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Discovering Dominica: Jungle of the Windies

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Explore the West Indies' nature island and discover spectacular waterfalls, underwater volcanoes and the people who beat Columbus there by millennia...

Champagne Beach

Dominica's unspoiled coastlines make for perfect dive sites

Landing at Dominica's Melville Hall international airport in a 50-seat twin-prop plane, it dawned on me that I knew practically nothing about my destination. The island is rarely spoken of compared to its neighbors, receiving precious little press coverage, and many people still confuse it with the Dominican Republic, which actually lays some 600 kilometres away to the north-west.

It's not just another little rock along the Caribbean chain either; at 750-square kilometres, it's a landmass, and one that remains almost completely undeveloped.

I'd headed to Dominica for its annual DiveFest: the country's small but buzzing festival of all things scuba, held each July when diving conditions are ideal. As you might expect on such a secluded island, its terrestrial and marine wildlife thrives in relatively untouched jungles and along sparingly fished, quiet coastlines.

DiveFest, for me, started at the Sunset Bay Club and Dive Centre on Batalie Beach, nestled between a tropical hillside and the Batalie River. I arrived in earshot of professional divers bragging about their encounters with Lion and Scorpionfish... trying to trump each other's painful-looking sting marks like the 'scars scene' from Jaws, where drunken sea dogs compare marine battle-wounds.

Run by a Belgian lady and her husband, the Sunset club also offers a well-known restaurant, with the Dive Centre itself found further down on the beach. Here, I found the festival's organiser, Simon Walsh, busy explaining diving basics to beginners.

Simon's Dominica Watersports Association has helped many islanders become dive-masters, boosting the availability of underwater guides for everything from novice-level 'Discover Scuba Diving' courses to accompanying more accomplished divers out to the wrecks.

Having never obtained a PADI qualification myself (the standard diving competence test), even though I'd dived before, I started from scratch again, with the newbies. Safety is taken seriously here, where on other islands, waving a few greenbacks had let me leap-frogging the administrative process normally required before heading out to sea. Once I had shown the instructors I could use the breathing equipment safely, and could pull my mask off and put it back on again underwater, I was happily heading out across the reef to meet some of the local sea life.

Divers in Dominica are quickly met with a burgeoning showcase of rare undersea inhabitants that make this island so unique, compared to its neighbors. Seahorses, frogfish and flying gurnards dart between towering stands of coral; while electric rays, Caribbean reef squid, sea snakes and sea urchins can be found peering out from behind sponges.

Lionfish

Paradise's unwanted predator, the Lionfish, is more popular on a plate

After a fun first day beneath the waves, I soon found that the island's varied dive sites have plenty of other tricks up their sleeves...

A short drive the next morning brought us to 'Champagne Reef' -- a popular dive site where underwater volcanoes have forged a dramatic seascape of craters, chasms and sheer walls that plunge thousands of feet into dark abysses.

Paddling out several metres from the beach, I soon found myself swimming through streams of bubbles rising from geothermal vents on the sea bed.

My guide told me to dive to the bottom, place my snorkel over the bubbles, and plug the pipe with my finger. When I returned to the surface and cautiously followed his instructions to drink the water inside... it was, to my amazement, fresh and piping hot as if it had come from a kettle: a neat trick in a beautiful reef, overflowing with life.

Just a few more metres out, the shallow plateau we had been above dropped off dramatically, and I could make out some divers far below us, examining the myriad multi-coloured fish that lived in the ridge's unspoilt coral walls.

In the evenings, DiveFest eating meant devouring Lionfish, cooked with all manner of recipes. This, the organisers explained, is a very gratifying way of dealing with their unwanted and exploding population growth in the region.

Originally from the Pacific, these beautifully-feathered predators have become a major nuisance since they arrived in the Caribbean a couple of decades ago. One instructor told me at the bar he suspected a collector around Florida had unwittingly started it all by tipping a tank of his prized fish into the sea in a power-cut, to save them.

With their deceptively pretty array of needle-like dorsal fins, Lionfish can deliver a potent venom on contact that's extremely painful to humans. More importantly still, their appetite for almost all of their new neighbors, coupled with a lack of natural enemies in these waters poses a real threat to the balance of the local food chain.

Other DiveFest activities were spread out across the island over the week, from an energetic 'Iron Chef' cook-off competition at the Anchorage Hotel to the closing night's huge street party at Soufriere Village.

Carib canoe

Native indians carve a Carib canoe, on the reservation

Another highlight was the festival's whale-watching tour, where after a briefing about the types of whales that can be found in the Caribbean, we set off in the boat to find one. Every now and again the Captain would cut the engines and lower a microphone into the water to listen for their calls, while we lowered our beers in hushed silence. We didn't find one, unfortunately, but the shoal of dolphins chasing the boat and showing off proved a satisfying second best.

Though I had been excited by the prospect of visiting Dominica to dive its reefs and wrecks, its most treasured offering, for me, lay within its 3,800-acre Indian reservation.

This area provides a permanent home to the Caribbean's last surviving native community where over 2,000 Kalinagos thrive within their own protected province: the only one of its kind in a region they dominated after moving to it 5,000 years ago.

Driving through the reserve, we came across an old Kalinago (or Carib) man hollowing out a Gommier tree trunk to make a canoe the ancient way, and leapt out to marvel at his time-fashioned craftsmanship.

For tourists visiting the area, there's the Carib Cultural Village by the Sea or 'Kalinago Barana Aute' within the Saint George Parish. This is a mock-up of a pre-Columbian Carib village that sits next to the Crayfish River, and demonstrates the gamut of indigenous Dominican architecture, crafts, music and tribal dancing.

Traditionally-built village huts sport thatched lemon grass roofs, under which women sit and weave baskets from larouma reeds that grow alongside the riverbanks. A restaurant here even serves up a traditional helping of cassava and arrowroot for an authentic indigenous culinary experience.

Including the few remaining Caribs, Dominica's forested mountains and year-round tropical climate play host to a population of just 71,000 people. Foreign investment has begun to flow in from savvy nations who see an opportunity to make money from the island's undeveloped landscape. The Chinese in particular are into Dominica in a big way, having given the island more than $100 million in aid money since 2004, equivalent to $1,500 for every Dominican.

Many of the widened, freshly-laid asphalt roads on Dominica are Chinese-built, though the French are also laying down replacements for the narrow, broken single-lanes and bridges that lead from the airport to Dominica's capital, Roseau, to make safer and faster inroads for cash-generating tourism.

Middleham Falls

Complete the hike, claim the prize: Middleham Falls is breath-taking

While it was a contrast to speed through dense jungle along smooth, new roads one minute before bouncing inch-by-inch along others still under construction the next, the island's work-in-progress transport system is the least of Dominica's worries sometimes. On my first day there, I was confined to my room at the Fort Young Hotel on the seafront in Roseau, riding out a tropical storm. The day's schedule of horseback riding through the rainforest and visiting the Indian River was firmly off!

The island went into a well-rehearsed lock-down as we waited for the storm to pass, and it was clear this was a place that knew to batten down the hatches when the elements attack. In 1979, a severe hurricane hit Dominica causing widespread devastation, and another wreaked havoc in 1999. In 2004, an earthquake on Dominica caused millions of dollars' worth of damage.

But the island's people are robust, and the felling of a few trees by the storm didn't prevent my guide from meeting me for a hiking trip the next day. For this, I had to move accommodation to the rather basic Papillote Wilderness Retreat Hotel that sits within an untouched rural idyll, right in the middle of the island. It's not one of the island's better hotels, but thanks to its remote location, can boast its own outdoor hot spring bath that adjoins a waterfall and fresh water plunge pool... seriously sweet relief after a day spent traversing the jungle.

Trekking through the Waitikubuli National Trail with a Kalinago guide, the silence is broken now and again by rare Mountain Whistler birds that sound like creaking doors, high up in the canopy. And crooked timber steps, tree-root-covered trails and slippery stepping stones across rushing waters let you know you're literally in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles, in any direction, from the hustle and bustle you've left back home.

The forest's cool, dark gullies offered some respite from the stifling humidity and occasional burning sun that permeated the treetops until suddenly we could claim our prize and gaze in wonder at the spectacular Trafalgar Falls. That was on the first day there, but feeling particularly adventurous the next day, we also reached the much harder-to-get to king of the Dominican waterfalls, Middleham Falls.

These majestic cascades careen hypnotically hundreds of feet over sheer rock faces, creating deep emerald pools at their bases that invite you to shed your sweat-dampened layers and fall in after your epic journey, for the best shower of your life.

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Travellers can find out more about Dominica, by visiting: discoverdominica.com

Richard Powell is a freelance journalist who also works for the Press Release Distribution, Media Monitoring and Public Relations firm, Presswire, but does not work with or for any of the parties mentioned in this article.