Negril's Really Wild Side:
Crocodiles on the Black River

by Paris Permenter & John Bigley

Vacationers to Jamaica are happy to hear "no problem" as an answer to just about any request -- whether it's for another Red Stripe beer or a taxi or more towels in the room.But when couples cruising the remote mangroves near Negril hear "crocodiles, no problem" when confronting a seven-foot specimen, some seem a little incredulous. Others, looking at the toothy reptile just yards from the boat, seem to get downright worried.

No need because these crocodiles represent no threat. Unlike their cousins on the Nile, the Americanus crocodilius is not aggressive. Like vacationers on the nearby beach in Negril, they're just content to lie in the sun and take life easy.

The crocodiles are seen on the Black River Safari Cruise, a popular day trip for Negril vacationers looking for a little respite from sun and sand and for a chance to see the combustion fires in the dense peat bogs.

Since its early days as a haven for hippies in the 1970s, Negril has long harbored an image as a "wild" vacation destination. Nudity is common on the beaches of Bloody Bay, home to Hedonism II, a resort where the level of fun matches its tantalizing name. Reggae clubs bring some of the island's best music to the cliffs that overlook spectacular sunsets. And, while not as popular as during the Seventies, more than one establishment still sells hallucinogenic teas and vendors still hawk ganja.

But the real wildness in Negril lies just outside the city limits. Here, in an area known as the Great Morass, visitors can see a side of Jamaica that most visitors never glimpse. Here, crocodiles, not vacationers, lie in the steamy afternoon sunshine. Peddlers sell, not marijuana, but shrimp caught using techniques over 400 years old. And spectacular birds, not parasailers, fill the air with dashes of color and the sounds of an exotic cacophony.

East of Negril, the small town of Black River to enjoy a cruise on the river of the same name. It's a drive along Jamaica's south shore, a region that has remained nearly untouched by tourism (although plans call for the Sandals chain to erect a new property aimed at families named Beaches in the near future).

This hour and a half long cruise takes travelers up the Black River, at 44 miles the longest river in Jamaica. Much of the water comes from the runoff from the peat bogs. The black sediment colors the bottom of the river, giving it the name. The water on the lower stretch is also brackish, about 15 percent salt water that comes in and mixes with the fresh water during high tide.

This brackish water allows for the growth of a mangrove forest. The mangroves have roots that cascade from high branches and reach the water. The result is a curtain of thick roots, an almost impenetrable fence that divides the river from the marshy swampland that lies beyond the trees.

The forest also creates an environment rich in plant, fish, animal and bird life. The waters here are home to snook and tarpon, some reaching as large as 200 pounds. Near the mangrove roots, spear fishermen, using a snorkel, mask and speargun, swim in the dark river to bring in the day's catch.The fish go into the canoe, hand-hewn and burned out in a generations-old technique.

Other fishermen use wire traps to catch blue Marie crabs. Shrimp are caught using the shrimp trap, an African design dating back over 400 years. The bamboo trap, shaped like a large inverted bottle, holds coconut and oranges in he wide end. After two or three days in the river, the trap is checked and the shrimp fall out when the smaller end is twisted. In the St. Elizabeth parish, look for women on the side of the road selling bags of peppered shrimp. Highly salted and spiced, these small shrimp are a popular snack with locals and visitors.

The waters are also dotted with bull rush, giant fern (one of 600 species found in this country) and pancake lilies. The captain also points out a tree with a 35 year old termite nest and trees where over 3000 cattle egrets nest nightly.

But the biggest attraction on the Black River are the crocodiles. One time hunted, these crocodiles are not protected but still remain wary. Loud talk (or even a spear fisherman at work) causes the crocodile to take refuge.

These reptiles can live as long as 100 years, so long that some have become known by local residents. One 15 foot long specimen named Lester is seen nightly as he heads out to sea.

The Black River is formed from three tributaries: the Y.S., Middlequarter, and Salt Spring. The safari tour takes visitors up the Salt Spring, once one of Jamaica's most important waterways for transporting rum and sugar cane.

Travelers can get another view of the Y.S. (pronounced "wyess") River on a trip to nearby Y.S. Falls. These spectacular waterfalls cascade in steps through tropical forest. As spectacular (and far less crowded) as Dunn's River Falls in Ocho Rios, Y.S. is a Jamaican attraction that has remained unspoiled by hassling vendors, hoards of cruise ship visitors, and long lines.

"We're looking to keep the area as natural as possible," explains Simon Browne, whose family has owned the Y.S. Farm for over a century. "We're looking to have 100 or 120 visitors a day." Those vacationers find an unspoiled park with guides to lead the way up stairs in the hillside. At the top, swimmers enjoy clear waters under a canopy of fern.

The falls have been open to the public since the late eighties, but this property has existed as a farm since 1684. Some say its unusual name (the shortest place name in Jamaica) came from the Gaelic word "wyess", meaning winding or twisting. Others believe the name was formed from the initials of the farm's original two owners: John Yates and Lt. Col. Richard Scott. Today the Y.S. Farm raises Jamaica Red Poll cattle and thoroughbred racehorses. The drive to Y.S. is lined with papaya groves, a major export.

Visitors along the Y.S. and Black River often smell the smoke of burning fires. These fires in the Great Morass, a swampland east of Negril, are often sparked spontaneously by the sunlight among peat in the swamp.

This peat was looked at as a possible energy source in the 1970s. Scientists studied the possibility of mining this resource. Environmental concerns about the possibility of damaging Negril's famous seven mile beach put a stop to the mining plans.

During the study of the Morass, these scientists lived in cabins in Negril. Today, Negril Cabins takes in those original structures plus several new buildings. Visitors can enjoy Swiss Family Robinson-style accommodations in cabins perched on stilts. Lush grounds are filled with indigenous Jamaican flora and fauna and dotted with colorful hummingbirds.

For more on Jamaica, see the official Jamaica Tourist Board website:www.visitjamaica.com


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