Reggae on wheels

The tiny Jamaican village of Nine Mile attracts a stream of visitors – that’s where Bob Marley buried. Ian Stalker rode there on the Zion Bus Line

Jamaican tour operator Chukka Caribbean Adventures runs rolling reggaefests that deliver people to the doorstep of the birthplace of reggae’s greatest artist. But the company’s Zion Bus Line is also a mobile shrine to Bob Marley – the ceilings of the two buses are covered with pictures of him.

The buses carry tourists from swanky resorts in seaside Ocho Rios, on the north coast, to the inland farming community of Nine Mile, which is both Marley’s boyhood home and his burial place. The five-hour tours – each limited to 25 passengers – started two years ago. Chukka Caribbean Adventures opted for buses that date back some 30 years, so they don’t have the reclining seats, armrests and air conditioning tourists generally expect.

What you will find instead, says Paul Norman, the company’s assistant sales manager, is the very type of vehicle that plied the narrow, winding country roads around Nine Miles when Marley first won international fame. Chukka Caribbean Adventures even places plastic chickens and fruit on the roofs of the buses to try to give them a rural Jamaican look and “the real feel of what it was like”, Norman says.

The front of the buses bears the words “One Love”, after one of Marley’s best-known songs, and the name Zion Bus Line also refers to the Rastafarian faith.

But the decades-old buses have a more technologically advanced side. Passengers can watch DVDs of Marley concerts, while a tour guide tells about the life of the musician who became a Jamaican icon.

In Nine Mile, visitors tour Marley’s childhood home, seeing the bed he slept in and some of his belongings. They can walk through the mausoleum that houses his remains, and stand on Mount Zion Rock, where Marley used to meditate.

The Rastafarian presence is very obvious in this farming community, and Norma Bailey-Moore, Chukka Caribbean Adventures’ marketing manager in Ocho Rios, says the Rastas are quick to welcome tourists. “They want people to know about them. They appreciate us taking people there.”

Nine Mile native Andrew Fowler says his “very Rasta” hometown is especially lively on February 6, Marley’s birthday, when a party is held to honour the town’s most famous son. “If it wasn’t for Bob Marley, you wouldn’t hear anything about Nine Mile.”

Although Zion Bus Line buses aren’t as long on comfort as the other buses that transport Ocho Rios-area tourists, Norman says passengers are certain to enjoy themselves, thanks in part to hearing a reggae beat as they roll along. They’re also invited to knock back rum punches and Jamaican Red Stripe beer.

“It’s an attraction,” he says of his multi-coloured vehicles. “It’s like a party on wheels.”