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Rafting Jamaica's Rio Grande

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Known as the "cimarrones" (meaning wild ones) these African ex-slaves banded together and, from the safety of their remote jungle retreats, raided British settlements for arms and supplies. They also provided a safe haven for runaway slaves and as their numbers and confidence grew the Windward Maroons, as they became known, fought a guerilla war against the British sugar barons that lasted almost a hundred years. Finally, in 1739, a peace treaty was signed with the still undefeated Maroons giving them semi-independent status and a 500 acre parcel of land in the Rio Grande Valley, where many of them still live.

At Port Antonio we left the coast road and swung onto a dirt track leading south into the Rio Grande Valley. The large tracts of cultivated land along the coast gave way to tiny fields tucked into the rugged terrain, but nearly every patch of level ground had a well-tended plot of banana palms.

Located on the windward end of the island, between the lofty Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains, the Rio Grande valley receives an abundance of rain from the prevailing westerlies and its fertile soil is ideal for growing bananas. For generations the harvest was loaded onto bamboo rafts and floated to market down the Rio Grande River.

According to local wisdom, Errol Flynn was the first to recognize the recreational potential of this primitive flotilla. After his acting career folded the infamous screen idol moved to Port Antonio and, before drinking himself to death on Jamaican rum, spent his final years throwing extravagant parties for his influential Hollywood friends. These lavish affairs frequently included a float down the nearby Rio Grande River. The trips proved so popular that Rafting the Rio evolved from a fashionable outing for the rich and famous to a commercial enterprise that continues to attract thousands of tourists each year.

The tall black man who showed us to the river's edge wore a T-shirt that proclaimed he was "raft captain 63". As we boarded his tippy craft he announced proudly that he was licensed and that his craft was certified safe. The industry is now highly regulated, though I noted that none of the rafts carry any flotation gear.

Made from 10-metre long pieces of bamboo lashed together with wire, the raft has a raised seat for two passengers near the back. The captain stands near the front and controls his craft with a long bamboo pole. For most of the way we are swept downstream by a gentle current through broad stretches where the water is scarcely rippled. But the trip includes several small rapids and I am impressed by the skill of our captain as he guides his ungainly craft through the choppy white water.

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