Climbing Jamaica’s Highest Peak

It’s one of the top ten things to do in Jamaica: to see the sunrise from Blue Mountains’ highest peak. It’s also something that I figure will be pretty much impossible with a baby, so I had a huge desire to do it – and to do it as soon as possible because at 7 months’ pregnant, I am not getting any smaller!

So, I coerced H (my husband) into agreeing to do it with me, by vowing that I if I felt at any point like it was too much, I wouldn’t be ashamed to admit it and say we needed to turn back down for home. With H at work all week, and in between house-hunting adventures, I had plenty of time to do some research. The mountain is 2250m, and the ascent is the last 950m of that. It takes average punters 4 hours up and less coming down, so I guessed the ascent might take me 5. Just 3 weeks ago, back in Ireland, we’d done our Glenmalure to Glendalough walk, and while it had been tough bringing my big belly with me, I had hugely enjoyed it and just taken my time. I felt pretty confident I could make this, and needed the fresh air after being cooped up in a hotel in Kingston for a week! Also, I’ve been so lucky with an easy pregnancy so far, that I’ve not felt like taking to the couch – not too often yet anyway!

I discovered to reach ‘The Peak’, you start from a tiny village (string of ramshackle shacks) called Penlyne Castle, and an interesting place to stay seemed to be Jah B’s guesthouse, run by a family of Bobo Rastafarians. I rang up to ask about prices and organising a guide etc, and spoke to Jah B himself. I had literally NO idea what he was saying, but in between bursts of heavy patois and loud music, I picked up enough ‘Yeah mans’ and ‘Blesseds’ to guess that he had space for us at the weekend and one of his sons would guide us up the mountain. I wanted to be sure that he understood I was pregnant, as I’d read that in Bobo Rasta communities, women sleep separately from the men, and I didn’t want to find myself sleeping outside with the chickens! Anyway all seemed ‘cool man’,  so now I just had to sell it to H.

H was suitably horrified. What about the nice hotel – Forres Park – with a posh website an hour’s drive from the trail head? But I was dying to stay in the countryside, into real, rural Jamaica, and meet some Rastas! Plus I didn’t fancy the hour’s rocky road drive in the pre-dawn before the walk. I think what actually won H over was that our guide book said Jah B grew and ground his own Blue Mountain coffee, and that there were two glowing reviews of the guest house on Trip Advisor. ‘Rustic’ it certainly was!

Then we managed to get H’s friend on board! An Irish chap, now Kingston resident, he’d been wanting to climb the Peak for a long time, plus, he had a 4×4 and would drive us all up there! His only stipulations – no starting the hike at 2am (this hike is famous to do in the night so you see the sunrise from the top, and thank god we didn’t! If you are considering it, I would definitely say the views are brilliant on the ascent and the sunrise just happens far too quick here!) And that I got the provisions (which I did, though I forgot the chocoate! DISASTER!)  He also asked me to check if Jah B’s to see did we need sleeping bags, so I rang Jah B back, and got a much clearer line to him (or maybe it was just earlier in the day/spliffage) and he told me ‘Yeah man! We got waaarm blankets, and linen, and aaalll dat!”

Road at Penlyne Castle

On Saturday, H’s friend picked us up from the hotel and we began our drive up the mountains. From Kingston, you head up towards a tiny village called Mavis Bank, on treacherously steep roads, with random potholes, massive drops and insane drivers overtaking you honking, or coming down the mountain in the middle of the narrow road. Totally terrifying. And from Mavis Banks, it just gets worse. There the road becomes a dirt track with huge clefts and craters and while H’s friend drove well, I’ve never been so shaken up! It was like being in a speedboat on a rough sea, as the jeep slammed up and down the road. Poor baby, I kept thinking, hope you are OK in there. But actually, of course the baby’s fine – it’s got my whole body acting as one giant (well-toned) shock absorber for it, so was probably just enjoying the ride! Hope I haven’t set a precident for the type of driving the baby expects to send it to sleep!

There are hardly any signposts or signs in Jamaica, and we only had the vague Lonely Planet map to work from, so at each little village, we’d ask the way to Penlyne Castle, and were always met with friendly, sometimes totally unintelligible directions, but people kept on waving us in the right direction, entertained by us 3 whiteys off on our adventures. The Digicel branding here is hilarious, some tiny roadside shack with 3 old guys at it, will have a great big Digicel sign above it. Even people that don’t have shoes have a mobile phone and it seems there’s reception everywhere.

Finally we reached Jah B’s. Don’t think I could have taken being rattled about much more – was about 2 and a half hours from Kingston, but the last hour is really, really hard and I wouldn’t recommend you attempt driving it yourself unless you are pretty handy with a 4 wheel drive! I certainly won’t be attempting it any time soon when we get a car: the potholes of Kingston will be enough for me for a while!

Blue Mountain Peak

Jah B’s place has a spectacular view looking up towards the peak and all the way down to the sea, a garden full of fruit trees, and the accommodation is partly his house, partly a bunk house he’s built and he’s getting more bedroom built on top too. (I’ve managed to misplace my camera since the weekend – but check out the views here!) Seems hard to imagine how other people make it up here, but Jah B says sometimes he has 30 or 40 guests which must be fairly mental! He hand ground, then made us some coffee, which unfortunately I don’t drink, but the guys said was amongst the smoothest they’d ever tasted, and we just sat absorbing the incredible view, until the sun slipped behind the hill and dusk fell. Such a relief to be up in the mountains out of the heat and noise of Kingston! It was lovely and fresh up there, little nip to the air, and fireflies came out with the darkness (called ‘peenywallies’ here).

Jah B

Jah B had been preparing dinner (in a very laid back way!) since we arrived, and soon the cooking smells wafting out of the hut had us in sitting round his table. He’d made us ‘rice and peas’, cabbage and something with ‘veggie chunks’ (not exactly home grown!!) all of which was delicious and very filling, perfect hiking fuel for the next day. H’s friend had brought up some rum, so the boys drank that with ‘Ting’ a violently fizzy grapefruit mixer that Jah B supplied. After the drive and all, we went to bed early, but first H had to manfully steer a rather enormous, but fairly terrified bat out of our room, while I hid in the bathroom squeaking!

I didn’t sleep at all. It was a wild windy night, I was nervous that the next day might all be too much and I’d let the guys down having to turn back, but mainly I couldn’t sleep because H’s new Jamaican Blackberry (which he hasn’t quite mastered yet) was under our pillow with an alarm set for the morning, and kept vibrating every time he got an email! So that was a bit of a disaster for our 5am start. Also – I was so worried we wouldn’t leave early enough, and then I’d have to rush as I knew the climb would take me hours.

Feeling like I’d had about an hour’s sleep, we got up for 5, and Jah B’s son was there making us coffee. He introduced himself as what we all heard as ‘Rasta’. (About half the way up the mountain, I said that I felt a bit awkward calling him Rasta – was that really his name, and he laughed at me and said ‘No man! Me name is RAZZA’, so that just shows how much of an idea long hair and a turban can put into people’s heads!)

We started walking up the trail in the inky darkness, with bright stars overhead, me walking with in the pool of Razza’s bright torch, the two guys sharing a dying Maglite. It was dark for about the first hour, the air electric with the buzz of crickets, and once the first twinges of dawn appeared on the horizon it was suddenly ‘Lights on!’ – fully bright daytime, in the very sudden way that it does here. The first bit of the trail is called Jacob’s Ladder, a zig-zagging loose-scree path that takes you straight up the side of the mountain, and honestly after about 2 hours I thought I was going to have to turn back. My belly all felt OK, but my heart rate felt high and H made me stop often to take some deep slow breaths (good practice for labour for both of us!) I was gently teasing the boys and our guide about them being birth attendants up if it all started up here, but pretty much praying that that wouldn’t happen! Not sure H, his mate or a young Rasta would have been much use!

Once we reached a little clearing called Portland Gap, I suddenly started feeling better – maybe it was just psychological, as this is the half way point, and that the steepest part of the hike was behind us. There was plenty more ‘up’ though! But mainly the path was in the shade, beautiful dappled morning sunshine cascading through the pines, ferns and dense foliage around us – a climate known as ‘wet montane forest’ where many plants and trees are decidious but don’t die back as the jamaican ‘winter’ never really gets cold! So unbelievabley lush…

Wildlife-wise, on the way up, we saw a  Red-billed Streamertail sitting in a tree, with an amazing iridescent green body, that made a weird whining hum when it flew off and also a flock of parakeets making an unbelievable racket as they straffed us like a kind of tropical luftwaffe on the track.

Red-billed Streamer Tail - National bird of Jamaica

Olive-throated Parakeet

One very timid little dog followed us all the way from Jah B’s, not so much I think for the walk, but on the 0n hope that we might throw it a ham sandwich! Having seen Jah B’s cat eating a sweet potato the day before I got the impression that his cats and dogs were also vegetarians, though not perhaps out of principle!

Finally we made the top, with stunning views all around us. There was an American couple there, who’d overtaken us a bit before, who had FAR superior sandwiches (turkey and ham) in the dog’s opinion so it deserted us for a bit.

I felt a huge sense of achievement (and relief) having made it all the way up, and promised myself that for the last 8 weeks of this pregnancy I would take it easy. Really easy. Like sit by the pool and eat ice-cream like what ex-pat pregnant ladies are supposed to do!

As we sat having our lunch (at 10 am), as if on cue, a humming bird popped up right next to us, it’s tiny fat little body supported by impossibly fast short wings.  At an altitude of 2250m, the day felt almost Irish, lovely sunshine with a cool breeze and we very reluctantly had to rouse ourselves to make the long descent.

I was wearing a maternity support belt, and I hugely recommend this to any of you hiking, prospective mama’s out there. I didn’t have it on our last Irish hike, and the temptation coming down is to stick your tummy out in front of you and arch your back, which makes your tummy ache and your back hurt after a while. The belt really helps keep everything together, and although by the time we reached the bottom my knees were killing me from the extra weight! I am carrying about 30 extra pounds at this stage… (and yes, apparently at least THREE of those is actual baby!!)

We were all fairly exhausted by the time we made Jah B’s (except Razza who’d been sort of skipping for much of the way!) and absolutely fell on another home-grown / home-cooked veggie meal made for our return by Jah B, this time Johnny cakes (little scones) with a cabbage salad and fried plantain.  The drive down wasn’t so bad – at least on the way down you can hug the side of the mountain, so it (probably) won’t be you that drives off into the abyss!

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