Sunday, 22 April 2012

Earth Day Forest Trek to Cinchona Botanic Gardens

It is Earth Day! (Sunday, April 22).  In recognition of Earth Day, the Jamaica National Forest Service organized a "Forest Walk", this being the third or fourth they have done. I was very fortunate that my CUSO colleague and friend, Delphine, knew about this and sent an invitation to join a team. Very un-Jamiacan, we had to sign up and pay registration six weeks ago and I have since  been looking forward to the trek.

We had a team of 10: 9 able to arrive on the day: 4 Canadians - 2 West Coast (1 having recently emigrated from Kyrgystan), 2 Montreals; 2 Netherlands; 1 Jamaican; 1 Trinidad/Tobago; and 1 Guyana. One of the many delights of living/working in Jamaica is the mix of cultures . . .  I am blessed to count them all as my friends.

Jamaica has a National Forest Service and, like many worldwide, is under-funded. However, good to know they are active and passionate and with an incredible lot of work to do. Check them out

The day was long, but well organized - well almost. We had many notices to arrive early for the 6 am departure and lists of what to bring and how to prepare. The lists included things like "wear comfortable underwear" and "cut toe nails". Really. I figure if anyone needs these reminders, they should not be trekking in the forest. 

Our team was on time arriving at UTech parking lot before 6 am.  Of course, the buses all departed promptly at 7 am.  We were all keen, in good company, and most of us accepting Jamaica-time (though we were all there at 6!) The weather was perfect, clear and sunny all day.  This was serendipitous as we have had a lot of rain and, as I write this on Sunday morning, it is an overcast day with continuous rain and drizzle. I digress that my laundry is on the line, though may have to take a detour to the dryer if the sun does not come out by late afternoon. 

The outbound hike was 2 hours (for me and my hiking partner), though 3 to 4 hours for many; all of it uphill for 7.5 km. We did not have to worry about 'trail', as it was an old road though very uneven and overgrown. The hike down was 1.5 hours. 

The prize at the top was the Cinchona Botanic Gardens, established in 1868 under the supervision of the Chief Gardener from Kew Gardens in London, England.  This is at 5,000 ft. above sea level. Originally the hillside grew tea; now the hillsides are covered in the famous coffee that the Blue Moutains produce. The gardens grew cinchona trees (to produce quinine  and export to counter malaria in British colonies around the world).  Hurricane Gilbert took a serious toll on the mountain top gardens in 1988 and the place has fairly gone to ruins since then. Difficult to understand why the botanic gardens where established at such a remote place: while the weather conditions and the view are unparalleled, the trip up by horse and carriage must have been very difficult for both horse and rider.

There were about 200 trekkers, estimated by the fact there were 10 'coasters' (familiar small buses that each carry about 20 people). 

The bus ride, both ways about 1.5 to 2 hours, was amazing and on roads that were new to me. Incredible scenery always on the side of a precipice; narrow one lane roads, accompanied by the backing-up of a vehicle to a questionable 'passing' section; and a few sections where the road has washed out and we were not sure the coaster could navigate without falling into the abyss far below. At one point, the coaster was stuck in a 'crossing' (river/stream across the road - I use the word 'road' loosely) and we all had to exit the coaster, walk up to the top of the next hill, where lightened coaster allowed us to pile back in.  No one seemed to mind as this appears to be a regular practice on the mountain roads.

Apologies, no pictures for the bus rides. I was in the back and not driving :-)  Stunning though it was.  I limped in the door at about 7 pm, after an excellent day, to a nice glass of red wine and homemade lasagna. I was asleep by 9:15. 

Enough talk . . .  now time for pictures to tell the rest of the story . . . 

Not quite there yet, as we made a pit stop at the Jamaica Defense Forces (JDF) camp in the Blue Mountains. Not sure why they would want a camp up there, but the view was stunning and there were toilets. That is Kingston in the distance below.

Arrived at the national park entrance, with the usual chaos of trying to get 200 hikers organized and on their way. The forest workers and trek volunteers wore red shirts and yellow shirts, and were numerous and helpful.

After the first 2 km there was a water and fruit station at the old Clydesdale coffee pulpery. Little did we know that was the "easy" 2 km! There was another water/fruit station at about 4 km, just before the brutal 4 - 6 km stretch.

Clydesdale coffee pulpery

Outbuilding at Clydesdale

Looking down on Clydesdale

Coffee on the hillsides, which are covered with coffee bushes. They are on hillsides that are so steep it is difficult to stand, yet they thrive in the environment and farmers hand pick the crops. 

Difficult to see in the picture, all the hillsides (called the Blue and John Crow Mountains) are covered with coffee plants. Some of them are cultivated and cared for, though many of the bushes belong to old, abandoned plantations. However, all of those bushes still produce the famous Blue Mountain coffee with the independent, local farmers taking the beans to central coffee plants for processing and shipping.  

High up and far from anywhere, a very small, family community. They welcomed us along our way.

Family in the Blue Mountains. Not sure if they were smiling or laughing at us.

Erin pausing before a very steep climb - it doesn't look so steep in the picture, but it was an over 45 degree incline.

Almost to Cinchona, barely visible is a coffee plant on the nearest hill top.

Cinchona Botanic Gardens, with old governor's house. We  had our lunch under that skeletal tree.

As we arrived at Cinchona, we were directed along a further trail - much further than we would have rathered at that point! - and everyone had an opportunity to plant a pine tree.  This is Erin. Deforestation is a serious issue in Jamaica, as the hillsides were denuded of their natural pines for the plantations. Many of the plantations are now abandoned and the forest service is trying to restore the natural vegetation.

The nasturtiums are self-seeding everywhere and quite lovely, decorating the abandoned buildings.

View from the peak at Cinchona, framed by nasturtiums in the foreground.

Behind the main building, I found this old potting shed with bike perched nearby defining the incongruity that one sees daily in Jamaica.

Bamboo tunnel

The Forest Service had set up lunch and refreshments - and cut the lawns! It was a lovely respite after the climb.  We stayed there for two hours before the decent.

Erin used a portion of those two hours for a nap.

Most of the flower gardens are no longer blooming, though these red iris were stunning.

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