Tourists head up the Dunn River Falls in Jamaica. - Image: Michael Burke Tourists head up the Dunn River Falls in Jamaica. - Image: Michael Burke

Kelowna man tackles Jamaica’s Dunn River Falls

Those lucky enough to have conquered the falls will have 90 minutes of memories they won’t forget

By Michael Burke

The roar of the water could be heard as soon as the crowd stepped on to the beach. As they looked up they saw the famous Dunn River Falls towering above them. Some laughed, some stood silently in awe and a few looked around to see if there was a way to sneak away without being noticed. The waist-deep water was rushing down the 180 meter length of the falls creating whirlpools, rapids and white water conditions. Each person standing on the warm, white sand had to call upon their own inner strength because they were about to spend the next hour and a half climbing up the middle of the falls.

This motley group of tourists was the picture of diversity both age-wise and in physical ability. Young girls in bikinis, old men in Speedos and middle aged couples in shorts and tshirts. Each of them would be relying on the others to help them reach the pinnacle.

The Jamiacan guide yelled to the crowd, “it’s time to go!” and they quickly lined up and formed a human chain. Some of the more nervous participants gripped the hands of those in front of them and behind them as if their life depended on it – and in their minds perhaps it did.

Dunn River Falls is located on the northern coast of Jamaica approximately 80 km’s from Kingston. Tourists flock here year-round and happily pay $20 for the opportunity to climb the world famous falls. The adventure starts where the falls feed in to the Carribean sea with enormous ferocity. Guests are free to climb on their own but most arrive in groups from the nearby cruise ship dock and are given a local guide to help with traversing the swift moving water.

As the group takes the first step in to the cool water, each person’s grip tightens as they feel the force of the water pressing against their legs. It is at this precise moment many wonder if they have what it takes to make the journey. With each step the water forces their legs backwards. It takes determination and strength to push each step forward. Immediately this group of complete strangers begins to rely on each other and instantaneously they form a team.

The first 30 minutes of the climb is the most challenging as well as the most crowded. If anyone had any thought of turning back at the beginning of the climb it is quickly extinguished when they see the swarm of tourists scrambling up from behind. Going back is not an option. You simply grab a little tighter on the climber in front of you and take another step.

Only a few fearless individuals attempt climbing up the middle of the falls where the force of the water is the greatest. Those brave adventurers garner looks of disbelief from the masses hugging the edges of the river. The guide keeps their party close to the sides where they can stable themselves with rocks and they can use the well worn steps made from the thousands of people who have climbed here before them.

The local guide continually looks back and ensures each member of his group is still in tact. He keeps the group moving at a steady pace pointing out safe places to place their feet. With the water churning so violently is it impossible to see where you are stepping so relying on your guide and watching the nervous climber in front of you is your only hope of staying upright.

After 30 minutes of vigorous climbing the group reaches a bridge that stretches across the river. The water calms at this point but it is replaced with a different challenge. Each member of the group now has to hunch over and make their way under the six metre wide bridge. The water is shallower but finding a safe place to step while bent over at a 90-degree angle is hard for many. The group has abandoned the human chain at this point but the guide stays close and offers an arm of support as each person moves under the bridge. This slower pace creates a bottle neck as others continue to push up from behind.

Once the group has passed under the bridge and is once again standing upright there is a collective sign of relief. The water has calmed and as they gaze upward the climb appears more manageable.

The decibels of the rushing water diminishes greatly at this point. It is now possible to talk to those around you without having to yell. The guide takes advantage of the calmer waters to let his group pose for photos and enjoy the beauty around them – something that was hard to do when each member felt they were in a struggle for their lives.

It is now possible for onlookers to view those climbing the falls. Up high on the left side of the river hundreds of visitors stare down at this completely soaked, mostly exhausted but fully exhilarated crowd of climbers. Many looking down no doubt wonder enviously if they have the courage to accomplish what these others have done.

The next 30 minutes of the climb takes on a much mellower feeling. At one point the river is so deep that many line up, close their eyes, spread their arms and fall completely backwards into the refreshing water. Farther along, the river creates a natural shower where visitors can walk under and become drenched head to toe instantly. The guide ensures each person in his care is given opportunity to enjoy these special moments.

The grade of the climb drops off considerably for the last 10 minutes. The water is shallower and finding safe footing is much easier. The climb comes to an end with a large set of wooden stairs that descend in to the river. Many people take this last moment to pose for photos, reunite with their group and thank their guide.

Those lucky enough to have conquered the Dunn River Falls will have an hour and a half of memories they won’t soon forget. From sheer terror to unbridled delight.

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