Clocking 7,402ft. (2,256m) above sea level, Blue Mountain Peak is Jamaica’s highest point. It majestically towers over the entire nation and its waters. The Peak forms part of the Blue and John Crow Mountain National Park (BJCMNP) in the eastern corner of the island, and holds the proud title of Jamaica’s first UNESCO world heritage site which it achieved in 2015.
This 26,252-hectare champ is listed as both a natural and cultural site, making it 1 of only 32 “mixed” sites worldwide out of over 1,000 sites (mixed meaning the BJCMNP has both natural and cultural significance). It reserved its natural title because it is home to thousands of species, many of which are endemic, endangered or sadly both. The world has gained a lot from and may have much left to gain from the biodiversity teeming in this reserve. It holds a cultural title from the Nanny Town Heritage Route and its associated remains, i.e. secret trails, settlements, archaeological remains, hiding places etc. These are associated with the grand marronage by then-enslaved Africans and African descendants, their struggle for survival, freedom and the unique preservation of their traditions and culture to this day. I have conquered the park’s most formidable point at sunrise: the Peak. Part 1 covers the ascent to Jamaica’s highest and the Caribbean’s 6th highest summit. Part 2 will cover the peak, descent, tips and additional info on how to conquer the peak safely and affordably.
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Getting to the Peak for sunrise requires at least a week’s pre-planning (see infographic in part 2). If you want to skip the effort and are willing to pay for it, by all means utilize a reputable company e.g. Sun Venture tours. Consider public transport and hiking your way up if you are fit, well-versed on patwa (the local Creole) and not too claustrophobic as mini-vans are the modus operandi. If you have your own vehicle and feel comfortable being out of sight of it for a weekend, you can drive to a landmark, park then hike. The advised place to park is at the Mavis Bank police station parking lot. However, going by the size of the “lot” I saw on my way up, I can’t guarantee you any parking space. Furthermore, you have to be skilled at manoeuvering your way on winding dirt tracks because that’s all many of the “roads” qualified as.
On Your Marks: D-Day
Seven friends and I started at 9:30am from Papine, an easily accessible town in St. Andrew at the foot of the Blue Mountains. We boarded a mini-van headed to Mount Charles. They board passengers adjacent to Papine square in the town’s centre at $150/person. Mount Charles is a district in Mavis Bank. Sitting with luggage in lap and in a tight space may make even the best of persons feel claustrophobic. Thankfully, the ride is under an hour. You’ll enjoy cool breeze rushing in through your window as you are whizzed to Mount Charles at alarming speed by an experienced driver. Unfortunately for us, our mini-van broke down en route to Mount Charles so we had to wait on a replacement van which thankfully arrived in under 30 minutes. I hope that isn’t a regular occurrence.
From Mount Charles, take a bus to Hagley Gap in Saint Thomas for another $150/person. Ask your Mount Charles’ driver to direct you on which bus to take or wait until you alight and ask a resident. You are bound to see several residents milling around the district’s square. The ride from here is more scenic as the road winds around green hillsides and the swift Yallahs river. After another hour’s drive and crossing parish lines from St. Andrew to St. Thomas, the physically fit can begin their hike. We started at 11:45am from Hagley Gap. The districts to use as landmarks before Portland Gap are Minto, Epping Town, Penlyne Castle and Whitfield Hall. Along the path you’ll see coffee berries responsible for world-famous authentic Blue Mountain coffee.
As daring young adults and with poor judgement and advice, we believed our bodies could take us from Hagley Gap to Portland Gap. Unless you are in extremely good shape, DO NOT FOOL YOURSELF! Do pay the $5,500 to be carried from Mavis Bank to Jacob’s Ladder by 4WD landrover. We barely made it to landmark #3 when we had to suck up our pride, call the driver we had hired only for the return trip, have him meet us in Penlyne Castle and take us to Jacob’s Ladder! He charged us $2,000. Judging by the state we were in, we probably would have paid thrice over. We began to cool down and get our first taste of the forewarned cool weather in our landrover, good for only fair weather.
Rejuvenated by the rest and breeze, I finally started to admire the imposing trees, dramatic mountains, sweeping valleys, colourful flowers and darting birds. Along this trail only good for 4WD and experienced motorists, we crossed parish boundaries from Saint Thomas into Portland.
Get Set: Jacob’s Ladder
“If you cyaa [can’t] handle the ladder, turn back.” -Words from our guide Mr. Bowe and every villager with whom we spoke when they learnt of our destination. Their vehement advice conjured up images of using hands and feet to pull myself uphill.
Thankfully, that was not the case although maybe it would have been if it were raining or the trail was wet. Jacob’s ladder is the steepest portion of the trail connecting Whitfield Hall to Portland Gap and is only accessible by foot or beast of burden. I hear you can hire one of our furry friends to carry you or your load uphill but none of us tried that option. Instead, we footed it cautiously and took breaks as needed at the wider parts. The never-ending trail finally stopped in the clearing known as Portland Gap at 6pm. What a relief to despondent spirits!
We threw down our luggage, then ourselves and panted for a few minutes. Staring up at the mist overhead and darkening sky, realization hit me that we had to start pitching our tents and preparing a campfire immediately before nightfall. Frantically, we gathered stones to form a ring, tore newspapers which my boyfriend had the foresight to bring and gathered twigs. Some bore the task of pitching our 3 tents. Gathering twigs to start a fire was futile in a humid rainforest. Everything was damp. Since Portland Gap is under construction (set to finish early next month), helpful workmen came to our assistance with dry firewood.
After our tents were pitched and fire blazing, in true Jamaican style “we ran a boat” (to run a boat= cooking hearty meals in which everyone involved pitches in with the ingredients, usually done outdoors). We cleaned up, refilled empty bottles at a spring then prepared for bed, errrr.. sleeping bag. By 10pm, we were all in
bed sleeping bag with alarms set for 1:30am.
At 11:53pm to our dismay, we were awoken by our guide. He reached our campsite early to find out at what time were we planning to start the morning hike. I wish there had been a more considerate way to do this. 😑 I take a long time to fall asleep and as soon as I hit NREM sleep, I hear “Hello!”, “Anybody there?” Sleepily, we bargained and settled on 1:30am.
After trying to fall asleep again unsuccessfully, my boyfriend and I decided to rekindle our fire. Gradually the team stirred and pitched in. We rationed tea, hot chocolate, crackers, roasted marshmallows and s’mores to prepare for the anticipated 4-hour walk. We roused the last 2 sleeping companions of our octet, and didn’t coax too much when they insisted on not coming. They were the most affected by the hike from the evening before. This actually served as a blessing in that we didn’t have to worry about securing anything at our site before we set off for the peak at 2am (yes, 30 minutes late).
“It is the fairest island eyes have beheld; mountainous and the land seems to touch the sky.” -Christopher Columbus, 1494.
Complete the adventure next week in Conquering Blue Mountain Peak: Part 2 of 2. This is part 1 of a 2 part series. This post covers the ascent to the peak on day 1 of the weekend adventure. Part 2 covers the Blue Mountain peak, day 2 descent, tips and additional info on how to conquer the peak safely and affordably.
Also, I featured the Blue Mountain peak as #3 on January 9th in my 2017 bucket list so this is 5 down, 12 to go. 😊 ‘Til next week. ✌