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TOURS - St. Elizabeth |  Milk River  |  Hills of Mandeville

Tour 7 - Mandeville to Milk River and the Clarendon Plains
Excerpted from the book, Tour Jamaica, by Margaret Morris

Milk River is 36 miles from Mandeville. Take the highway south from Williamsfield down Melrose Hill via Porus past stalls replete with luscious citrus and other fruit to TOLLGATE and turn R Flat canefields and pastures border seven miles of road to REST crossroads where you turn R to Milk River Spa another 3.5 miles away.

MILK RIVER SPA AND HOTEL belong to the government and is operated by the Ministry of Tourism. The hotel, built against a limestone cliff and upstairs of the mineral baths, overlooks the Milk River. Manager Desmond Edwards heads a friendly staff, including a trained masseuse. Accommodation is not plush, but clean and comfortable. The food is good, with plenty of fish from nearby FARQUHARíS BEACH.

Downstairs there are nine tiled baths with a continuous flow of lukewarm mineral water. The analysis of the mineral spring shows it as more radioactive than leading European spas, (fifty-four times as active as Baden in Switzerland and three times as active as Karlsbad, Austria). The waters are reputed to cure numerous ailments including rheumatism, gout, neuralgia, sciatica, lumbago, ìnerve conditionsî and liver disorders. The recommended treatment is 3 baths per day, each lasting no longer than 20 minutes. There are two springs, the water of the second can be taken internally for digestive complaints. The baths are open 24 hours a day to hotel guests and 7am to 9pm to the public. There is also a public mineral water swimming pool open at weekends.

Milk River is popular with Jamaicans. The atmosphere is very homey. You are likely to meet hotel guests wandering around in their dressing gowns on their way to or from the baths or sipping early morning coffee on the screened verandah. Locals drop by for a bath or a meal. At weekends there is usually a crowd.

The spa was discovered in the eighteenth century by a slave belonging to Jonathan Ludford. The slave, who had been punished and severely beaten escaped from Ludfordís estate and hid in the nearby hills where he discovered a salty spring, drank the water and bathed his battered body before returning in fine shape to the slave village. Ludford, amazed at the manís recovery promised never to punish him again if he would show him the miraculous spring. He then fenced the place, put the slave there as a watchman and eventually willed the property to the government. The first baths were constructed and opened to the public in 1794.

Milk River is a comfortable base from which to explore the south coast of Clarendon or St Elizabeth. FARQUHARíS, a small fishing beach, is one mile from the hotel via a primitive road. Fishing trips can be arranged by negotiation with the boatmen ñ short trips to ALLIGATOR HOLE or deep sea expeditions to BOON ROCK. You will have to provide your own tackle.The Milk River itself is said to harbour crocodiles and although they are reclusive and shy animals, do not push your luck by swimming here.

About a mile before Milk River Spa is a sign directing you to Canoe Valley and the ALLIGATOR HOLE project of the National Resources Conservation Authority, not to be missed if you are a nature lover. The road winds between low hills cloaked in dry limestone forest. The only persons you are likely to see are charcoal burners piling bulging sacks by the roadside for the coal truck. The short Alligator Hole river springs crystal clear from the limestone hills above and provides a habitat for a wide variety of birds, plants and aquatic creatures. An environmental display in a small wooden cabin tells you all about it. Supervisor Keith Jones is even more informative, especially about the four female manatees who were all rescued from ishermen who had caught them in seine nets. They were put in the river for safe keeping and have been here for ten years. Though no longer restrained, they have elected to stay in the river rather than return to the open sea. To date the NRCA has not attempted to acquire a male manatee and start a captive breeding program. Keith says that there are doubts that the vegetation in the river could support a larger population ñ manatees are large creatures that consume their body weight in aquatic plant food each day. They stuff the plants into their mouths with their flippers.

There is a small boat and the wardens will gladly take you on a short river trip (tips at your discretion). Sometimes, when a south wind increases the height of the sand bar at the river mouth the river floods the surrounding mangrove and the water becomes dark and opaque. More often, the river is blue-green, crystal clear and almost icy. A prominent sign says ìno swimmingî, but whoís looking when the sun is scorching down?

The wardens can point you to a hiking trail that will take you to LONG BAY beach ñ a crescent of black sand nearly 10 miles long stretching from Farquharís to GUT RIVER. The seven miles of coast road from Alligator Hole to Gut River should not be attempted unless you have a 4 wheel drive vehicle.


Also in this area is GODíS WELL, an immensely deep sinkhole that leads to subterranean, water filled tunnels and caverns. Old legends say that the place was an Arawak religious site.

East of Milk River is the sugar belt of Clarendon. Hidden in the canefields is VERNHAM FIELD. An airfield and U.S. army base during World War II, it is nowadays sometimes used for auto racing but more frequently for the airlift of marijuana. Not a place to visit casually.

Nearby is the GARVEY MACEO SECONDARY SCHOOL, a gift from the Cuban government during the 1970s.

NEW YARMOUTH sugar estate and factory is owned by the ancient firm of J. Wray and Nephew. A private consortium that includes J Wray and Nephew and Booker-Tate of the U.K. has recently bought MONYMUSK from the government.

As you drive from Milk River to the MONYMUSK factory at Lionel Town, the vast fields of cane are interspersed with small shabby settlements teeming with children, livestock, churches and rumshops. In the village of ALLEY there is beautiful little Anglican Church, under the vigorous stewardship of Archdeacon Wright. A plaque erected by the Jamaica Historical Society says that it was founded in 1671 as the parish church of the former parish of VERE. The existing building dates from 1715. The churchyard has whitewashed brick tombs, some dating from the eighteenth century.

Another gem for photographerís is the Monymusk branch library in a converted windmill. Goats and cows browse in the grounds and the library is mostly used by local schoolchildren.

LIONEL TOWN is a bustling village with schools, churches, police station, hospital and gas station. A few miles to the south is ROCKY POINT one of the largest fishing beaches in the island; and a few miles west at another ROCKY POINT is the JAMALCO port.

ALCOA, the Aluminum Company of America, the largest aluminum producer in the U.S. was the last bauxite/alumina company to come to Jamaica. In 1960, Alcoa Minerals of Jamaica began mining bauxite in the Mocho Mountains and processing it at their Clarendon Alumina Works 4 miles south of May Pen. In 1981 the joint venture company JAMALCO was created with the government of Jamaica acquiring a 6% interest in the mining and refining operation and Alcoa retaining management. During the aluminum slump of the 1980s, when Alcoa was preparing to ìmothballî the plant the Jamaican government averted the shutdown by creating another company (Clarendon Aluminum Products Ltd) which assumed responsi-bility for production, and retained Alcoa on a Management contract. The rescue was facilitated by a controversial 10 year supply contract with the notorious metals trader Marc Rich, which had been negotiated by the incumbent Minister of Mining, Hugh Hart.

When the aluminium market improved Alcoa returned as managing partner. The refinery is capable of producing 800,000 tons of alumina annually. Ore, alumina and supplies are transported via 22 miles of railroad belonging to the defunct Jamaica Government Railway and operated at Alcoaís expense.

One of Alcoa's founders, Charles Martin Hall, the first person to discover a low-cost process for making aluminum, had Jamaican connections. His parents worked as missionaries near Brainerd Station in St Mary from 1850 to 1860 and the Sunday School register shows entries for five of their older children. Charles was born shortly after they returned to the U.S. He developed his aluminum process in an old woodshed at age 22.

Driving from Lionel Town to the Alcoa Plant you will pass L the large Vere Technical High School, a government housing scheme, and a high mud wall enclosing the Red Mud lake containing waste sludge from the alumina process. You canít miss the Alcoa plant R and its Sports Club, New Bowens.

R a short way further on is a tidy village created by Alcoa for residents displaced from Bowens by the mudlake.

L of the highway is the packing plant for Victoria Banana Ltd, which produces export bananas in a hi-tech operation on the Clarendon plains. Far L of the highway their banana fields can be seen stretching into the distance behind HALSE HALL. This historic great house has been restored and furnished in period style by Alcoa. It is used for functions and to accommodate visiting V.I.P.s. The foundations of the house may date back to the Spanish period when the property was called Hato de Buena Vista (Ranch of the Beautiful View). After the Spanish were driven from the island, the place was settled by Thomas Halse. The house that he built, half residence, half fortress, was maintained until modern days. One owner, Sir Henry de la Beche, was a renowned geologist and president of the geological society in London (1847-1849). In the Halse Hall grounds is a family graveyard, a feature of many rural Jamaican homes, both great and humble.

MAY PEN, parish capital of Clarendon lies over the Rio Minho one of the longest rivers in Jamaica but frequently nothing more than a trickle in a wide silted bed. May Pen is just 25 miles and at best 45 minutes from Mandeville. It is one of the largest, most prosperous rural towns and a market centre surrounded by fertile land producing citrus, cocoa, ground provisions and cane. A large sugar estate, Sevens, lies on the northeast of the town. There are three factories: The Citrus Development Company Ltd., the Jamaica Cordage Co., which produces all the rope sold in the island, and Jamaica Bags Ltd. Traffic, handcarts, shoppers and vendors swirl around the Town Clock and market. Overlooking the main road Storks De Roux and Company is the businessplace of the jovial Custos of Clarendon, Jimmy de Roux.

HOTEL VERSAILLES (locally pronounced Ver-Sallies) on the edge of May Penís affluent, residential section has all necessary mod cons: rooms with private bath, satellite tv, air-conditioning, telephones plus a swimming pool, two bars and restaurant.

DENBEIGH SHOWGROUND on the western outskirts of town is the site for the islandís largest agricultural show ñ held annually for 3 days over the Independence weekend in August.

Along the May Pen ñ Kingston route about 2 miles out at Freetown (better known as Rastaman Corner) there are a series of roadside stalls specializing in Lignum Vitae utensils, everything from chopping boards to wine goblets. The slow growing Lignum Vitae is Jamaicaís national tree. Other stalls between here and OLD HARBOUR offer honey in quart bottles.

The elegant Victorian town clock in Old Harbour seldom tells the correct time, and the market spills into the main road so drive with care. One and a half miles northwest of Old Harbour is COLBECK CASTLE, a rather mysterious ruin, the largest of its kind in Jamaica. The corner towers are reminiscent of the mansion/fortress at Stokes Hall, but no one is certain when it was built, for what purpose or whether it was ever occupied by the presumed owner Colonel John Colbeck. Further north in the hills between Bellas Gate and Rock River gold has been found and a Canadian company is still hoping to mine it in commercial quantities.

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