Guadeloupe

 


 

Even as the plane swept in to land over the glowing jade and turquoise of the Petit Cul-de-Sac Marin I began to appreciate the devotion with which the Arawak Indians had named their island ‘Karukera’ – the land of beautiful waters. At the end of his second voyage to the ‘New World’ Christopher Columbus stopped by, en-route to his recently collapsed colony on Hispaniola. Perhaps the rigours of his voyages and the strain of administration were beginning to tell because, with sadly stinted imagination, he renamed this jewel of the Caribbean ‘Santa Maria de Guadalupe de Extremadura.’

 

 

Almost in passing, the great navigator declared this ‘new land and all upon it the property of Castile and Aragon.’ Then, casually branding his country’s newest subjects ‘canibales,’ he sailed away in search of richer pickings. Oblivious to the fact that their fate had been sealed, the Arawak were left to the tranquillity of their valleys and beaches and it was not until a century and a half later that a colonising expedition from France arrived...and Karukera became simply Guadeloupe.

 

Shaped like a butterfly, Guadeloupe is actually two islands, separated by a narrow, mangrove-fringed channel. One of the fascinations of a trip to the island lies in exploring the radical contrasts between ‘the butterfly’s wings.’ Had Columbus landed on the eastern wing - on what is now known as Grande-Terre - he would have found a desolate limestone plateau, cooled only by the harsh winds of the Atlantic. The Arawak themselves had made landfall here at the end of their own pioneering voyages from their Venezuelan homelands and, with the exile’s craving for the familiar, they had chosen as their home Basse-Terre - the western wing. 

 

The dense, mist-shrouded jungle, though reminiscent of their South American homeland, was strangely lacking in the large game that they had hunted along the banks of the Orinoco. So they settled around the coast and made their living instead from the reefs. They must have lived in constant fear of the hurricanes that ripped their fragile fishing villages to shreds and the rumbling, belching volcano that threatened them from the heart of the jungle, like some malevolent deity.

 

Dominating Basse-Terre from a height of 4800 feet, La Soufriere is still a constant source of worry to local inhabitants. The volcano last erupted in 1976 when fifty thousand people had to be evacuated from the town of Basse-Terre (Guadeloupe’s capital). At this charming old colonial town I swung my hired mini-moke away from the black volcanic beaches and onto what the islanders call ‘la route d’enfer.’ The road climbs rapidly into the dripping riot of giant ferns towards the local version of hell...the trembling cone of La Soufriere.

 

Unwary walkers, ignorant of the unpredictable weather and treacherous terrain on La Soufriere’s slopes, have paid dearly for their disrespect. The prudent bear in mind that whilst the annual rainfall at the southern end of Grande-Terre is less than thirty inches that of the highlands of Basse-Terre is a torrential four hundred!

 

Sure enough, as I emerged from the cloud-forest into a bleak expanse of waist-high ferns the mountain mist, faintly tinged with sulphur, lowered to drape over me in a chilled blanket. Trudging through the fog I inadvertently wandered off the trail and, was just debating whether to retrace my steps, when I realised that I had stepped out onto the bare, sulphur-stifled summit.

 

I was sitting, shivering in the damp fog, and eating a baguette filled with Guadeloupean goat cheese, when suddenly the clouds cleared and I was blessed with an awe-inspiring view right down the volcano’s eastern flank, across the Petit Cul-de-Sac Marin and over the faraway shimmering expanses of Grande-Terre.

 

It took an exhausting five hours to make the return trip from the car park and a driving rainstorm, which washed the whole slope to a slippery morass, further slowed my descent. I was frequently buzzed by what appeared, at first, to be horrifyingly large insects. Then I realised that they were actually tiny hummingbirds, smaller than my thumb. Their feathers flickered like neon in the dappled sunlight.

 

Happy to be back down in sunnier climes, I drove onwards, through the banana plantations of the Windward Coast. I crossed the Rivière Salée, the salt-water channel, separating lush Basse-Terre from the aridity of her sister island, and cut through the perpetual bottleneck of Pointe-á-Pitre. The island’s commercial centre and largest town is worth visiting for the evocative shabbiness of its old colonial buildings but when the midday sun has baked the narrow streets they are shade-less and suffocating. The best time to visit is in the morning when you can wander in the colourful, bustling market place with its stalls stocked with everything from traditional Madras cotton to exotic spices and voodoo regalia. I found an aerosol can into which the Archangel Gabriel had apparently been inserted!

 

I shot onwards around the coves of western Grande-Terre and the land became steadily hotter and thirstier. The strip of shimmering tarmac narrowed and snaked along a parched headland, straggled with low, gnarled trees and creosote-type bushes. Occasionally, through the tortured vegetation, I caught tantalising glimpses of the lagoon, blushing in the late sun. Pointe des Châteaux is a spectacular landscape of viciously jagged cliffs, hacked out of the bedrock by the raging Atlantic at the point where it collides with the more benevolent, though sometimes temperamental, Caribbean.

 

The sun was sinking rapidly as I made my way up the winding track that leads to a tall, white cross on Pointe des Colibris (Hummingbird Point), the most eastern spot on Guadeloupe. Beside the cross I sat down, with my back against the sun-baked rocks, and gazed westwards across the scorched peninsular that separates the Caribbean from the rollers of the Atlantic as they thunder relentlessly against the reefs. Further away I could see the dusty expanses of Grande-Terre and, faded in the sea mist, the foothills of Basse-Terre.

 

The setting sun carved black monsters out of the scarred rock-face and plated the mirror between the butterfly’s wings with burnished copper. I watched until the sun had dipped around the glowing curve of the Caribbean and saluted, again, the rapture with which the Arawak had named their island ‘Karukera.’