A challenging hike up Jamaica’s Blue Mountain

James Henderson scales the exceptionally steep jungled peaks of the Blue Mountains on a lung-busting quest to find a historic but long-forgotten botanical garden

Portland Parish with the Blue Mountains in the background
Portland Parish with the Blue Mountains in the background | Image: Getty Images/AWL Images RM

It’s hard to imagine now, but the Caribbean was once a hardship posting. The tropical climate that is so alluring today was in fact dangerous with disease – particularly malaria and yellow fever. Unlucky arrivals would disembark and die within days. Quinine, the miracle cure of its age, extracted from the bark of an Andean tree, the cinchona, provided some chance of relief.

Quinine is synthesised chemically now, but the fever tree, or Jesuits’ bark, was pivotal to tropical survival for centuries. It became the vital ingredient in the tonic of a G&T – the medicinally quaffed drink that found its way into the nation’s heart back home too. In Jamaica there is even a garden with the tree’s name: Cinchona Botanical Gardens, once an experimental station administered by Kew high in the Blue Mountains close to Kingston. It occurs to me that the Blue Mountains are a ravishing and challenging place to hike – and just possible for the weekend – so I decide to take up the trail of quinine’s story.

Friday 1630

The Blue Mountain range slides past the starboard wing on our approach to Kingston. It’s an absurdly green mass riven by valleys so steep and narrow they might have been created with an axe. I can track my route – from the shoulder Catherine’s Peak in the west to the summit of the Blue Mountain itself. I know of old that the Blue Mountains are exceptionally steep. It’s going to be a long, hot and lung-busting haul.

The author descends into Yallahs Valley
The author descends into Yallahs Valley | Image: James Henderson

We pass through Kingston. The city, all congestion and chaos, closes around us momentarily. But then we enter the mountains and calm and quiet drops over us like a curtain.

Friday 1830

We reach Strawberry Hill, the old Ropley Estate-turned-cool hotel (the original Island Outpost owned by record producer Chris Blackwell). It’s an exceptionally pretty place, a modern take on traditional Jamaican gingerbread, with white clapboard walls, exposed beams and pretty grey shingle roof-tiles. From the balcony of my room, Kingston is reduced to pin-prick lights and a tiny roar. Catherine’s Peak looms dark behind me. I realise properly that I’m in the tropics when I’m in bed – there’s a flashing green light meandering across the ceiling. On for a second, off for two. A firefly.

Saturday 0900

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We set off for Newcastle, our start point. At the roadside we see some trees with bright leaves, standing 40ft or 50ft tall: Cinchona pubescens. Newcastle, actually the training barracks of the Jamaica Defence Force, sits on land so steep that the barracks stand toe on neck in a stack down the hillside. It was built here precisely because mosquitoes didn’t come to this altitude and soldiers were safe from tropical disease. Passing through Newcastle is one of the odd delights of Jamaica. With ground so steep, the main road (actually pretty minor) crosses the military parade ground. Traffic is held up until the soldiers shuffle back to let it pass, before reforming to continue their parade.

My guide, Carey Dennis, leads us out of the encampment and onto the slopes of Catherine’s Peak. Instantly the track is swallowed into primary rainforest. It clings to the mountainside, contouring and climbing steadily. Heliconia and canna throttle the path, mahoe and trumpet trees enclose us overhead. It is close and sweltering. I realise, however, that beneath our feet the track is beautifully constructed, embanked with stone every step of the way and carefully drained. You get the idea that underemployed soldiers provided the manpower, but it is wonderfully crafted and still mostly solid after a century.

After 90 minutes of climbing and contouring, we emerge through a col into Yallahs Valley. Its bed is invisible far below, but Cinchona Gardens can be seen on the distant ridge. We are passing through Clifton Mount, a coffee plantation. Its slopes are covered in bushes 8ft high, with lustrous green leaves and protruding fingers of red berries. A small processing plant is at work – berries are floated, sluiced and pulped, then laid out to dry in the sun. Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is among the most expensive in the world – today it’s sold mostly to Japan, but in the 1700s it supplied the coffee houses of Britain.

But we are here for quinine, not coffee, and facts emerge as we walk down the hillside. Cinchona was named by the father of botany, Linnaeus himself, after the wife of an early-1600s governor of Peru, whose life was reputedly saved by using the bark. The Jesuits distributed the powder widely, but the export of seeds and saplings was prohibited until the 19th century. While most planting took place in India, Kew Gardens sent a cultivator called William Nock to Jamaica in the 1870s to grow and experiment with the tree.

Whitfield Hall
Whitfield Hall | Image: Whitfield Hall

Saturday 1300

Our path follows a ridge curving through a stand of pines, and then descends, incredibly steeply, through Jamaican provision grounds – sweet potato, “Irish” potato, pawpaw, plantain, guava and guinep. And the odd, discreetly planted ganja bush. Mango trees at the pathside prevent slippage – and, of course, offer fruit that’s good to eat.

Jamaica is peppered with names that hint at long-lost colonial stories. From the valley floor we climb through Clydesdale, past abandoned buildings  and sprays of bamboo and over fords  and switchback in the afternoon heat. Then it’s coffee, coffee and more coffee. Eventually, we turn onto a little-used track overhung with massive grasses and make a steady climb.

Saturday 1530

British regimental insignia at the Jamaica Defence Force base, Newcastle 
British regimental insignia at the Jamaica Defence Force base, Newcastle  | Image: James Henderson

Sweating to a 5,000ft col, we turn right and there is Cinchona Gardens, where Nock did his planting. There are just a few specimens of Cinchona pubescens and Cinchona officinalis, shown to us by the delightfully named gardener Albert Hall, but sadly the cinchona trees have been overtaken by the rampant forest growth. However, Nock also planted Assam tea, other medicinal plants, ornamentals – you can still see temperate roses – and European vegetables. Amazingly, leeks, Brussels sprouts and raspberries were grown here.

After a while we turn towards tomorrow’s target, the Blue Mountain peak, which sits shrouded in gathering grey. Closer to, we can see Whitfield Hall, the lodge from which people stage for the peak walk, in a stand of eucalyptus trees (odd – but brought here for use as railway sleepers in another example of colonial exchange). We will walk most of the way, so we head off through Westphalia and down 1,000ft or more to the valley floor. And then up again, breathing hard, to Penlyne Castle.

Saturday 1730

At the track head is Roydell – grizzled beard and dreadlocks – from Whitfield Hall, waiting to drive us the last few kilometres there. As we pass a bar, he suggests a Red Stripe, something I’m quite happy with after a long day’s hiking.

The author reaches Cinchona Gardens 
The author reaches Cinchona Gardens  | Image: James Henderson

Clearly the local patrons have been at it for a while. They are particularly exercised about the story of a Kingston taxi driver who has apparently been driving his car for six months on water alone.

“Wha’? You come wid all dem foolishness. Cho!”

It was on the news, though. Is it scientifically possible? Later we discover it’s really powered by hydrogen, produced by aluminium reacting with water.

One man quips: “Well, ah tell ya one ting, fi sure. If it de nex’ fuel, de price a water gonna go up!”

Strawberry Hill
Strawberry Hill | Image: I'sland Outpost: Strawberry Hill

To general hilarity we all peer outside into sheeting rain.

Saturday 1900

We reach Whitfield Hall, set on another outcrop at 4,000ft. Dinner is a hearty chicken stew with rice and gungo peas. And, oddly for the Caribbean, there’s a roaring fire, but then it’s cold up here. Soon after the last morsel – oblivion.

Sunday 0300

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We rise and set off for the peak, stiff legs taking a kilometre to warm up. It’s strange walking at night in the utter darkness of the tree-covered paths. Our head-torch beams flail into the blackness, catching the veiled tendrils of Spanish moss. Fireflies meander again and frogs croak. If anything, the darkness makes the steep slopes seem less daunting, but it’s still hard going. Switchback, contour, climb, contour, climb. I crumple a tune into my now whistled breathing. We cannot tell how high we have come, but crooked lines of streetlights shine far below in the valley.

Sunday 0630

We reach the peak as the first light seeps into the sky, turning black to grey and to navy blue, eventually gilding the underside of clouds and then spiking them through with the dawning sun’s rays. We’re in luck. On the peak itself, there is no mist. We can’t quite see Cuba, some 100 miles to the north, but the view carries over the foothills and offshore, where a cloud passes, trailing tentacles of rain. Mist barrels up the hillside towards us, distorting as it passes, like a wide-angle lens. It’s strange to think that this time tomorrow I’ll be in the Monday mid-morning meeting.

Descending in daylight, we see what we walked past. The rock-strewn path is lined with ferns and lichen-covered trees, their branches vertical like upturned fingers. Around our feet are wild strawberries. A fallen epiphyte like a small green tank-trap lies in the path. In the trees we hear the burr of streamer-tails, Jamaica’s tiny hummingbird with 2ft-long feathers.

Sunday 1820

After a short rest, it’s time to head home. As I install myself on the flight, the attendant comes offering drinks. Only one thing for it, I think, even if there’s no quinine in it any more: a tonic with gin.

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