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Tough going on the hiking trail
TIME: 04:42PM Thursday September 13,2012
FROM:Trinidad & Tobago Express   

"The forests are no place to play in," Carl Fitzjames said in the no-joke fashion we had gotten used to. His eyes were intense as he turned to face us.

"Kelly must be getting a little worried by now," he added, referring to his American wife and mother of their two children, who was back at the couple's home in Brasso Seco.       

We were running late. Really late. We were expected back at Carl's home more than an hour earlier. We had been walking for hours. Now in the late afternoon, as the sun began making its descent, the sky awash in hues of pinks and oranges, our small hiking group of three people, soaked to the bone, was happy to trade the dank forest for a hot plate of food and the familiarity and warmth of Carl's home.

It was the experience we had earlier in the afternoon that made us especially grateful when we set foot on Carl's porch at twilight, with Kelly waiting to greet us.

Hours earlier, we had been thrust into a predicament that could have turned ugly very quickly had we not had Carl's quick thinking, knowledge and expertise to guide us through.

The day started like any other and ended unlike any other.

In the early morning, after wiping our faces of stray sweetbread crumbs and draining our coffee mugs, Carl kissed his wife goodbye and he, our friend Peter O'Connor and I were off. 

Our destination was Macajuel Pond. To get there we would hike five miles along the Madamas road, scarred with four-wheel tyre tracks before heading into untouched rainforest, passing Double river and Tapana river along the way. Then the steady walk uphill would begin until the sound of gurgling water below would signal that we were above the Madamas gorges and it was time to descend and head downstream.

The three of us made an interesting sight, Carl—a walking encyclopaedia on forests, O'Connor—a close friend of Carl's and no stranger to the wild, and then myself who up until that moment had never been on hikes that required a great degree of strenuous effort and endurance that long-distance hiking usually entails.

We packed light and walked single file, with Carl occasionally swiping his machete left and right to clear the pathway.

I could hear my heart drumming inside my ear as I tried to keep up with Carl's pace, my muscle joints ached and I could already feel the sole of my shoe eating away at the skin of my ankle.

I kept my eyes fixed on my footsteps not wanting to miss a step and fall, but as the terrain got trickier, falling was inevitable so were the bruises and scrapes that came with it.

As the forest canopy closed in around us, giving us a respite from the scorching sun up ahead, we stopped to marvel at the serenity of our surroundings and take in the delicious scent of the wild lillies growing in abundance among the trees and bushes.

Soon we could hear the rush of the river below, it was time to descend and start making our way downstream, swimming amongst the spectacular Madamas gorges, where scores of tiny long-legged spiders performed a little dance routine on the black mirror-like surface of the water.

Shortly after midday we had reached our destination, the pristine blue-green waters of macajuel pond, we swam to the lower pool. 

It was time to have lunch, kick-back and enjoy the scenery before heading back to Brasso Seco. The sun was out, everyone was safe. Nothing could go wrong. Right?

After an hour, things began to change, the once clear river flowing into the pool turned brown, transforming the blue-green water into a muddy soup of leaves and debris.

It took Carl and O'Connor seconds to realise that "the river had come down", we had to get ourselves and all our belongings out as quickly as possible and head to higher ground fast or risk being swept away. 

In the snap of the finger, our calm oasis was now a raging torrent. As we stood at the swollen river's edge, Carl surveyed the waters.

We could hear the sound of rocks rolling and thrashing against the river bed. Our original plan to head up Miguel river to get out was dashed. The sky up ahead was bright blue, obviously there was bad weather elsewhere.

Memories of the trip to the Guanapo waterfall that turned tragic for a group of hikers back in 2008 flooded my mind. We were almost in the same situation those hikers were in.

What have I gotten myself into! I screamed in my head. We would wait for the waters to recede, said Carl. But as thunder roared in the distance, he reconsidered. We had to make a decision; we could stay put and wait for the waters to recede and risk further showers sending more water our way—trapping us even more or we could make a move, climbing upwards and keeping to the ridge of the hill.      

Carl walked ahead, guided by his inner compass, he nimbly made his way up the steep incline, several feet behind I lay on my belly using my fingers to claw at tree roots, and anything that would hold my weight, daring myself not to look beneath or behind me.

When the climbing got extremely tough we descended and walked along the river edge, using our trekking  sticks to poke around in the brown water, ever mindful of avoiding deep drops.

After alternating between walking uphill and wading in the river, Carl was satisfied that the waters had receded enough and that it was safe to continue our walk through the Miguel river.

My body swayed with exhaustion as we made our way upstream, I could feel the extra weight from the pebbles the river had deposited in my shoes. My palm blistered from gripping the trekking stick with all my might as we trudged up the river.

Eventually we came to a small stream to our left, from then on, we would leave the river behind and start the long walk back to Brasso Seco.

Taking no breaks, except a few seconds to express relief, we began walking upwards, Carl leading the way began hiking at his customary blazing pace.

By the time we reached Carl's house we had walked 12 miles. When we entered the forest hours earlier we were taken aback by its beauty and peacefulness , but we emerged hours later humbled by nature, completely aware that the forest and everything in it was to be respected. 

Indeed, the forest is no place to play in. Back at the house, we learnt that there was bad weather in Brasso Seco earlier in the day and we counted our blessings, realising how close we came to spending the night in the forest.  

Carl's advice; stay away from rivers when rain is falling, even if it's not raining, keep your eye on the water level and be on the look-out for debris. If you notice water rising, it can be a sign that a river has burst its bank due to bad weather elsewhere. Get out and get to higher ground.

Pack a flashlight and extra batteries and something to light a fire in the event that you have to stay the night in the forest. 


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