Tightrope to treetops

Written by Carla Harris-Pascal, Photography courtesy WRAVE (Wacky Rollers Adventure Vacations & Expeditions)

I’ve lived in Dominica for most of my life and like natives everywhere, I’d become a bit blasé about home.

At 750 km2 Dominica is the largest of the Windward Islands and I had climbed, swum, snorkelled, bird-watched or rambled into the farthest reaches of its stunning cloud-cloaked summits and river-drenched valleys. So when I heard that “adventure” was to be had on the grounds of what used to be Hillsborough Estate, an old tobacco plantation less than 20 minutes from the capital, Roseau, I could be forgiven for thinking it would be a tad tame.

Was I ever wrong! I found myself flitting through tree canopies like a bird, clambering across suspended logs like a crazed tree lizard and tumbling downstream a gorge like a smooth river stone on its way to the sea.The adventure turned out to be more than I’d bargained for and I just can’t stop raving about it.

Wacky Rollers Adventure Vacations and Expeditions or WRAVE (pronounced rave) is a marriage of the dreams and skills of Phillip and Amber Rolle. Phillip grew up at Hillsborough and dreamed of revitalising the land and the Layou River that runs alongside it. His wife, Amber, brought business nous from her tourism career to breathe life into the dream. “We knew it had to highlight what Dominica already had to give.” But the challenge was to shape the bucolic appeal of land, trees and river to fit tourism’s evolving demographic toward younger, more energetic travellers. Finally, in 2005 Wacky Rollers launched its Survivor-style adventure park as a complement to the river tubing on offer since 2002, creating a modern experience of the natural environment that ratchets the adventure quotient up a notch.

My adventure began the moment I climbed on board the safari “roller”. Each jeep is painted by Dominican artist, Earl Ettienne, to depict local landscapes. The quotidian sights, scents and sounds of the island animated our journey as the open-air jeeps navigated past small coastal villages where bold houses bravely crowd the sea for space on the shoreline. At Hillsborough, we swerved onto the old estate’s dirt track alongside the Layou River—past stone ruins, an old mill, shingled chattel houses and up toward the adventure park.

If like me you prefer your nature au naturel don’t be put off by the tea-party veneer of the park’s manicured grounds. The action in the air is wild. In preparation for my tree-top hike, my guide, Elisha, took me through a mini training session with my feet planted firmly on the ground. But in less than no time I found myself helmeted, gloved, harnessed and making the 30-40 foot climb to sashay across a tightrope embracing massive trees. That’s when I chose to confess that I’m terrified of heights and perhaps I should really be doing the TiTiOui challenge (the smaller scale tree course for kids). My guide smiled, reassuringly.

“Mental strength is all you need.”
The canopy challenge is an airborne obstacle course: we negotiated swaying log bridges, strained along tightropes, hurtled through the air with Tarzan-like abandon. The course was a series of “life lessons”; the haven of each stable bough meant giving up the security of a previous branch. “No risk, No reward.” Plus, there’s lots to experience besides the exhilaration of defying gravity.

Taupe and amethyst ground doves clustered voraciously on the sun-and-seed speckled soil. Trees shuddered as if to shake off the stubborn grip of epiphytic bromeliads and tenacious humans. Cocoa leaves played hopscotch in the breeze beneath my feet. I was literally on top of the world and I took my time— about an hour and a half—to savour every moment of the aerial trek. Cruising the leafy canopies was no walk in the park, so when I finally skimmed the sun-singed Layou estuary, I was more than ready to cool down in the river.

We began tubing upstream the river gorge. Armed with lifejacket and a wooden oar, I ensconced myself in a circular tube (a far cry from the doughnut-shaped tubing that children cannibalised from used tyres when I was younger). At first I tried to paddle but the river has a mind of her own. Life lesson 2: “Go with the flow”.

So I retired my oar across my lap, relaxed and went along for the two-and-a-half mile ride. The gorge’s tan-coloured rock face towered stolidly against a blue-green kaleidoscope of sky and mountain. On the riverbank, bamboos tossed their elongated necks, whispering secrets, while fruiting silk cotton trees puffed clouds of seeds overhead.

After heavy rains, the Layou can be treacherous, so weather and river watermarks are tracked daily. WRAVE is big on safety in general. The adventure park is accredited by the American-based Association of Challenge Course Technology (ACCT). Tubing and park facilitators are trained in First Aid, CPR as well as “wilderness” tour guiding. But it was April, the heart of the dry season and the river was an exhilarating mix of small, tumultuous rapids and more languorous currents. Layou is the longest river on the island with the greatest diversity of fresh-water marine life. When we stopped to swim, the guides pointed out mullets, crabs and a variety of birds unfamiliar to the four other tubing adventurers fleeing their countries’ frigidity.

Eventually, our river sojourn meandered to an end just yards away from the Caribbean Sea. The high energy of tree-top hiking followed by the calming river spa had rejuvenated me. I stepped ashore, sparkling diamond-drops of water glistening off my skin in the golden sunlight. I’d found treasure on this island…adventure in my backyard.

Explore Tightrope to treetops