The air is hot and steamy, and I’m completely drenched in sweat. Emerald palm trees and beautiful yellow-and-red heliconia surround us but I’m too tired to care. I’m out of breathe and low in energy level, gasping for breathe and working hard to keep up with the rest. By this time, we’ve been walking for just two hours, but it feels like eternity on this seemingly never-ending trek.
We are here on a mission to hike all the way to the top of La Soufriere volcano – the highest point on the island of St Vincent standing at 4,048 feet above sea level. Located in the northern part of the island, La Soufriere occupies almost a one third of the island, and features many geographical formations such as hot springs, several craters and dry rivers.
As an active volcano, La Soufriere sure has made some history. The biggest eruption took place in 1902, killing almost 1,680 people during this destructive explosion. The death zone was inhabited by mostly Caribs, destroying this last large remnant of Carib culture. The last recorded eruption was in April 1979; there were no casualties due to advance warning.
Our guide Ozzie tells us it usually erupts every 50 to 60 years, and it’s definitely safe to climb now. Having been a local guide for nine years with Sailor’s Wilderness Tours, he’s accumulated quite an impressive collection of knowledge on La Soufriere and St Vincent and the Grenadines, and has climbed this monster of a volcano more than a hundred times. When I ask what is it that keeps him motivated, he answers, “The look on your face when you reach the top of the volcano.”
Walking through Eden
Earlier that morning, we started our walk at the base of the volcano in the midst of a thick, luscious rainforest. Tall coconut trees, banana shoots and stick-thin bamboo stood elbow to elbow in the thick luscious forest, vying for sunlight, while curly vines dangled carelessly from the canopy. Cute little green lizards scuttled past us along with a few other millipedes and spiders. Mosquitoes buzzed above our heads and dragonflies whizzed from one flower to another.
Along the way, Ozzie pointed out plants commonly used by locals, such as the trumpet leaves, often boiled with water as a remedy for cold. We also came across a fern plant with an interesting name, jumanju; each of its leaves curled up like a chameleon’s tail, lime green on the outside and brown underneath. Another plant I found interesting was the strangular fig, also known as the monkey goblin, that had long winding roots resembling those in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
We constantly heard distinctive high-pitched ringing sounds echoing from the distance. Ozzie pointed out the sounds came from the whistling waddle, one of the two endemic birds from St Vincent and the Grenadines. In fact, La Soufriere is home to five endemic plants of St Vincent and the Grenadines, two endemic birds and four endemic reptiles. The volcano has been a proposed National Park and once its status gets approved, it will be the first declared National Park for SVG. It is now under the National Protected Areas System Plan managed under the National Parks Rivers and Beaches Authority.
The Trail to Heaven
As we ventured higher and higher into the rainforest, the gently sloping trail eventually turned into a series of steep bamboo steps. We had to take big strides and haul our bodies up the steps with the help of our bamboo walking stick. Two of the girls in our trip, Sarah and Ruth, had already thrown in the white towel and headed back down the trail, but the few of us were determined to forge ahead.
The ascent became tougher and tougher with each step we took. We didn’t dare ask Ozzie how long more we had left to reach the top, worried that it would only lower our morale. But Ozzie pushed us further, enticing us with the view that would await. We scrambled over muddy rocks, crossed river streams, and hiked up ridges — all with the aim of getting to our destination.
After a seemingly endless steep ascent, we finally emerged from the rain forest to a rugged and rocky terrain. “We are now walking on lava,” announced Ozzie. The volcano had spewed out these lava almost four decades ago, but they have since solidified and formed a new environment. The tree line had faded by now and we were surrounded by low bushes and pretty flowers.
“This is the Soufriere flower,” said Ozzie, pointing to a simple, purple flower sprouting out from the small bushes that grew around the lava rocks. The volcano was named after this plant, La Soufriere, meaning Sulfurer, which only grows near the top of the volcano.
Our spirits grew. We knew what this meant — we were almost at the top.
Top of the World
Now back on the trail, we’re ready for the last stretch of the ascent. But the view behind us is so distracting, we constantly stop in our tracks to snap photos of the stunning landscape. The greenery of the lush rainforest splashes beneath our feet, covering every inch of the volcano base, stretching all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Ozzie points out to a hut with a tin roof in the far distance – that was where we started our trek. We find it hard to believe how far we’ve come.
The large lava boulders are now gone; in their place are steep mounts of small, black sandy rocks. Trudging up on this volcanic ash is akin to walking on a Stairmaster — no matter how hard I try, I seem to stay at the same spot. Ozzie encourages me further, “Just twenty more minutes and we’ll be there.”
“Trust me, it’s worth the hard work.”
With much determination (and constantly stopping to catch my breathe), I press on and finally catch up with Alberto and the rest of the group to be greeted by a mind-blowing view.
Before us, the circular rim of the volcanic crater plunges down 700 feet or so to the bottom. On the crater floor is a dome-shaped mount that rises approximately up to 500 feet, covered completely in green vegetation. The crater bottom too is blanketed in green grass and splashed with milky water that has been accumulated from the rain. And somewhere in the distance, covered by the clouds, lies the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea. The scenery is so dramatic and the landscape so rugged and alien that it almost feels like another galaxy here.
Two and a half hours of steep walking later, we’re finally here, at the peak of La Soufriere.
“I’ve done this for nine years, but I never get tired of this,” Ozzie exclaims as we sit and drink in the fantastic view. Indeed, it’s easy to see why.
Disclaimer: This trip was made possible by Discover SVG, but all opinions expressed above are our own.