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Cruising – Jamaica Part 2 – Martha Brae River Rafting
After journeying through torrential rain in our dilapidated coach we arrive after an hour and a half at our destination – the Martha Brae River Rafting Centre.
The River Rafting centre at Rafters’ Rest is set amongst lush tropical vegetation, and when you arrive you are offered a complementary glass of rum punch or fruit punch. You can also make a toilet stop, but be prepared for some pretty basic amenities – you will need to be pretty desperate to use them! Then you are led down to the river where the 30ft bamboo rafts are lined up. It is a highly organised operation, and guests are helped into the rafts which have two-seater benches for you to sit on at the back, whilst the trained captain stands at the front with a huge pole with which he steers it down the glistening and winding river. It is quite comfortable and very relaxing, and you will be offered life jackets. Whilst the river is mainly quite shallow it is sensible to put one of these on, although it normally moves at a slow and dwindling pace. We found that as it got hotter we needed to take them off halfway through the trip. A little tip is to let everyone else rush to the front of the queue. Hang back so you are near the end of the line, as then everyone else will be in front of you, and you will get an even more idyllic ride. You will not have lots of other rafts passing you by and encouraging your captain to go faster. This is definitely one trip where time should stand still.
The river itself runs though lush countryside, beneath sun dappled tress with huge overhanging, creepers and lianas dangling from their branches, and many fascinating examples of foliage and flowers, including bananas. Your guide can certainly make a difference to your experience. Most are friendly and full of interesting information. Be prepared for them to tell you of the poverty they experience – there are approximately 90 pilots of these rafts and they are given work in strict rotation, to be absolutely fair to the many men waiting to earn a crust. When the cruise ships are in port there is work aplenty, but they often go days with no work and no income. The river trip is about 3 miles long and if you get a good guide who is willing to take his time, then you will have about an hour and a half on the river. Your captain may sing to you, and will certainly point out flora and fauna of interest. As you glide silently down the river, where the only sound is the ripple of water, and the swish of the pole as it steers you forward, you will see many endemic species of birds and wildlife. You will also see exotic flora such as breadfruit, giant mango and calabash tress. There is a particular small plant which curls up its leaves should you touch it, and most pilots will steer their craft towards the banks to show you interesting items.
If you are lucky, he will tell you the legend of the Martha Brae, which tells of an Arawak Indian girl who, apparently, knew the whereabouts of a secret horde of gold hidden along the River Matibereon. She was captured by Spanish treasure hunters who believed her to be a witch, and forced her to show them where the treasure was hidden. She led them to a cave and then suddenly disappeared. Using her magical powers she diverted the river which then flooded the cave, drowning her Spanish captors. Some believe she died too, and that her spirit lives on to haunt the river today. It is believed that the name, ‘Martha Brae’ is actually a misunderstood translation into English of the original Spanish word ‘Matibereon. ’ These huge rafts were once used transport precious cargo such as sugar to the waiting merchant ships in the harbour.
Along the banks of the river locals ply their trade, offering chilled drinks – cans of Coke and Pepsi, for example. There are also numerous craft displays, where you can buy hand carved wooden items which are unique to this island. In our experience, they do not pester you, and if you don’t wish to look or buy just tell your captain to continue onwards. One thing I would suggest you consider buying is a little replica bamboo raft, costing only a few dollars. It really will float, and is beautifully made, and an ideal small souvenir of a charming and idyllic trip. Buying it will certainly help the economy of this area. Your captain will probably have a rucksack of items that he has hand crafted – hand carved gourds are particularly popular and he may even carve your name and the date on one if you decide to buy.
All too soon the trip is over, and you are helped out of the raft and back onto the coach, via the gift shop at the Rafter’s Village in Trelawny. Again, there will be an opportunity to buy souvenirs, but a polite ‘no, thank you’ is all it requires if you don’t wish to buy anything. The return journey is equally fascinating and you will see more of the countryside. I would certainly recommend this trip as a must for anyone visiting Ocho Rios, and I am sure you will have a simply wonderful time. Don’t forget to take your camera as there are plenty of wonderful vistas to capture.
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