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To Ride a Mule or Not to Ride a Mule?

It wasn?t a race, but even so I felt slightly nervous at the starting line. Bertrand and Catherine, a well-preserved French couple in their late-50s, had psyched me out at breakfast with talk of their extensive hiking experience. Moulou-Moulou, their 14-year-old adopted daughter, was from Ethiopia, a country synonymous with world-class long-distance runners. And Thomas, our guide, just had to be fitter than me. I was seriously starting to doubt my capacity to compete in such company, and I thought about waiting until a less sporty group had been assembled to climb the highest mountain in the West Indies.

And perhaps I would have said something if, just a few minutes after leaving the National Parks Office at the foot of the mountain, Thomas had not clambered on to one of the seven mules which, along with three Dominican guides, formed part of the expedition. These animals were not there, as I had assumed, simply to carry our packs; they were also on hand to give lifts to weary hikers - and Thomas had been the first to capitulate. This filled me with confidence and, with a spring now in my step, I attacked the first few meters of the 3,175 which lay ahead. It might seem slightly perverse to come on vacation to the Caribbean and spend a precious couple of days slogging your guts out to get to the top of a mountain. Yet climbing Pico Duarte is one of the adventure travel highlights in the Dominican Republic, even if relatively few people have completed the feat. The standard trek, which takes you up and down the mountain by the quickest route, takes two days and can be done independently (accompanied by an approved guide) or with one of the several adventure companies operating in the country. Rancho Baiguate had organized our trip.

After about two hours, we stopped for sandwiches at a beautiful spot overlooking the valley floor. Although the path had been rocky and, at times, wet and muddy, we had made good progress and were now high enough to start to appreciate why we had made the effort. At the same time, I began to realize that we were gradually walking away from our precious tropical paradise into another beautiful, yet relatively un-Caribbean world. For up here pines and ferns were starting to outnumber the West Indian cedar, matchwood, juniper and wild tamarind. Woodpeckers were making as much noise in the trees as Hispaniolan parrots, and the air was getting fresher and less humid. Further up, temperatures have been known to drop to freezing and it sometimes snows.

Sandwiches over, Thomas climbed back on to his trusty mule. I cast a glance at Moulou-Moulou and her parents, but none of them followed our guide?s example. So, although my legs were starting to ache, I also continued on foot. You really have to be in good shape to walk all the way to the top. I finally resorted to my mule at about the half way mark, Moulou-Moulou followed minutes later, and only the French couple, living up to the breakfast-time hype, remained on foot for the duration of the trip. On the other hand, while the ascent is physically challenging, most of the way is shaded by a canopy of tress and, therefore, not suicidal.

Roughly eight hours after leaving the National Parks Office, our merry band arrived at La Compartici?n, a collection of rudimentary cabins where we were to camp for the night. Under normal circumstances, we would have walked no further that day: most trips stop at La Compartici?n for the night before the short climb to the summit early the following morning to watch the sunrise. However, since forecasts of bad weather were threatening to spoil the sunrise, Thomas decided to leave the guides at La Compartici?n to prepare dinner while we tried to make it to the top in time for the sunset.

On a clear day you can see the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea from Pico Duarte. Today, however, clouds had obliterated all but the nearest mountains. Not long after our arrival at the summit ? a self-satisfying moment notwithstanding the help of the mules - even these had disappeared behind a thick curtain of cloud which had closed in around us. The temperature was no more than 15?C, which was apparently still quite warm compared to winter. I felt slightly ridiculous up here in my Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses. Indeed, it was as if we had walked straight through the roof of the Caribbean and were, all of a sudden, quite out of place in a new, strange land. This magical moment lasted until our return to La Compartici?n, where the smell of roasting meat, the garbled Spanish of our guides, and the sight of the mules quickly jolted us back to reality.

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