Jamaica, land we love | Escape

Jamaica’s beaches are as famous as its reggae and dancehall. But turn from the coast into the lush, hilly interior and you discover why the island’s name means “land of wood and water.” And there’s no better way to experience that wild beauty than to hike up Blue Mountain Peak, as Nazma Muller did

In the hills above Ocho Rios, the Blue Hole — also sometimes called Secret Falls — are a turquoise oasis set among a profusion of trees and flowers. Photo by Ivan Kokoulin/Shutterstock.comIn St Elizabeth Parish, between the villages of Middle Quarters and Lacovia, Bamboo Avenue stretches for two and a half miles through a natural green tunnel. Photo by Doug Pearson/AWL/GettyThe Black River, Jamaica’s second-longest, runs from the limestone hills of the Cockpit Country to the mangrove forests of the Lower Morass before emptying into the Caribbean Sea. Photo by Kkulikov/Shutterstock.comIn the hills of St Ann Parish, the farming community of Nine MIle is perhaps best known as the birth- and burial place of Bob Marley. Photo by Digital Light Source/UIG/GettyUp close, the Blue Mountains of western Jamaica are lush and green — but from a distance, their mists and hazes lend the hills the indigo shades that give the range its name. Photo by Doug Pearson/AWL/GettyWhitfield Hall, an historic coffee estate, is also the trailhead for the hike to Blue Mountain Peak. Photo by Nazma MullerThe trail to the summit of Blue Mountain Peak ascends through cloud forest. Photo by Nicholas LaughlinPhoto by Nazma MullerNear the summit, a semi-ruined shelter is surrounded by hydrangea bushes. Photo by Nicholas LaughlinJamaica map

To the most high

The flames licked the logs in the fireplace, and I drew my chair closer, huddling deeper in my sweaters. A window was open, and the cold wind seeped in. Outside, a steady rain was falling, and the mist wrapped itself around the hills behind Whitfield Hall. I was spending the night at the eighteenth-century guesthouse so I could start the hike to Blue Mountain Peak at the delightful hour of four the next morning.

For twenty years I had dreamed of ascending the peak again. I first made the hike in 1998, and survived the seven miles to suffer the agony of the feet (I’d worn construction boots). For days after, I couldn’t walk — my toes, calves, and thighs bawled fi mercy, and I couldn’t sleep for the pain. But that ascent to the heavens has always stayed with me: the memory of the astonishing light among the fern-draped trees at seven thousand feet, the mist rolling in on all sides to cloak the mountaintops, and the heart-stopping panoramic views of these endless woody mammoths.

For me, these mountains have always been the most mystical part of the most mesmerising place on the planet. So when the hundred thousand acres of the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, I thought it only fitting and long overdue. In taking its place alongside other sites like the Egyptian pyramids, Timbuktu, Viñales Valley in Cuba, and the Great Wall of China, the park is now recognised globally for its invaluable natural and cultural resources, including 1,300 species of flowering plant, two hundred bird species, and the legacy of the legendary Maroons.

I arrived in Jamaica for what seemed like mission impossible. I was toting a tabanca (that uniquely Trinidadian word for heartbreak), feeling sorry for myself, and in full moping mode. In short, totally unprepared for trudging up the sides of mountains. I doubted I had either the physical or mental strength to make it up Jacob’s Ladder, the first most formidable stretch of calf-clenching steepness.

It was a Sunday morning when we drove up from Kingston to Whitfield Hall. Along the way, we passed ladies on their way home from church, calmly climbing the steep slopes in their heels. “A nuh no fenky fenky ooman like down a Kingston,” my guide, Carey pointed out. “Serious ooman dat.”

To be sure, to live in these rugged mountains, like the Maroons did, one needs a certain mettle. But just as the air, soil, and altitude combine to bring out the finest qualities in the coffee grown here, so it is with the people. The challenge of living in these mountains requires a resilience and determination that few of us have.

Of course, I had forgotten how cold it could get up here. After a simple yet tasty dinner of rice and peas and veggies served up by Everton, the resident chef and man of business at Whitfield Hall, I girded my loins to face the eighteenth-century (heater-less) shower. I am certain I set a Guinness World Record for the quickest shower ever. The kerosene lamp cast a warm glow in the cosy room as I dove beneath the covers and promptly fell asleep.

At 2 am, I was awakened by the sounds of the other guests — a group of seven from Canada, Israel, Germany, and England — getting ready to take off. They were hoping to reach the peak in time to see the sunrise. I drifted off again, hoping that the predicted rain would fall and save me from certain failure. But at 3.30 am, when my body clock woke me, there was no rain. I could hear Carey moving around in the next room. Damn it, I thought, the game is on. Reluctantly, I pulled on my sneakers.

Outside, it was freezing and pitch-black. Above, the stars were out in all their glory, blazing bright in a totally clear sky. Soon we heard the roar of a motorbike coming up the road. Ranger Ryan Love parked at Whitfield Hall and joined us on the trail. In no time, we were climbing a steep slope, and I could see the lights of Kingston twinkling far below. By the time I reached the bottom of Jacob’s Ladder, I was sweating. But when we stopped to take a break, the cold set in again. I tried to control my breathing, but the steepness of this first part of the hike was daunting, and all I could do was stop and rest every few minutes.

 

Barely half an hour in, and I was contemplating turning back. It seemed impossible. What was I thinking of, at the age of forty-three, with no preparation whatsoever? But the thought of conceding defeat bugged me. That, and Carey. “Yuh nuh do yoga, Rasta?” he teased. “Come, man, do some belly breathing.”

Hmmph, I thought, I can’t let down the side now. And so I continued to climb, as the sky slowly lightened. The trail was now a narrow track running along the side of the mountain, trees on either side. The birds were waking, and as the sun rose slowly we could hear the various tweets and calls ringing out.

“I’m going to try to make it to Portland Gap,” I told Carey and Ryan.

“Cho, man,” Carey replied. “We nah turn back. Me and Ryan a mek bivouac and carry you. Nobody haffi know.”

“I will know, Rasta. Me must do it myself.”

At Portland Gap, the halfway point, the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust were refurbishing some cabins. Many hikers prefer to overnight here before ascending the peak. In the trees above the cabins, a woodpecker appeared. Then a hummingbird. Morning had broken and the inhabitants of the mountain were waking up.

I decided to soldier on, see how far I could go. As we passed four thousand feet, the air became thinner, the lichens and moss became more abundant, and the views became even more spectacular. It was all I could do to keep on breathing — and putting one foot in front the other. A crested quail dove waddled along the trail ahead of me, searching for breakfast. Then another, and another. In the trees, hummingbirds abounded. And still, I kept on going.

Then suddenly, up ahead, it appeared. The most wonderful sight in the world: the most famous graffiti-covered, broken-down shelter in the world. I had made it to the Peak.

Somehow I had found the strength, way down deep inside, beneath the self-doubt, to conquer the mountain. Perhaps it was the spirit of the Maroons that motivated me, or the countless ordinary Jamaicans who face the day-to-day uphill struggles to survive with a smile and an irieness that is infectious.

Whatever it was, I give thanks. Who knows, perhaps one day, twenty years from now, I will climb the Peak again.

 

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