“Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times; it may get bumpy” our Rainforest Adventures guide advises cheerily as we settle back in the metal seats of our bright green tram.
This is no ordinary tram, however — in no time at all, this vehicle rises up off the ground and begins to follow a track high up into the trees.
We’re heading up into the clouds, 450 metres above the forest floor to be precise, through towering gum trees, ficus trees and fiddlehead ferns to reach the bright blue skies above the treetops.
Our green gondola gently rocks as it heads slowly skyward through and above 76 square kilometres of lush, protected rainforest, and we’re given fabulous views and fascinating facts from our guide as we discover the vital importance of each level.
The tropical Babonneau rainforest — Forest floor and shrub layers
The Babonneau rainforest is a tropical forest and also classifies as an oceanic rainforest, reaching the North Atlantic Ocean.
Tropical rainforests are found near to the equator and are very wet; receiving more than 200cm rainfall per year.
The forest is made up of native plants, and flora from different parts of the world. There are plants from the Tropic of Capricorn and the beautiful giant hibiscus flowers were brought in from Jamaica.
Wild rabbits live at this level. They eat — and subsequently disperse — seed pods, so play a vital role in helping plant life to thrive here.
The forest floor is also home to Saint Lucia’s largest wild animal on the island — a species of wild boar and some usual species too, such as the agouti; a member of the rodent family, as well as mongooses, opossum.
These floor dwellers must stay on the look-out for predators though. There are four snake species on the island: the worm snake, the Saint Lucia lance head, the Saint Lucia racer and the Saint Lucia boa constrictor.
The island’s first Christmas trees were grown in the Babonneau forest. These Norfolk Island Pines make for an unusual sight on a tropical island — but relate to the country’s history — it is a member of the Commonwealth and has a long history of French and English settlers fighting over its rule.
We peer down from our gondola as the shrub layer falls away at our feet, and look down upon Pinhead ferns and some of the world’s tallest Fiddlehead ferns — which are harvested as a vegetable and considered a delicacy.
At this level we can see magnolia shrubs and bright coloured flowers. Fruit and berries can be found here, including breadfruit, which was initially grown on the island to feed slaves. It has no nutritional value, but is an energy booster, full of glucose — and today it provides a sugar rush to the rainforest animals instead.
Rainforest life — Understorey layer and canopy layer
The understory layer can be found at the halfway point of the tallest trees in the forest. Here we can find insects, birds and lizards.
Saint Lucia was previously called Iyonola by the native Amerindians, and later, Hewanorra, a name given to the island by the native Caribs. Both of Saint Lucia’s previous names mean “island of the iguanas”, though today there is only one species of Iguana found on the island.
Scorpions and tarantulas also make their home here, and there are 12 species of lizard scuttling through the trees, including the Saint Lucia whiptail lizard – discovered in 1958. It’s regarded as one of the rarest lizards in the world.
The canopy layeris the most active layer of the forest for the birds that live here.
The national bird of Saint Lucia is the Saint Lucian Parrot (the Amazona versicolor), which is one of five native parrot species and 157 bird species that live on the island.
As many as 45 of these species can be found in the rainforest, including three species of hummingbirds – the Antillean Crested Hummingbird, the Purple-throated Carib and the Green-throated Carib.
The canopy is also an important level in managing the island’s weather systems. Gaps in the canopy allow hurricanes to pass through, as the high winds come down through the gaps and spread through the trees; slowing down their force without damaging the forest too much.
Aerial views — Emergent layer
At 430 metres above sea level we emerge from the treetops to vast views of forest, clouds and distant ocean.
This is the highest point of the trams cable lines, and is most notable for its stunning scenery. At this level, sky predators, nocturnal bats and rain clouds are most prominent.
Despite Saint Lucia’s many birds, it has only one sky predator; the chicken hawk — named so because it feeds by stealing the offspring of chickens.
The treetop view of the Babonneau rainforest stretches out to the distant sea. Trundling forwards along the wire track at this level gives us a chance to catch our breath, before beginning our descent back to ground level.
Protecting the Babonneau rainforest trees
The Babonneau rainforest plays an important role in the eco diversity of the island.
It is Saint Lucia’s oldest forest, established in 1916. In 2010, Hurricane Thomas tore through the island, and severely damaged the forest reserve. More than 500 acres of rainforest were lost to landslides during the storm.
Although some restoration work has been carried out, there is still a need to protect the forest to prevent further loss and damage.
During the Babonneau’s centenary year the Government of Saint Lucia unveiled a 10-year forest protection plan, as part of World Forest Day.
As Saint Lucia’s Sustainable Development Minister, Dr. James Fletcher, said: “The world must wake up to the fact that forests play a vital role in poverty eradication, environmental sustainability and food security.”