by Gemma Handy
It’s good for your health, it offers a unique brush with nature, it’s open to anyone – and it’s totally free of charge. Just some of the reasons hiking has become one of the country’s fastest growing pastimes.
Local hiking groups say the Covid pandemic and accompanying social restrictions have triggered an upsurge in the number of people seizing the chance to socialise in a safe way, while rediscovering the country’s stunning scenery and filling their lungs with fresh air.
For many, getting out in the great outdoors made the closure of commercial entertainment spots a walk in the park – literally – and inspired a new appreciation of the bucolic environment we had taken for granted.
This week, a collaboration between several hiking groups saw the release of a first of its kind guide to some of the finest trails the twin island nation has to offer.
Around 17 of the country’s estimated 100-plus trails are featured in the ‘Hike 365’ guide, now available online. They include the rainforest around Cades Peak, the rugged paths of the Sleeping Indian Hills, the nation’s highest point of Boggy Peak, and the Middle Ground Trail which takes in the intriguing historical site of Fort Berkeley.
The guide’s editor Rory Butler told Observer the aim was to “develop, maintain and promote” the nation’s abundant paths.
“Having seen firsthand the potential Antigua and Barbuda has on that front, we really just wanted to expose it and share it with other people and see how we can develop our greatest asset,” he explained.
Butler said the initiative had also spawned a new crew of volunteers to help maintain the tracks which often wind through thick bush.
“Many of them had become overgrown, there wasn’t any real signage out there, they were lacking safety ropes in many places – so the broader part of the project has been to see the different hiking groups adopt different trails,” he said.
Many of the country’s lesser known paths now have signs, markers and safety ropes enabling more people to enjoy them. And several also appear on Wikiloc, a website and app offering free GPS navigation.
Over the years, Butler has personally perused countless trails around the twin island nation.
“My favourite trail is always the one that I have not done,” he smiles. “But in Barbuda, they have some amazing trails and great caves to explore. In Antigua, throughout the Shekerley range, there’s a vast network, such as from Morris Bay to Cades Peak which has some very scenic views.”
Orrin Steele, leader of 268 Trails and who also assisted with the guide, told Observer his group had seen a significant increase in the number of people joining its weekly walks.
“Because of the constant closing down of the gyms, a lot of people use hiking as a form of exercise. People like going out into nature early in the morning, enjoying the fresh breeze, so a lot more have got deeply involved in it,” he said.
“Some who joined us said they had no idea some of these places existed or that Antigua had so much beautiful scenery,” he added.
The Jolly Rogers is one of the newest groups on the scene. Founding member Joseph Chin said, “We started hiking during the first lockdown because we couldn’t do much else and hiking was one of the few activities allowed. So a few friends and I decided that every Sunday morning we would go on hikes,” Chin said.
What began as a spontaneous social event has evolved into an ever-expanding assemblage of walkers who meet weekly to tackle some of Antigua’s most punishing paths.
“We hike all over the place – Boggy Peak, McNish, Greencastle Hill – but we also venture further afield to Falmouth and English Harbour too,” Chin continued.
“I think people like it because there’s a very low barrier to entry; you just need a half decent pair of shoes and it doesn’t cost you really anything.
“There’s a lot of pent-up energy caused by lockdowns, hence the huge uptick in hiking here in Antigua,” he added.
Dayson Brewster, trail boss with the Five AM Hikers, said the number of walkers attending his dawn rambles had trebled.
“I’ve seen a huge increase; I would say the numbers have risen by about 300 percent, especially after that first lockdown. After that was lifted, pretty much everyone who was into hiking went out,” he recalled.
“I myself carried several people I’d invited many times before and they never came, but after lockdown it was good to see them up and about.
“Hiking is easy, it doesn’t take much equipment, it can be done on your own or in groups and is a great way to interact with friends, family, meet new people, explore new places, travel the path less beaten and just connect with nature,” Brewster added.
The ‘Hike 365’ guide can be viewed online including on the Rohrman Antigua and Barbuda Facebook page.