Ras Lumumba picked me up in his Rasta-colored 1970s Land Rover and we set off for a drive along back roads to a viewpoint overlooking the north coast of St Croix. We were going on a hike, along with his daughter and another friend, but first Lumumba, a naturalist and exceptional tour guide, wanted to show us one of his favourite spots on the island.
As we trundle along through large puddles and along overgrown dirt tracks, Lumumba suddenly mashes the brake and stops his narrative to point out a native medicinal plants and celebrated aphrodisiac. Just as suddenly we are off again and then we are there, a guinea grass clearing and a view down towards Annaly Bay, Davis Bay and the northwest end of St. Croix.
This is my second hike with Ras Lumumba. A few years ago I hiked with him and two others at Salt River Bay, where I remember traversing first the dramatic headland which afforded views of the mouth of the bay and then down through the coastal woodland where Lumumba talked about mangroves, manchineel apples and other plants.
This time we are hiking to Maroon Ridge, a dramatic spine of land on the far northwestern tip of St. Croix. It was in these remote hills that groups of Africans who had escaped slavery on the plantations lived difficult lives of freedom.
Surviving off the land and from what stores they could obtain, the maroons were constantly moving, constantly resisting bands of militia who travelled on horseback into the mountains to find them. Firm facts are difficult to come by, but the story of the maroons and their courage in the hills is a story which stirs the soul.
The hike itself is not long. We did not discuss distances but our climb up the mountain could not have taken more than an hour, and we stop frequently to appreciate the beauty of nature: intricate spider’s webs, medicinal plants, tiny butterflies, unusual lichen. I am, unfortunately or not, a lover of nature but not a lover of details so the names of all the plants we discussed have left me. But what remains is Lumumba’s enthusiasm and his passionate belief, which I share, that there is nothing which humans can think or do which can compete with the genius and perfection of nature.
At the top of the ridge we meet a flock of wild goats: two rams and dozens of females and kids. After a brief interlude during which humans and goats considered each other in silence, the goats scampered down the steep northern side of the ridge.
Lumumba guides us a few short steps across the ridgetop to the edge. We are overlooking the island’s northwest coast and below us lies a tapestry of green: the forest canopy in every conceivable shade and texture of nature. The ocean is shockingly blue and wisps of white foam plume into the air at the shoreline, where whitecaps crash into a rocky beach. In the distance is bay upon bay of unspoiled beauty.
One of my companions spots a blue smudge on the facing hillside: she must have better eyes than me. But then, oh yes, I see it, a tiny spot of blue and a few cultivated banana trees. It is the camp of a modern-day maroon, a mountain dweller who has escaped our modern world to live amongst the trees and animals of the forest. Lumumba says he knows the fellow, and that he helped him machete a path through the forest to his abode. It is a life which, right there and then, seems like the most natural choice in the world.
At some stage in modern history a department of the US Government saw it fit to build a small lighthouse atop Maroon Ridge. Like many seemingly good ideas, the lighthouse did not last: it is now closed, crumbling, and padlocked, but the building’s foundation provides a surface on which to sit, rest and enjoy the views. So we do. A few of the goats return to investigate but they keep their distance and we drink water and talk.
The journey back down the mountain goes quickly, as downward hikes usually do. It is coming on mid-day and the sun is hot so I am thankful for portions of the trail which pass through forest so thick not a speck of sun can make it through the canopy. Near the bottom Lumumba leaves the trail and returns with a fallen coconut in hand. He unsheaths his machete and makes short work of extracting the meat and dividing it into equal portions for our hiking party. The snack is fresh and filling: perfect trail food.
We make our way back along the fence which means we are nearly back to the car. A few lucky souls are assigned to this remote outpost of the National Guard, and thankfully no one seems to mind that hiking parties such as ours park nearby and take the well-worn trail around the compound and then up the hill behind it.
And then we are done: back to Lumumba’s colorful chariot and back to paved roads and air-conditioning. A morning well-spent, for sure.
Ras Lumumba operates Ay-Ay Eco Tours and leads hikes all over St. Croix. Lumumba is a master naturalist, an experienced hiker, and an enthusiastic teacher. Contact him on tel. 340/772-4079 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maroon Ridge is located at the end of Route 63, the paved road which travels along the western coast of St. Croix, north of Frederiksted. To find the trailhead, drive to the end of the road where you will see a National Guard office. Park and then walk along the fence on the seaward side of the building until you see the trail which heads up the mountain.