Co-ordinates: 18°01’18”N, 77°55’49”W
Weather: Clear blue sky and hot
The first thing I did after getting out of bed, was look out my window. There was no more “liquid sun” (i.e. rain), just soft blue sky and calm slate-grey sea. In the distance I could see boats moored in front of brightly painted shacks lining the shore. We were anchored off Black River, Jamaica; the name sounded romantic.
It was an early departure, so I had a quick breakfast in the Observation Lounge before heading down to the Expedition Office. The first Zodiac trip of the voyage was to be a long one, across the bay, into the mouth of Black River and to a small cement quay where we were to meet our tour buses. We were lucky; the sea was calm.
The ride was exhilarating: the roar of the engine, the bounce of the Zodiac skipping across the waves and the taste of salt on my lips. I had forgotten to remove my cap and almost lost it to the wind. Some friendly Jamaicans waved to us as we passed their fishing boats.
The quay was a few hundred metres up the river, and despite a sign warning us that it was illegal to “…harm, catch or kill crocodiles,” and to “avoid personal contact with them,” we didn’t see “Charlie” the local reptilian resident. A friendly fisherman told us that Charlie frequently sunbathes on the quay but has never hurt anyone. But we did meet our land tour operators there, along with four small, air-conditioned buses.
I was in the first bus with eleven guests and our guide, Veda. We headed off along the coast passing through small coastal communities where modern bungalows shared the street with wooden Georgian and Edwardian houses. Veda explained that St. Elizabeth Parish was an area of early English settlement. Road signs giving distances to places called Brighton, Kingston and Dover reinforced this, and the counties in the Parish were Cornwall, Middlesex and Surrey. Settlers of the 17th century had obviously named places after their home country.
At Belmont, which happened to be Veda’s hometown, we had a rest stop at a small beach looking out over a small bay where some picturesque fishing boats were moored. After that we turned inland and headed for the Bluefield Mountains. In the distance there were a range of almost symmetrical conical hills covered in verdant green vegetation.
We passed through the historic settlement of Bluefields and saw the “Great House” where English Lieutenant-Governors lived in the 18th century. Captain Henry Morgan, the English privateer, was one resident, as was Captain Bligh of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame. The latter brought breadfruit to Jamaica, and one of the original two trees he planted across from the Great House, still lives.
As we gained elevation, the road narrowed and twisted and curved as it wound its way upward. Thick, green, vine-covered trees blocked visibility and our driver hooted before going around each corner. Where areas flattened out, we saw tiny fields of manioc, yam, banana, plantain, and corn. Every available piece of flat ground was used to grow something.
We visited a Moravian church that had stained glass windows. Two tiers of red, blue and green rectangular panes set into a tall window frame and crowned with a semi-circle of clear glass, its ancestry the colourful church windows of Europe. As we passed the Moravian school, small children, smart in their school uniforms, ran out to stare seriously at us. We waved and their faces broke into smiles and they waved back furiously.
After that it was Beeston Spring and Joan’s 3R’s Restaurant. A band played for us as we sipped orange-flavoured sugarcane water and ate melon and pineapple. A couple of the guests were inspired to dance and a dashing gentleman joined them demonstrating fancy Jamaican footwork.
Winding our way through the communities of Bog, New Works and Bognie, we arrived on top of the Bluefields Mountains. Veda said our elevation was around 2,500 feet. I was able to take some spectacular photographs down the mountain valley, with the sea glistening in the distance.
If you go up you have to come down. Veda tried to distract us from the steep roads by teaching us “patois” the local English-African Creole spoken by most Jamaicans. “Bird TV,” she said, referred to the American turkey vultures that constantly circle overhead. “You always watch them,” she explained. “Body repair shop” is the hospital. The “Free hotel” is the police station or jail. “Baby father” is a man with a child.
I didn’t find the steep road frightening and I don’t think the guests did either. All of us were staring out the bus windows and taking photographs of the spectacular view of the Jamaican coastline. It was like a relief map spread out below us.
At the hottest part of the day we arrived back at the coast and the beachside restaurant Casa Mariner. It’s a raised, brightly painted, wooden platform with a roof, overlooking the sea. The sea breeze flowed through it cooling us all as we sat down to a lunch of salad, rice, beans, pork, chicken and fish. Musicians played and sang well-known Caribbean songs as we ate.
That should have been the end of a glorious day, but we still had to return to the ship. The wind had picked up and the bay was no longer flat and calm, but looked choppy with little white-capped waves. At the Black River quay JJ loaded eight guests and me onto his Zodiac. It was a safe but wet ride. There was no way to stop water spraying onto everyone, but after such a hot day, it was a relief. We reached the haven of the Prince Albert II’s side laughing.