St. Lucia, W.I. (that’s the West Indies, not Wisconsin). Mid 1980s.
Poster at the Anse Chastanet Resort…
Rain Forest Tour
A half-day walk through the rain forest of St. Lucia with a knowledgeable guide.
If you are lucky, you may see the Green Parrot or a 5 foot Iguana.
Great. The whirlwind volcano tour we had taken the day before, which also looked good on paper, had cured us of taking sightseeing tours. That tour involved buzzing around in a van for four hours catching glimpses of various thermal formations. We didn’t even see any lava. So now, traipsing through the jungle all day with a bunch of out-of-shape tourists didn’t appeal to us, even if they did have 5 foot iguanas. We hung out at the beach.
Later that evening our suspicions were confirmed. A couple that we had met on the volcano tour also took the rain forest walk. Unfortunately, another participant had broken a leg 8 months ago and got paranoid of re-injury on the muddy and somewhat primitive trail. The expedition progressed so slowly that ~ not only did they not see any parrots or iguanas ~ but they never even made it into the actual rain forest.
It did, however, rain the whole time.
The next day we decided to take our own hike into Souffiere, the village near the hotel. There we ran into Nelson, our local “tour guide” (that’s a whole story unto itself). Nelson eventually led us (probably by conspiracy) to the Unique Boutique, a small shop run by Martial Simon who also leads the rain forest tours.
“Have you been on the tour?”
“No. We know some people that went and they didn’t see any parrots. They didn’t even make it to the rain forest.”
“I can take you to see the parrots. If you have the stamina, I can take you to within 20 feet of the nest.’’
“What about a 5 foot Iguana?”
“I can take you to see that too — in the zoo. You won’t see any in the wild anymore.”
OK, at least he was honest. We went into Martial’s store and looked at some Carib Indian artifacts. I was still skeptical about the tour, but the more I talked to Martial the more I liked him. Martial had a very quiet and thoughtful manner coupled with a tremendous knowledge of his environment. I figured that even if the tour was boring, it would at least be interesting to hang out with him for a morning.
“If we go on the tour I just want Pam and me to go — no one else.”
“No problem. Just be at my house at 6:00 tomorrow morning. I’ll try get a hold of Trevor (a cab driver) to pick you up.’’
5:00 am is early to get up when you’re on vacation. Trevor showed up at 5:30 am. It was still dark. We drove up a small and winding mountain road for about 20 minutes to get to Martial’s house. In the dark, we walked up to what most Americans would characterize as a “small shack”. However, while the entire structure may be the size of a small bedroom in the United States and constructed out of available materials, it is very much of a home. We instantly felt comfortable in it.
Martial’s house consisted of three rooms. In the front room, there was just enough space for the small table and chairs Martial had set up for us. A single candle provided a warm, mysterious light, while an incredibly wonderful smell filled the crisp air.
Martial showed us what it was — freshly picked coffee beans roasting in a clay urn. He had also brewed some for us. The experience was starting to be worth the trip already. After a couple of cups of fresh St. Lucian coffee and quiet conversation, Martial grabbed a machete and said “Let’s go.”
A pre-dawn glow was in the air, although it was still dark enough to have to concentrate on seeing the ground. The stillness was broken only by the roosters next door. Martial’s neighbor is into cock fighting.
Up into the mountains we went on a muddy, narrow trail, dancing on rocks to keep from stepping in ankle deep slime.
As the sun rose, we were treated to magnificent views. As we looked across the valley at the Pitons ~ a pair of 2 and 3 thousand foot volcanic cones ~ the early morning sun lit up the peaks, while moisture in the air formed a complementary rainbow.
Martial pointed out the various plants as we went up into the hills. We passed almost every kind of tropical fruit tree imaginable. Most of the vegetation, including palm trees, are not indigenous to the island. A small area of rain forest is all that is left of the original cover. Like most Caribbean Islands, the rest of the country has been cut down and replanted several times.
It took about an hour and a half to reach the rain forest. We then branched off the primitive trail and onto a very primitive trail that was heavily overgrown. Pam asked if this was where the other group had to turn back. Martial said that they didn’t come this way at all. He doesn’t normally take people this way, just people like us who have the endurance and the desire to really see. From the beginning, the trail did seem a little rough for touristas.
We entered the rain forest proper. The rain forest consists of magnificent old trees like incense cedar and giant fern trees. Fern trees are the oldest living species on earth. They look like the plants seen in dinosaur exhibits and we halfway expected to see a stegosaurus come romping out of the brush.
The very primitive trail ended. We were now on a high ridge, heavily wooded with all sorts of magical looking trees and plants I had never seen before — time to bushwhack through fairyland. We didn’t see any gnomes, but I knew they were there.
The object of our quest lives in a hollowed-out dead tree. The green parrot exists only on St. Lucia and is in the top 20 of endangered birds. This is an improvement — it used to be in the top 10. Martial claimed that he is the only one on the island who really knows, or cares, where the birds live. From our other experiences on the island, I believe him. Outside groups such as Audobon and National Geographic have filmed in the area and keep track of the situation. Economics, however, rules the world and the main trick will be keeping agricultural interests from clear-cutting to plant bananas or some other cash crop. Right now the country is long on jungle and short on cash. Not good ingredients for wilderness conservation.
When we arrived at the nest it appeared that no one was home. So we curled up under a tree to wait.
A half hour later, the parrots still had not come back, but, it really didn’t matter. I was happy just sitting in silence, listening to the sounds of the jungle.
And we could hear the parrot.
After a while, we climbed out onto the edge of the ridge and balanced ourselves on a fallen tree. From there, we could see the valley and Mt. Gime, the highest mountain in St. Lucia checking in at 3,117 feet.
We could also see the parrots flying around in the valley. Pam had perfected their whistle and was talking to one of them, but was unsuccessful in talking it into stopping by. It did not look like we would get a close look.
I knew we had already been gone longer than Martial expected.
“Martial, if you need to go back, just let us know. Don’t you have to open your store?”
“I was supposed to give someone a key at 10:00 but, I want you to see the parrot … besides, I’d rather be here anyway.’’
The comment indicated why it was so pleasurable to be with Martial. The rain forest is not just a source of income. It is his passion. He loves the forest, would not want to be anywhere else, and obviously, he enjoys sharing its secrets with appreciative people.
When dealing with birds, patience is the name of the game. Just when we were about to give up, two parrots headed our way. One flew into the nest and the other perched in a tree just above us. I’m not really big on bird watching and I would have been content to just hike and sit in the forest. But the Green Parrot of St. Lucia was worth the effort. After an hour of waiting in silence, here was a cute little green bird with a white tail and big eyes checking us out. I snapped a few photos that I knew wouldn’t come out. After a few minutes of watching I slowly moved to where I could get a better picture. The parrots didn’t like it. In a loud squawking fervor, they were off.
The hardest job in the world has got to be photographing birds.
Mission accomplished, we headed back. But first, Martial said he wanted to stop at his garden, which is not exactly in his back yard.
We headed straight down a muddy embankment hanging onto roots and tree trunks to keep from sliding all the way down out of control.
Martial’s garden was in the valley below the rain forest. We could see the parrots flying above. The garden was filled with fruit trees. Martial picked some oranges for us.
As we sat and ate, it began to rain as hard as it could possibly rain “just to remind us that we were in a rain forest’’, as Martial put it. He cut us some banana leaves which make excellent rain hats.
It stopped raining in about 10 minutes and we began the 45 minute walk back to Martial’s house. On the way out of the garden, Martial pulled out some Dasheen, a potato-like plant, for dinner.
Due to the rain, the trail on the way back had become significantly more muddy, and in places, it was more like little rivers.
Back at Martial’s, we took the tour of his back yard — a tropical paradise with a bedazzling variety of fruits, nuts and spices. He gave us some turmeric, cinnamon and coffee beans.
Meanwhile, Trevor had been waiting for us since 10:00, which is when Martial had told him we’d be back. It was now noon. He didn’t seem to mind. It’s the island way.
We went back to the hotel totally trashed out with rain forest mud and scum. We were also starved, having hiked for 6 hours on 2 cups of coffee and 2 oranges. It was time for freshly grilled tuna and rum punch!
More > see Pam’s video In Search Of The Green Parrot.