Martinique is improbably exotic. There is the familiar Caribbean ambience – immense fertility, intense colours, gingerbread houses, the islanders’ easy manner – which is subtly layered with that of France: a hint of nonchalance here, a nuance of coquetterie there. It is creole incarnate.
But there’s another side to the place. Away from the beaches and tourism, in the mountainous north of the country, is one of the region’s most powerful volcanoes, Mount Pelée. Quiet for almost 300 years of European settlement, it was considered extinct. But then, in 1902, it blew with cataclysmic force, destroying the town of St Pierre and becoming a template for the new science of volcanology. Now it broods menacingly over the land, my climbing challenge.
The hiking trail follows in the footsteps of the porteuses, women who tramped the paths of the island more than a century ago. They were pedlars who carried their goods over the mountain from St Pierre – up 2,000ft to the col, and then down to the towns on the Atlantic coast. They hefted huge weights on their heads, covering an astonishing 20 to 30 miles in a day.
It’s touch and go on timings. I have fixed a meeting in Paris so that I can take the late-afternoon flight from Orly. Generally, Caribbean flights leave in the morning, but with the extra hour and the afternoon departure with Air France, it is possible to make it out on Friday night. But the meeting runs over... Eventually, I rush to the airport.
I make it. As we take off for Martinique, I relax and turn my mind to the task in hand. I am also on the trail of a travel writer, Lafcadio Hearn, who described the porteuses. He is best known for his writing from Japan – it was largely he who opened the country up to the west a century ago (and is responsible for the slightly cloying sweetness that became the western stereotype of the Japanese for so long). Previously, though, in 1890, he had published an equally tender portrait of Martinique in Two Years in the French West Indies.
I arrive in Fort-de-France, the island’s capital, before heading straight for St Pierre. In 1890, it was the centre of French trade in the Caribbean and the most fashionable town in the region – Parisian style was followed to the letter and the leading actors of the day often came to play. As we drive north, hundreds of tree frogs are in full song. Bars flash by blaring zouk music. The night is ominously stormy, though. As I head for an early bed, the trees are thrashing and the rain batters the tin roof.
It’s not hard to wake early, as I am still on European time, and we set off for the mountain. We will be making an ascent of Mount Pelée, up to the crater, then descending its northern flank to the coast at Grand’Rivière, from where the coastal path will bring us back to our start at Le Prêcheur. It will be a long first day. However, the mountain has other ideas – trees are flailing at the roadside, dropping branches, and the rivers are gushing.
We head off up a near-vertical path and I immediately feel for the porteuses. They would carry upwards of 45kg in weight on their heads, needing help just to get the loaded trays in position. They carried everything that a cart couldn’t move in such steep, rough terrain – ribbons, pins, needles, tobacco, dancing shoes, ink stands, cosmetics and brightly coloured scarfs. The most heavily laden woman was the one bringing the day’s supply of bread to the villages of the interior.
By contrast, I am carrying a wimpish daysack with just emergency equipment and water, and already I am panting for breath. In the tropical forest it is humid; I am sweating buckets. After an hour, the trees thin due to the elevation and we walk out into a howling wind. The rain slashes the hillside and the path begins to resemble a sluice. Blimey, I think, it’s like Wales. Although, thankfully, not as cold.
We reach a ridgeline and follow it up. The clouds are racing and the rain is pounding the tropical hillsides. We can see no more than 300ft ahead and after two hours, my guide, René, calls a halt. In this weather the crater may be dangerous because of rockfalls. He’s right, and we won’t be able to see anything anyway. We descend instead. The one bright note is that we hear a solitaire, its single, mournful peep sounding every 10 seconds, as though in despair of finding a mate.
We head for the coast and a beachfront café on the black sand of Le Carbet. It’s steak frites and red wine to recuperate. The conversation turns to the brooding Pelée. When it blew, St Pierre was hit by a shock wave with the force of a nuclear bomb and then engulfed by a nuée ardente, a cloud of superheated gases and pumice that skittered down the hill at 250 miles per hour.
As in Pompeii, the lava overran the town, incinerating the inhabitants, wilting metal and glass and then rolling over the sea, boiling it and burning ships at anchor for a mile out. Weirder still, over the following few months a needle of solidified lava emerged from the crater and climbed to 1,000ft. It glowed for about six months before collapsing.
René thinks on his feet, looking at the map. “Tomorrow the weather might still be bad, so we should go into the forest at the Pitons du Carbet. There we can trace another Martinican trade route.” The West Indian islands are networked with paths that for generations were used by subsistence farmers with small vegetable plots high in the hills. The farmers are now dying out – today’s youth don’t want to be attached to the land, much less lug their produce for miles to the roadside – but many of the paths have been handed on to hikers. Much of the system of trails is still rough mountain going – and, by tomorrow, perilously muddy – reaching into Martinique’s green heart. René has a look in his eye as if to say, “Don’t think you’ll be getting off lightly.”
We have a long day ahead and set out early for the village of Morne-Vert, at the start of a long-distance hiking path. The country is unbelievably, shockingly fertile. Ferns stand 30ft high, bamboo explodes in puffs of electric green and creeping vines cover whole hillsides, enveloping trees and hanging in ghoulish shapes with cavernous gaps for eyes.
The forest encloses us. There is a subterranean green light in here. An awning of foliage hangs over the path, where river crabs scuttle, yellow claws raised in defiance. We climb and descend, occasionally passing through wet fields. On the forest floor the whole quick process of tropical life is visible, with leaves in various stages of decomposition: green, just fallen; then curled, crinkled and brown; next partly eaten by insects and bacteria, and finally just a filament skeleton, before they are all reabsorbed into the earth.
René is a fount of knowledge. He pauses at a plant with tiny purple flowers and hands me the root to smell. Memories of the rugby changing room come to mind – Deep Heat. Esthère fragile, he says. It contains camphor. The porteuses would use it to warm up their muscles. Further down the track, zoreille mouton (you can just hear the French for “sheep’s ear” in the creole), which was used against sprains – a tropical arnica.
He reckons there are probably 1,000 plants in the forest with a medical use. Most modern-day Martinicans use doctors, but some also look to guérisseurs – traditional healers, who have a bush remedy for everything. From here it is an easy route into voodoo, because the guérisseurs also have knowledge of quimbois, the local variant. It’s not that prevalent any more, but it’s there in the background.
The route emerges from the forest – it’s still raining – and descends through the high cultivations. An occasional cow watches us pass the plots of root vegetables – yam, dasheen, sweet potato. All the produce has to be loaded on to the farmer’s head and carried 500ft down to the river and up the other side.
Sweating, we rejoin the road, following it for a couple of miles through the village of Fonds-Saint-Denis, before descending the Carbet River valley. Here we pick up a water channel, built by slaves in the late 1700s to feed the sugar mills lower down. The water still flows in and out of the crevices in the hillsides. As we walk, the valley appears beautifully below us. It pays to be careful, though. In places there is a 100ft sheer drop.
After two hours we emerge into a modern banana plantation and the route carries us downhill, along an old track used by the porteuses. Eventually, by mid-afternoon, we are down on the coast. There is just time to grab a shower before heading to the airport.
I board the flight to Paris and promptly fall into a deep sleep.
Back on UK time, it’s early enough to reach the office before it all kicks off again. I reflect that even if the weather had been good, it would have been more than challenging to emulate those extraordinary women who would carry such huge weights over the mountains in the tropical heat. And nor would I have moved with anything like their graceful cadence.