There are very few reasons to be awake at 6 A.M. in Jamaica, for me it’s usually because I haven’t slept yet, or I have to get up to start this weekend’s adventure.
Today we are off to a hike in Windsor, Trelawny. It’s a group of just over 20 of us and I’m a little apprehensive, considering all the logistics issues that can come up as we make the 3 hour journey from Kingston. Thankfully everyone makes it to the meeting point in Sherwood Content, the hometown of Jamaican sprint star Usain Bolt, on time.
My group was the last to leave town and decided to travel through Sligoville in St. Andrew because of the breath-taking views, but more importantly the smooth roads. Bog walk, St. Catherine, was still covered in fog after conquering the first of many hills and we found ourselves quickly going through Chalky Hill where residents had just started their weekend yard work.
After exiting the North Coast Highway and traveling about 7km inland alongside the Martha Brae River, we met Stefan, our trail guide for the day. We were there early, and so we started exploring a bit. My friend and I both immediately added the local post office to a geography based game we play called Ingress (A game created by Google to capture map data (points of interest, photos, roads etc.)). We both found the artistic representation of Usain Bolt a little odd, a local sitting nearby quickly pointed out that the artist was great at painting his physique but not his facial features. We all had a chuckle as the man continued to drink “Waters” (rum) from his cup.
After a short wait we all followed Stefan a couple kilometres further up the road to the start of the trail. The trekkers applied their final coats of anti-bug spray and we all headed off single file. Our hike carried us at first on the Windsor trail. These trails were built in the 1700s by the English during the Maroon War. The Cockpit Country is very dense and lush, but doesn’t have any surface water. The trail allowed the English troops to secure the two nearest water sources therefore blocking access to the rebellious Maroons. The Windsor trail extends all the way through the Cockpit Country and into the neighbouring parish of St. Elizabeth.
Even though time and nature have taken their toll on the trail, it’s still obvious how much work was put in to create them. Stefan explained that the trail used to be wide enough to allow donkey carts to traverse and was very labour intensive to cut. Historically the labour was so intense that English soldiers assigned to build the trail had an average lifespan of three years under such harsh conditions. I found this particularly interesting, it seemed to me a form of karmic retribution for slavery, which they were trying to uphold.
Along the trail we could see clearly outlined plots, these were setup by research groups from the University of the West Indies. They were measuring forest growth in different areas based on sunlight and soil conditions. The Forestry reserve has also planted some trees in the area to offset illegal logging. It’s amazing how large these trees are, most people have never seen trees over 80 feet tall with huge trunks and hundreds of years old in Jamaica.
After a few water breaks (it’s very humid) we split onto another trail called Guthrie’s trail. Colonel Guthrie represented the British and signed the Accompong treaty with Cudjoe from the Maroons which lead to peace between the Accompong Maroons and the British. Colonel Guthrie later owned much of the land that this trail passed through and it was used for farming, mostly cattle herding (surprising given the hilly terrain).
The trails are treacherous in some parts, we had to travel single file most of the way. Some areas have loose stones, some areas have sheer drops to one side. At the time it wasn’t alarming, but in retrospect, any serious injury could have been fatal. We were after-all one hour by foot into the cockpit country and hours away from the nearest hospital. Thankfully our guides were experienced and had someone clearing the way to ensure an incident free day.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn of all this history and experience windy trails that have been documented, but barely traveled. At the same time I was saddened as our guide explained that many of the locals who know these trails have passed away or are now elderly and few have taken the time to learn from them, most of the young people just aren’t interested. It’s not always clear where the trail leads if it gets overgrown, the English followed the natural terrain and only built paths as necessary.
Our hike ended by a tributary to the Martha Brae River. The water was crisp and refreshing, and the stream featured a large swimming hole next to a large patch of bamboo. Surely this is the sweet Jamaica that we have all heard stories about.
Before leaving we also stopped by the Windsor Cave, just off one of the trails. The cave has two openings and is inhabited by bats. It’s amazing inside, I plan to return one day for more serious exploration. If you are visiting please make sure to stop with the cave warden first (not a troll, although that’s what I was whimsically hoping for). The reason to stop in with the warden is to sign a waiver form. The cave is managed by the Windsor Research Institute and although there is no admission fee, there is a risk of catching something called Histoplasmosis. Apparently those of us from the “New World” are immune to it, but some Europeans are still susceptible and it can cause blindness and ultimately death, there is no cure. Wild, I know, but please sign the form so you understand the risks. Don’t be startled though, apparently it’s just a formality.
The group of us enjoyed the hike and would definitely do it again. Some of us are now prepping to do the cross cockpit country hike into St. Elizabeth. It takes anywhere between 7 hours and 2 days to complete based on fitness and weather conditions. Until next weekend….
by Dmitri Dawkins