Climbing the Netherlands’ tallest mountain
By Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon
CJ Travel Editor
SABA — Is that a rooster?
I’m hiking Mount Scenery – at 2,855 feet tall the highest point on Saba (and the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands) – when I look up from the fern-fringed stone stairway and see a feathery blur of black and red scurry across my path.
“Ah, yes,” says my guide, “Crocodile” James Johnson. He’s climbed this trail hundreds of times since 1969, when he was hired to help build the staircase commissioned by Cable & Wireless to access the communications tower they were installing at Scenery’s summit. Back then he did as many as four trips a day, leading a donkey laden with water and cement. Today the sprightly eighth-generation Saban is a park ranger with the Saba Conservation Foundation, taking visitors on hikes up Scenery and along the five square-mile island’s 20 other trails.
Along the 1,064-step ascent of the dormant volcano, James tells me the history of the trail, built entirely by hand and completed in 1970. He’s pointed out the veritable pharmacy of medicinal plants that border the path, traditionally to treat diabetes, prostate problems, high blood pressure and (because this IS the Caribbean, after all) to “put lead in your pencil.” He’s warned me to be careful of stepping in the nests of black fire ants, and assured me that the spindly Black Racer snake we encounter is harmless. He’s even told me about his two girlfriends (“I’m like the Energizer bunny,” he proclaims), both half his age.
But he didn’t say anything about the rooster.
“We have goats and chickens on the trail, too,” James says in an accent still novel to my ears that sounds like a hybrid of Bajan and Irish. “When hikers from neighboring islands come on day trips they feed the chickens from their boxed lunches. So he’s probably hoping for food.”
At this point, so am I.
James and I started just after sunrise and have been leisurely making our way up the mountain hoping that by the time we get to the top the ringlet of clouds that has encircled Scenery’s peak for the last few days will have dissipated. We’re 90 minutes in but only about three-quarters of the way up – a far cry from the 40-minute path-to-peak record James set in 2011 at 59 years-old. It was too early for breakfast at my hotel before I left and as my stomach rumbles I’m craving, of all things, chocolate.
But our leisurely pace has its benefits: plenty of time to stop and smell not roses but the fragrant cilantro that grows from cracks in the stairs’ risers. To see Pearly-Eyed thrashers and Bananaquits bobbing along branches of flourishing trees. To watch in awe as James, in one swift and graceful swoop, pulls the machete from the leather sheath at his waist and pares overgrown Elephant Ear philodendrons in our way. And to marvel at the wild orchids and giant tree ferns that line the path. On our journey we’ll pass through seven distinct eco-systems, from desert to cloud rainforest, so I’m savoring every moment (and catching my breath).
At 2,000 feet there’s a break in the forest, which allows a view of the village of St. John’s below, it’s characteristic Saban red roofs appearing and disappearing with the passage of cottony clouds. We press upward, past a rest shelter and a sign that promises a “Scenic View,” to where the decades-old and now defunct telecommunications tower looms, its red scaffolding piercing the clouds and mist.
And two minutes later we finally reach the peak, where a stone slab inscribed in Dutch confirms it as the highest point in the Netherlands. I scramble up the rock face hoping to enjoy the panorama of St. Maarten, Nevis and St. Kitts and St. Bart and St. Eustatius floating in the distance that I’ve heard so much about.
But it’s not meant to be. A thick swath of cloud blankets everything beyond the mountain itself, and I can barely even discern the horizon. Cue the sad trombone.
But as James and I rest on the rock for a swig of water and a brief breather it occurs to me: How many times do I get to sit in the middle of a cloud?! So I enjoy the magic of the moment, of the mist that casts a dreamy filter over the entire scene, and the clouds’ dampness cooling my skin. And now look, here’s our rooster friend again, playfully pecking the ground at our feet and obligingly posing for photos.
It’s an otherworldly experience that I’m sure can’t get any sweeter.
But then James reaches into his backpack and pulls out a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut.
And, just like that, it does.