VINEGAR HILL TRAIL HIKE – JANUARY 2021
PART 1. PREPARATION
The initial invitation instantly got my interest. A volunteer was needed to join a hike from Claverty Cottage in Portland to Cinchona in St Andrew. Duration was 8 – 9 hours and would entail sleeping at both ends. Some amount of physical fitness would be required.
But the name Claverty or Clabbaty as it is more popularly known, took me back to very pleasant memories of a summer when I was eighteen, between lower and upper 6th form in high school, and fortunate enough to be a part of a field mapping team in the hills of Portland. I do not remember much of the geology but will be unlikely to forget the experience:
- Bus rides from Spring Garden up the valley of the Spanish River to various pickup points
- Adventure of going up stream in sections of the Swift and Spanish Rivers
- The tense warning by residents in the Rio Grande Valley who told us to always be careful as the river loved to drown strangers
- Trying to determine our location on the 12,500 scale maps and often being very incorrect
- One evening mis-timing our return journey from the slopes of the Grand Ridge and having no lights and unable to move in the dark, spending the night cold and hungry in a farmer’s open-sided shed
- Two or three nights a week, going to a bar with a Juke box and drinking Dragon, knowing fully well that there would be a hangover the next morning
- Our camping ended prematurely after a fight early one morning between our teacher and one of the field assistants from the Geological Survey with whom we shared a ramshackle building; but that is a story for another day.
Cinchona also brought back memories. As a young geologist, one of my early mapping projects was in the Morces Gap area. We lived in the Cinchona Cottage which was at the topside of the gardens. There was no electricity, but the building was in good condition and was warm at nights after we got the fire going. Our menu was always the same – tinned butter beans and rice supplemented with whatever vegetables that we were able to get from Westphalia or Clydesdale. Bathing at Cinchona was always a challenge. There was no running water in the house, so we trekked to a constantly flowing pipe that protruded from the top of a huge metal tank below the garden. It was filled by water which was gravity fed from the Green River and the overflow pipe was a source of fresh, clean and icy cold water for all activities in the garden. The longest part of the bath was making the decision about that exact moment to run under the pipe and stay for, at most, one second. I would stand near to the outflow, get slightly wet and apply soap all over. My body almost went into shock the first few times and probably would had there not been the amused laugher of those who worked in the gardens and who could not understand what the fuss was all about.
I was not worried about my level of fitness. I had been to the Blue Mountain Peak in early December and had walked close to 80 Km in December and would probably have done close to that for January before the hike. On-trail activities were routine – log the journey, write descriptions of everything and assist with marking the trail with paint and flags.
The matter of what you end up taking will always be a personal choice. There are many websites with good tips on what and how to pack for a hike. For the Vinegar Hill trail, these were the factors that influenced my packing decision:
- Long hike in an isolated area, uncertainty about water on the trail, no water at end point where we would be spending one night
- Given the 18 Km length, making the sack as light as possible without sacrificing essentials
- Possibility of rain and the need to remain dry and warm and to keep items in your sack dry
- Given the isolation, a fair supply of basic First Aid items
- The remote possibility that the hike would be delayed and that we would have to spend the night along the trail, in which case we would need extra non-perishable food and materials to start a fire.
There were a few easy choices, for example, the choice of a rain suit. One weighed just over two pounds. I chose instead a lightweight, thin poncho which undoubtedly would-be single use, but which weighed just three ounces. Below are some of my packed items.
Photograph of 17 important Items, very little space, very little weight. Safety pin, Q tips, floss with holder, needle, thread, rubber patch, clothes peg, toothbrush, toothpaste, antibiotic cream, bandage, ointment, sunblock, soap, mothballs, mouthwash. Small quantities of most items would be adequate. My full packing list is below. After checking off, I still squeezed in an extra long-sleeved shirt and a few plastic bags. Despite my best efforts, my full sack, with 3 liters of water, sleeping bag and geological hammer weighed in at 35 lbs. For the hike, I would also be taking along a small tent which weighed about 3 lbs.
Part of the learning form this hike was the need to liaise with your fellow hikers prior to packing, so that duplication by the group can be minimized. For instance, I took duct tape, but so did Paul and Brian. I did not regret that decision as duct tape is extremely versatile and has multiple uses. I kept thinking that if we caught a wild hog, we would have had more than enough duct tape to lash his fore and hind legs and his snout.
PART 2. HOLYWELL TO THE SPANISH RIVER VALLEY
The starting point for the hike was Claverty Cottage, a small village located south of Chepstowe and in the drainage area of the Spanish River. We were transported in a Toyota Hilux pickup provided by JCDT and expertly driven by Ranger Ryan Love.
We journeyed north from Irish Town to Holywell, through to Section, crossed the parish boundary into Portland and continued north down the valley of the Buff Bay River, into the town of Buff Bay. In a straight line on the map, Claverty cottage is about 8 Km away from Section. But given the configuration of Portland, no east to west travel is possible except in the areas near to the coast, and highland travellers typically must go down to the coast and then travel east or west and then up the valley to their destination. In our case, the journey by road from Section to Claverty would be over 50 Km.
We left Buff Bay at 1 pm, went east to Orange Bay and then south up the valley of the Spanish River, to Skibo, then Chepstowe and finally to Claverty Cottage. The road from Chepstowe to Claverty was in poor condition and at times demanded a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
We had 5 passengers and the driver, but only 5 seats, so both Cal and Ranger King rode in the back of the Hilux with the sacks. Initially the weather was bright and sunny, but twice – one going north near to Charles Town and then going south near to Chepstowe – we had to stop and transfer all of the sacks to the interior of the pickup.
PART 3. COLTHIRST COTTAGE AND THE RAIN
We arrived at Colthirst Cottage in a light rain with a moderate wind at 2:30 pm. The cottage is a two-storied wooden building with an upstairs balcony and a lower covered porch. A large wooden deck is at the front of the building. Unfortunately, we had no access to be building as the arrangement was for us to camp on the deck.
We were met by an enthusiastic and welcoming Mr. Tyrell, who assured us that the rain would soon “blow off” and that soon we would have fantastic views of Port Antonio to the north east. There was chicken foot soup, potato pudding and cucumber juice and more promises from Tyrell of imminent good weather. At about 5 pm we checked the weather report and realized that we were probably in the middle of a cold front and that the weather was unlikely to improve.
We set up the tents sometime after 3pm. Two (Bryan’s and Cal’s) were fully exposed while the others had some cover under the porch. The rain was incessant. We spent a lot of time in the kitchen which had a roaring fire on which Tyrell was preparing the evening meal of jerk chicken and festival. I tried and was partially successfully at drying my sneakers which, by this time, were soaked, by the fire.
The meal was good, and the rain continued. Someone came by with the keys of the cottage and we entered and got our only reprieve from the rain. We were given a tour and then spent perhaps another hour inside, chatting with and being entertained by Tyrell, before retiring to our tents. Brain told me that his tent was wet inside, apparently through leaking seams, and he proceeded to use a shirt to mop up and wring water to the outside. I was feeling snug as my tent was less exposed and was only getting wet when the wind blew the rain onto it. I was in a for a rude surprise, as the entire inner floor of my tent was covered with water and my sleeping bag, which I had unfurled, was soaked at the bottom end. I borrowed Brian’s bailer, mopped up as much water as I could, before curling up in the remaining dry section of the sleeping bag.
My original plans for the evening included: packaging cheese, sardines and sausages into wheat rolls and discarding the containers, repack things I would not need until Cinchona to the bottom of the sack, and putting things I would need during the hike into one of the outer compartments where they would be easily accessible, possibly even without removing the sack. The final project was an insurance just in case we encountered what I termed the possible “pickpocket” along the trail – masses of bamboo vines. These would easily hold on to any lightly fastened item if you had to force your way through a strand of them. So, the plan was to sew a Velcro flap over my shirt pocket and to affix a strong strap to the frame of my glasses so that nothing would be left hanging back in the bush without my notice. But all of these plans were shelved – the area was wet, there were drips of water from the seams which I tried my best to ignore.
I wanted Tyrell to be right and for the rain to stop, but it continued throughout most of the night.
PART 4. HIKING THE TRAIL
We awoke to a wet and chilly Saturday morning. Tyrell already had the fire going and was preparing breakfast. All sorts of doubt about the hike were in my head. Should we abandon the effort and call for Ryan to return to get us? Should we wait a few hours for it to clear up? What were some of the possible scenarios?
- Rain all day, hike abandoned beyond Vinegar Hill and we return to Colthirst.
- Rain all day, slow hike, forced to spend night on the trail.
- Rain all day, hike uncomfortable but somewhat successful.
- Rain part day, hike somewhat uncomfortable and slow but fairly successful.
- Rain part day, hike somewhat slow, but successful.
- No rain, hiking conditions good, all targets achieved.
I had no doubt that the others were having these thoughts, but deep down I thought we had invested too much effort into the hike already to abandon it at this stage. I was resolved to work with scenario 5 – It would probably be wet and uncomfortable all the way, we could probably not accomplish all of our objectives, but the hike would have been a success. If we abandoned (scenario 1), then all would have been lost.
To top it all off, if we abandoned now, by the time we got back to Spring Hill, Tyrell would be calling to say how clear the day was and that he was looking straight into Port Antonio Harbour.
So, at 7:30 am, having packed our things away and had bellyfuls of Tyrell’s codfish and cabbage with fried dumplings, we put on our rainwear and headed for the trail. We had two guides – Rennis Lee and Keith Bartley, both of whom had walked the trail multiple times. They assisted in carrying a sack with extra food that Paul had taken for us to eat at Cinchona. Bartley, a veteran of 12 seasons of the Canadian Farm Work program, was the leader.
My general role on the team was that of a recorder but I had outlined for myself some specific tasks.
- to describe and record in my notebook all that I saw and heard along the trail
- to photograph general scenery, likely trail markers, birds and anything else that may be of interest
- to record by phone sounds such as waterfalls or birdsongs
- to assist with the marking of the trail
- to make my own recording of trail positioning and distance using the Samsung Health app on my phone
- to collect small samples of rocks; and
- to look out for and collect, if possible, “trail debris” items that would tell us about the activities of past users of the trail. (I like to dream big, so I imagined stumbling upon the remnants of a flintlock of a 19th century rifle or some other historical relic.)
I had pens and a notebook, but because of the rain, I was unable to write anything. Much of the trail record is reconstructed from notes I would make later in the night at Cinchona.
The first 1.5 Km of the trail was fairly steep. Within a 150 m of the start, we took a sharp right turn uphill onto a detour which the guides said took us around a landslide on the old trail route. The trail was very clear and ran through a stand of mature pines trees. We got to Jumbi Hill at which there was a small A-frame wooden building belonging to the same person who was responsible for the many coconut palms which were planted in the area. This man we were told, had “captured” the land and was also a cattle farmer. He had also planted oleanders near to his cabin. We then got to Jackson Hill, an area, we were told, had spectacular views in all directions on a clear day. We saw nothing but fog.
Along the way to Jackson Hill, we saw evidence on the trail of the presence of wild hogs. This was rooting directly in or immediately adjacent to the trail. The target appeared to be the root of the wild ginger that was everywhere along the trail. In one area we saw a frame (poles with a horizontal bar about 5 feet off the ground), which we were told was the support that held a slaughtered wild pig which was captured, off the ground, for the initial roasting and hair removal. In the same area, the guides also showed us a wild hog trap and demonstrated how it worked. A 12 inch by 12 by 8-inch-deep hole was excavated in the path and then neatly covered over by small wood stakes. One of these stakes served as a trip lever. The assembly was encircled by a strong rope with a slipknot that was attached to the top of an 8 ft high 3” diameter section of a growing tree, that had been carefully bent over and restrained, and which, to a passing pig or man, appeared to be a branch that somehow broke and was out of place. The section of the trap on the trail was then carefully disguised with leaves. If a pig stepped on the top of the trap, its weight would displace the stakes and the trip lever, and in a fraction of a second the restrained section of the tree would flash violently upwards, and the slip knot would close around at least one leg of the pig. Any attempt by the unfortunate pig to run would only tighten the knot. It was thus restrained until the hunters returned. Traps were checked every couple of days but, at times, the distant wailing would alert the hunter to the presence of a hog in the trap.
I spent some time on this description for a particular reason. These traps can be a potential danger to a hiker. One danger could be the actual snaring by the rope, which could throw an average person to the ground quite violently. An additional danger would be to be stricken by the released tree limb as it returned to the upright position after the “flying” of the trap. My best advice, perhaps, is for the hiker to be alert in relatively clear areas along the trail for any bent-over branches or limbs, which appear to be under tension, and which could be part of a wild hog trap.
The rain continued to be our companion.
We passed a sign indicating the northern Park Boundary on the way to Vinegar Hill. The trail remained clear, with good underfoot conditions and was not steep. Before getting to Vinegar Hill, we traversed a trail section which was slightly muddy, and which had a distinctive orange-soil colour – the guides called the area Red Dirt Hill. The vegetation had changed from pine to the natural forest. Vinegar Hill itself was unremarkable except for one area , for perhaps 50m, the trail crossed an outcrop of relatively un-weathered, dark-dense rock with a vertical face – which the guides called Vinegar Hill Stone Hole or Stone Wall. The guides kept reminding us of the views that we were missing. There was frequent mention of the waterfall along the Mabess River, which we were not able to see. Keith mentioned a plane crash in the area some years earlier and reported that they were able to stay in the Vinegar Hill area and could see the JDF helicopters that were involved in the search and rescue and, later, salvage operations.
There were several brightly coloured spent cartridge casings from the guns of hunters on the way to Vinegar Hill.
They were some difficult sections of trail beyond Vinegar Hill, due to overgrowth, obstructions and to land slippages. The machetes of the guides quickly cleared the overgrowth. Keith reported that the trail was last cleared sometime in 2020 – an indication that a single clearing effort in a one-year period would not keep the trail clear. In a few places, large trees had fallen across the path and we had to go on all fours to go under them. A few of the crossings of landslip were precarious as there was hardly anything to hold on to for support and if you fell, there was likely no stopping on the precipitous slope below.
It was surprising how wide the trail was in sections. I would later learn that in the past it had accommodated horse-drawn vehicles.
Beyond Vinegar Hill, we crossed several small streams with waterfalls on the trail. The guides had no hesitation in drinking, but I had second thoughts. I had two 1.5-liter bottles of water in pockets on the side of my sack. I had asked Keith to retrieve one for me to drink, but then he could not get it back into the pocket, so carried it along the way. By the time we got to the waterfall I had consumed more than a litre. Keith was ahead of me any when I caught up with him at the waterfall; he was proudly showing me that he had refilled the bottle with the cool, clean and tasty spring water. Despite looking clear on the waterfall, I recognized that the water in the bottle was slightly cloudy. I started to think of all the things that could have been in that water- tiny fragments of wild hog droppings, baby snails and some Vinegar Hill superbugs – and what could happen if my intestinal tract did not like wild hog droppings and all the other stuff that made the water so tasty. I immediately switched to the other bottle and did not attempt to taste the stream water.
I kept asking if, and the guides replied that the streams were not named.
“This one has a name?’ I asked at the third stream.
“No sah”, was Keith’s reply.
I was too far ahead but wanted to indicate to Brian to mark the location on his GPS map as the “No Sah Gully”.
There was one section of the trail beyond Vinegar Hill that required heavy bushing. Greater care was needed in walking as often the bush concealed loose stones or holes that we could not see. One section of the trail had an area where, for about 30m, the trail was covered entirely with beans of the wild coffee plant. I had a great deal of difficulty with a section of the trail beyond the last stream, where the exposed roots and rootlets of the trees formed, what could almost be described as, a mat across the trail. This required higher steps and great care as the roots were often slippery.
Sometime after 1 pm there was a message that we would be stopping shortly for a rest break, since we had been going nonstop for almost 6 hours. This was welcome news as we were all very tired. The rest was not extended as the guides told us that we were only 15 chains form Morces Gap. In this section of the trail, we observed flags and markers on trees that were obviously some part of a study. This last section before Morces Gap also has an area of an active landslide across the trail, and navigating the large rocks was scary (Rock Slip on Brian’s map). The 15 chains eventually came to an end and we arrived at Morces Gap at 2:30pm.
Morces Gap had a large flat area with many large trees. It had the appearance of an ideal camping location with a high canopy. There was a distinctive fork in the trail there, the left being the way to Cinchona and the right being an old trail to the Silver Hill area. The guides explained that this was a regular overnight camping spot for groups guided by Robert Kerr.
We had a delicate situation with the guides at Morces Gap. The initial arrangement was for them to guide us all the way to Cinchona. From the initial planning, the hike could have taken up to 9 hours – if we left Claverty at 7 am, then we would have been in Cinchona at 4 pm. Our expectation was that they would then either return to Claverty in the night or overnight at Cinchona. When we got to Morces Gap at 2:30 pm, they indicated that they could not go any farther, as they had made no arrangement to either stay at Cinchona or to travel in the dark back to Claverty. This change in arrangement was uncomfortable as (a) It was a surprise to our group, (b) It would mean an additional strain on our group to carry the items which the guides had agreed to carry, (c) We were uncertain of the bushiness of the trail and the extent of clearing that would be required, and (d) We were uncertain if there would be branches on the trail which if we took, could lead away from Cinchona or delay or arrival there.
There was no time for an extended debate, so they headed north, and we headed south. Cal took the sack that the guides had carried, and Ranger King assumed the role of machete man at the head of the line. The trail was mostly downhill from this point. It was bushy in several sections, but King was able to get us through. On three occasions we came to what could have been a fork but became convinced that our selection was correct as we were quickly back on the clear and wide original trail. By this time, the rain had stopped completely and by 3.30 pm we were seeing occasional glimpses of blue sky. About 1 Km out of Morces Gap, we came upon an area of recently cleared trees. The track then went back into thick forest for another Km before emerging into another cleared area where we saw newly planted coffee trees. The trail was wide from here and we could began seeing the surrounding hills. The floor of the trail started to show plastic bottles, food wrappers and other signs of litter as well as motorcycle tracks. The slopes were increasingly clear and at 4 pm we emerged onto St. Helen’s Gap. This had a drivable road, which branched to Clydesdale and to the Bellevue Coffee Farm. There was a large sign indicating a GOJ/EU/ENEP Reforestation project. It took 10 minutes from here uphill to Cinchona.
A summary of the time log is below:
7:30 Depart Colthirst
8:39 Wild Hog trap stop
10:42 First stream across the trail
12:14 Underfoot covered in wild coffee beans
12:56 Start of heavily bushed zone
1:48 End of heavily bushed zone
2:07 Flags seen on trees
2:30 Arrive Morces Gap
2:45 Depart Morces Gap
4:40 Arrive Cinchona
PART 5. CINCHONA
We got to Cinchona close to 5 pm in sunshine. The gardens were pristine and there were benches and tables for visitors. High Peak and Mossman’s Peak were blanketed in clouds. To the south was Catherine’s Peak with its distinctive bank of antennas and, beyond in the distance, the city of Kinston and the plains of St. Catherine. A rainbow persisted in the valley of the Green River.
The cottage that I had stayed in many years ago was no longer there and two small wooden sheds stood on sections of its foundations. The building which housed the kitchen and bathroom was still standing but was in poor condition. Mr. Tate from the Ministry of Agriculture had left a large pile of dried wood in the kitchen and King quickly got a fire going. Clothing and boots were set near to the fireplace to dry as the meal was prepared. There would be a two-pot meal. In the first was rice and in the second a mixture of well-seasoned beans and sausage.
The tents were set up early. There was a short period of light rain. We had our meal in the kitchen and turned in early. The lights of the city flickered in the distance in great contrast to the few glimmers from Westphalia below. The evening was uneventful except for King discovering a scorpion under the floor of his tent. The area was quiet except for the shrill whistle of the night creatures and the occasional faint drift of music from the valley to the south. I took some time to fall asleep. The sleeping bag was much drier than the previous night, but my body was protesting nine hours of walking. The muscles at the front of my leg did not like me lying prone, my lower back muscles did not like me lying prostrate, so like the previous night, I again curled on my side and ignored the tenderness in my hip muscles.
It was clear by 6 am. The views to the south were good and the Palisadoes could be seen jutting out into Kingston Harbour. I took a walk back to St. Helen’s Gap and tried to reconnect to landmarks from my previous sojourn there. The valley of the Clyde River, ruler straight on the map, was distinctive, but I could not remember much else. The road to Clydesdale was overgrown and there was no evidence of the many road signs – such as Ataka Road – which were a part of the Japanese funded coffee farm development of that era. I also walked in the garden and heard and recorded the very loud sounds of a group of bird which almost sounded like they were conversing. King later identified them as the Smooth Bill Ani.
Sometime after 8, the view changed when you looked toward Mossman’s Peak. The views across the Green River were magnificent. The mists had taken over and lined the previously clear valley floor. Occasionally wisps tugged themselves away and floated upwards like cotton candy before being broken up from the edges and disappearing. I had seen many foggy and misty vistas before, but this was truly impressive. I could not help but think of the lines of Wordsworth, “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty.”
We had breakfast, broke camp and were ready to leave when Ryan picked us up at about 9:20 am. The journey was long and we drove from Cinchona to Westphalia to Mavis Bank, Content Gap, St Peters, Section, Holywell and ended at Irish Town.
The cliché is – all’s well that ends well – and this could be applied to our Vinegar Hill trail hike. These are my takes on the project.
1. One major contributing factor to the completion of the trip was the planning, which was very tight – there were very few, if any, loose ends. Paul was the constant in the planning process and was very receptive to other ideas.
2. We were all aware of the possible hazards. Things that could have jeopardized the mission were: internally – person physical health and fitness, and: externally – ground conditions, weather or extreme bushiness of the trail
3. The team performed well together. The 5 of us were mission-focused and were not distracted by anything that would have jeopardized the goal.
4. We were fortunate to not have encountered any misadventure – these could have been vehicular along the many Kms of poor and slippery roadways, injury along the trail, illness along the trail or hydration or nutrition issues. There was also no discomfort from biting insects.
5. Not all of our original objectives were accomplished: we were not able to do the paint marking, we were not able to see the Mabess River Waterfall, we were not able to make notes on the trail or to take as many photographs as we had planned.
6. We learned a lot about the Vinegar Hill Trail and about ourselves. Perhaps a guided debriefing in the future would help with our self-reflection.
7. This has convinced me that I can do more trail work. Would I return to Vinegar Hill? A definite yes. Would I return to Vinegar Hill in the rain? Also, a yes but perhaps this time with a waterproof sleeping bag. Am I ready for a Nanny Town trail multi day hike? Again, a yes!