Become a Fan
By Steve Devereaux
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Not rated by the Author.
An account of my time on Jamaica when I climbed to the peak of the Blue Mountains.
‘Are yer awright, mate?’ came a voice through the darkness.
‘Yeah, don’t worry. Just giving my legs a bit of a massage,’ I replied.
‘Oh, right, I guess it were a tough one for yer, weren’ it?’ he said. ‘Maybe yer should try an’ get yerself in better shape. But no, that’s a bit unfair cuz yer made it up ’ere, didn’ yer? Not everyone could a dun it. Reckon that’s sumfink ter be proud of, init?’
‘Yeah, cheers, and I’m certainly suffering for it now.’
‘Well, don’t worry, we dun the ’ard bit. It’s all dahnhill t’morra. So jus’ get yerself a good night’s sleep an’ we’ll see yer at sunrise.’
I wasn’t sure which of them had given this generous boost to my morale because they both spoke with cockney accents, though I was certain Mick and Les weren’t suffering as much as I was. They were physical education teachers, so the past few days had probably been little more than a gentle stroll for the two of them. Even so, I did feel a limited sense of achievement. I had made it all the way up here, though I also knew I couldn’t have done it without their help and support.
We were 7,400 feet above sea level, at the top of Jamaica, the Blue Mountain Peak, and in spite of the pain I was glad I had come. I’d arrived in Jamaica only four days earlier, yet so much had happened in that short space of time that it felt more like four weeks. I’d flown to Kingston from Miami, and after almost a year in the United States, I remember feeling a tense, nervous excitement in the pit of my stomach as the plane skimmed over this Caribbean island. I knew it was going to be a big change from the familiarity of America.
I don’t know if it was a result of my nervousness, but I managed to make a short series of blunders the moment I arrived. My first mistake was at the immigration desk, where I was required to hand over my passport together with the immigration card I had been given on the plane. Unfortunately, I hadn’t answered every question on this card as I was still unsure where I would be staying on the island. Consequently, I explained to the officer dealing with this oversight that I first needed to speak to someone at Tourist Information before I could supply an address in Jamaica. While making sure I understood that all official documents should always be completed in full, he agreed to overlook this discrepancy and allowed me to pass through.
I collected my backpack and went in search of the required information but the ‘laid-back’ layout of this airport immediately gave rise to my next mistake. Unlike most international airport terminals, where the only route of exit is through customs, here they’d stationed the customs officers at a desk to one side of the arrivals lounge. With my recent chastisement still fresh in mind, I marched straight over to the Tourist Information desk but I hadn’t even asked for assistance before a customs officer tapped me on the shoulder. I turned round and came face to face with a stocky man with a bullet-shaped bald head who told me it was a serious offence to try and leave the airport without first clearing customs. Following more apologies on my part, I fulfilled all the required formalities and then managed to get the address of a campsite just outside Kingston.
My next priority was changing money and even this simple transaction resulted in further embarrassment. I found that the only place to cash a traveller’s cheque was at the bureau de change situated next to immigration . . . on the other side of the customs desk! Luckily, I was given special permission to pass back through customs to buy some local currency. Then, finally, I could leave the airport and begin to explore Jamaica – the land of reggae, rum and reefer.
Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean and has a sombre history rooted in the sugar-plantation economy of the slave era, a memory kept alive in the lyrics of many reggae songs. It’s a very densely populated, poverty-stricken country, and this was at a time when it was struggling to escape dependency and debt through the development of tourism, an industry that had replaced agriculture as the island’s principle source of income. However, during the bus ride from the airport to the city centre, I discovered that their biggest advertising campaign was being mounted within the country itself. As the bus bounced along a pot-holed highway, we continually passed billboards plastered with slogans that were basically begging the native population to be nice to tourists!
When I arrived in downtown Kingston late that afternoon, I found this city neither welcoming nor beautiful. I quickly got a local bus and made a short but tedious 12-mile journey inland to Jack’s Hill, a small settlement in the mountains just beyond the city limits. I got off the bus on the far side of this village and then still had to hike a little further before reaching a campsite hidden away in an idyllic, peaceful, jungle setting that couldn’t have been more in contrast to the noisy, intimidating squalor I’d left behind me.
The following day I awoke to a blue Caribbean morning filled with all the promise of excitement and adventure. But my positive mood didn’t last for long. As soon as I began preparing some breakfast I discovered that someone had stolen my Swiss Army knife! After recalling my exact movements since arrival, I assumed this must have happened on the bus from the airport to the city centre, when the driver had told me to leave my backpack at the front of the crowded bus. The loss of this knife was a major problem; without it I couldn’t open tins and bottles or peel and chop vegetables. It was an essential tool for someone travelling on a shoestring budget and I realized I would have to go back into Kingston and buy a replacement.
With a rumbling stomach, I gathered together a guidebook, a map and my money belt, and started hiking down the mountain to catch a bus. Adding to my frustration, the bus service was very infrequent and I continued hiking for over an hour before one eventually came along. I used this time productively, though, and abated my anger by persuading myself to look upon this trip as a cultural excursion. As soon as I reached the city, I went straight to the National Gallery and spent the rest of the morning in a calming environment of Jamaican contemporary art.
On leaving the gallery I had lunch at an economical street stall that offered jerk pork and chicken with breadfruit, while consulting my guidebook to find the best part of the city for shopping. For the purchase I needed to make, I concluded it would probably be best to head towards the centre of downtown, an area of high-rise hotels and office blocks in addition to many shops that catered for tourists. As I gradually got closer to the centre, I also discovered the streets there to be patrolled by an urban underclass of hustlers, street vendors and beggars. It was a vicinity where you could feel a seething tension simmering below the surface.
My young white face soon began to attract an uncomfortable amount of attention and at one point I felt sure I was being followed by a decidedly dirty, unsavoury looking character (and I mean ‘dirty’ in the way that some kids always look, even after they’ve just had a bath). I turned down a side street, perhaps a little unwisely under the circumstances, but quickly doubled back in an effort to foil my pursuer. Just as I reached the corner again, this man was on the point of turning down the side street, and from his surprised expression when he almost bumped into me, I realized my earlier suspicions had been justified.
Once more filled with the apprehension that had marked my arrival in Jamaica the previous day, I entered the first suitable shop I came across and bought a new knife, too nervous to go through the backpacker protocol of shopping around for the best deal in town. Then I returned to the bus station, found one that was heading my way and retreated to the safety of my mountain hideaway.
In keeping with the earlier theme of frustration, the bus route I’d taken terminated quite some distance short of the campsite, forcing me to hike uphill through the steaming, tropical heat. I arrived feeling weak and soaked with sweat, a damp T-shirt plastered to my back, and once I had drunk two full bottles of water I took a refreshingly cool shower and retired to my tent for a siesta.
Later that afternoon, I crawled outside again and met two new arrivals who were pitching their tent next to mine. ‘Awright, mate?’ one of them asked.
‘Yeah, fine thanks. I’ve, er, just woken up, actually.’
‘Just woken up!’ he exclaimed. ‘Blimey! Are yer a really late riser or ’ave yer got a young lady in there we ain’t seen yet?’
‘No, I’m all alone. It’s just that I’ve had a very harassing day, that’s all,’ I explained.
‘Oh, right. Well, this little fella ’ere is Les, an’ my name is Mick,’ he said, extending his right hand towards me.
They were a few years older than me, around their mid-twenties, and said they were from north London, where they taught physical education at a secondary school. They went on to explain that they always took a holiday together each year, without the distraction of girlfriends, to indulge in some serious hiking. After a short time, I also got the impression they enjoyed the temporary freedom of a female-less environment that allowed them to revert to the schoolboy humour they spent their working lives trying to control.
The next morning, I took a trek with them through the jungle to a valley a couple of hours away, where we bathed in the fast-flowing, crystal-clear waters of a surging mountain river. Then, in the evening we went to a rustic bar close by to end the day with a chat over a couple of cold beers.
Despite enjoying our little excursion that morning, these two guys wanted more than just a ‘good walk’. They told me they were planning a hike to the Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point on the island, and invited me to join them on this trek. Always keen for new experiences, it was an offer I readily accepted and we made plans to leave the following morning.
The next day, I set about preparing for our hike and, fortunately, I discovered I was able to leave a lot of unnecessary possessions in a hut at the campsite, thus making my backpack considerably lighter. Even so, I’d never done anything close to the planned expedition and although I didn’t consider myself unfit, I wasn’t a sports teacher either.
We set off around mid-morning and began a three-mile hike east to a small town called Papine, skirting the suburban sprawl of Kingston. Even though it was a fairly level route, for me it was quite a tough hike. As we trudged along a winding, rugged, mountain road, I soon became extremely uncomfortable due to the old-fashioned, external-frame rucksack that was violently bouncing up and down on my back. In addition to this burden, the morning was also marred by an incident that helped me better understand the billboards I’d seen upon arrival in Kingston.
It happened when we were passing below a large house set back from the road on a picturesque, landscaped terrace. Just as we were approaching the driveway to this house, a group of kids appeared in the garden above us and started hurling large stones and rocks at the three white-faced tourists below them. The weight of our backpacks made a rapid escape impossible and we had to creep along, taking cover in the shadow of the embankment at the side of the mountain road, trying to keep out of view of these adolescent thugs.
When we later retold this story to some locals, they said that this house belonged to Rita Marley, and before his death the famous reggae singer had used it as his country retreat. It would be wonderful if I could tell friends that I went to Jamaica and got stoned with Bob Marley. Unhappily, the truth is very different. I went to Jamaica and ‘got stoned’ by Bob Marley’s servants’ kids.
By the time we reached Papine, I felt weak and nauseous and was about to give up. But Mick took one look at me and simply recommended that I ate some fruit and drank some milk. Much to my surprise, this dietary intake worked wonders and after a moment’s respite I was ready to continue with the trip, feeling considerably refreshed.
From Papine we took a bus through 10 miles of breadfruit, Spanish lime and mango trees to a village called Mavis Bank, the place where the Blue Mountain trail began. Then it was time to start the real trek.
In the heat of the midday sun, we began climbing Jamaica’s highest peak in a group of mountains that had been formed by the uplifting of a limestone plateau. The first part wasn’t too difficult, a pleasant walk through undulating fields, but once we’d begun the ascent I soon found myself struggling. I still hadn’t got used to my uncomfortable backpack and was also having difficulty breathing due to a cold I’d picked up in Atlantis (the water park in Miami, not the mythical submarine city!) If I hadn’t been with Mick and Les, I would definitely have turned back. But they gave plenty of encouragement, patiently waiting whenever I needed a rest and offering invaluable advice on hiking technique and limiting my intake of fluids. ‘Take small swigs frequently. Don’t down ’alf a bottle in one go!’ cautioned Les.
Eventually, after hiking six miles through a landscape I remember as nothing more than the dirt track a few feet before me, we reached Whitfield Hall, a mountain lodge at an altitude of 5,000 feet. We pitched our tents, showered and changed, and then spent the evening relaxing in front of an open fire in the gas-lit lounge of this charming wooden chalet, the perfect environment to recuperate from the rigours of such a challenging climb.
After an early night and a very good sleep, we set off at nine the next morning to ascend the final 2,400 feet to the peak. We still had a further seven miles to cover, though by then I was beginning to find it a little easier and managed to enjoy the passing scenery.
This part of the trek was through an area planted with bushes full of beans that would be picked and ground to produce the internationally renowned Blue Mountain Coffee. Despite claims that a lot on sale was not the genuine article, I realized that the TV commercials for this coffee were definitely authentic. As I looked around me at a sumptuous mist rising through steep, green-ridged mountains, the only thing missing was the soundtrack.
Finally, about four hours later we reached the Blue Mountain Peak and all the problems and pains of the climb were instantly forgotten the moment I saw the incredible view on offer from this unique location. It felt like I was on top of the world. In every direction the ground fell away in ripples of steep ridges covered with coffee bushes, clouds sitting in the deep vales between them, and these mountains continued to fall away until land eventually met sea. Never in my life had I seen such a sight.
We pitched our tents, had a late lunch and relaxed as the mountains around us gradually turned a red-gold colour in the last slanting rays of the sun. Then nightfall brought another surprise when Jamaica turned its lights on. Kingston was a distant, glittering, orange mass, and along the coastline each settlement was a Christmas tree of lights. Even in the mountains I could see the flicker of lanterns in isolated cabins. It was like being in an aeroplane during a nocturnal take-off or landing but without the restrictions of a window-seat view. I first gazed in one direction and then in another, consulting my map to find the names of the numerous towns, villages and hamlets that were all clearly visible through the darkness of a Jamaican night.
At the end of a second day of rigorous physical activity, we once again turned in early that evening. Also, we planned to wake up in time for sunrise the next morning, so an early night was necessary. Before getting into my sleeping bag, I gave my legs a much-needed massage in the knowledge that the worst of it was over. As Les had said, it would all be ‘dahnhill t’morra’.
Due to the altitude, it was quite a cold night without the necessary comforts for such temperatures, but exhaustion quickly took control and I soon fell into a deep sleep. The only disappointment was that we were unable to see the sun rise the following morning. We awoke to find ourselves enshrouded in a canopy of clouds, so I returned to my tent to try and get a bit more rest.
Unfortunately, my sleeping bag had absorbed the thick condensation of the clouds, making it quite damp and therefore removing the possibility of further sleep. As I lay there, waiting for the warmth of the morning sun, I filled the time with thoughts of what I’d achieved. It was the first time I’d ever done anything like this. On the backpacking circuit, everyone tries to do something different but you always wind up doing the same damn thing as everybody else. Yet this time I’d met a couple of guys who had shown me a completely new experience, and although it had been far from easy, it had given me an insight into my limitations and what I was capable of doing if I really pushed myself.
More than that, it had helped me understand how the support of another person could extend those limitations so much further. I knew without a doubt that I wouldn’t have been there, if it hadn’t been for Mick and Les. Through their constant encouragement and support, they’d shown me I was capable of doing something I would never have even considered, had I been alone.
Taken from Half-Time by Steve Devereaux
Published by Gringo Latino Books.
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