If you have never driven (slowly) through the hills of northern Clarendon…you should. There are neat piles of sugar cane at the side of the road. There are quiet, silvery donkeys (some of whom were loaded on each side with the cane). There is the stunning view of Lluidas Vale, the home of the Worthy Park sugar estate, wide, green and luxurious. I would love to explore the area further.
It has been quite dry, but we were up in the wetlands. I say “up” and not “down” because we were in that most unusual place, the Mason River Protected Area in northern Clarendon. Almost in the middle of the island, it is, in fact, Jamaica’s only inland wetland; it is a peat bog. We were there for a special World Wetlands Day event, organized by the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (NHMJ) and spearheaded by its indefatigable Education Officer, Eartha Cole and her equally highly focused team.
Just a few miles outside the small, untidy town of Kellits, the Reserve is tucked in by the side of the narrow, bumpy road. You could almost miss it if you blinked. According to a brief description on the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) website it includes:
265 unique botanical specimens including melastomes, ferns, grasses and sedges, insectivorous plants, orchids, strawberry or mountain guava, coco plum and several others.
It’s a botanist’s heaven. It was first investigated, in terms of its biodiversity, by two botanists, Ray Loveless and Anthony D. Skelding from the University of the West Indies (UWI) in 1956. It is also Jamaica’s fourth designated Ramsar site – a Wetland of International Importance.
The place also has a certain mystique about it. I would say “atmosphere” but that is not quite the right word. Having arrived with the NHMJ team, and before the schoolchildren arrived for the event, I ventured into the Reserve, alone. I almost tiptoed in. There was a mid-morning hush; no birds sang. All I could hear was my footsteps on the carpet of leaves along the pathway. A little further down, the pathway diverges into two – a tropical version of The Road Not Taken – although both paths looked equal, as in the poem…
And both that morning equally layIn leaves no step had trodden black.
The scent of fried chicken and soup became overwhelming. There was no styrofoam or plastic involved in the delicious lunch.
There was a special group of guests: a team from Jamaican Infrastructure Operator Ltd. (the company that operates Highway 2000), fully owned by French companies. So we had one French guest – the Managing Director and his team. Why had they trekked all the way from Kingston, some wearing stylish rubber boots for the wetland experience? Well, because they are supporters of the NHMJ’s Biodiversity Awareness Project at several Clarendon schools near the Highway, and sponsors of the Museum’s Earth Day event last year. Take a look at their “Go Green” page. I would love to see more Jamaican companies getting involved in environmental projects like this at the community level, especially in rural areas. Kudos and cheers to JIO!
Another very welcome group were several community members, including two “Bobo dreads” carrying a baby and a group of stylishly dressed young men who sat on the bamboo benches and observed the proceedings. One of the dreads, clad entirely in red, gave an interview on the importance of environmental protection.
It felt like family. The children had that feeling too. By mid-afternoon, many of them had to be dragged off to the bus, their drivers impatient at the wheel, by their teachers. They seemed to be just settling in.
Meanwhile, the team members were eventually left to themselves and could relax in the gazebo, laughing and joking. The afternoon light grew softer, and I saw an American Redstart flitting in the branches, busy and bright. Then, as I absent-mindedly watched her through my binoculars, I saw two large, shiny and very round eyes staring at me from a fork in the tree. It was a large, black bat. I do not know what species, unfortunately – but recalled on my last visit there seeing three tiny, pale bats hanging from a narrow tree branch in a row.
Then we heard a tinny, repetitive tune drawing closer along the road. An ice cream man had arrived, just as we were about to leave. What perfect timing! The tune played from his small car. He opened the trunk and there were the tubs of ice cream. The chocolate and vanilla went down well.
As the evening stole over us, the intrepid Ms. Cole took the wheel of the bus, and we pottered down through the hills. On arriving in downtown Kingston, there was a power cut, road works were in place and the road signs took us around in ever-decreasing circles.
It was a difficult end to a beautiful day. Not surprising, sometimes, that many Jamaicans say they could never live in the city.