St. Lucia -- When you approach St. Lucia by air, the Pitons rise out of the sea like giant arrowheads piercing the skin of the earth. The two steep triangular columns of rock that dominate the island's landscape remain one of the Caribbean's most impressive sights. So awed were the indigenous Caribs by these gigantic peaks that they named them Yokahu, the powerful god of volcanic mountains, sun, fire and thunder, and Attabera, goddess of fertility, moving water and tides.
Today I plan to climb Yokahu, or Gros Piton, as the French call it, which soars to a height of over 770 metres. The Pitons are not actually mountains but volcanic plugs or lava domes created by a series of eruptions on this volcanic island.
The Gros Piton Nature Trail is in the southwestern part of the island known as Fonds Gens Libre (Village of the Free People). St. Lucia's first free black settlement, it dates back to the slave rebellions of 1748, when escaped slaves, called brigands, sought refuge here.
I've got on my rugged hiking boots and khaki nylon gear, while my guide, Christine, sports a pair of cross-trainers and a backpack that looks more like a small purse. She offers me a hiking stick, and we begin a moderate ascent around the base of the Piton through the dry, deciduous woodland typical of St. Lucia's southern coastline.
After about 15 minutes, Christine leads me down a short side trail to a cave tucked underneath a gigantic boulder she says was once a brigands' camp. I crawl through the narrow opening and teeter on my haunches as she points to the black patches of soot on the ceiling made by their cooking fires and to a raised area in the rear of the cave where they slept. It must have been harsh in those days, living free but in fear.
The next part of the trail gets steeper, and I'm thankful for the hiking stick. Now we're climbing, and I grab roots and tree branches for stability. The sun is high in the sky, but we're shaded by the rainforest canopy that covers the Piton's middle section.
Hidden in this tangled mass of vegetation and buzzing insects live mongoose and St. Lucia's colourful orioles and finches. Wild tobacco plants grow here, and trees like the bois canon and the chatagnier, with massive roots like the claws of a prehistoric animal clutching the side of the mountain.
The trail is in good shape and well maintained, but it quickly starts to feel like one long earthen staircase. Soon I find a slow steady rhythm and start to enjoy the meditative feel of the climb. We pass an old mango tree so wide it would take both of us to wrap our arms around its trunk.
"How old is it?" I ask, pausing to cool down.
"About 250 years old," she replies, loosening the straps on her pack and munching on a biscuit.
After a short ascent, the summit flattens to a wide plateau, and we reach a viewing point covered with boulders. At this height the vegetation has turned into elfin woodland and dwarf forest, bushes and short trees bent into gnarled shapes by the wind.
A wonderful panorama of the entire southern half of the island opens before us. I can see Vieux Fort and the peninsula of Moule á Chic, where a lighthouse stands between the Caribbean and the Atlantic.
I follow Christine along a narrow path that meanders through a forest and over large grey boulders. The aerial view reveals how steep and extreme the geography is in this region of lush deep valleys and sharp ridges.
Carefully, I peer over the the sheer drop, thinking this is what it must feel like to nest on a cliff. Pointing northwest at a small rise midway up the island, Christine says, "That's the capital, Castries, behind the hill." When a puff of cloud clears, she shows me the four tips of Mount Gimmie, St. Lucia's highest mountain.
Walking out after the climb, I'm feeling the fatigue and exhilaration of completing a difficult journey. My legs, propelled by the ease of level ground and the charge of adrenalin, crave rest and seawater.
I take one last look over my shoulder to honour Yokahu, who remains invincible and oblivious to my great effort.