For a country imbued with so rich and varied a natural heritage, it seems surprising that Jamaica’s first National Park was designated just five years ago. Already, however, reductions in government financial support and equipment, and illegal logging, have compromised 200,000 acres of the most vital land in the country: the area comprising the water source for the entire eastern region and embracing a host of indigenous fauna and flora. Vast areas of Jamaica remain largely undisturbed, of course, none more than an awesome location at the elbow of the John Crow and Blue Mountain ranges in the heart of Maroon country, around the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
The area is steeped in the history of slavery and revolt – the Maroons engaged in 85 years of turbulent guerrilla warfare after the initial occupation by the British in 1655. Small bands of independent Africans survived in the more inaccessible parts of the interior for more than a century and were joined periodically by other escapees from new plantations, systematically slaughtering livestock and raiding fields and buildings in an effort to undermine the colonists.
The great majority were from the Gold Coast or the West African empires of Dahomey and Ashanti, renowned for their warlike stance. But today’s outsider has no need to fear malice or hostility. The modern Maroon is barely distinguishable from other poor rural Jamaicans, save for high cheekbones and a proud bearing, and a weary resignation to his lot. Everywhere timber chattel houses and buildings constructed on riverbed stones stand stark against the greenery, shattered testaments to a harsh reality and the power of the elements.
The former Maroon stronghold is arguably the most undefiled enclave in Jamaica and, by extension, the English-speaking Caribbean. Accessing the hidden valley is an experience in itself. Yellowfin snapper, a chunk of barracuda and a bag of rice would just about see me right, I thought, prior to boarding the Rio Grande Express, a broken down lorry that is the only transport into its lower reaches. Port Antonio, the starting point and an alluring old banana port beloved by Errol Flynn, is a backwater in itself, though no less irresistible for that, and raiding the market stalls on Cheapside I soon came up with the goods.
The truck was loaded to the gunwales with concrete breeze blocks for hardy locals looking to establish more permanent footing in the valley above. An old lady scrambled aboard accompanied by a pair of goats. No one spoke as we lurched onwards, through down-at-heel settlements, Breastwork and Fellowship, the turn-off for the tourist rafting experience. The paved road grew ever more fissured, and worryingly dangerous, the track only just feet from a canyon edge dropping sheer into the Rio Grande. It was hard to appreciate the splendours of the river below, meandering around vast boulders scoured smooth by spate; scree slopes flattened out into wider, more accessible plains where boys plied the shallow water on bamboo rafts, shifting hands of bananas. I weighed the potential for upstream travel.
We veered from the gorge just seven miles from base past Windsor, proceeding deeper into Maroon land. The landscape became more rugged, framed by twin mountain masses and myriad hues of green, and an hour later we ground to a halt in Moore Town, a village straggling several hundred yards uphill along the Wildcane tributary. Founded in 1730 following a treaty with the British granting independence, it remains the centre of Maroon life, run semi-autonomously by a committee of captains, majors and a colonel.
A gang of disaffected youngsters, conversing in thick patois unintelligible to the untrained ear, strolled by a wayside banana gathering ground, an urchin niftily stuffing a bunch under his torn T-shirt. The owner, a large lady not to be trifled with, spotted the felony and hurled abuse, followed by a handful of gravel. “Me kill you to rass!” she bellowed. She would have, too, but the scamp was gone.
Nanny, the legendary chieftainess of the Rio Grande area, was originally a sorcerer or obeah woman, and then an intuitive and fearless warrior fusing sense and psychology. When the north-east treaty was grudgingly agreed by Quaco, the Windward leader, an English hostage used in negotiations was surrounded by a group of hostile women, Nanny’s former associates, draped in necklaces strung with the teeth of white men.
Twenty-five years ago the site of the main fortress, Nanny Town, seven miles westwards on a bluff of the Blue Mountain ridge, was excavated. But it is now barely accessible, rubble foundations reclaimed by the verdant bush. Yet the genus loci is intact, and Nanny is one of the few rewarded with “National Hero” status in Jamaica – the word is that any European venturing here will die. The exact location was unknown for years, and after Nanny was killed by a renegade slave, she was laid to rest in Moore Town at “Bump”. Her grave, today’s monument, is sadly neglected and used by schoolchildren as a makeshift cricket pitch. Moves are afoot to establish a museum of culture, though, and the heritage is still alive – drums are still made by hollowing ackee trees, and rope is produced by twining the bark of trumpet trees, while the abeng, a cow horn, remains a powerful means of communication across the valleys.
An old bridge, known locally as “Swinging Bridge” for disturbing reasons, is now restored, and this has to be negotiated before the final trek two miles past Millbank village, the point of no return. The eventual refuge at Bowden Pen, less than 20 miles due south of Port Antonio, is aeons away in atmosphere and outlook; it formed the protectorate of Nanny, Quashie and Quaco, less exalted leaders, and John Mansong, the notorious “Three Fingered Jack”. Inaccessibility is the byword; from a population of 200 ‘in 1974, lack of infrastructure and investment has left only a handful of subsistence farmers to eke out a living.
One of these, the venerable Sister Lil, is the overseer of a rustic camp perched in stupendous surroundings beneath the high ridge. Here at Ambassabeth in the depths of the country, the true spirit of Jamaica persists – of indomitability and ingenuity in adversity. Lil is educated, well-travelled, and a fine raconteuse, but has returned to her roots at the valley head for what she terms “spiritual sustenance and guidance”. Tall and straight-backed and dressed in voluminous African style, rich in ochre and gold, she proffered a learned discourse on the marginalization of the Maroons well into the night. The Jamaican Constitution does not mention them, of course, and the provisions of the treaties, such as their own right of jurisdiction, are largely ignored. Tax exemption on land seems to be the only tacit exception, a result more of the Maroons’ outright non-compliance and of the State’s reluctance to use enforcement.
A collection of rough-hewn timber cabins defines the camp, some topped by corrugated roofing, and stuffed with large cushions doubling as seats and beds on bamboo frames, the food cooked in a separate conical structure behind the main residence. Ponds are being dug to farm fish, and crayfish are brought from the river to supplement traditional Maroon fare; brigand food, no less.
Lil invited us onto the verandah where we were regaled with a story outlining the Maroons’ current plight. The governors of Accompong, the headquarters of the Leeward band in the northwest, she told us, were embroiled in a dispute after lumber was logged on land claimed as their own. A party was formed to seize the timber and stamp it with the Maroon hammer, but was stopped by Forestry Department officials, pre-empting a tense standoff. At a subsequent meeting, documentation was demanded to establish the land rights, though everyone knew that surveys were never carried out.
Sleep was swift after an exhausting day’s travel, but Lil was raking the embers before dawn, woodsmoke wafting through the cloth awning. My fish, hauled from the coast, would have to wait: crawfish busso soup, fufu, Blue Mountain coffee with coconut milk, and ackee and saltfish were a fair substitute. Suddenly the daunting hike to the White River, Mother Nature’s stream, seemed more plausible. We struck out at daylight and had ventured little more than a chain or so down the valley side when the unmistakable noise of a creature in distress pierced the misty morning air. A high-pitched squealing, growing even more frantic.
We were joined by a Finnish artist, Anne-Marie, whose horizons knew no boundaries, and Ivelyn, friend and confidante of Sister Lil, a righteous Rasta and true-living earth mother. A direct-descent Maroon, she knows the backwoods well, and at once recognised the sound. “Junga men!” she exclaimed, with ne’er a hint of menace. Like their ancestors against the English, hunters still use a spear-like weapon for wild boar, the famed “jerk pork” sold originally at Boston Bay deriving from an old staple, the tusked descendants of pigs brought by the Spanish in the 16th century. We avoided the kill, and crossed a newly-constructed bridge at the confluence of the White River and Rio Grande where the waters are pure and unadulterated, the trek upstream becoming vaguely ethereal as the sheer exuberance of vegetation overwhelmed the senses. Hummingbirds darted like missi les, woodpeckers rattled and enormous ferns formed a dense canopy, orchids springing at every turn. The track was rough and slippery, unseen at times, a trusty machete vital. The term “Maroon” seemed somehow fitting: it comes from the Spanish cimarron meaning wild or untamed, a formidable opponent skilled in rain forest conflict and adept at ambush.
Mantraps remain a hazard on some paths and the forest appeared all-consuming. Anne-Marie soon scarred an elbow in a nasty fall, and Ivelyn delved into the bush for an obscure leaf, which she applied and bound expertly. Treacherous conditions underfoot meant progress was slow and measured. This unique ecosystem is the lair, in fact, of papilio homerus, the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly, the largest in the Western hemisphere, spanning 15cm, and endemic to this part of Jamaica. We searched but our luck was out.
Two hours on we arrived at the first cascade, a primordial setting on the western slopes of the John Crow Mountains. The exact number is unknown, but hidden high in the cleft at least six more waterfalls are known to exist. Time and the most challenging terrain in Jamaica quashed any silly notions. Steps had to be retraced. When Anne-Marie’s herbal dressing was removed, her elbow appeared pristine. Or was it just imagined?
Hours afterwards I bathed in a stream under a rising full moon. Ivelyn meditated on the healing air of the valley, inhaling and exhaling slowly, gazing wistfully towards Blue Mountain peak, its ridge line still visible through the gloaming. She shot me a glance and whispered: “Nanny nuh dedd, y’nuh, she live on.” You had to believe her, the latter-day Nanny and absolute embodiment of an unquenchable spirit. A long time later I made the outskirts of Port Antonio. Civilization. Who needs it?