We were lifted into the air momentarily once more before thundering down again. It wasn’t the most gracious of landings.

I gazed at the vibrant green hill that lay beside the runway, a row of palms perched atop. Their outlines were bright as their brown trunks contrasted greatly with the black clouds behind.

The airport was a small orange building – exactly the same as it had been 10 years ago. In front of it were two tiny planes. We were the only plane on the runway which appeared to be in operation.

Dominica doesn’t have an international airport. Instead the island houses two airports which domestic aircrafts can access: Cane Field airport in the south west, just outside of the island’s capital of Roseau and Douglas-Charles Airport in the north east, where we currently were.

I later learnt that Douglas-Charles Airport was built in 1958 on the only flat land on the entire island.

As we descended the stairs to the rear of the aircraft, dressed in plastic ponchos which Liat had kindly provided for us to try and shield us from the relentless weather outside, I started to feel concerned about our rental car situation.

Last I heard, I was asked if I wanted the car dropped off at our hotel which I expressed my interest in. This was after they refused to drop the car at the airport having tried to do that the previous day, only for our flight to be cancelled. However, they had gone silent since and I was unsure if they’d even picked up my email.

We entered the small arrivals hall and I was relieved to strip my poncho away and be out of the rain. There was no luggage belt here, only an area where suitcases were manually placed for passengers to collect. Passengers then had to queue for one of two customs desks where luggage was inspected at random.

Fortunately, we were waved past without an inspection. One of the numerous benefits of travelling only with hand-luggage.

We exited the airport and I took a gulp of hot humid air. The rain appeared to have stopped – at least for now – and I could enjoy the fresh, natural breeze which engulfed us.

I was about to pull my phone out of my pocket and connect to the advertised free WiFi when I noticed a man holding my name on a sign. My heart leapt in my chest. Could it be? Did they send my rental car here after all? I felt like dancing with glee and sauntered over.

“Hello!” I greeted cheerily.

“Ah, Ella!” The man greeted back. “Welcome to Dominica. Come, come.”

He led Lewis and I to a minibus just over the road. I guessed maybe we had to drive a little to collect our car. We had to do something similar in Mallorca and Namibia. I jumped inside, grabbing a seat in the row just behind the driver’s seat. A backpack lay on the row behind me. Hmmmm, I wondered.

“We are just waiting for the other passengers.” He told me.

Other passengers? Perhaps several people from this flight had cars booked. Strange that we were the only ones the day before.

Gradually, the minibus began to fill up. A man sat behind me, reclaiming his backpack which he had left there whilst he went to the bathroom, a woman sat beside Lewis on our row and another woman jumped in the front.

Our driver turned the key in the ignition and the engine juddered to a start.

I asked no questions because I’m awkward like that. Instead I told myself to have faith and that everything would work out.

The freshly-paved road wound round the edge of a beach which was strewn with logs, boulders and other debris washed-up by the sea. The sand was black, an indication of the island’s volcanic nature, and the waves washed up in rhythmic gushes.

We then turned inland and the road began to incline, taking us into the forest which clung to the sides of our first mountain.

Dominica is an island filled with mountainous terrain. In fact, Dominica houses 26 mountains, 9 of which are dormant volcanos. This is a large quantity for an island that spans 29 miles in length and 16 miles in width.

As a result, the roads of Dominica are winding with frequent hairpin bends. The roads certainly challenge anyone who gets carsick easily, like me. But the bendy roads also mean little distance is covered in extensive amounts of time.

I was instantly hooked by the scenes which flashed before my window. Colourful houses stood beside the side of the road, backed by thick green rainforest.

We were passing through a village just south of the airport called Marigot. The village has a population of 2,676 people and houses one of the island’s key fishing ports.

That was the only village we passed on our journey. As we took a road which led deep into the interior of the island, houses became a rare sight and instead the road was engulfed by nothing but pure, untouched jungle.

As we sat in the cramped minibus, peering out of the steamed-up windows, we got talking to some of the other passengers.

The two women were both aid workers, working for UNICEF. They knew each other.

“We have been helping the island to rebuild since Hurricane Maria.” The woman beside Lewis stated.

I felt guilty for having let Hurricane Maria sit in the far corners of my mind. The Category 5 hurricane which hit Dominica in September (lol, September… the exact month we were visiting in) 2017 had a devastating effect on the island. I didn’t know it yet, but during my trip I was about to discover just how destructive it really was.

Hurricane Maria was the first category 5 hurricane to ever hit Dominica. Dominica was in fact the hurricane’s first target after journeying across the Atlantic. The island was virtually flattened.

The 165 mile an hour winds damaged 98% of buildings on the island and downed all cellular, radio and internet services. Near the capital of Roseau 80% of structures were destroyed. The island suffered US$1.37 billion in damages and 65 people were killed.

But it wasn’t just the people who were affected. The forests had suffered greatly too with the entire island stripped of its forest. Looking at the jungle I could see the damage. The trees looked strange. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on why but as I looked closely I realised that many of the trees I was looking at were in fact dead and covered with green creeper plants, hiding their skeletal remains.

Still, despite the destruction, Dominica seemed to be recovering. Had I not have realised that the island had suffered so much recent devastation, I likely wouldn’t have noticed. The forests were thick, vibrant and alive with nature. They covered every peak, every inch of land where road didn’t venture. It was so lush.

We found ourselves driving over frequent bridges that stood over meandering rivers which appeared suddenly out of the dense jungle. Dominica has 365 rivers.

The drive drew on. We wound up the side of mountains and then back down again on the other side, just to meet yet another mountain. My mind was alive with questions. Where were we going? How much longer was it going to take? Who on earth had picked us up? Why had I agreed to go with someone when I had no idea where they were taking me?

We must have been driving for an hour. My butt was sore, my stomach was slightly sick from the countless hairpin bends and I was no wiser in learning where the heck we were going.

I barely suppressed a wine of dismay when around 30 minutes into the drive we passed a turn for the ‘Emerald Falls’. I knew our accommodation was right next to it. That meant we’d actually passed our accommodation and a good 30 minutes ago.

I risked some mobile data in order to see if I had any emails from the car rental company. My inbox was empty. They had not replied to me. So what on earth was going on?

We began our final mountain descent. In the distance, behind a row of trees, I spied the ocean. I could see a large town down below flanked by two majestic mountains on either side.

Our minivan juddered down the winding roads, braking erratically every few seconds and forcing me to jolt and jerk uncomfortably in my seat. The fitful jolts of the car were accompanied by the wining of its brakes, like it was doing some kind of disturbed song and dance.

Screeachh. Lurch. Screeaacchh. Lurch.

I feel so sick.

At one point I wrestled with the idea of taking over the driving just so I could give us all a smooth, graceful descent. I can’t believe I’d put up with this for over an hour!

As we declined into the town below, we juddered passed a line of windowless rusted-out cars. At first I wondered if the line would ever end. I recognised the carcass of a G-Wagon and a Jeep. These were yet more casualties from the 2017 hurricane.

Flat ground arrived at last and I could only let out a sigh of relief. Maybe now we’d start braking like a normal car.

Little did I know at this point, we were in a town called Canefield, located on the south west of the island. This is in fact the exact opposite end of the island to Douglas-Charles Airport and a very long way away from where we were meant to be.

We turned off from the main road and started down a dirt track. On one side was a gushing river and the other was a large slightly-rusty industrial building. Hugging the road tightly were yet more rusty shells of cars. I even noticed some car seats strewn across the path. It was like a car graveyard.

We came to a halt and the man who had been sitting behind me started shifting. It was his stop. We waved goodbye and trundled out of the mysterious car graveyard.

We ventured deeper into the town before taking a right turn. The car bumped down the uneven terrain which was a mixture of dirt and gravel. A barbed-wire fence stretched on to our right, for as far as the eye could see, housing eroded industrial equipment and buildings.

On our left we passed old derelict-looking buildings. I shuddered. There was a bad feel to this place.

We followed the road a little longer until it came to an abrupt stop in front of an old lorry. Around us was a mixture of barbed-wire fences and rusty industrial buildings.

Our driver stopped and looked over the seat.

Please don’t be our stop. Please don’t be our stop. I silently begged.

“You.” He called, looking at the woman beside Lewis. “This is your stop.”

I breathed out a sigh of relief. Thank goodness!

“Me?” She looked horrified.

The driver frowned. “Uhhh…” He thought for a moment but then shook his head. “No, not you.” His head turned sharply to me. “You!”

My mouth opened wide with shock. “M…Me? Here?” I could barely speak.

“Yes. This is your stop.”

I looked at my surroundings in panic. Where the hell was this? I certainly didn’t want to be dropped off here. Alone (well just with Lewis), in the middle of a derelict industrial estate.

Fighting back the horror, I grabbed my bag, not sure what else to do.

I leapt out of the car, kicking up dust as my feet hit the ground. Lewis and I stood on the dusty track, staring at the tall steel frame of the building which loomed beside us.

What were we to do now?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.