Guadeloupe: There she blows

Fascinating flora is glimpsed amid the sulphurous fumes while climbing an active volcano on the Caribbean island of Basse-Terre

By Nicola Trup
Published 17 Oct 2017, 13:09 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 12:08 BST
La Grande Soufrière, Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe

La Grande Soufrière, Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe

Photograph by Getty Images

The cloud is so low I can only see a few metres ahead, and nothing of the landscape beyond. My guide, Taïna, assures me that the views up here are great, but I'll just have to take her word for it. I don't mind the fact I'm shrouded in mist, or even that I'm being lashed by wind; getting to know Guadeloupe means putting yourself at the mercy of the elements.

This Caribbean archipelago, an overseas department of France, is a place of extremes. Of the two main islands, one (Grand-Terre) is a windswept land of low, rolling hills, while the other (Basse-Terre) has lush rainforest and a craggy, active volcano at its heart. And there are microclimates; even on a short drive around Basse-Terre, you might be in the middle of a thunderstorm one minute, and basking in glorious sunshine the next.

In fact, we've had to wait several days to be sure this hike would be safe, as despite it being the dry season a giant raincloud has stubbornly set up camp over this part of the island. Finally, though, Taïna has given the nod, and I can start my ascent of La Grande Soufrière.

Translated as 'The Big Sulphurous One', the volcano was the star of Werner Herzog's 1970s documentary La Soufrière, although I first came to hear of it while watching his 2016 follow-up, Into the Inferno. In 1976, La Grande Soufrière started showing signs of a huge impending eruption, so the surrounding area was evacuated. Ever the maverick, Herzog decided this was the perfect time to visit, travelling to the deserted town of Basse-Terre to meet the one man who refused to leave his home. As it turned out, the eruption – which was expected to cause an explosion the size of several atomic bombs – never happened, and Herzog's documentary was released the following year.

The volcano has never come close to blowing up since, though I'll admit I liked the idea of climbing a potentially volatile peak. At 4,813ft, it's just over 328ft taller than Ben Nevis, with several routes up to the top. Because of the rain, we're taking the easiest, which, despite my initial disappointment, proves very challenging: a steep, at times slippery stone-marked path that takes just over three hours to get us up and down.

Along the way, Taïna, who's half French and half-Guadeloupian and grew up visiting relatives on the island before moving here a few years ago, points out some of the distinctive flora. There's malanga, a plant with huge leaves ("We called these elephant ears") that Taïna and her family used as makeshift umbrellas; there's bwa lansan, a tree whose leaves comes in handy as an insect repellent — "and to chase out evil spirits"; and wild pineapple, with its vibrant red flower, which tells us we're nearing the summit. It apparently likes the volcanic soil up here.

When we reach the top, we skirt around the crater. It's roped off to keep visitors away from the toxic sulphurous gases, but I do manage to get close enough at one point to peer into the craggy chasm and see wisps of smoke seeping out. Occasionally, between rocks on the ground, we spot tiny streams of water, running hot from the geothermal energy, and some of the rocks themselves are warm to the touch.

Conscious of the fumes, we don't linger for long, and start making our way back down — just as the resident cloud decides to really make its presence known. I don't mind, though, as I know there are hot springs waiting for us at the bottom, and — of course — the sunshine is never more than a few minutes away.


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