Swinging inland from the Northside Road at Bloody Bay, the Roxborough–Parlatuvier Road connects the leeward and windward coasts, running straight through the Tobago Forest Reserve and the central mountain range. Construction of the road began in 1958, prior to which the two sides of the island were only linked by small trails. However, Hurricane Flora ravaged it mercilessly five years later, and the road was not repaired until the mid-1990s. Now it’s a beautifully quiet half-hour drive through the rainforest; lined with pioneer ferns and parrot-apple trees, the tarmac is in generally good shape (though watch out for a few water-damaged spots) and traffic is rare.
The reserve itself acquired its status as the oldest protected rainforest in the western hemisphere during the plantation era, when British scientist Stephen Hales began researching the relationship between rainfall and trees and communicated his findings to Soame Jenyns, a British MP responsible for the development of Tobago. At the time, plantations were concentrated in low-lying parts of the island, but the estates began encroaching on the more precipitous forest areas, felling trees for fuel or clearing land to make way for yet more sugar cane. It took Jenyns ten years to convince Tobago’s planters that if they continued to cut down the forest, the island would soon be incapable of supporting the smallest of shrubs, let alone a massive sugar plantation. Ultimately, he was successful, and on April 13, 1776, 14,000 acres of central Tobago were designated a protected Crown Reserve.
The main point of access into the Forest Reserve is the Gilpin Trace, marked by a painted sign 3km along the Roxborough–Parlatuvier Road. The 5km trail which strikes straight into the forest from here is well marked and maintained, though often very muddy regardless of the weather – the forest gets around 380cm of rain each year. You’ll be offered rubber boots to rent for TT$20 on the approach to Gilpin Trace, and it’s a good idea to take a pair (bring your own socks). The trail takes about two and a half hours to walk at a leisurely pace, taking you through some spectacular forest dotted with huge termite nests, with lianas and vines blocking out most of the light. The birdlife in the forest is most active early in the morning, so birdwatchers should aim to be on the trail by about 6am. Later in the day, you might see the odd hummingbird, mot-mot or woodpecker, if you’re lucky. Typically, tour guides will take you past three small waterfalls – none are suitable for swimming – before turning back. If you follow the trail to its end, you’ll come out of the forest just after the reserve boundary, towards the windward side, approximately 3km north of Roxborough – remember that it is a steep uphill walk along the road back to the start of the trail if you’ve parked there.