Jamaican Fat Tire Festival | The Rum Diaries
When amazing and impossible collide... the Jamaican Fat Tire Festival
When amazing and impossible collide... the Jamaican Fat Tire Festival
Words by Seb Kemp. Photos by Ian Hylands.
I’m kneeling down, with sponge in hand, attempting to scrub away the hard earned dirt and grime from my bike. Each patch of clay, dust, oil, mango juice and cow pat is a deliciously filthy reminder of the past week. Right now my bike is an agricultural time bomb waiting to be dropped upon the UK and the task to cleanse it for re–entry is taking time. The muck won’t shift easily and the stains require elbow grease to erase them, but this chore is a happy one. In each patch of mud and crud there’s a memory of the week’s riding and cleaning them gives me time to sit quietly alone to process the incredible sights and scenes I witnessed over the past week.
Until a year ago, the thought of this little island afloat in the Caribbean only conjured up images of sandy beaches, dreadlocks, and puffs of blue–grey smoke. However, in the two trips to Jamaica I have been fortunate to make in the past twelve months, I found it is so much more than just reggae and Rastas. Jamaica is rather small at only half the size of Wales, but because most Jamaicans live a very modest life in small abodes nestled and squeezed into whatever flat area they can find to build on it crams in the same population. You see, unlike some other Caribbean islands Jamaica doesn’t just sit upon the brilliant blue sea, it thrusts upwards from it.>>
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The highest point is the Blue Mountain peak, which stands at 7,405ft, which is considerably higher than Ben Nevis (UK’s highest at 4,409ft) and over twice the height of Snowdon (Wales’ highest at 3,560ft). As you descend upon Jamaica aboard a jet engine the peacock blue sea is only interrupted by the piercing ascent of a lush green mountain range whose sides slide straight into the sea like a pleated jade tablecloth. The terrain is steep and the mountain sides are smothered in a rich and dense explosion of flora. This is where things start to get very exciting for a mountain biker that has been trapped inside a plane for eight hours together with a symphony of screaming kids on half term break. I was to be a part of the twelfth annual Jamaica Fat Tire Festival. A week long laid back roots, rock and rum tour where the only rules were that riders had to enjoy a drink after the ride and lycra, although not banned, was frowned upon.
As I stepped off the plane in Montego Bay the thing that first struck me was the sweet perfume of Jamaica. Warm and scented with tantalizing reminders of the amazing food, flora, land and people that I met on my last trip. Stepping off the plane in Jamaica is like slipping into a comfy pair of slippers and a warm bath, except the slippers are blue suede dancing shoes and the bath water is rum flavoured.
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Now for those not familiar with Jamaican cooking, let your giggles subside long enough for me to explain that ‘jerk’ refers to a method of cooking in which meat (typically chicken or pork, but can be applied to almost all meats and fishes) is marinated with a mix of aromatic spices which including the Mila Kunis hot Scotch Bonnets and is then smoked over coals for a considerable time to allowing the flavour to infuse into all of the meat. Once cooked the meat looks like it has been cooked in the afterburners of an F–16, but bite into it and the seasoning takes away all preconceptions. It is good enough to eat the bones too. Add to it some plantain (a cooking banana), peas and rice, festival (a savoury donut roll), some ackee (fruit) with saltfish and you have the exact kind of nourishing, delicious meal to recharge any a protein fiend biker. Fortunately for us (especially man–mountain Jamie) this was just the first of many more jerk stop–offs that week.
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Andy and Jonathan have been organising the Fat Tire Festival for six years after taking over from other motivated mountain bikers, and they have it all set up so incredibly flawlessly that you have trouble believing that what happens next is really happening. It is like two guys attempt at shock and awe on a joyous scale. When amazing and impossible collide you have the Jamaican Fat Tire Festival. Take that night for instance. After an hour or so of sloshed scenic cycling we were pointed towards a gate in the middle of what appeared to be nowhere but there. Beyond the gate and over the grand grassy lawn, stood what looked like a knight’s second home or a pirate castle. Fortified by heavy stone and battlements but softened by creeping ivy and bursting flowers, this place really did make us rub our eyes in wonderment. We were to spend that night resting in a mirage that upstaged any cheese fuelled dream. Although grand and magical, the sleeping arrangements were modest enough for us dirty bikers to feel at rest. Lizards crawled over the walls by the bed head, giant banana spiders hung from cotton thread thick webs, and the sound of a symphony of secret jungle creatures smoothed us to sleep. Right up until about 5am when the alarm clock screeched us awake.
Jamaica produces some of the most exquisite coffee beans in the world but a Jamaican wouldn’t know what to do with them if you poured foam on his shoes and sprinkled chocolate dusting on his head. They are baffled as to what the ‘whiteys’ want with the beans and they don’t see the allure whatsoever. Which leads me onto the next stop on this wallowing tale, the Blue Mountains, home of some of the most expensive and highly regarded coffee beans in the world…except in Jamaica.
We drove across the island, along beach and through hills until the road turned inwards to the belly of the island, where the peaks really do tower over head, tight valleys of steep sided slopes close around you and the air becomes cooler and even more fragrant with the cologne of the land and its fruits. As the roads climb into the bosom of the terrain they become more and more unfeasible. The road seal crumbles into not just potholes but a lunar landscape. This is a place were no road has a right to be and nature shows its disregard for the transport of the hopes of man by slowly chewing parts of it off during each monsoon season. All along this winding whim there are homes and houses, shops and bars, tied to the roads edge and dug into the rock walls, feeding off the life that passes along it and chooses to live here. It is truly extraordinary and in just one ride along this road your mouth will hang agape more than it would during any visit to Shades nightclub. But only just.
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Do not discredit this trip as being entirely for the luxury of lucky git scribblers like myself. Not at all. This is an opportunity and open invite for everyone and anyone reading this. Paradise awaits, just be ready to chink a glass of sugarcane ferment and hide that lycra beneath a set of baggy shorts.
You can attempt to explore Jamaica independently, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There are no signs, no trail maps and no infrastructure for bikers yet. Instead I recommend you get involved with the Jamaican Fat Tire Festival. They organise an entire week of accommodation, riding, shuttles, food and rum. Jonathan and Andy go to great lengths to arrange the best week imaginable. Just follow the SMORBA rules and leave the lycra at home then come to make friends, not just skid marks. It is a laid back and the festival is rather like a family affair where most participants are regulars who have been coming for years and years.
The Jamaica Fat Tire Festival is held every year around the end of February. At his time of the year it is raining cats and dogs at home but in Jamaica the temperature is tropically temperate (20 degrees) and it is before the monsoon season. This year the festival coordinated with the half term holidays.
To get more information click into www.smorba.com
British Airways operate direct flights to Montego Bay airport regularly.
WHAT KIND OF BIKE?
Although most of the trails are shuttle assisted, you would absolutely not wish to have a downhill bike. There are casual pedals between sections and heavy breathing in a full face is going to put a damper on an incredible experience. There are some very long descents involved (several hours on some trails) so a sturdy bike is required. An all–marketing bike, with an uppy downy seatpost is ideal.