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Historic Sando Hill

From Amerindian worship site to a modern-day treasure

By Louis B Homer South Bureau

THE Amerindians called the village Anaparima. The Spaniards renamed it San Fernando. The French referred to it as Petit Bourg, and some residents call it "Sando". By whatever name it is known, its charm lies in the presence of the San Fernando Hill.

Originally called Mount Naparima, it comprises 65 acres and is 639.76 feet above sea level and the town of San Fernando was built around it.

Sir Walter Raleigh, the English explorer, while sailing around the coast of Trinidad, experienced the beauty of the hill and wrote: "I myself coasted in my barge close abroad the shore...then past one salt river that had a store of oysters upon the branches of the trees, then to the mountain foot called Anaparima."

Kim Lawrence of The University of the West Indies (UWI) defined Anaparima as "a single hill", while renowned artist Michel Jean Cazabon depicted it in one of his paintings showing the beauty of the lush green vegetation.

Its beauty, however, was short-lived when in 1825 road developers began to remove gravel from the hill to repair Royal Road. That was the beginning of quarrying on the hill that was soon to destroy both its beauty and vegetation.

The hill was always of great concern to early mayors of San Fernando. When San Fernando was elevated to a borough in 1853, then-mayor Dr Robert Johnstone referred to it as "an ornament of San Fernando", and when it became a city in 1988 Mayor Dr Romesh Mootoo called it "The Acropolis of the Caribbean".

The history of the hill had its beginning from early times when the Amerindians travelled from the South American mainland in canoes, landed at the wharf, walked up High and Carib streets in convoy to the highest point of the hill to offer prayers to their gods.

Phillip Hinds of Carib Street recalled the last visit by the Amerindians was in the 1900s.

"They used to come from the mainland in canoes, walk up High Street and Carib Street to perform their rituals. After their religious offerings they would return to the wharf and travel back to the mainland."

By 1851, access to the hill was improved. Lord Harris, then governor, provided money to construct 480 steps that would lead to the top of the hill.

When governor Edward Rushworth visited in company with then-mayor George Lambie, they rode on horseback through the steep terrain and forested areas.

Environmentalists had recognised the importance of the hill in the development of the southern borough.

Businessman Frank Pickering had submitted plans to beautify the hill and make it a tourist attraction. His plans did not materialise because the Borough Council did not have the financial resources to carry out such a programme.

Roy Joseph, former minister of education and social services and representative in the Legislative Council for San Fernando, on returning from a visit to Venezuela, expressed the view that the hill could become a major tourist attraction if cable cars were introduced to take visitors from the bottom of the hill to the top.

He said at the time "a restaurant, play park, museum and other tourist embellishments could be located on the flat portion of the hill". None of those ideas found favour with the then government.

And quarrying went on unabated. The vegetation was continuously destroyed, but if it was allowed to continue the hill would have been flattened and become something of the past.

The hill cried and groaned for help

"Please, please, someone hear my cry, I don't want to die.

Over 50 years I have been dying a slow death

Don't wait until I die for you to regret."

The cry resonated in the ears of environmentalists. In 1972, they got together and formed the Citizens Action Committee, headed by James Lee Wah.

The group protested the quarrying and the negative effect the dust from the quarrying had on the lives of the population.

Four years later, Cabinet formally declared quarrying on the hill as illegal and a committee was appointed to make recommendations for the restoration of San Fernando Hill.

Ten years on, the vision of Lincoln Myers manifested itself with the start of work to make the hill a national park. As Minister of the Environment, Myers piloted the idea of making a dream come true. He recalled the difficulty he experienced in constructing a road that would lead to the top.

"It was a tractor driver by the name of Dhanraj Ramroop who had defied the advice of the developers and went ahead and constructed a paved road leading to the top. We were told that we needed a D8 tractor and some parts of the hill would have to be dynamited. With only a D6 available and the experience of Ramroop the road was constructed." Myers said.

On completion, the road was named Sereeram Drive.

Before the formal opening on May 7, 1988, students from the UWI discovered a ground orchid called Habenaria alata, which is indigenous to the hill environment.

In June that year, President Noor Hassanali added a local touch to the flora by planting a number of chaconia trees along the driveway leading to the top.

In December 1988, a children's play park was opened. The park commemorated the life of Haji Shafik Rahaman, an outstanding member of the Muslim community and the Inter Religious Organisation.

To place a cultural stamp on the existence of one of Trinidad's noted recreational parks, Mas Trinidad, a southern Carnival band, produced a portrayal of Saga of the Hill, which earned the organisers Band of the Year 1989.

Electrical power on the hill was installed as a gift from the British High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago, with help from Dianne Seukeran, former president of the South Trinidad Chamber of Industry and Commerce.

Since the opening of the hill, the Catholic Church in San Fernando has been using it to stage live performances of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

It was during one of the annual Easter processions on the hill that Fr Garfield Rochard got the inspiration to compose the San Fernando song.

And as an archaeological site, artefacts found by members of the Historical Society include an 18th century bottle; the shoes belonging to the renowned race horse named Rastafari, the first West Indian-bred horse to win the coveted Governor's Cup, in 1940; large and small conch shells left behind by the Amerindians; and a petaloid Celtic (Amerindian carving).

Nowadays, San Fernando Hill is the most popular tourist site in the southern city.

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