The Caribbean 2009/2010
by Julie Hesketh
Over Christmas and New Year 2009/2010, I was lucky enough to spend 2 weeks in Jamaica - not somewhere I had planned to go but as some of my in-laws were planning a family celebration there, we joined them for the 2 week holiday trip.
As always, no non-caving holiday can be embarked upon without sneaking a couple of lights and thick caving gloves into my luggage. Despite the in-laws keener interest in relaxing on the beach, as Jamaica has around 8,000 km² of limestone there was no way I was going to miss out on an underground adventure! Armed with a complete set of maps covering the whole island, borrowed from Martin Grass, I ensured that the accommodation that was booked was fairly near one of the most accessible caves on the Island.
We therefore stayed near Duncans, a small town about 45 minutes from Montego Bay. Just inland from here is Jamaica's famous "Cockpit Country", a 50 km² area of small but impenetrable limestone hills. From above, the cockpits look like upturned eggboxes - a range of degraded conical hills, covered with lush jungle.
Caving, however, was the last thing on the minds of my in-laws as the lure of snorkelling and the pristine sand was just too tempting. So, itching to get underground, I asked a few locals where the nearest caves were. It turned out that there was a small cave "Duncans Bay Cave" just 10 minutes walk from our villa.
Leroy, a local bar owner, was happy to show me the way for a few dollars. I had thought that I'd be a little underdressed in a sunhat, flip-flops and dress but persuaded by Leroy that it was "airee!" (roughly translated into Jamaican as "chill out man, it's all right!"), we set off.
I was concerned that Leroy didn't seem to have a lamp, despite his protestations otherwise. I laughed when we got to the cave and he pressed a button on his cap which revealed 3 LEDs sewn into the peak! It gave him just about enough light to manage.
Duncan's Bay Cave doesn't get a mention in Alan Fincham's "Jamaica Underground" but turned out to be a couple of hundred metres long in total with at least 3 entrances. The main walk-in entrance led into an open-roofed chamber with a small but abandoned man-made well in it. Straight ahead and slightly uphill through a stooping height passage led to a further chamber open to daylight. In this chamber is a large banyan tree growing up and out of the cave and indeed the whole chamber is dominated by creepers and vines growing into the cave from the jungle outside. On a return visit with the family a few days later, the creepers provided excellent entertainment as 6 year old Eva swung like a monkey across the cave!
Back from the entrance chamber, finally our torches had some use as we headed down hill into a larger passage, 15m across at its widest. Leroy told me that the chamber had been used historically as a burial site and indeed there were man-made structures that he said were old tombs. They were unusually triangular shaped and no-one locally seemed able to tell me about their history.
Pushing on into the cave, I left Leroy at the limit of his exploration and headed off towards what appeared to be the end of the cave - around 60m from the entrance. Remains of a fossil meander were filled with mud. I climbed as far up the meander as I could manage in flip flops and feel certain that there may have been more cave beyond at a higher level than I could get to. But I returned back to my guide who clearly thought I was a bit crazy, particularly when I got down on all fours to examine a short diggable crawl downstream from the entrance.
So that was Duncan's Bay Cave. Not desperately exciting but at least I'd got underground.
Turning my sights to something a bit bigger, I had asked a number of locals about hiring transport to get me to Windsor Great Cave - described as one of Jamaica's most accessible wild caves.
Despite its so-called accessibility, I was warned not to take a hire car there are the terrain was rough. Jamaica, being the playground of rich Americans, felt expensive to me but I was still surprised to find that no-one was really prepared to take me there for less that 150 USD which felt quite steep for a caving trip! Luckily Leroy came to my rescue once more and after some negotiations over a price for his mate to drive us to the cave in his pick-up, we agreed to go to the cave on New Years Day 2010.
That sounded like a good idea until I arrived at Leroy's bar on the 1st with my nephew Stephen, to find him zonked out where he had dozed off after his big new year's party the night before. A large plate of ackee and saltfish later, his mate, the driver, arrived, lit up a huge spliff and duly proceeded to drive us towards the cave.
The journey itself was fascinating – an hour and a half's drive in the open-backed truck through Usain Bolt's hometown and into the fantastically lush vegetation of the Cockpit Country – a mixture of jungle and small farmsteads growing yams, coconuts, coffee and spices.
The Rough Guide to Jamaica notes that a local guide will meet you at the cave and indeed, as we drove up to the cave, Dango was walking back down from the cave entrance with three American tourists who were as surprised to see us as we were to see them in this remote part of the country.
Dango, it turns out, is approved by the Windsor House Biological Institute close by, to take care of the cave and lead tourists in. My nephew Steven looked on in amazement as Dango prepared his huge bamboo torch to take us into the cave (of course, for a steep, negotiated fee!)
The cave was a 10 minute walk on a well trodden track up a gently sloping hillside – over some fallen tree trunks and past dense vegetation. The path takes you over a resurgence for the cave in a large indentation in the cliff and boulder strewn scramble.
The entrance itself is a little disappointing compared to some tropical caves - 4 feet high and a few feet wide but it opens out immediately inside into a large, deep and high passage – full of spectacular fossil formations.
As expected, it was humid inside and we set off slowly, immediately breaking out into a sweat despite our shirt-sleeves. Accompanied by Dango, Leroy and his friend, we made slow progress as the locals acclimatised to their first real proper caving trip (albeit still with Leroy's LED cap and converse trainers – though Rastaman, Dango, led the way in flip flops!)
The well-trodden path through the cave ascends over guano-covered boulders and widens as it proceeds. Once past the entrance stal, the cave becomes more phreatic and the ceiling (around 5m high at this point) has some superb scalloping and solution holes. It is these holes that have been exploited by the literallythousands of bats that flapped around our heads making a racket.
The Jamaica Caves Organisation (JCO) has recorded 11 different species of bat in the cave and guano has been mined historically from Windsor Great Cave.
We were told that tourists come especially not to see the cave but to sit at the upper entrance at night to watch the spectacle of the thousands of bats exiting the cave at dusk. Alas we couldn't stay that long but we headed on to a wide chamber – Big Yard – where the roof span was over 60m wide and our lights (even the big bamboo) were insufficient to do it justice.
At this point our party of non-cavers had enough and were keen to see daylight again, so I had a quick scamper onwards into the gloom before rejoining the group to exit. Dango was in good humour as he recounted tales of various cavers who over the years have explored the cave and camped (much to his bemusement) underground.
Beyond our turnaround point, the cave forks into two passages which rejoin above an 11m drop into active stream passage. I had been told by the JCO that the recent rainfall would have meant that the stream way would have been impassable and so I could console myself with the fact that I had done almost as much caving there as possible in the conditions.
We headed out into the relative cool of the jungle and headed back to our truck which was parked by the Martha Brae River – an excellent spot for a swim.
So that was the extent of my Jamaican caving. I'd like to have done more but as ever, caving alone isn't an option. I will console myself by imagining that one day, the MCG will do a trip to Jamaica (anyone??) and I'll finish off Windsor Great Cave and a whole load more!
Mendip Caving Group. UK Charity Number 270088. The object of the Group is, for the benefit of the public, the furtherance of all aspects of the exploration, scientific study and conservation of caves and related features. Membership shall be open to anyone over the age of 18 years with an interest in the objects of the Group.