A Walk in the Clouds

Written by: Corinne Smith, photography by Joseph Herbert and Corrine Smith

Cerulean, azure, ultramarine—the sky was one of those that Sunday morning. Maybe Holywell is closer to heaven. Maybe the air there is clearer and fresher than the world below. Maybe the 45-minute drive had inexplicably taken me a thousand miles away from Kingston.

As I rounded the final corner, moss-draped pines stood sentinel at the park entrance, filling in for the ranger who had not yet reached his post. I had been to Holywell many times before with my family, once for a birthday party, but usually just for some relief from the heat and noise of Kingston. This was my first time alone, and my first time so early in the morning. There was an eerie stillness as I stepped out of my car and gathered my essentials from the back seat: camera, water, trail mix and most importantly, warm sweater. Maybe it was the quiet – the unmitigated sound of nothing. Or maybe I just wasn’t listening. So I stood and listened. And the cool of the mountain morning wrapped itself around me and I breathed deeply and the sound of the forest trickled into the air and, as my ears reconciled to this new world, the sound seemed to rise in a Wagnerian crescendo —birds, bugs and breeze all part of the symphony.

Holywell is just over 30 kilometres from Kingston and, when the road is passable, another 30 kilometres along this scenic and sinuous route drops you into the town of Buff Bay on the north coast. The Holywell Recreation Area, located within the larger Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, was set aside for recreation and tourism, and to encourage and promote environmental awareness among both local and foreign visitors. The Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, in the north-east of Jamaica, covers an area of tropical rainforest just under 500 square kilometres. It is on the World Wildlife Fund and IUCN (the World Conservation Union) 1997 List of 200 Globally Important Sites for Plant Biodiversity. But not only environmentalists and bird watchers will enjoy this area. At around 1,280 metres (4,200 feet) elevation, Holywell is an escape from the crowded city streets, from the scorching heat of the plains, from life as we know it. It’s a place to reconnect with nature, to walk, to run, to just be.

My senses having resigned themselves to the new environs, I set off down the trail and within minutes encountered Leonard and Peter. Despite their unwieldy rubber boots, they walked with the easy stride of men accustomed to this rugged mountain terrain. On seeing me, they offered broad smiles—the kind that make you know you’re genuinely welcome, the kind that city folk never seem to master; the kind that puts you at ease when the machetes at their waists might otherwise be cause for alarm.
“Mawnin’ Miss,” the one on the left said.

“Good morning,” I said. “Getting an early start?”

“Is the early bird catch the worm, them, Miss,” the one on the right said.

Since they were curious about the camera and what I was doing alone there at that time of the morning, I explained my mission. They were Leonard and Peter, they said. They were there to make sure “Everything all right with the trails, them.”

My walk that morning took me past what my children had long ago named the “Secret Waterfall,’’ to the upper reaches of the well-tended slopes where Jamaica’s finest coffee is grown, and through sunlight-dappled trails where, if conditions are right, the soothing scent of eucalyptus mingles with the earthy dampness of the forest floor. As the hours passed, a thick blanket of clouds settled over the hills and drifted with ethereal agility in and out of the trees and everything around me—just for a moment—took on a vague melancholy magnificence.

Holywell is perfect for a picnic or camping. It offers toilets, tent sites, cabins, outside shower stalls, gazebos with traditional barbecue pits, a children’s playground and an environmental resource centre. The hiking trails are marked, though the more arduous ones are no longer accessible because of landslides. My favourites are the Oatley Mountain and Waterfall Trails, both of which are just over one kilometre long and take you through ferny dells, mystical cloud-forest and elfin woodlands. The Oatley Mountain Trail is a gravel-paved loop trail that takes you to the Oatley Mountain Peak 1,400 metres above sea level. The route affords panoramic views of St Andrew and Portland from three look-out points. The Waterfall Trail is a bit steeper with some rugged sections along the side of a mountain, descending eventually into a lush valley of ferns. The reward for finishing this trail is a small but beguiling waterfall whose cool plunging waters are hard to resist.
From the throbbing streets of Kingston, the peaks and their lush green slopes tower silent and mysterious, ofttimes veiled in a shroud of mist. Perhaps it is fear of this unknown that prevents many from venturing to these mountain parks. The Jamaica Conservation Development Trust (JCDT) is charged with their management and, in an effort to entice visitors, has created an annual festival at Holywell—appropriately named Misty Bliss—to highlight the cultural heritage of the area.

The Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park enjoys more rainfall than anywhere else in Jamaica. It ranks fifth among the world’s islands for having the most endemic plants and animal species. The park is also home to an unusual tree, the Chusquea abietifolia, which flowers, simultaneously, only once every 33 years. The next bloom is expected in 2017 and, all things being equal, I will be there with the essentials: water, trail mix, camera and sweater •

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