Hiking the 'Gut' in Tortola

16 November 2015

by Andy Schell

Originally published in 2014.


The yellowshirt team, minus Lyall took a mission up the ‘gut’ behind the marina this afternoon. I’d heard a rumor from Brian Duff, our friend at BVI Yacht Sales that they’d been up it many times, yet in all the years we’ve come here, we’ve yet to try it. No time. But with the fleet now tacking against a southeasterly, we’ve got plenty of that. So I called Brian (Ted actually, who was with Brian) to get the lowdown.

“The start is easy to find,” he said. “Turn left out of the marina. When you get to the first little grocery store a few hundred yards down the road, turn right. Follow that road to the dead end and pass through the mechanic’s yard and down into the riverbed.”

Sounded easy enough. We’d gone to that very grocery in the past to buy plantains, so I knew it.

“The top is harder. You’ve got to find the correct exit trail to get back to the road, or else you’ve got to retrace your steps down the gut again. It’s mostly rock climbing, so that could be difficult. Look for a trail to the right that continues across the river to your left. Follow it to the right. You’ll pass loads of wild pineapple – they have big flat leaves with little spikes on the end, like aloe plants – and you should get to Elevator Road within ten minutes. If you loop back to the river, it’s the wrong trail.”

Thanks Brian. We set off around 11:45, Jake’s backpack loaded with water and camera gear. We wore t-shirts, quick-dry adventure shorts and flip flops (figuring we’d be barefoot anyway on the steeper bits, and besides, none of us had any hiking shoes).

We found the gut easy enough. At the end of the road by the grocery store we found the mechanic. Brian had said the ‘shade tree mechanic’, and he wasn’t joking. On the right side, a guy was out, under a large shade tress, working on a couple of derelict cars. Where the tree didn't provided adequate shade, his white tarp covering the garden did.

From there we took a dirt path to the left. A mom and two baby goats blocked our path but let us pass, almost letting us pet them. The babies had sharp little horns, and for a while I expected them to try and headbutt me.
Past the goats we followed a steep bank down towards the guy (really just a river bed that floods during the heaviest rains). I led the way, encountering a few spider webs (which would become a theme on this day).

Once into the gut itself, the going was easier, with less vegetation. Just a trickle of water remained this low down, despite the torrential rain on Friday. Large and small boulders littered the path, which we negotiated in our flip flops, hopping from one to another so as not to get our feet wet (though this would not last).

After a short while the terrain got steep. Small boulders gave way to much larger rocks. Water cascaded down the cracks and spaces between these rocks. We remained in shade throughout, the thick vegetation on either side swallowing the sunlight. Regardless, the heat and humidity had us all soaked.

There was more water now. Pools of it collected at the base of each little waterfall. Muddy pools, the visibility only two inches or so. Depth was hard to judge. At one point, as I approached a rock to scramble up, I slipped and fell backwards, sinking to my belly and soaking my shirt in the muddy water. By then Jake had already stowed our flip flops in the backpack.

Tortola, compared to the big, high islands south and east in the Caribbean, is drier. But this felt more like Grenada than the Tortola we’d become familiar with. It still didn’t have that grand rain-foresty feel, but it was enough to have Jake whistling the theme from Jurassic Park, which thereafter was stuck in my head the rest of the way up. Which wasn’t a bad thing – I love that film.

The hike was easy enough not to be scary, but challenging enough to really have some fun with. The middle 1/3 was the most technical. Waterfalls would cascade down large boulders, and several routes to the top of each pitch were visible. We’d inevitably choose the most difficult (or at least Jake and I did), which usually was directly up the falls itself.

“Gotta trust your arms on this one,” Jake said after he’d scrambled up the most difficult pitch of the day. He’d handed me the backpack so as not to soak it, and pulled himself up and over a small overhang over which the water was pouring. It wasn’t high – maybe eight feet - but it did require some real upper body strength.

I tossed him the bag and followed, while Mia traversed around the side. I slipped, losing the grip with my left hand, and banged the inside of my left knee on a rock protruding from beneath the falls. No biggie, but it hurt like the pain from banging your funny bone. On the second go I made it.

“Old man Andy won’t let you show him up!” I teased Jake. “I’m the only one over thirty here you know!”

The climbing continued like this. Short, flat sections followed by steep pitches up and around the falls. Hermit crabs littered the rocks, hiding in the cracks and crevices. Small lizards scampered along ahead of us, and those big, black and yellow spiders kept impeding out way forward with their webs.

We scouted for the trail once it felt like we’d climbed pretty high. For the most part the gut was like a gorge, steep riverbanks each side and no place at all to exit. It’d be scary in there during a flash flood.

Once it flattened out again we found the trail quite easily in fact. Jake scouted to the left to ensure it actually continued that way, like Brian said it should. Confirmed, we again donned our flip flops and hiked out to the right.

After ten minutes and countless more spider webs – and a few cows looking at us from the adjacent hillside quite curiously – we emerged out of the forest and were greeted with a view out over the south, the Virgin Islands laid out far beneath us.

Back on the road, it felt nice to walk again rather than scramble on all fours. Jake managed to flag down the second car that passed and we hitched a ride down to Nanny Cay. We found Lyall by the pool, and the four of us went for a swim.