What is Jacko Steps?
Like a lot of Caribbean Islands, Dominica has a grim history of slavery but also bears testimony to oppressed people’s constant struggle for liberty. Jacko Flats near Pont Cassé marks the location of a camp formed by maroons (escaped slaves) who for decades successfully fought against slavers and the colonial administration by employing guerilla-style tactics. It’s named after the leader, Jacko, who was killed in 1814, when the camp was discovered and razed by government troops.
Today, the only remaining trace is a set of huge stone steps cut into the rock, meant as an escape route from the camp. Apart from that, there’s little evidence of the camp left, but it is still a fascinating historic destination for a hike and a great opportunity to explore parts of the island’s lush interior.
How to get to the trailhead?
The hiking trail starts near the tiny village of Belles on the Pont Cassé-Marigot Road. As minibuses are infrequent, hitch-hiking to Belles from near the roundabout in Pont Cassé is probably your best choice. As this is the main highway leading through the interior of the island, the frequency of cars seems slightly higher than on most other roads in the vicinity.
Do I need a guide?
If you’re planning on doing the whole trail, it’s probably a good idea. I went there on my own and was fine but the second half of the trail involves hiking through the Layou River through sometimes thigh-high water, which can be a bit scary (and is certainly dangerous and not recommended in the rainy season!). The other option would be returning the same way you came after you’ve reached Jacko’s Steps.
Still, the complicated track through the Layou River is also the most attractive part of the hike nature-wise, so if you can do it, you shouldn’t miss it. If you want to take a guide, it’s probably best to ask people at the place you’re staying at for a recommendation. I didn’t meet anyone at the trailhead I could have asked to come along, even if I’d wanted to.
How long does the hike take?
Plan about 3 hours for the round-hike, 2 if you return the way you came once you’ve reached Jacko Steps.
What to bring?
Needless to say, take snacks and water for the entire hike – there are no shops around. If you plan on doing the second half of the hike through the Layou River, I highly recommend taking shoes that can get wet: some trekking sandals would probably be the best. I did it with Flip-Flops, which wasn’t ideal to say the least (the surprisingly fast current claimed one of them).
As the water can get thigh-high I recommend wearing swimming trunks for the second half of the hike. A towel comes in handy after you’ve left the river. If you have a walking stick, bring it along, as it will be especially useful in the river. Otherwise you could try and look for a suitable stick before starting the second half of the hike.
How much does it cost?
Technically, hiking to Jacko Steps is free but you should consider giving Mal and Eunice, the couple maintaining the trail, a small donation of 10 to 15 ECD. They live in a wooden house that you’ll pass before reaching Jacko Flats. They weren’t around when I did the hike so I left some money with Dawn at D-Smart-Farm in Pont Cassé who knows them personally. While not compulsory, it’s a small price to pay for such a unique hike.
Description of the hike
The trail starts at the small school in Belles – follow the road west to the Layou River and cross it. There’s a series of Rocks you can use or you can already get used to wading through the river, which is unavoidable if you plan on doing the entire hike. Climb the other side of the bank and follow the trail until you reach a wooden house. This is where Mal and Eunice live, who maintain the trail. Say hi, if they’re around and consider a small donation for using the path. The trail continues behind the house and climbs gradually until it reaches a plateau.
A sign informs you that you’ve reached Jacko Flats, the location of the former maroon camp. It’s well worth taking some time to soak up the unique atmosphere and try to imagine the lives of the people hiding up here. Another sign points in the direction of Jacko Steps, the only remaining vestige of the camp. Once you’ve reached them, take your time descending, as they are very tall and can be super slippery. Once you reach the bottom near the bank of a small river, you have to make the decision if you want to continue on for the second, more adventurous part of the hike or return the way you came.
If you choose the former option, continue along the small river, until it flows into the bigger Layou River. Turn left and follow the river upstream. In the beginning you’ll mostly be able to climb across rocks and sandbanks but occasionally you’ll have to venture into the water. Be careful, as the current can be swifter than it looks on the surface.
At a certain point you can’t avoid walking through the river, as it’s constricted by high cliffs on both sides. Sometimes you can hold on to the southern (right-hand) rockface to steady yourself. More often than not, though, you’ll find that the water is deeper near the cliff and you’ll have to veer closer to the centre of the river, where the current is stronger. Just assess the best way to go, take it slowly and you’ll be fine. I could imagine that a walking stick would really come in handy during this part of the hike.
Don’t forget to stop and enjoy the surrounding nature once in a while. There’s a small waterfall in a narrow cave in the northern (left-hand) cliff-face at some point. Eventually, you’ll have to cross the river to the left bank, as other tributaries will flow into the Layou on the right-hand side creating swift currents.
By that time, you’ll probably be able to mostly walk over boulders and sand along the northern bank of the river. Once you reach a junction of two big rivers, turn left and follow the river a bit further until you reach the point where you crossed the river at the very beginning of the hike. Climb up the right bank and walk back to the highway, were you started your hike.