Though steering a four- wheel drive vehicle I wondered how much further I could manoeuvre before I was forced to park and walk the rest. The road had deteriorated to a far worse state than I had expected.
The Lalaja Road has always been and still is one of my favourite routes in driving over the hills of the Northern Range. As you leave the Arima/Blanchisseuse Road and climb steadily until crossing over to the heights crowning the Guanapo Valley, you experience transitions in atmosphere that you find in few other motor-accessible locations. The mists that almost always envelop these heights hold the promise of water for you.
Today it was taking longer than usual to access the heights of Lalaja. The first bad spot along the way was in the form of a breakaway that sliced the road horizontally. I observed a lady in the passenger seat of a van alight gingerly onto the road to direct the driver where to steer the wheel of the vehicle.
The second part of the road that really required the use of four wheeled drive was a deep soft stretch of mud and water that caused tyres to slide and eventually stick in the slush. I could see the prints of tyres adhoc over the area. It was obvious that drivers just could not find a sure way to get past this spot.
When I thought that my challenges were over, I encountered one Lalaja man walking along the road. Sylvan Cabralis took one look at the splotched condition of my vehicle.
“It has been about six or seven years since they last fixed this road and now that the rainy season has come it is a lot worse. Strangers usually park and walk or just turn back when they can’t handle the pressure anymore.”
I watched the condition of the road at this point and told him that people had to have a pair of boots handy to attempt a walk in this place. You just had to be equipped and accustomed to the rigours of this road,
Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. Tall grasses bent over the roadway almost blocking sight of the rest of the way. Sunken parts of the road were filled with water so you could not really tell the depth of each one. Patience and caution were needed to get past these spots.
The last barely navigable part of the road resulted in my vehicle picking up several skids despite engaging the use of the four wheels. However I determinedly continued.
I met Arthur Cooper and his family who lived near the turn table area of the road. Cooper directed my turn with some concern.
“I always have to rescue people when they try to turn here. They always stick in the mud and bush and I have to pull them out. Most of them don’t even stay to go hiking after all that. They change their minds about going anywhere when they see how the bush has taken over the hiking trail. They just go back out without even trying.”
Lalaja is a popular transit area for hikers going to the numerous waterfalls along the steep heights of the Guanapo Valley. It is also easiest route for those trekking to our country’s highest summit El Cerro del Aripo.
According to Cooper, since the road deteriorated to these present conditions, hikers don’t come to these parts anymore. However he pointed out that there are still people living in Lalaja and who deserve better access to their homes and estates.
“About six to eight estates have now been abandoned because of the bad condition of the road. There were working cocoa and coffee estates but people got fed up because vehicles mash up on this road and it is too far and too hard to tote everything out of here.
“I used to take my daughter out to school from here everyday but because of the continuing damages to my vehicle I stay in Arima during the week to make life easier. Other Lalaja families are also forced to stay in Arima to be able to go to work without the stress of having to fight their way out of here.
“There are about fifteen houses up here and everybody could tell you that the last time this road was graded and cleaned was about six years ago. Besides growing plantain, dasheen, zaboca and citrus I used to rear ducks and fowls but now I have to forget that.
“Because there was no maintenance of the road, bush took over and so did the mapipire. They used to cut from the river come up but now that the road is in bush it is a mapipire nest. I just cutlassed around my house this week and there was mapipire everywhere I turned. Crab catchers used to always come up here but when they see so much big mapipire they just don’t come back.”
The people of Lalaja are also concerned that illegal activities will flourish there as law enforcement officers do not spontaneously visit the area because of the challenging conditions of the road. They hope that this article in our newspaper will cause much needed relief to come their way soon.