Guadeloupe pulls the rug out from under us as we set off to explore its natural treasure trove. “You’ll slide down the first canyon, then down another and into what we call ‘the washing machine’, you’ll see why, and for the third canyon… well, let’s keep that a surprise,” our guide Raphaël Dörr outlines the blueprint of our next descent down plunging gorges in the forests of Pointe-Noire in Guadeloupe, an ill-disguised smirk stretching his sunburned lips.
His excitement is perfect if you like surprises. Which I do not.
I lie down on my back, an ice-cold river raging over my body that’s been shoehorned into a tight wetsuit.
“Getting into your wetsuit will be the hardest part of canyoning,” Raphaël joked earlier.
I whoosh down nature’s waterslide, then another, landing in a churning pool that swirls me around like I were a doll. Ah, the washing machine. Clever. I grope for Raphaël’s arm, and he fishes me out. Then he lobs me backwards, surprise, down another slot canyon. I emerge disoriented… and exhilarated.
Maybe I do like surprises.
And Guadeloupe is loaded with them. It’s a tiny archipelago, yet it’s among the world’s top 25 most biodiverse spots. The Guadeloupe National Park alone is a 24,500-hectare playground of lagoons, mangroves and swamp forests, harbouring more than 300 species of trees, 200 species of birds and 3,000 species of insects. But none are deadly, Raphaël reassures us. A sigh of relief all around, and a scoff by one gentleman who seems to find the lack of lethal wildlife disappointing.
Off we go, burrowing deeper into a jungle that astounds us around every leafy bend. We leapfrog over slippery rocks, past a bulbous termite nest. Raphaël scrapes it with a finger, scoops up the wood-munching critters and licks them off. “You have to really bite into them to release their flavour,” he insists. I do. They taste like anise. (I don’t like anise.)
We leap foolhardily off cliffs, past a gargantuan strangler fig that has wrapped itself around a tree and swallowed it whole, sprouting mighty aerial roots that Tarzan could easily mistake for swingable vines. We trek through an eerily still jungle, in the shadow of the rumbling La Soufrière volcano, the highest peak in the Lesser Antilles at 1,467 metres.
Until we finally reach Acomat Falls, a nine-metre-tall cascade. There are several ways down, it turns out. Also, it turns out, all those ways defy death. Here’s the plan, as Raphaël sees it. We’ll slide down a canyon and then free-fall into the emerald waters below, The Goonies-style.
I’m not loving this plan. But this is how Guadeloupe rolls, so I lie down on my back, flash Raphaël a thumbs-up and a look that suggests this abandonment of common sense will surely come back to bite me, and off I go on my bumpy pilgrimage down the waterfall.
Yes. I definitely do like surprises.
And not just on land.
As we wind our way down twisting cliff roads, I ask my driver how far to our destination. He shrugs and says, “Fifteen minutes,” in a most unconvincing tone. Guadeloupe doesn’t bother with time. Everything is 15 minutes away.
We arrive, 30 minutes later, at Malendure Beach, bordered by colourful shops and restaurants.
“You can’t come to Guadeloupe and not try our bokit,” teases my driver.
I wouldn’t dare. I follow him to a bright-yellow shack, where a plump lady is frying dough in oil with the air of a mother cooking in her home kitchen. I order a crispy bokit, stuffed with chicken. No surprises here: it’s delicious.
An hour later, I embark on a speedboat, and in no time, I’m bobbing in the bluer-than-blue waters of the 1,000-hectare Cousteau Reserve, named after famed explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
I dive in and immediately see the world through a technicolour lens. Fish burst into vivid oranges, fiery reds and electric blues as they flit in and out of the dappled sunlight that pierces the outrageously crystalline ocean, like rays through stained-glass cathedral windows. I glide through a wonderland that not even Lewis Carroll himself could have conjured up.
A world where pulsing moon jellyfish light up the liquid sky. Where the languid sea cucumber expels its internal organs in a crafty defence that rivals any comic-book superpower. Where land animals shape- shift into fish with zebra stripes and giraffe patches. A realm that harbours fugitives from fairy tales in the shape of the long-nose Pinocchio butterflyfish. That furnishes its home with giant brains and elk antlers. No, no fantasy could trump this reality.
On our drive to the hotel, with images of the underwater fairyland still swirling in my head, we pass the Deshaies Botanical Garden. Its sign reads: “Our nature will surprise you.”
“That should be the slogan of Guadeloupe,” laughs my driver.
He’s right. Before waterfalls will be backward canyon slides. Above a whimsical jungle will tower an even more capricious volcano. Underneath serene ocean waters will stir a flurry of fish. And it’ll all be 15 minutes away.