2003-08-07 / Travel

Jamaica: A Boat Trip Through The Great Morass

Associated Press Writer
By Claudia LaRocco
Jamaica: A Boat Trip Through The Great Morass By Claudia LaRocco Associated Press Writer

BLACK RIVER, Jamaica (AP) _ Sugar angled his small fiberglass fishing boat up the aptly named Black River. The lightless water flowed through tangled mangrove roots, lapping at the pockmarked limestone ridges along its banks.

A fisherman who has moonlighted as a tour guide for a "long time,’’ Su-gar was confident of at least one crocodile sighting here. The Black River, Jamaica’s longest river, snakes through a 125-square mile marshland known as the Great Morass that is home to a wide variety of birds – including os-preys, herons, red-footed coots and egrets – as well as crocodiles. Once common throughout Jamaica, crocodiles are now endangered, and the Great Morass is their largest refuge.

The marshland’s lonesome, ungroom-ed charm is also perfect for those looking to venture off the beaten path – or, at least, the beach. Less than two hours from Montego Bay, it’s one of the few easily reachable places in Jamaica where unspoiled nature takes center stage. From deforestation to species extinction, the island faces a host of environmental hurdles, not the least of which is a relatively disinterested citizenry. Given the general loss and degradation of Jamaica’s wetlands, the Great Morass is even more of a treasure.

The same goes for its reptilian in-habitants. Despite their inclination to beg for food, the crocodiles are shy, more afraid of people than people are of them. According to Sugar, no one had been attacked since two years before, when a 14-foot crocodile latched onto the shoulder of a local woman fishing on the riverbank and pulled her underwater, drowning her.

How comforting.

"Is Sugar a nickname?’’ I asked as the boat charged upstream, its weak outboard motor making enough noise to frighten away any but the bravest of reptiles.

Yes, he nodded, adding that his fa-ther, who had been a shrimp fisherman in these swamps, bore the same name – Sugar Belly, a title given to someone who drinks lots of rum. Eyeing Sugar’s prodigious gut, I decided against asking if the name was honorary or earned in his case.

Instead, I turned my attention to the river. Despite the noisy motor, it was teeming with birds, including several hawks hovering high above and a man-grove full of raucous egrets.

And there, floating motionless near a tangle of mangrove roots, the spiny armor of a crocodile. Not 14 feet long, but close.

This one seemed more bored than frightened, opening its toothy jaws in a slow yawn as Sugar circled the boat back for a closer view. Leaving it to its siesta, we headed farther into the swamp.

After a narrow stretch, the banks of the Black River widen and the vegetation shifts from overgrown mangrove forests to saltgrass marsh, with shaded tunnels giving way to waving meadows of tall reeds. The view stretches for miles, the marsh eventually rising into distant foothills. On this overcast day, a mist shrouded the grasses, bring-ing a delightful chill to the salty air.

As I scanned the banks for birds and crocodiles, Sugar pointed to another of the Great Morass’ distinctive elements: marijuana. The illegal crop is grown throughout the marsh by industrious locals hoping to harvest it before the authorities get to it. The dark green plant can be seen – and smelled – rising just above the reeds in long, narrow plantings along manmade mud banks.

Opting for legal sustenance, we made a pit stop at Sister Lou’s River Stop on our way back down the river. The mo-dest riverside eatery features delicious baked crabs, seasoned and served in their shells by Sister Lou herself, and washed down with a cold ginger beer or Red Stripe, the Jamaican beer.

A couple of local men were loitering outside Sister Lou’s, having mastered, along with most Jamaicans, the ancient art of sitting. One of them, a diver who makes his living off the river, explained the intricacies of maintaining cordial relations with crocodiles.

While crocodiles tend to be aggressive in October, when their young hatch, the animals aren’t prone to attacking humans, he insisted, saying they usually only attack people whom they mistake for the white chickens they’re fond of snacking on.

Sugar nodded, adding that the wo-man killed a couple of years ago was light-skinned. The men turned to look at me, smiling.

I made a mental note to keep my white hands well inside the boat once we were back on the water.

Conversations such as this one de-velop easily in southwestern Jamaica, a relaxed, rural area less touched by tourism than the rest of the island’s coastal regions.

One of the area’s gems is Treasure Beach, a resort-free cluster of four bays less than an hour’s drive from Black River. While resorts like Negril and Ocho Rios cater to the all-inclusive whims of spring break revelers and cruise ship denizens, Treasure Beach hotels such as Jake’s aim to attract more ecologically aware, laid-back tra-velers.

The eclectic cluster of 15 cliffside cabins is run by Jason Henzell and his mother, Sally – wife of Perry Henzell, director of the classic 1973 Jimmy Cliff film, "The Harder They Come.’’ A self-described former poet who says "my current medium is concrete,’’ Sally employed warm colors, Moroc-can motifs and inlaid designs of broken glass when designing the hotel.

Jake’s is also host to one of the most vibrant literary festivals to come around in a long while, Calabash Literary Fes-tival. Described by its modest founder, novelist Colin Channer, as "the greatest little festival in the greatest little district in the greatest little country in the world,’’ the informal oceanside event draws hundreds each Memorial Day weekend for three days of readings, music and homecooked meals. This year’s highlights included Afaa Michael Weaver’s quiet, stirring poetry and a rainy, late night tribute to Bob Marley by celebrated reggae greats Wayne Ar-mond, Mikie Bennett and Ernie Smith.

Calabash is a hard act to follow, but Sugar delivered. Standing at the prow of his boat, with nothing before me but river, rushing wind and a trio of young egrets, I experienced one of those in-describable, transcendental highs that keep travelers going between vacations.

Getting There: As public transpor-tation options are limited around Trea-sure Beach and Black River, renting a car is a good option. Island Car Ren-tals (www.islandcarrentals.com) in Kingston, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios offers a range of vehicles, including 4WD, convertible Isuzu Jeeps. The drive from Montego Bay to the town of Black River takes about 90 minutes along roads that are well-marked and, perhaps more importantly, well-paved. It can be difficult to keep track of the main road in some of the towns, but people are friendly and eager to give directions.

Lodging: To learn more about Jake’s, call (800) OUTPOST or visit www.is-landoutpost.com Rates range from $295 a night for a three-bedroom, oceanside cottage with rooftop deck, to $105 a night for a garden-view bedroom. Books and music abound, but don’t expect TV or telephone.

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