James Henderson, The Daily Telegraph, June 9, 2014
Just as the greenery in Jamaica is rampant – it creeps, clambers and smothers – so the water that lies behind the island’s fertility springs scurries, gushes and roars, tumbling in torrents and crashing and cascading down hillsides, before slowing to a leisurely flow in the island’s fantastically pretty rivers. If its original name, “Xamayca”, ever really did mean “Land of Wood and Water”, then you can see why.
I am reminded of this as I head up Dunn’s River Falls, a 600ft series of cascades , around which swirls sparklingly clear, fresh water. Dunn’s River is one of the country’s best-known tourist sights, and it’s a bit of a rigmarole – all disclaimers and wristbands – but there’s no doubt it is spectacular . You wade, wallow and clamber up the small falls, letting the cool water run all around you. It is slightly strange, too – one effect of the island’s limestone substrate is that its waterways calcify objects as they go along. At one point I found a log in the process of becoming a sort of floating stalagmite.
And then I recalled all the remote rivers that I had visited over the years in Jamaica, the waterfalls, the pools and riverside picnic spots. These are some of the best moments I have spent on the island. It seems a little odd, admittedly, recommending inland waterways in a place known for sea and beaches, but this is a relatively large island and there is so much to discover. As always, Jamaica rewards those who go off the beaten track and explore.
River rafting – which in most countries involves white water – is so gentle in Jamaica that it is soporific. On the Martha Brae River, I sit on a 40ft bamboo raft, Red Stripe in hand, punted along by the raftsman, Cecil. The banks are thick with bamboo – explosive clumps of 50ft green feathers – and guango trees, the branches of which are infested with “airplants” and hung with lianas. The leisurely current is so inviting that I slither over the side, hold onto the raft and drift.
The waters of the Martha Brae emanate from the Cockpit Country, a slightly mysterious range of hills in the country’s heartland that comprises some of the most extraordinary terrain on the planet. From above, it looks like a massive, shaggy green egg-box. In fact it is an eroded limestone plateau now morphed into regular conical hillocks 500ft high. Three centuries ago, when the interior was disputed between the British and the rebel Maroons, this area was called the Land of the Look-Behind – it was so dangerous that soldiers would ride back to back on horseback to defend themselves.
Erosion has created a network of caves, which still run with water – streams disappear below ground, re-emerge for a while, and then dive down again into sinkholes. Eventually, at Windsor, the water emerges and flows into the Martha Brae and out to the north coast.
Some of the 300 or so caves can be visited, so, in southern Trelawny, the Jamaican parish most famous for its yams – and the person they reputedly help to run so fast, Usain Bolt – I fall in with Ainsworth Smith, who will guide me through the Printed Circuit cave, near Burnt Hill.
We don helmets and headtorches and set off underground. The constant process of deposition and erosion is visible all around. Cavern walls are adorned with needle-thin stalactites and muscular-looking organ pipe columns, and calcite “drapery”, wavy as curtains. Next we descend to the water itself, which runs gently through this labyrinth. In the riverbed here, the deposition creates flowstones, lips of rock that eventually hold up the stream, forming small pools and miniature waterfalls. We end up wading and swimming for 500 yards to the sunlight.
But perhaps the most fun is to be in the rivers. There are swimming spots all over the island, with at least one you can visit from the main towns. Some have been developed, sometimes officially; some not.
Near my hotel in Ocho Rios, the White River crashes and then rolls down to the coast. I make my way to the Blue Lagoon, where a few lads will take pictures as you jump into the water and then sell you a Red Stripe. When the sales patter quietens down, it is a lovely spot for an hour or two’s relaxation, swimming and sitting, the angled shafts of sunlight protruding through the trees and glancing off the water around you.
Close to Port Antonio in the east is a lovely stretch of water to walk beside, at Reach Falls on the Driver’s River. You wade, clamber over rocks, and swim into caves behind waterfalls. It culminates in a billowing apron of stone, a calcite waterfall 25ft high. From which people jump, of course. The water is a clear as glass.
But my favourite series of falls is in the west of the island, lost somewhere between Negril and Montego Bay. Mayfield Falls’ cascades and rapids tumble down a meandering half-mile stretch of the Cabarita River. I set off into the river cleft, the water dancing and diving around me. I scramble and swim, dropping into pools and wading and wallowing. The rushing of the water increases and decreases as I move, so at moments it is beautifully serene.
Most people who come to Jamaica don’t experience anything as beautiful as this. Of course, the island has all the ziplines and adventure courses that have become popular in the Caribbean over the past few years, and there are ATV and horse-riding tours if you don’t mind being part of a group. But the natural Jamaica is so beautiful that it almost defies belief. I look at the gully around me. There is water everywhere – tumbling, crashing, cascading. Magnificent.
James Henderson was a guest of Thomson Holidays (0871 230 2555; thomson.co.uk ) and stayed at Couples Tower Isle hotel in Ocho Rios. Thomson can offer 14 nights on an all-inclusive basis for £2,227 per person based on two adults sharing.
If you want to explore inland waterways, ask at your hotel and it will fix an independent tour with a local taxi driver. River shoes are readily available for purchase in Jamaica (usually in the national colours of yellow, black and green) for a few dollars.