Raincoast conservation foundation
Travel Itch logo
En Route to Le Gros Piton copyright Jane Spencer

Was Jah My Pilot, Too?

By Jane Spencer

Le Petit Piton © Jane Spencer
Le Petit Piton © Jane Spencer

We are not people to loll on the beach for long, so when my husband said he was going to hike up a dormant volcano in St. Lucia, I said, “I'm coming, too.“ He was referring to Le Gros Piton, which at 797 metres is higher but less steep than Le Petit Piton. The two pitons are the trademarks of St. Lucia, appearing ubiquitously on the national flag, food packaging, soaps, T-shirts, brochures and beer labels. The reality of them does not disappoint: two emerald triangles slanting up from the azure waters of the Caribbean. 

We could have booked the hike through the hotel as an excursion; instead we hired a handsome Rastafarian on the beach who owned a water taxi and tour business. His name was Solomon, and yes, he could find us a guide for the following day at a very reasonable rate.

Most people approach Le Gros Piton by land and start trekking from an interpretation centre parking lot. We started from sea level. Solomon picked us up at our hotel and drove us down to the jetty in the town of Soufriere where his boat was docked. He delivered us twenty minutes down the coast to a beach at the base of Le Gros Piton.

Rastafarianism adds flavour to this island. The red, yellow and green stripes on Solomon's hat matched the stripes on his boat, “Justice,” which matched those on a decal reading “Jah is My Pilot.” St Lucia has a history of slave rebellions with many emancipated slaves even returning to Africa. Since the Labour Party had been voted back into power two days earlier, there was a popular pride bordering on militancy in the humid air. The gentle Solomon had hand-painted a message on the bow of his boat: “The blood of Jesus Christ shall fall on us and let us live.” In my mind, it all seemed to mesh: rebellion, justice and faith.   

Solomon pulled into a cove, deserted save for a wooden shack and two weathered palm umbrellas. It looked like the setting for Robinson Crusoe. The water was too shallow for the boat to land. I knew if I waded to shore, I would never get the sand out of my toes, and that would make for a painful hike. Three people and a dog grew visible on the beach, and before I could manage a refrain from Bob Marley's “Don't worry 'bout a thing,” a tall lean Rasta man waded into the water in his rubber boots. He shouted for my husband to jump on his back, piggy backed him to shore, then came back for me, gathering me up in his arms like a new bride. This was our introduction to Marcellus, our trekking guide.   

Marcellus – dark sunglasses, scruffy beard, dreadlocks down his back, and a cap emblazoned with the words “The Lion of Judah” – passed us each a wooden pole and said, “You'll be needing these. Ya, mon.” We followed him uphill into the bush. He walked slowly and guided our steps carefully. “No one has ever been injured on one my hikes,” he attested. I was so busy watching the ground for slippery tree roots, loose rocks and sporadic boulders, that I slammed forehead first into a fallen tree. There went Marcellus's record. When the dizziness passed, I gave the thumbs up to continue.

Yah, Mon © Jane Spencer
Yah, Mon © Jane Spencer

We were hiking through history. When the British fought the French for control of St. Lucia, Le Gros Piton was one of the strongholds for brigands, slaves who escaped the plantations. The brigands set up camps there, growing cassava, corn, cucumber, plantain, pumpkin and sweet potato. They foraged for fruits, hunted parrots, and caught crayfish and crabs in the ravines. High up they could signal other communities by smoke and drumbeat, and easily run down to ambush their pursuers or raid plantations for supplies.

At the one-quarter mark of our hike, we met a middle-aged man, red-faced and panting, resting on a rustic wooden bench. He could not continue, so he was waiting there for his wife and guide to return. By this time we were soaking wet from the humidity, trying to maintain an equilibrium between water intake and perspiration. The journey was proving to be more challenging than we thought, but it was too early to rest.

The second quarter entailed squeezing our feet between huge boulders and grabbing the next rock or tree trunk to haul our bodies upward, using our poles for balance. This was a barely discernible path, and I figured we were ascending at a 45° angle. At odd spots, railings had been nailed diagonally to trees; the other side was a drop to the sea. Marcellus cautioned us to keep away from the edge and the railings. 

We eventually passed the wife of the man who had quit earlier. She was coming down after making it halfway, which was just ahead. Here, we would rest. The halfway point presented us with clear view of Le Petit Piton rising dramatically from the sea. Marcellus handed us torn pieces of succulent papaya, saying “I picked this just this morning. It will give you energy. Ya, mon.” 

I loved this guy who quoted the bible, labeled trees and hummed tunes with equal unaffectedness. Every so often, he turned his eyes skyward chanting, “Shine, Shine, Shine” – his mantra to ward off rain. I passed him a hunk of chocolate, though he didn't seem to need more energy. Another couple soon staggered down toward us and slumped to the ground. “We can't go any further,” wheezed the woman. “Last year, we hiked up and down the Grand Canyon, and this is much harder.” They had barely passed the halfway mark when they decided they'd had enough.

I was having second thoughts. My husband had recently hiked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal and had walked the 800-kilometre Camino de Santiago across Spain. Sure, he could do this. Meanwhile, a group of exuberant twenty-somethings came traveling down at a rapid rate; they had made it to the top and were on the descent. I reached for my asthma inhaler, took two puffs and proclaimed, “I am ready to go. I can do this.”  I had one advantage over my husband – I loved the heat.

The third stretch of the trek rose through rain forest – verdant, slick and super-sized. I recognized potted plants from back home, which here looked to be on steroids. We passed a stretch of green and purple wandering Jew several metres long, shoulder-height birds of paradise, golden gum trees and hanging “Tarzan” vines. Steam rose through shafts of light, and fecund earth smells permeated the air. Being midday, it was eerily quiet. 

After two hours of trekking uphill from the beach, we reached the three-quarter mark, where we rested in front of a three-hundred-year-old mango tree on which people had carved their initials. I was doing okay, but I wondered about negotiating my way back down. Our guide was ever optimistic. “You will make it. Imagine people coming all this way and not finishing. What a shame, not to finish. By the grace of God, you will make it.” The path ahead, if you could call it that, now tipped at a 55° angle. 

If Jah wasn't my pilot, his disciple Marcellus surely was, because I did make it to the top of Le Gros Piton. We celebrated with fist bumps, high fives and hugs all round. Sitting on a rock, I peered down at the scattered farms, villages and low-lying green hills graduating up from the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. Just as I was welling up with reverential thoughts, a curtain of cloud drew across the sky and closed the scene. Oh well. I would devour the rest of my chocolate and brace myself for the climb down. 

Jane Spencer is a retired teacher who has claimed the world of adventure travel as her new classroom. When not travelling, she's writing about it, daydreaming about it or planning her next trip. She lives in Ottawa.