Hikeseekers Hike to Tucker Valley

by hikermaster Joanne Mike-Ventour

Our hiking schedule for May 29-31, 2003 said that Hike Seekers of Trinidad and Tobago was carded to camp out in Tucker Valley, Chaguaramas, and that hikers were to meet at Pier 1 car park. So, armed with canned foods, packs of snacks, and foam for bedding, yours truly hit the highway in the early hours of Indian Arrival Day and found my way to the designated car park on the Western peninsula.

After waiting a few extra minutes for the habitual stragglers who invariably phone in late, we took the five-minute drive to the Arboretum on the Corvigne trail where we were to set up camp for the next three days. Along the way, the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA) had posted various signs indicating places of interest, an effort no doubt, to boost the tourist attractions in the area.

The campsite itself was a Godsend because I am sure that even the most hard-nosed of campers would prefer the comforts of a flushing lavatory and a shower with running water as opposed to ablutions in the wild. All blessings were therefore heaped on Mr. Hayden Als and his beautiful companion Gail Fuller for their foresight in leasing seven acres of land from the CDA for the purpose of offering a place of respite and rejuvenation for the national community.

Als, a landscape engineer by profession was trained at Merrist Wood Agricultural College in Surrey, England, and his project at Tucker Valley aimed at highlighting the main features of the landscape by sculpturing the secondary forest and complementing the existing vegetation with introduced ornamentals. The result was a garden setting of bamboo sheds set over 10’x 10’ concrete flooring and shaded by scattered bamboo stands, all against the backdrop of the Northern Range.

The facility was opened to the public in May 2003, and although Als claims that there is still a lot to be done, he is giving it his best shot. With the help of his two supportive workers Andy and Antonio, Als is just happy to give something back to the people of Trinidad and Tobago by offering this ecosite in the very lap of nature. The Arboretum is fed by spring water and from the campsite, nature trails fan out to the hills taking hikers either furthur west, or east to the Diego Martin area.

For our first hike we were taken up the Palmiste Trail, passing alongside an abandoned ammunitions bunker to face a hill that seemed to me, to be standing at 90 degrees to the horizontal. It was at this point that I stopped wondering why half of the group had stayed behind ‘to cook’ when it was common knowledge that Vaughn, our designated cook, had already brought along a pot of ‘multi-meat’ pelau, and had lodged it at the campsite. Those crooks!! And maybe that was why the mango orchard was located at the base of the hill too!!…to supply us with all those luscious mango vere, mango rose, calabash and dou dous for energy to climb that hill! Chancellor Hill pales in comparison.
Suffice it to say that your friend here was wishing that horses could fly, and that such a horse would rescue me from the hour and a half of torture that I experienced getting up that hill. I prayed every prayer that I ever learnt, and made up hundreds, but I swore that by the next hike (two weeks away) I would train like Ato Boldon and stock up on the strongest tonic around to make sure that my fitness was at its peak. It was too much to bear the snickering sympathy of those hill buffs ahead of me,….so way ahead of me.

Up on the ridge we were able to look down into the valley and to identify the buildings there, like the Chaguaramas Youth camp and Rehab center; we saw the now brown expanse of the Chaguaramas Public Golf Course, and as we climbed higher, we got glimpses of the ocean beyond the north coast. Above us the cornbirds carried out their daily chores and a woodpecker hammered out a song on a defenseless tree trunk. Snake was able to harvest some leaves from a bayleaf tree, declaring that it would be part of our breakfast the next day. The forest became darker and cooler as we climbed higher, and soon not only our heads, but all of our bodies were in the clouds.

The trail soon leveled off, and with the exception of a few minor inclines, we started the downhill roll, my favourite time of any hike. It was somewhat challenging going downhill with Roseann’s delicate squeals punctuating our exertions and causing us to keep looking around for mice. Finally, we settled on the riverbed and took time off for some refreshments. The guabines (river fish) entertained us as they fought each other for the food scraps that we threw to them. We really felt very appreciated.

The walk down the river calmed my weary heart. The water level was still very low, the rains having just started. The men were even able to trap a few mountain crabs (also called manicou crabs) which Snake bagged for later use. When we came to a narrowing of the rock walls of the riverside, we were forced to execute some Spiderman maneuvers to get over the huge rocks that were blocking the path. Even the six-foot water slide that usually provides thrills for hikers was water free at this time.

While still behind the rocks in that narrow passage, we identified the sounds of human voices and as we got through, encountered a group of hikers, guided by Andy and Antoniio of the Arboretum. The group had come from a San Fernando church to enjoy the beauty of Tucker Valley, but was unable to progress any furthur up the trail because members were not suitably prepared for the rock climbing. Our two groups merged as we headed back to camp and we filled in our new friends on the thrills of the Palmiste trail.

Vaughn’s ‘multi-meat’ pelau was ‘beaten to a frazzle’ as we sighed happily like boa constrictors in the serenity of Tucker Valley. We felt a sense of accomplishment that we had another hiking tale to tell to those who had stayed behind. Those tales filled the minutes at dusk and before long it was time to prepare for bed (whatever form that would take!)

Our bedtime stories that Friday night served to keep us more awake than ever. I am sure that some of us had not laughed so hard and long for ages. With the stench of Snake’s crab soup in the air, Snake and Vaughn gave us a composite account of their exploits as teenage schoolboys in Port of Spain, leaving little to the imagination. The stories doubled as jokes then tripled as history lessons on the layout of the city in those days, and it was almost midnight before we heeded Vaughn’s pleas for us to leave his ‘porch’ and go to our respective beds. The songs of the tiny frogs and the crickets were the perfect lullaby for a well deserved rest, and the Red Howler monkeys reversed the process on Saturday morning, acting as our alarm clocks as they rummaged through the forest in search of their morning meal of fruits and flowers.

A cold bath and hot breakfast got us rearing the next morning, the bay leaves coming in very handy for spicing up the hot chocolate. Preparation of lunch was the next item on the agenda. Stewed meat and vegetable rice were on the menu for the day and our cooks did their usual remarkable job making sure that we would have nourishment when we returned from our Saturday hike. The plan this Saturday was to take a ‘road hike’ to the old Tracking Station on the eastern hills of Tucker Valley. How hard could that be?!

The walk started on the roadway through the ‘Bamboo Cathedral’. The Bamboo Cathedral is a 300m stretch of roadway where the bamboo stalks bend towards each other across the road and their tops form arcs reminiscent of those in a cathedral. We almost performed a marriage ceremony on an unsuspecting couple until we realized that we needed a priest to make it authentic. Added to that, the couple was not satisfied with the quality of the wedding presents, so the wedding was called off and the targeted couple lived to fight another day!

The walk up the paved hill seemed, to my traumatised mind and body, to be yet again never ending, especially since the others were yet again, way ahead of me. However, half-hour later, we came upon the dilapidated sentry house that would have served this station about 60 years ago. Those sentries would have been very privileged to have such a fantastic view of the Caribbean Sea and to enjoy the cooling breezes of the North-east Trade winds.

Another thirty minutes climb got us to the top of the hill where the old Tracking Station stands. It is a cluster of massive buildings that would have housed the American military during WWII. A huge satellite dish rose up from the hill like a dried flower hinting of the excitement and drama of days gone by. We could only speculate as to the precise activities that would have taken place at the base, but I am sure that the CDA will be glad to share their information with us. A pervading sense of history is very much alive on that hill. Much of the movable hardware has already been vandalised and removed from the site, but the construction material is so durable that those multi-storied buildings will certainly be standing for quite some time as testimony to the far reaching tentacles of war.

A few brave hearts made the climb up into the satellite dish and ‘Michael the Fearless’ brought our hearts into our mouths as he defied the howling winds at the top of the dish to lie on the mesh for a sun bath. From the type of equipment left behind we speculated that the lowest building housed some type of water purification system, then, with our investigative powers duly exhausted, we retraced our steps to the main road. Snake took us on one detour onto a sidetrack to harvest a bunch of gru-gru (palm), the tangy pulp of which renewed some of our lost energy.

We drove back to the campsite to the catchy strains of the otherwise sad Chutney song ‘Rum ‘till I Die’, happy that we were together, happy to re-raid the mango orchard, happy to eat a tasty lunch and eagerly looking forward to the three day camp at Grand Tacaripe for the Labour Day weekend.

Joanne Mike-Ventour