“Look!” laughs the taxi driver, pointing at a car driving at full speed with its bonnet open, the driver hanging out the window trying to catch a glimpse of the road ahead. “Only in Jamaica, man. We’re fearless here!”
We are curving through a jungle like setting headed for Zimbali Retreat – a secluded, five room oasis nestled in Western Jamaica’s Canaan Mountains, just a 90 minute joy ride from Montego Bay. The closest convenience store has long since passed and the tourist haunt of Negril has been and gone. On a road full of potholes and scampering mongoose, we are following the birds to our rural destination.
In a time when the masses, it would seem, are experimenting with bouts of “disconnecting”, dabbling in the art of permaculture and exchanging raw food recipes, a trip to an oversized tree house in Jamaica is nothing outrageous. This kind of adventure is becoming an annual essential; the modern day equivalent of a P&O cruise. But irrespective of the demand for this style of escape, finding a host that ticks all the boxes can be a needle in a haystack kind of affair.
Enter Zimbali Mountain Retreat.
The Zimbali reality came to life seven years ago when Mark, a sincere and freethinking nomad, moved onto the land with his wife Alecia, an effortlessly beautiful Rastafarian with a contagious laugh and fearless demeanor. They spent two years living on the land before construction began; dreaming up their mystical retreat and camping out like Adam and Eve (only with dreadlocks and reggae music). They planted fruits and vegetables, cooked meals on two stones and drank from the fresh nearby springs that once enjoyed Bob Marley’s swimming adventures.
Five years on and Mark and Alecia’s fairytale pole-frame lodgings sit perfectly in tune with the natural surroundings. A flawless off the grid electricity & water system provides endless gushing hot water and enough lighting to read at night. A communal lounge room is piled high with spiritually uplifting and educational books, most of which are scribed on the first page by thankful guests with cherished memories. And an open plan kitchen dishes up “Creative Jamaican Cuisine” using fresh produce harvested straight from the mountain. The rough set wooden compound pays perfect homage to its honest beginnings, yet still manages to exude enough exoticism and professionalism to feel utterly indulgent.
I am welcomed into the haven with a green smoothie (that puts my years of green smoothie making to shame) and strict instructions to feel at home. Under the assurance that “Zimbali is a family and no one steals”, I am not given a key to my room. I believe this theory wholeheartedly from the moment I arrive and notice myself enjoying a strange sense of contentment each morning as I leave my unlocked worldly possessions behind. Excluding dinners that are entertained by a world class cooking demonstration boasting dishes like coconut and papaya sushi and chocolate cake made with black beans, meal times are shared between guests on a homely outdoor balcony, alive with the sounds of the jungle and the occasional bongo drum. Each dish is lovingly prepared and presented to a Michelin Star standard, making the otherwise incredible street jerk cuisine seem a little ho-hum.
By day, life can be as languid or lively as desired. Trips to the ocean allow guests to spend hours soaking in the perfection of the Caribbean Sea; blazed mountain trails provide a playground of hiking opportunities; and a nearby art studio keeps the compulsive shopper’s tantrums at bay. But the real draw card on Zimbali’s activity list is the Rasta Tour, or what some might call a lunch date with Fire. Fire is a nimble Rastafarian elder with dreadlocks that reach his mid thighs. He has been living in the mountains for over 30 years, where he spends his days bouncing from pumpkin to paprika, “eating colourful foods like man should” and reading books about history. Sometimes he goes to the store to buy soap and flour, but mostly he just eats off the land, meditating daily and “enjoying life’s natural mystic”.
After an hour or so of picking produce and brewing our meal over an open fire, we share lunch and listen to Fire speak openly about his lifestyle choice. “It’s more freestyle up here,” he tells us whimsically. “When the sun comes up, I’m the first in the village to see it.” After lunch he walks us to the mountain’s peak where his bed, binoculars and books can be found. He may not live like a king by society’s standards, but he is well and truly the king of this jungle.
On check out, I hand Mark my credit card to settle the bill. He wanders to the edge of the balcony and leans over the rail, balancing on one foot and stretching the credit card machine out into the valley like a newborn messiah. “It helps me practice my Virabhadrasana pose,” he tells me. “The signal is so elusive out here, I have to reach out and catch it while it’s drifting up the mountain.” And with that I wonder how long I will be before I come drifting up the mountain again too.