For my birthday, I planned a surprise weekend away for my husband and I. About 3 days before, he guessed the whole thing. ‘We’ve always done a mad walk for your birthday, and the maddest place we could walk to from here would be Holywell National Park’ he said. Correct!
We’d recently found a more direct route there (see below), shorter than winding up through Irish Town and Newcastle, with a lot less traffic, and I reckoned we could walk it. It would be about 13km and a steep climb. Even if we only walked at 2km a hour, the most it could take us was 6 hours. In fact, this is exactly how long it did take! Holywell National Park is 3500 ft above sea level, and we started around 400 ft. While we used to be walking fit in Ireland, since being in Jamaica for year, we’ve done hardly any, and this was certainly more elevation than I’ve managed in one day before.
I’d been dying to stay in one of the cabins at the park since first spotting them. They looked basic, but clean, well built and have fantastic views right over Kingston. When I found out you could arrange to have firewood ready, and they came equipped with sheets, blankets and a gas stove, I knew that there was no reason not to go.
Our lovely nanny was set to stay with our baby for the weekend, now a robust 11 months old. So, we set off around 10 into the scorching Saturday sunshine with fairly heavy rucksacks, as we were carrying alot of water. And wine, frozen sausages, potatoes and whiskey, of course. Walking through the salubrious suburb of Norbook, we felt fairly self-consious in our hiking gear, but in just 45 minutes we hit Hill Road, and quickly found ourselves ascending into the quiet countryside of Jamaica. Luckily, as we started climbing, it became overcast with a breeze. I don’t think we would have lasted in the blazing sunshine.
On the way up, we got invited to pick some guavas from a tree, said hello to curious goats. We stopped at a ramshackle Rasta hut and bought the only soft drinks he had; warm bottles of BIGGA. A sudden rain shower drove us to shelter under the roots of a mangrove tree. We saw hardly any cars, thousands of green mangos, many papayas, lemons and a few jackfruit growing. We saw a screeching flock of parakeets and tied up, rangy guard dogs.
We wondered why a white rasta was carving up tyres with a chainsaw, and passed a strange upside down house whose neighbour blasts reggae that echoes down the valley. We stopped to marvel at tiny beautiful flowers and weird berries (mainly to take a break from the relentlessness of the UP). We heard children exclaim; ‘Look – WHITE people!’ and wished everyone we passed a cheerful ‘good morning’ and later a more exhausted ‘good afternoon’, as is the funny, formal way here.
We finally made the pretty town of Woodford at 1.30, and stopped for a cold Red Stripe at the crossroads. The bar there has two enticing signs; ‘Woodford Bar and Grill’ and ‘Bahamas British Pub’. Neither name makes any sense; there’s no food and, I’d imagine, rarely any Brits. The bar is titchy, just room for two bar stools and a fruit machine. Still they made us welcome, and one of the patrons even managed to fix the pipe to the loo downstairs so that I could go!
From here, we turned up Jacklyn Road, the steepest stretch of the route, and gladly stopped again at the next little bar, where they were preparing for a party, 3 men cooking meat and fish over oil drums, and another guy bringing huge speakers down the hill in a wheel barrow. We’d both like to come back and stay in this area; it’s close to Holywell, a big river rushes close by, there’s friendly locals, great views and a nice breeze along the ridges.
We finally hit the 4×4 track that leads to Holywell at 3pm. The next hour was hard work. My calves, glutes, hips, knees, back, yelled at me to lie down in the bush till tomorrow. My husband was in better shape, and half towed me up the hill, occasionally diving into the bushes to pick coffee beans, intent on making fresh coffee for the morning. Plus he managed to manfully untangle a goat whose leg was painfully wrapped up in its tether.
We reached Holywell at 4pm, and checked in at the Ranger Station, where friendly Jeremy showed us to our cabin. He’d also just finished a major walk, leading a 6 hour guided hike down trails to Gordon Town, but looked in better shape than us!He even smelt good! My husband reckoned he’d had a shower, but I think he was just that fit that he probably didn’t break a sweat all day. We hadn’t known the Park organised hikes, and would definitely go back to get shown new trails one day, as you’d have a hard time finding them yourself, and the actual trails at Holywell itself are disappointingly short.
After a cold rinse off and some dry clothes, we sat soaking up the evening sunshine. It was heaven! Heaven to take off our shoes, wriggle our toes in the air, crack open a beer, drink in the view. Heaven to be so far above the city, and yes, even to be so far from our baby. It was my first night completely away from my son, and I felt the most relaxed I’ve been since before he was born.
By dusk we could see the lights of Kingston twinkling and shimmering in the heat haze below us, while our breath hung on the chilly clear night air. We got a roaring fire going inside our cabin, and spread out a feast. Cheese and crackers, brownies and peanuts, followed by fried sausages in spinach wraps washed down with a bottle of red, (decanted into a water bottle of course before the trip up!) Leaving the coffee beans to roast over the embers, we conked out early in our warm, clean and well deserved beds.
The next morning, I poked my nose out of the cabin into the freezing dawn, then dived back into bed. In the shuttered dark, so far from our nosiy baby, we managed to sleep till 8! Bliss. And just magic for me to really switch off, not having the baby monitor flashing right by my head, which looks like a detonated grenade and often noisily explodes!
My husband managed to grind his faithfully roasted beans with a fork, and to my surprise, make a cup of coffee out of them (sort of). We breakfasted on oranges, bananas, noodles with left over sausages and some weird guava tea, then hit the long track home, revelling in how far up we had managed to climb. But oh now, what a lot of down…We made it back in just over 4 hours with no stops, but in some ways it was more painful! I think you use about 60% new muscles for down, and 40% of the same poor agonised ones killing you from yesterday, and by the end my knees were screaming at me.
We looked fairly unkempt in the same gear as yesterday, particularly on a Sunday morning when everyone we passed was dressed up for Church. Men walked passed us in suits and hats with brightly coloured satin shirts and ties, women in huge hats, feathers, satin and sequins, children in frilly, fancy party clothes. However, people were so surprised to see us, it wouldn’t have mattered if we had been dressed as Darleks. Just as long as they couldn’t smell us…
As we came back into the suburbs, the sun beat down on us again, and the last 45 minutes were a really hard, hot, knee jolting slog with too much traffic swerving past us. But, as my husband and I always agree, it’s only a real adventure, when it’s gone way past the point of being fun.
When we reached home, our baby boy looked sort of pleased to see us, but like he’d been really having a lot of fun with his nanny. In fact, after she left and the two of us lay groaning on the sofas for 2 hours, he looked definitely disappointed about the homecoming of his crippled parents. Finally, we managed to take him and our stiff bodies down to our complex’s pool. A cool dip and an ordered in pizza defintely cheered us all up. And the best thing about coming home to a baby? Great excuse for everyone to go to bed at 7.
How to walk to Holywell
1) Go up Norbrook Drive from town, past Glen Abbey and Norbrook Springs.
2) Turn right onto the clearly signposted Hill Road. After about 20 minutes you come to a little Rasta shack where you can buy warm fizzy drinks or beer, but no water. There’s a second shack a little bit further on that may be better supplied.
3) Walk for about 3 hours to Woodford and stop for beer at the enticingly named ‘Woodford Bar and Grill’ / Bahamas British Pub.
4) This bar is on a Y junction. Turn left up the steep Jacklyn Road and walk for about half an hour to the next bar/shop. You can buy supplies here; noodles, soap, beer etc if you are staying at Holywell. At this shop, there is a turning to the left, but keep walking straight on and out of the village.
5) Road becomes a track. At the next Y, turn left up the hill. If you are driving you can park here and walk the last 45 minutes to Holywell. If you have a 4×4 you can probably drive it.
6) Follow the path up to Holywell.
- Total: about 13km, 3000 ft elevation. Took us 6 ½ hours with plenty of stops.
- Tips: Take warm dry clothes to change into at the top, and something nice to eat for supper!
Renting a Cabin at Holywell
- Ring the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust to book a cabin. They have two smaller cabins with twin beds for $3500 JMD (about $35 US), and one larger cabin with twin beds and a double bed. The larger cabin as a fire pit outside it for barbecues, and looks like a fun place to camp / stay in with a gang.
- The website says ring a month in advance. I have rang in the past and all 3 cabins were booked out for 3 months, but that was over the peak Christmas season. This time I managed to book one 3 days in advance, and we never saw anybody at the other two, so maybe they cancelled.
- You are supposed to pay in advance at the Trust’s office, well hidden behind a building site at 29 Dumbarton Avenue. When I arrived, their card machine wasn’t working and I didn’t have the cash, so they allowed us to pay the Ranger on arrival at the park.
- When booking your cabin, request firewood for $300 JMD, well worth it!