Chukka River Tube on the Martha Brae
At the Good Hope Estate, a one-time sugar plantation turned resort, Chukka provides many of the cruise ship shore excursions in Jamaica offered in Falmouth as well as from Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. Chukka (which means a period of play in polo) is one of the largest employers in the Caribbean with excursions around Jamaica and in Belize and Grand Turk as well. From High Tea at the Good Hope Estate to horseback riding, Chukka has it all. Tourism is the number one industry in Jamaica and much of the Caribbean so they want to keep the tourists coming.
Our combo river tubing and zipline excursion from the MSC Divina started with a bus ride from the cruise ship dock in Falmouth. We passed shanty towns with a lot of small houses that looked like they had tiny businesses offering anything from food to auto repairs in their front yards, then some larger and nicer homes, pastures of sheep or cows, and crops like bananas and sugarcane. Sugarcane may not be what it once was in Jamaica (or the rest of the Caribbean) but they still grow some for sugar, molasses, and rum. Other by-products of sugar cane include fuels and fertilizer.
On the bus they said we would do the zip line first, have a jerked chicken lunch provided with our tour and enough time for changing clothes, and then do the river tubing. We were nearly to the water before I found out that while some people had done that, the part of the group we ended up with was actually river tubing first. I had decided at the last minute to buy the aquasocks they sell in their gift shop for people who show up with unsuitable footwear or those who decide that since those are available there’s no need to get their shoes wet. (They also have rentals for aquasocks.) I must have still been in the gift shop when they made the announcement. Luckily I had my swimming suit on under my clothes. Apparently this happens to people often enough that they routinely take the clothes back and have them waiting by the locker area when the group returns, as there is no way to take them with you on the river tube.
They panicked us on the bus saying cameras were not allowed. We asked one of the workers there about that after we got off the bus and it turned out it was actually a concern for water on the river and hands free on the zip line. Since my camera is waterproof and I had it on a neck strap (as well as in a small camera bag also on a neck strap) it was allowed. Just goes to show it never hurts to ask.
At the water’s edge they lashed strings of tubes together, some of which they filled with water and rinsed out prior to boarding leaving small puddles in the bottom. Everyone had to put a life jacket on before boarding their tube. The guide had a blow-up kayak which he lashed to the front tube and paddled the entire group from there. At times he turned the string around and pushed everyone along from the back rather than pulling from the front. Although he was mainly steering and keeping the tubes from snagging on rocks and trees and things since the river provided the actual propulsion.
Floating down the river our very knowledgeable guide kept up a nearly constant monolog of information about the plants and things we passed and history of the area, sometimes interrupted by a call of “butts up” reminiscent of the cave tubing in Belize. When they call butts up it means rocks just under the surface you really don’t want to hit so you’d better raise your derriere or you could be sorry.
Giant Indian bamboo lines much of the riverbanks, planted by the English plantation owners back in the heyday of sugarcane farming. They cut down the bamboo to make 30-foot rafts to bring their goods downriver. We happened by a local cutting down some bamboo to make a raft, which in current times is used not for hauling rum and molasses to market, but for providing tourists with an authentic river rafting experience on the Martha Brae River. This short river runs just 20 miles from an underground source to the sea.
The bamboo there grows about 4 inches a day and they call it a suicide plant because once it reaches somewhere over 100-120 feet high it becomes too top-heavy and snaps near the bottom and falls. Tall as it grows, it is not the tallest tree there because it isn’t a tree at all, but a type of grass.
Some actual trees do grow along the river, many of them host to an array of air plants. Instead of high mounds on the ground, termites there have nests that look like great blobs in the trees. Our guide said the termite nests are all-inclusive resorts for birds who will peck holes into them they can crawl into, and while there find a ready meal.
As we passed under a bridge he said much of the old stone architecture such as that bridge and many old buildings were made not from native stones, but from stones brought over as ballast in ships (much like the blue brick roads of old San Juan – only these rocks are not blue.) Throughout the day we saw remnants of many old stone things from a lime kiln through the bus window to where a water wheel once worked on the zip-line route. They still mine limestone in the area and also bauxite, used for making aluminum.
Most of the float was a relaxing ride, but every now and then we got a bit of excitement in the form of a small rapid. At one stretch of river the guide invited people to jump out of their rafts and swim, calling the slightly chilly water “refreshing.” One person jumped in and a family of Canadians joined them, no doubt used to much colder water in their far northern home. The Canadian mother said the temperature felt fine once she’d gotten used to it. Not a fan of cold water, I stayed in my raft. When we reached a place shallow enough for them to stand they all got back in and floated down the river once again.
I would recommend this excursion for people interested in a nice leisurely scenic float, those who like to learn about the places they visit while still seeing the outdoors, people who want a pleasant day out in nature, or people who want something a bit different from the usual excursion, but not for anyone looking for wild rivers or major whitewater.
Near the end of the video there’s a couple zipliners in the background. One seen as the tubes pass under the bridge and the other just after. Watch carefully to see if you can spot them.
The brochure on the ship did say to bring insect repellent, which would have been a good idea had we packed any. Sunscreen and sunglasses are also quite helpful as some areas of the river are out in the open, though much of it is nicely shady. We did get lucky on the weather as it was raining when we left the ship and after we got back, but sunny during our tour.
More posts about Jamaica
Dunn’s River Falls (Ocho Rios)
Zip Line at Good Hope Estate (Falmouth)
Swimming with Horses (Montego Bay)