From roughly 1998 through 2004 a Black River trip was on our agenda pretty much for each trip. We’d go with our friend Eddie in his Zodiac. Each time it was an eye-opening experience.
Eddie knew every nook, cranny and tributary of that river. Being in the Zodiac meant we could explore places that other boats could not go and when he’d open it up it would literally hover over the water at a great speed and with great excitement. I fell in love with that river on those trips, with the cane fields burning in the distance it was very “Apocalypse Now”. We’d spend the entire day on the river, going up at least three legs, more if the conditions were right. In addition to searching for the crocs and checking out the Mangroves the trip included little stops up a certain leg where the ganga growers operated. There they’d be, deep in the bush, manicuring bud with their fingers. Eddie knew them all and we’d stop, have a beer and hang out with them for a spell. Our trip would end each time at a small place just on the other side of the “low” bridge owned by an American couple that sold cleaned crab in bulk. We’d go home with at least a pound per person to enjoy in pasta, salad, dip or just straight out of the container.
I’d not been on the river in six years when in mid-January of 2011 we decided to double-up on adventure. We took the motorcycles out there to meet up with our boat captain right at the same place where Eddie used to put in the Zodiac on the sea.
Our day started early as we hopped on the motorcycles as we hop on the motorcycles and head out to the south coast. That ride is always beautiful and I’ve done it many times, but never on the back of a bike. We stopped for gas, a drink and a smoke somewhere just outside Whitehouse. It was a cute little south coast town and a quiet setting for us to take a short break. An older woman came walking up to us and asked us all for money for her church. Each of us hand her roughly 100JMD: We’re not playing, we are riding motorcycles so all good will is welcome. After she collected she didn’t leave – she walked a bit away and kept looking back, finally just staring at us with confusion mixed with astonishment. It was as though she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
All she was witnessing were six white people, sitting on a curb, joking around and drinking Pepsi. There is no ganga smoking but there is a lot of laughter which turned into giggles when we realized that she wasn’t going away and was appalled by something – we were trying to figure out what that was. We finally get on the bikes and “dig out”, her eyes following us as we sped out of that parking lot and back onto the highway. I’m hoping that despite whatever it was that either offended or fascinated her we all had earned 600JMD in blessings.
Our next stop was Middle Quarters for lunch. Whenever we are going somewhere, anywhere along the south coast route Aunties & Cousins is a must-stop for us. It’s no more than a wooden shack that sells the best Pepper Shrimp in the area. Time was that was all they had – that and a rockin’ shrimp soup, maybe some Bammy. These days they have expanded to include a fruit and vegetable stand as well as a small cook stove frying up chicken and boiling up rice and pea. We lined up in the shack, collected our bag of these spicy and flavorful morsels and head to the backyard to enjoy the wonderful mess we were about to make.
We sat on crude benches around crude wooden tables silent but for the sounds of us cracking the shells and smacking our tingling lips. All around us there was activity in the yard: Chickens everywhere, baby goats playing and of course the flurry of activity as the men sort and clean the shrimp that is about to be peppered.
We left Middle Quarters and in no time we are driving through the town at Black River and arrived at Cloggy’s at around Noon. Soon after, our boat arrived. Our captain is Captain Ted and his first mate is his sea-farin’ dog Flora. We met Ted in 2008 when he took us from Treasure Beach to Pelican Bar. He is jovial and his dog wonderful, we made an instant connection. He helped us into his wooden fishing boat and we set sail through the choppy head-water to the mouth of the Black River.
Right as we got on the river, lying next to the sign advertising tours on the pontoon boats is a huge and fat crocodile, his mouth open and lying perfectly still. So still, that we actually had a debate whether he was real or not.
Ted know the river and took us on a two-hour tour. As we rode along I couldn’t help but compare our current trip with our adventures with Eddie but mostly I saw what I remembered: The absolute quiet and beauty of this, the longest river in Jamaica. As I remembered, birds would lurch out of the bush, lead the boat for a while then perch on a branch in plain and magnificent view for all of us to see. We saw Herons, Egrets and many other birds whose names I don’t know.
Ted is really good at sniffing out where the crocs are hiding. We saw many more that I can recall seeing with Eddie. Ted pulled the boat in nice and close each time one was spotted and Flora was always on full alert. At times we were nervous for her but realized that this is not her first rodeo.
The water in the Black River is perfectly clear. It is the dark black mud at its surface that gives it its name. The reflections of the clouds, sky and trees are perfectly visible among the slight ripples, mirror like.
We rode up through Mangrove Alley. These fascinating trees throw off branches (or maybe they are roots?) into the water and that is how they “drink”. Mangrove Alley is my favorite part of the river. The boat moved very slowly as we passed through and you could hear the wildlife teaming among the tangle of bush and branches. Reflected in the glass like water you could sometimes not tell where it began and ended, just an endless branch through and through.
As we approached the “low” bridge we were instructed to duck as the boat passed under and into a part of the river the other boats can’t go. Up a few clicks on the river Ted pulled the boat into a dock where there was a clearing and a stand of Palm Trees. He helped us off the boat and we walked up the path to a thatch bar for a few drinks, a few smokes and to take in our surroundings. Down by the dock there was a rope swing and where’s there’s a rope swing you’ll often find a boy. The boy was climbing up the tree, grabbing the rope and jumping into the river.
Apparently you can swim in this part of the river. The crocodiles do not come here. This is a concept that had always baffled me – Eddie used to take us to a “safe” place to swim on the river as well. Why, I wondered out loud, do the crocodiles not hang out here? Our host and bartender explained and it seemed so simple: The crocs stay on the part of the river closer to the sea because they are creatures of habit. This is where they are born, mate and breed. This is where they eat. They have all the habitat and all the food they need there, so why venture elsewhere? Makes sense…and we can only hope that their habitat and feeding grounds are preserved so that it stays that way.
We said goodbye to our host and made our way back downriver but not before stopping for crab. Unfortunately the place we always went to is gone. Fortunately, there is Sister Lou’s place right across the river from our former crab shack. It’s a bit spendy for a pound of cleaned crab – then again its been six years since I bought some. We decided to try her stuffed crab backs, two per portion, which were delicious. I took a little walk to check out the surrounding neighborhood as we were practically on the low bridge, which meant a road, which meant a sweet little river community.
First we smelled it. Then we felt it. Then we saw it. We smelled the smoke, we felt the ashes dropping on our arms and into our food and right across the river we saw a bush fire start-up and start to blaze very quickly. The smoke was thick but we stood and watch as the fire took over the bush, growing and approaching the river. The Jamaicans didn’t seem phased by it although as the blaze grew and approached the river the neighbors on that side did start to calmly fill buckets and try their best to be ready to save their homes. I’ve noticed this about Jamaicans: They do not get hysterical around natural occurrences.
Then…as quickly as it started, it melted into the river and stopped. Pretty dramatic stuff.
Heading back to Cloggy’s Ted asked us if we wanted to go on to Pelican Bar. We declined as we wanted to get on the road and make our way back to Negril before dark. We did not want to try to navigate the south coast road without being able to clearly see the potholes or other well-known road obstacles (read: cows) that venture out onto the roads of Jamaica. So we said our goodbyes to Ted and Flora on the beach at Cloggy’s and set off.
The skies started to look threatening as we rode through Bluefields so we thought we might encounter some rain. We were doing our best to stay ahead of it but we needed to get gas when we got into Sav la Mar. As we pulled into the Texaco station the sky opened up and the rain was coming down in sheets. We are all hungry but were willing to wait until we got to Negril to eat. It kept on raining and raining and our tummies were grumbling…there was nowhere else to go except the Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street. Some of us had a real dilemma about this…exactly how hungry do you have to be to subject yourself to fast food? Personally I had not touched any fast food since I’d lived in San Francisco in 1987 so this could be a real challenge for me and my belly. But the rain kept coming and our tummies kept grumbling till finally we had to “fuck it and get a bucket”.
The “chicken” was exactly as I remembered it. I quite enjoyed the overly sweet cole slaw. The only difference I saw between a Jamaican K-Fry and an American K-Fry was that the Jamaican K-Fry did not have any sporks. Now, I don’t know if this is the case in every K-Fry in Jamaica but the Sav K-Fry was spork-less. I bring this up only because it was a slight disappointment to me. I always enjoyed eating with those things.
By the time we finished eating the rain had let up. The sky was still a bit threatening but we mushed on anyway. The rain caught up to us again in Little London so we pulled off and stood all in a row against a wall protected by a narrow awning. Across the street we could see what I like to call “Jamaican Billboards” – before they started covering the countryside with the “real” billboards, signs announcing events or advertising places of business were hand painted on concrete walls. In front of us were such signs, one of which was advertising a place that featured “fire eating go-go dancers”.
Rain and greasy fast-food aside, we had a wonderful day. In preparation for our friends Mark and Maile’s arrival the following week we plan to do this again with them and take Ted up on his offer to take us out to the Pelican Bar as well.