Hiking La Soufriere Volcano from Richmond Vale on the Leeward Side
Chateaubelair Travel Blog› entry 5 of 7 › view all entries
Sunday morning I woke up and headed into the dining hall, which looked like a ghost town. Not too long after Stina showed up and explained that as the students at the Academy do all the cooking, they sleep in on Sundays and serve a brunch at 11:00. We made some toast, boiled some eggs and had Passion Fruit Juice, which was delicious--and grown and bottled right at the Center. While we were eating, Franklyn (my guide for the hike) showed up. Guides for this hike are highly recommended and while I din't get a straight answer as to why, by the end of the day, I was glad Franklyn accompanied me. My hike today was to be Franklyn's 103rd trip to La Soufriere! After filling up our water bottles and packing some bananas, also grown at the Center, we were on our way.
From the Academy, we walked down a steep hill and came to a river. The first half was gently flowing, however the second half came up well above the bottom of my shorts, and had a pretty swift current. We had taken our shoes off, and as my feet are sensitive, I was struggling to find a comfortable place to step that was solid footing against the fast moving water. Franklyn grabbed my arm trying to help, and I ended up nearly biting it and bringing Franklyn down with me! We both regained our balance and had a laugh. I suggested just making it over on my own and Franklyn seemed happy to oblige. After crossing the rest of the way, making a mental note to keep my hiking boots on next time (or bring my hiking sandals) as the rocks were quite painful gauging into the bottom of my feet.
Franklyn led me off the beach to what initially looked like a dried up river bed with black sand as a base. We walked for a bit before the wide "riverbed" narrowed and the walls on either side --which were covered in lush vegetation and lots of vines-- began to curve back and forth as it widened and narrowed again. It was beautiful! At one point, the walls were totally rock and I could easily touch both sides as we maneuvered through.
As we headed up the fairly steep incline, the dirt path was a bit slick from the previous nights rain. It was a narrow path, and while the property is owned by the government of St. Vincent, the walkway is maintained (according to my guide) only once a year. The first place the trees gave way to a view of the forest above and below, you could see an array of mountain shacks, some with only a tarp in place as a roof. Near every shack in the hills (as the locals call the mountains) is a field of Marijuana plants rooted on the sides of some very steep inclines.
Franklyn admitted to once growing it himself many years ago, but got out due to the stressfull lifefestyle. There is alot of violence among those who farm marijuana , as they stake out "their" property and protect "their" boundaries. This warfare can be deadly. When hikers meet them, however, they are apparently extremely friendly. Though the only other people we saw were a couple of other hikers, Franklyn says the pot farmers will offer for you to sit down and have a meal with them, or give you some fruit. As he is on a first name basis with many of them, he knocked on one friends shack to say hello, but the guy wasn't home.
A couple of sidebars.
Given the average annual income on St. Vincent is $3500 USD, and with each plant yielding $100 to $300 US once it is harvested and dried, it is easy to understand why so many people are lured into the illegal business. Franklyn told me that crop tenders will live in their shacks Monday to Friday, and go home on the weekends, just like a regular job!
I have been told how corrupt the police are by several locals as well. Apparently police on St. Vincent have no probleml shooting you in the back as you run away and calling it self defense. Police do come burn down some of the crop fields they find -- "find" being used very loosely here as they are in plain view.
On with the hike...
We kept climbing upward on the fairly narrow pathway through the thick vegetation, occasionally catching sight of the beautiful views of the sea and surrounding mountains and soon we reached a sign that was a marker for the halfway point. Just opposite the sign was the biggest tree I have ever seen. It was a Fig tree according to Franklyn, and the oldest tree on the island, at about 300 years old. It had an amazing trunk made up of intricately entangled bark. There were loads of vines hanging from it and lots of plants growing on its branches. It was INCREDIBLE to see and I wish my pictures had turned out a bit better.
After a short water and banana break at the base of the old fig tree, we proceeded with our journey which meant uphill, more uphill, and then uphill again, until we got to the top. I had been advised to bring a long sleeve shirt and pants with me, and as we neared the top I put on my pants to shield my legs from walking through overgrown brush along the trail. The wind began to pick up and was quite chilly. The higher we went, the stronger and colder the wind got. I put on my long sleeve shirt in preparation for reaching the top. I also covered my ears with a bandana as the wind was whipping so hard and had such a chill, it was making my ears burn a bit.
At 4,048ft, I have read Soufriere is the highest peak on Saint Vincent. Franklyn told me, however that my information is incorrect. He said the volcano is the second highest peak, outdone by Richmond mountain (the peak to our backs as we look into the crater) at 5,000 feet above sea level. He said he and a team of students hiking Richmind mountain next weekend, as an exercise in survival.
La Soufriere occupies the northernmost third of the island and is the youngest volcano. The far rim we were overlooking is the near rim of the original volcano. I really wanted to hike around the entire rim so we could see the old volcano, but as I had left my water at the Hiking Center, and we had gone through more than three-fourths of Franklyn's bottle with the climb down the mountain yet to go, we had to skip it for today. We also had to wait on the descend into the crater as well. We were making plans already, though, to hike the volcano again tomorrow. We will go down into the crater on the hike tomorrow and hike the rim so we can see the old volcano, as Franklyn has never done that and was excited about the idea.
La Soufriere is a stratovolcano which just means that it is active. I read it has a crater lake, though I only saw pooled water on one side of the big mound in the middle. Apparently that mound used to be surrounded by water, like a castle with a moat. Many volcanoes in the Caribbean are named Soufrière, which is French for "sulphur outlet". This particular Soufriere has a long history of eruptions. It violently erupted in 1718, 1812, 1902, 1971, and 1979. The explosion of lava on May 7, 1902-- just hours before the eruption of Mount Pelée on Martinique-- killed 1,680 people. The last recorded eruption was in April 1979, though due to advance warning there were thankfully no casualties. It is thought it will erupt again in about seventy more years.
As we were almost out of water, it was sadly time to head back to Richmond Vale. The descend went rather quickly, and Franklyn and I chatted the whole way. He is really a great guy and does a fab job guiding hikes. Soon we were back at sea level and hiking through the lava paths. We headed back down the beach, and as we were on the trail heading for the river, we were stopped by the police. There were four officers in uniforms standing before us. The trail we were on is used by alot by the guys growing marijuana, so they asked Fraklyn what he was doing on the path. He explained that he was a guide for Richmond Vale and he had taken me to the volcano. They looked through his bag and handed it back... they didn't ask to look through mine.