|THE JAMAICA EXPEDITIONS|
1. The 1996 expedition
Our story begins in June when here in Belgium we received a postcard from Jamaica with the following words "The cave goes on and on and most likely joins with Jackson's Bay Cave. I need help to conquer this one". It was signed by Adam Hyde of the Jamaica Caving Club. So last summer we went to Jamaica instead of the Swiss Alps.
1.1 Potoo Hole
It was in 1993 during a paleontological expedition of the American Museum of Natural History that the new system of Potoo Hole was discovered. Strange as it was, the huge entrance pit was located only 25 metre from one of the main trails. It is sure that under the impenetrable forest there are still a lot of hidden shafts and caves waiting to be discovered.
"Potoo" or "Patoo" is the Jamaican patwa for "owl". Indeed, a large Barn owl (Tyo alba) is usually present on a ledge above the pit.
Potoo Hole is located in the thick bush in the low hills behind the salt pond to the immediate east of Jackson's Bay Club House. Take the roadway leading from the Club House along the coast towards Taylor's Hut. After 500 m turn to the left. With a bit of luck you will find a hidden path in the bush. This is the "Main Track" and is used by pigeon shooters and others. There is a junction after 200 m. The right track is the "Yellow Route" and leads to Jackson's Bay Cave. The left one is the "Red Route" and goes in the direction of Potoo Hole. A hundred metres further, after a steep rocky ascent, a small dead tree is found with a rusty iron tag (10 cm x 10 cm) nailed on it. Turn to the east and leave the track. After 25 m the big Entrance 1 of Potoo Hole is reached. Just before the dead tree there is a trail to the left. This was cleared by us in 1996 and leads to Entrance 2 of Potoo Hole and is marked with red-white tape. Starting from Entrance 2 there is another trail marked with yellow tape leading to Entrance 3.
1.2 Description of Potoo Hole
Descending the 19 metres deep pit of Entrance 1, a large complex chamber is entered. This is the 120 metres long and 50 m wide Big Chamber. The Arawak pictographs are located to the NE of the bottom of the pit. To the SE of the Arawak Gallery there are some smaller chambers. Tarzan's Den is located to the SW of the entrance. Just two little chambers which can be reached by climbing a 4 m high guano hill.
To the NW there is utmost darkness, the continuation of the Big Chamber. 15 m further the chamber is split in two because a massive, strangely corroded, rock is standing in the middle. To the S a climb up over a 10 m high guano hill leads to the 70 m long Cable Room. Indeed, large roots like huge cables hang down from the ceiling and plunge 15 m lower in the guano in search of water. At the far end of the chamber there is a low passage leading to Hopeless Sump. Jackson's Bay Cave is now only 60 m away but the ceiling becomes lower till it is lost in a guano sump. Back in the Big Chamber continuing to the W is a 1 m high and 3 m wide passage. Immediately to the left there are two low passages leading to Crab Sump, a 30 m long lake filled with brackish water and home of a family of big blue crabs. But the main way is straight ahead along a low guano rich crawl leading to the Cross Roads. This is a chaotic zone which leads through some collapses to a higher part of the cave. Through the first collapse a big room is reached. To the west a blowing crawl leads to the next room. At the end of this room there are two possibilities, both leading through a collection of passages and other chambers and an ascending chaotic region to entrance 2 or Lightning Hole. This entrance is a squeeze through the boulders. From entrance 2 descending to the W, taking a 5 metre climb down and then going to the left, following the right wall, a small blowing hole is reached. This is the key passage to Adam's Den. From here on the cave has a different character. The air is much more comfortable and there is less guano. Continuing to the far end of Adam's Den there are two possibilities. The crawl to the W leads through a series of chaotic chambers to entrance 3. The long crawl to the S has one obstacle, the Belgian Squeeze. From here on the passages become wider again and soon there are some big chambers. The last chamber ends at a deep, 10 m wide lake, Hilde's Bathroom. To the S there is a low passage and it seems that the lake continues...
1.3 Danger carbon dioxide!!
The air in Potoo Hole is of bad quality. The moment we entered the cave we began to sweat very hard, our breathing went three times faster and we felt very hot. We believe there are unusually high levels of carbon dioxide in some parts the cave. On the basis of our physiological reactions we can make an estimation of 2-5 % carbon dioxide. Normally this level is only 0.03 % (10 % C02 is considered deadly). But if we want to know it for sure, the real level has to be measured with analytical instruments.
1.4 Survey equipment
Here in Belgium we were experimenting with new high precision technology. Potoo Hole was an obvious place to test the durability and precision of the new equipment. So, what did we use?
Beside the classic Suunto compass we used a hand held laser to measure the distances. This Swiss e instrument from Leica is really excellent. It measures distances over 100 metres with a precision of ± 5 mm in just a few seconds.
The other device which made life easier was a home made electronic laser clinometer. This instrument is based on the electronic level from Bosch. Shortened and equipped with a laser it becomes the ideal clinometer. Just point the laser from one survey point to the other, Push the button to freeze the display and read the angle with a precision of 0.30. Both instruments are more or less cave-proof.
Our old Suunto clinometer and fibreglass tape took an early but well-earned retirement... Armed with this technology we were able to survey the cave in detail and with a minimum of effort. In fact with just the two of us, we surveyed 5416 m divided over 597 stations. With the old instruments it would have been much harder to obtain the same result.
1.5 Our story
We arrived the 12th of July in Kingston. After a day at Adam's home we went to the Jackson Bay Gun Club. Adam had arranged sleeping places for us at the Club where we stayed for 15 days. Unfortunately Adam had his business to run, so he couldn't join us in the exploration. A quick visit with Adam in the Potoo Hole showed us that the cave was big and complex. Exploration would be impossible without a detailed map. So we began with a survey of the known part of the cave. Our first priority was to investigate if Potoo really made contact with Jackson's Bay Cave. But unfortunately there is still some 60 m between Hopeless Sump in Potoo and the Queens series in the Jackson's Bay Cave. Examination of the overall configuration of the system strongly suggests that the Potoo Hole and the Jackson's Bay main cave are connected, although such connection is now submerged in water and guano. Thus the Jackson's Bay - Potoo Hole complex would comprise over 6 km of passages. After surveying the known part of the cave we started the exploration. Adam had told us he had discovered a second entrance. But when he showed us Potoo he couldn't find it again. After some days however we rediscovered the second entrance. This was quite simple because we followed the strong and ever changing draught in the cave. Inside the second entrance we found some pottery. The walls of the fragments were very thin with no drawings or ornaments. It is probably Arawak pottery but we haven't the faintest idea how old these shards are.
Once outside Entrance 2 the forest was impenetrable so we went back through the cave. Back at our camp we drew up our survey and measured the azimuth between the two entrances. The next day we chopped our way through the forest starting from the Main Track. In a few hours the job was done. The last branches fell down and we were back at entrance 2. Perfect navigation Later we found a third entrance pursuing the draught from Adam's Den. And again we made a trail through the bush. So, we explored and surveyed the cave for days. We found a lot of new passages and finally our exploration ended at Hilde's Bathroom. This was a lake which we haven't explored completely because we had no time left and our batteries were out.
So the story ends just like it began "Dear Adam, the cave goes on and on..."
2. The 1998 expedition
After our exploration of Potoo Hole in 1996 we went back to Jamaica in the summer of 1998. This time we were with eight cavers from five different clubs affiliated to the V.V.S. and U.B.S. and two helpers to turn every stone of Jackson's Bay Cave Country at the Portland Ridge.
2.1 Portland Ridge
So we stayed for two weeks in the new building at the Jackson Bay Gun Club (= 2000 US$). After a day tourist trip in Jackson's Bay cave (JBC), which is beautiful as ever, and Potoo Hole, we started to work. The air quality in Potoo was as bad as in 1996. But this time we measured the carbon dioxide levels with a Dräger-pump (2): 3.2 %(v)! Just below a lethal level! I still can't understand myself that two years ago we stayed in Potoo for more than ten days to survey it.
Table 1 : Carbon dioxide levels measured at different locations with a Dräger Accuro Pump Since we hoped to find other caves we decided to cut a new path into the jungle. You can find it after the salt ponds where the dirt road hits the sea again. About halfway along that beach it starts straight into the jungle. We worked with 8 people for three days to get 1.2 km far! My god, it was heavy, but it is a real highway. We baptised it the CB-road or the Crazy Belgians-road. After that gigantic work we planned to explore the region between our new road and entrance 7 of JBC which is about 1 km to the NW. That day we lined up along the path, about 7 m between each other, and started the exploration in the direction of 340°. Well, that was something stupid! After half an hour, each of us began to realise that we couldn't see or hear anyone. Even a whistle could not be heard. I was lucky, after some hours, to find back my wife in the middle of the jungle. So we decided to stay together and hoped that the others would do the same.
There were very few caves in that region, just some small pits of 5 - 8 m deep ending in sediments. After eight hours we found a shooters trail which brought us to Potoo and back to the Gun Club. There were only two others who already there, who had found their way back. It was beginning to darken when the last crusader came in. Each of us had a different story, from climbing into trees to find the sea to going back to the main trail. It was lucky that nobody was lost in that jungle for the night!
After that adventure we decided to explore the known caves of the region. But only small chunks were discovered or resurveyed . We also tried to check the pits an American (Claremont College, Ca) expedition had found in June. This guys were friendly and sent us their GPS data. We used a Garmin GPS 12 but we could not find the damned holes again! I can tell you it is impossible to find anything smaller than a grown up whale in that jungle with a GPS. We did find some other pits. But they all ended after 5-8 m in chokes.
We also analysed the water that is present in Potoo Hole and Jackson's Bay Cave. We were curious about the origin of the water in the caves. Since it tastes salty at least a part of it must come from the sea. With the chemical analyses we can now answer that question. The water in the caves is not pure seawater but is all diluted by fresh water depending on the location where it was taken. The purest water is at Lien's Bathroom (Potoo Hole), but it still contains 10 % seawater. The water at Shamrock Passage in the Jackson's Bay Cave is the saltiest and contains 20 % seawater. It would be interesting to find other caves with water further away from the sea and see if the concentration of salt is still lower.
Table 2: Chemical analyses of different water sources
2.2 Treasure Beach
In the third week we escaped from Portland Ridge. For two of us it was the end of their holidays and they had to return to Belgium, three changed their caving gear for their tourist outfits and five went on caving. These brave people went to Treasure Beach. Driving along the new coast road between Milk River Bath and Alligator Pond with its fantastic scenery, a lot of caves were seen in the very steep cliffs. Some were quickly visited but not mapped. This region along this road looks very promising but not easy to explore.
Sean, one of our Jamaican friends, had invited us in his country house at the very beautiful coastal region of Treasure Beach. He told us that the region was very dry but that while he was scuba diving in the sea had found some fresh-water springs. Because the cliffs are limestone he hoped there would be caves with underground water reservoirs. After some days in the steaming hot jungle we reported to him that there were very few caves because the rock was to crumbly and that water could not be reached except in a well at the foot of the cliffs near the country house. This well is called "Slavery Well" because slaves had hewed it from the massif limestone. In fact the well, at the bottom of the 2 m pit, is lower than the sea level and with each wave, seawater is seen rushing in. We analysed the water and indeed it contains only a small amount of salt and although it is not useable for human consumption it can be used for agriculture.
Then we met a Rasta who told us he could show us a secret cave no one knew and which was several miles long! He asked us for too much money, but frustrated as we were because we hadn't found anything else, we said yes. Next day we went with him to that secret place. The only secrecy about that cave was that it was in the middle of a big ganja field. The cave was only 30 m long with a mega-filthy guano swamp populated with a trillion fat toads where I nearly drowned in the shit. Later in Kingston we found out in Alan Fincham's book that it was an already known cave, but since it is a secret I won't tell you which one. So if you ever visit Treasure Beach and you meet a Rasta with a secret cave, go for a drink in a bar or a swim in the sea but don't go to that damned cave!
2.3 Concord area
We had used the new book (2nd edition) of Alan Fincham "Jamaica Underground" during the preparations of our expedition to select a series of interesting cave sites. One of them was Penitentiary Cave number 3 in the parish of St Ann. The description sounds promising: "At first the second shaft appeared to be blind, but a little probing revealed a small hole leading onto a third shaft. There was a very strong outward draught" .
Three different days were spent in that region in the middle of the island by small teams of two cavers. The last time cavers visited that region was in 1963 during the University of Leeds Hydrological Survey expedition. We know this for sure because one of the local guides, Mr. Winter, still lived there and helped us during our explorations. He was astonished that we had only two kitbags with ropes. He told us that we had not enough material and that we would certainly need a donkey to carry everything. He thought that we would use wooden rope ladders just like in 1963! Things have changed in 35 years!
It was Rudy and François together with Adam Hyde of the J.C.C. (Jamaica Caving Club) who explored the Penitentiary-3 hole. They resurveyed the cave and got past the small hole leading into the third shaft with a depth of 17 m. A system of three parallel shafts was discovered with no obvious continuation. When they visited the cave there was no draught.
Six days later François and I went back to explore Penitentiary-1 and 2. The discovery of horizontal galleries and chambers in Penitentiary-1 was a surprise. Because all the other caves in the region are pits ending in nothing. But here we saw that horizontal systems are also possible. So there is still hope to find larger cave systems there.
Incidentally, the synonym for Penitentiary-1 is Mount Noll Hole. Alan Fincham told me that in 1963 they wrote down that name from the local guide. But actually what the guide was saying to them was that the name was "Mountain Hole", but they didn't understand his dialect!
Penitentiary Cave number 2 was a virgin cave. It appeared to be a fantastic free hanging, 80 m deep pit. But like most caves there it ended in a mud choke. For the moment it is the deepest shaft of the Penitentiary-series.
Mr. Winter also showed us a big pit further on in the valley. The huge entrance (section 15 - 20 m!) is covered by a dense canopy of trees and ferns. We had no time left to explore but we estimate it to be 30 m deep and in the dark shadows at the bottom one can imagine it goes on... We called it Adam's Promise.
2.4 Red Hills
Eric and Hilde went for one day to the Red Hills near Kingston together with Adam and his brother Duncan. Adam had heard about a big hole in the area of "Diamond" who he taught interesting to try. Indeed it was worth going! The big entrance pit with a diameter of 15 m ended 55 m lower on a sloping platform. There the next shaft split in two but joined again a bit deeper down. This pit was 40 m deep and ended in a big chamber (50 m long x 20 m wide and 40 m high). There the floor was covered with an enormous mass of guano. Although the explorers couldn't see the bats the loud noises the animals made, indicated that it had to be a huge colony. A meticulous search of the chamber proved futile.
Later at 18 o'clock (sunset in the tropics) when Eric was about halfway up the ropes again he heard a strange sound which became louder and louder. Then he saw an endless spiral of bats flying past the walls getting higher and higher the shaft until they reached the open sky. This fantastic spectacle lasted more than twenty minutes. The cave was baptised at once: "Bat Tornado Cave". It is possible that the cave is the unexplored Diamond Hole number 3.
This deep shaft indicates that the easy accessible but largely unexplored Red Hills hides an enormous potential for caves and is worth a detailed exploration.
And now the histo story. Although we all took prophylactic doses of Nizoral (200 mg), three of the cavers got ill back at home after 10-15 days. But after a week or two suffering they all got better and now they are well again. It seems that Nizoral does not help and 20 % of the people get sick of the medication. Ivan, the one who got histo first, even had to stop to take Nizoral after some days because his stomach was so upset! Tracing back the caves the three patients visited, they must have caught histo in Lost Man's Passage of Jackson's Bay Cave.
So for the moment their is no miracle medicine against histo but now the medics are saying that Sporanox should work better. It will be difficult to find new histo-test guinea-pigs for the next expedition to Jamaica!
5. The 2004 expedition
visit also the photo page of the JCO March-April 2004 Expedition
5.1 CRYSTAL LAKE CAVE
Cavers: A. Hyde, G. van Rentergem, D. Roggy
The rediscovery of Crystal Lake Cave, (take 1).
29 March, our first day back at the Green Grotto Caves. Memories came back of 3 years ago when we spent 14 days surveying this labyrinthine cave complex. It was during that period that Adam found a new cave on one of his solo explorations. He reported about a nice cave somewhere in the forests, south of the tourist caves, with beautiful concretions and a very nice lake at the bottom. But due to time constraints, it was not possible to explore and survey this one. So, this cave was high on our to-do list.
It was already afternoon when we followed Adam into the bush. How on earth could he ever find the cave again in this impossible terrain, covered with that dense forest? Well, I can tell you it wasn't easy. Zigzaging, we tried to follow the circumference of the big lake. Some futile attempts to make a shortcut later, Adam decided to follow his original trail. This is going to the other side of this huge lake until we found back an old pumphouse. It took us one hour to reach this important reference point. In fact this was the one and only reference point there was and ever will be. From here on, we had to climb up the hill until the ground levels again. No reference points at all. Or you should count the millions of trees as references? Now, we had to turn to the left. And suprise! Here was an old bushed up trail visible to the trained eye which followed the crest of the hill. At some point Adam left this "path" again and we went through a kind of low valley where at last, at the other side of it, the cave was. It was two hours later since we had left the pumphouse. I have asked myself a million times how Adam could ever have found back this cave. Now I'm sure he has an extra sense. In 2001, it was Adam who discovered the entrance of the Wild Cave. It goes like this: "Oh, there is a cave here. I feel it. I'm sure about it". We, looking sheepish: "how on earth could you find a cave here?". Five minutes later, you can bet he found a new cave.
The cave is very nice. It is in fact much bigger than I had in my mind based on Adam's description of it. It is a huge opening in the rock and goes over a steep slope of boulders right down to the bottom. In the middle of this big shaft is a very nice group af stalactites with a very big one about 7 meter long. At the bottom there is a very nice lake between white formations. This was the place where Adam stopped his brave solo exploration of 2001. It is this lake which gives the cave it's name: Crystal Lake Cave. This time we passed the lake. It is about 15 m long and ends at the other side on a beach of white calcite sand. The dimension of the passage is still huge and continues until it makes a turn to the left. There, it stops at a wall. Looking around, there are still possibilities for further exploration. But time was pushing. For sure, you don't want to be stuck in the forest when it is dark. So we scrambled back to the surface and took the same way back as we came. It was already twilight when we reached the pumphouse. The idea to go back through the forest with this condition of light was not very appealing. So we decided to take the long road starting from the pumphouse which goes the other way along the lake. A good hour later we were back at the Green Grotto Complex. Some Red Stripes profided the perfect end to the day.
5.2 CRYSTAL LAKE CAVE
Cavers: G. van Rentergem, D. Roggy
April 1: The rediscovery of Crystal Lake Cave, (take 2).
Today was our last day at the Green Grotto complex. Before we left, I really wanted to get the location of the Crystal Lake Cave. Three days ago, Adam miraculously rediscovered this cave, which was located somewhere in the middle of the bush. During that day, it took us more than 3 hours to reach it. But somehow, I was convinced it couldn't be too far away from the Green Grotto Caves because we had made this huge turn back.
So there we were. Only Dietrich and me, without a GPS. So how on earth could we get the location of that cave? Well, listen. We had a compass, a watch and also the laser disto to measure distances. The idea was to do the same trip again, as three days ago when we were with Adam, through the jungle. But this time, we would survey our route. If we finally reached the cave, we would draw our path on a paper and then we could determine the direction from the cave straight to our start point, and so survey our way back.
So far the theory. How does this worked out on the terrain? First obstacle was the very dense forest. Free sight for more than 8 meters was wishful thinking. Surveying in a terrain like this would take ages. So to speed up the work, we decided to use a rougher, error prone method. We would write down our times we walked in a certain direction. If we could keep our speed constant, then those times were a good measure of our covered distance.
This sounded very reasonable, but the terrain there was very rough with steep slopes, tangled trees, and with razor sharp rocks ready to cut you in little pieces the moment you fall. All this of course made our method very questionable, but it would give us a very rough guess of our location. But that was what we did! The first man chopped his way through the thick bush, while the second person held the compass and corrected the direction of the first man. He also wrote down the bearings and times in the notebook. Somehow, we managed to find our way back to the cave, after only two hours, working like horses.
So far, so good. Once at the entrance of the Cristal Lake cave we drew, based on our measurements, a rough sketch of our trail in the notebook on checkered paper. One square counted for 5 minutes difficult terrain, and one square and a half was for easy terrain. So, at last we had our guess of where the Green Grotto Caves were. Now, the tricky part was to decide which direction to go for the Green Grotto Cave. My biggest fear was that we had taken the wrong direction and so missed our goal. In that case, we would be lost and maybe we would still be surveying the day you read this report. At last, we chose, after studying our rudimentery map, to go due North.
The plan was now to survey this shorter distance more precisely than our first long part of the journey. This time, we would do a regulary survey measuring distance, slope and bearing. This of course would slow us down considerably. As said before, the free sight was a maximum of 8 meters. We hadn't the foggiest idea of how far it would be. It could be 100 meters, or it could be 5 kilometers. It could also be 20 km if we went in the wrong direction...
Well, we were already so far. We looked at each other, took a deep breath and started with this ordeal that we had unleashed over ourselves. It was insane. That is the least I can say. It was a cloudless midday and the temperature was high. Dietrich chopped his way through the forest without complaining. I did the survey without complaining. We didn't speak and worked like madmen. Already ten survey stations; how many to follow? We felt isolated from the rest of the world. Nobody knew where we were, and nobody would find us if something happened. Twenty stations. A Red Stripe would be very welcome. Thirty stations. Chop, Chop... Hey Dietrich, are we mad? ...Yeah man!! Chop Chop... And then a miracle at station 35. We saw a glimpse of the path running to the wall at the lake!!! Incredible, we made it right to our starting point! We were indeed very good, or we had just an enourmous amount of luck. Well, I guess it is the last, and I should have played the lottery on that day. After putting the survey in the computer, it showed us that the Cristal Lake Cave was only 340 m South from the Green Grotto Lake. That is really close!
Later that day we returned back to the cave to survey it...
5.3 RUDIST ROCK CAVE Flamstead, St James.
Cavers: G. van Rentergem, R. S. Stewart, B. Murray, D. Roeber
Monday, April 5, 2004, on our to-do list: Rudist Rock Cave. Although a small cave, it made a big impression on me.
The cave got this strange name because of the presence of Rudist fossils. I had only seen the name once before, in the excellent work, "Jamaica, A Geological Portrait", by Anthony R.D. Porter. In chapter nine, the author talks about the Barrettia - a fossil shell discovered in Jamaica. This fossil was found for the first time by Lucas Barrett, in the early 1860's, in the district of the Rio Grande. The fossil was later catalogued as a member of the Rudists group. This is a rather neglected group of strange bivalved molluscs that lived during the Cretaceous Period, from 140 - 65 million years ago. The valves of the shells are nearly always highly asymmetric, and they are considered to be reef builders. They seem to be typical for tropical deposits, so my interest was awakened. During my previous visits to Jamaica, I had never encountered any fossils; the possibility to see some original Jamaican fossils was more than welcome.
Today, it is Monday, and the number of available team members is again seriously reduced. Fortunately, we have reinforcements from the Peace Corps. Our group counted four souls: Stef, Brian and his wife Dana, and I. The usual long drive over bad roads for some hours took us to the Maroon Town district. This time, the location mentioned in Jamaica Underground was correct, and in no time we had found the cave.
Rudist Rock Cave is located in a small rock outcrop at the edge of a shallow depression. The environment is deforested and is now used as pasture. The entrance looks a bit like that of Roehampton School Cave. On the outside, there is no real sign of a riverbed, so the cave is a kind of window on an underground river. A small horizontal passage meanders into the hill with only a trickle of water flowing through it, but everywhere, like in most river caves, there was dirt and plastic. I really don't want to be in this cave when it starts raining; the friendly trickle will change into a roaring monster.
In the pools of water, we saw the usual crabs. Their bodies measure 3 cm and have a dark brown colour. The legs are wide and stretch about 15 cm. A bit stranger was the purple mould we saw in different places. The cave wasn't difficult, and only in some places was a crawl necessary.
The first hundred meters were a disappointment for me because no fossils were seen. Then, we saw the first one, a strange round structure about 20 cm in diameter. I recognized it immediately as a member of the Rudist family. As we went deeper into the cave, more fossils were seen in the massive rock of the cave walls. Indeed, this is Rudist country.
The "normal" cave ends at a small horizontal rift. Flat on my belly, I went on. After 8 meters, there is a crossroads which turns back after some metres. Then, it becomes wider again with deeper water, but it eventually ends in a small passage between the boulders. With some effort, it would be possible to go on. From this point, I collected a Rudist that is now displayed at the Last Resort, in Windsor.
On our way back, I made a rather remarkable discovery. In a low passage, where we had to go through the river on our hands and knees, I saw it glistening between the pebbles... a sea urchin with a diameter of 3 cm! It looked so good and fresh, I at first thought it was recent, but then it hit me; we were about 500 m above sea level and deep into the Cockpit Country! I turned it upside down and saw the interior of the sea urchin filled with hard rock. This fossil appears to have eroded out of its rock matrix, and was now lying in the riverbed. It is difficult to tell where it came from. Was it washed from the outside into the cave or was it eroded from the walls of the cave? My guess is that it was eroded from the cave walls.
This cave is fascinating enough to visit again, to try to push the known borders further. The existing map, available from Jamaica Underground, is too basic and lacks detail. A resurvey of the cave must be considered.
5.4 BENTA WELL
Cavers: G. van Rentergem, R. Stewart, M. Taylor, B. Murray, D. Roeber.
April 6: The story of the pit who wasn't a pit. One day to go before we started our Troy-Windsor Trail hike. Today we wanted to save energy because we wanted to be fit for tomorrow, so we decided to do something in the region. There were rumours of a deep pit east of Coxheath, the small village where Lilly’s bar is. Hearing things like unknown deep pits gives every caver wet dreams. So today we would certainly go and search for this mistery pit and were dreaming of 100 meter deep abysses...
We were five: Stef, Malibu, Brian, Dana and me. Brian and his wife never have done any rope techniques so we spent the morning training them in descending and climbing on ropes at the verandah of the Last Resort. They where both good students and at 11 o'clock the two professors handed them their diplomas. We loaded our gear in the trunk of the car plus the 50 m rope and even the 100 m rope. You never know.
The trail started after Lilly's bar and was so bad Stef asked us to walk so he could save the car from the scrapheap. It was a very nice walk in the outskirts of the Cockpit Country. On the top of a hill the view was so magnificent that Stef decided to build his home there. Nearly at the end of the trail Malibu signaled Stef to stop the car. Malibu was our guide because he was the one who knew roughly the location of our goal. We put on our climbing gear, threw the ropes on our shoulders and followed him through a sugar cane field. After only 20 minutes, at the other side of the field, at the foot of a forested hill, he found the pit.
Great was our suprise to see that the pit wasn't a pit. It was in fact an old circular well with a diameter of 1.9 metres. The walls of the well were lined with ingenious stacked rocks without use of cement. A rope was anchored around a tree, and with a deviation around another tree, it was hanging free into the well. I had the honour to go first. I still hoped there was a cave down there. After about a descent of 8 meters the massive rock was encountered. There are still drillmarks in the rock which proves that they blasted the well. But alas, after a decent of 21m it ended on boulders. No sign of the smallest drop of water or opening in the wall. This was indeed strange, or the people who made this well did an incredibly useless job, or the climate has changed during the last hundreds of years.
Since there was no safe place in this pit against falling rocks, I climbed up again so to allow the others to "explore" this well. It took Dana some more effort to climb up again, but finally everyone of the team had set foot on the bottom of the pit. So we prepared to go back to Lilly's for some nice cool Red Stripes. I don't know how it happened, but somewhere halfway the car hit a rock with the result that the tire was flattened in a tenth of a second. And typical when you are in the middle of nowhere, the spare tire had even a bigger hole in it... Only thing to do was to bring the wheel back to civilisation and try to repair it.
Stef and I took the wheel and started walking to Lilly's. Luckily, we found a sugar cane to put in the central hole of the wheel so carying the damned thing became easier. But sugar cane is not so strong. So we "borrowed" a yam stick from a small field. This was the solution. To make a long story short, we finally arived at Lilly's after a long walk. Some Red Stripes later, Stef and the tire got a lift to Falmouth. At the same time, Brian and Dana left us. It only took 90 minutes before Stef returned. Stef, Malibu and I went back to the car with the repaired wheel. It was already dark when we finally reached Lilly's again with the car. The day ended with Red Stripes...
5.5 THE TROY-WINDSOR TRAIL
Team: G. van Rentergem, R. S. Stewart, M. Taylor
April the 7th, time goes incredibly fast as this was already my last day together with the JCO team. The plan was to do the mythical Troy-Windsor Trail. The last day should end with a bang. Well I can assure you it was a BIG BANG.
I have climbed high mountains, descended 3300 feet deep caves and have seen many karst regions of the world, from the Caucasus to the tropics. And certainly the high alpine karst regions are among the most dangerous terrains you can imagine. Everywhere bottomless crevases and sharp rock waiting to swallow you, never to be seen again. In my mind this was catalogued as the most treacherous areas I knew. Well I can tell you I have to revise my definitions.
Early in the morning at 7 o'clock, the route-taxi that Miss Lilly had arranged last night arrived on schedule at her doorstep. There we were, the three musketeers of the Troy trail, Stef, Malibu and me. On the map the distance between Troy and Windsor is only about 10 km, like they say as the crow flies. Based on my previous experience, when I visited the Cockpits before in 2001 with Adam and Sean, this would take 4 hours, maximum 6. So I took 2 liters of water and one bun and cheese. This was wrong...
The drive from Windsor to Troy took us 3 hours, following the magnificent borders of Cockpit Country. The taxi drove up a small path until it was too tricky for the driver to continue. He left us and wished us good luck. There we were at the start of the trail.
The first kilometers were indeed as I imagined. Not too rough, and easy-going, on a small trail winding through the hills. Some of the hills were cultivated and we saw pasture lands and yam fields. The trail got lost at the last pasture. And a steep climb up the hill gave us that magnificent view over the Cockpit Country. It looked so easy, go down again and follow the direction of the huge pine trees. There, we really lost the trail, for the first time, in the scrub. Luckily Stef had his GPS. So we decided to go through the Cockpits instead of trying to search the path. This is the toughest going imaginable. The path tried to follow the same heights meandering through the hills. But walking on a straight line through the Cockpits, well it is suicidal. Nowhere a horizontal stretch of land, only vertical rocks with razorsharp edges, huge rocks tumbling the moment you put your foot on. Everywhere crevasses and deep pits and all covered with an unimaginable tangled forest of vines, scrub and trees.
At the bottom of one of the cockpits we found a pit of immeasurable depth. A wrong step and you had time enough to think how long you will be falling until you hit eventually the bottom. And then we found back the path! Well this was indeed a nice adventure... until the path was lost again in an dense forest of ferns. Again, we decided to go on a straight line in the direction of Devils Staircase. This time it was even worse. Luckily, I was in good hands. It was Stefan and Malibu who were now at home on their own terrain. And I couldn’t help much. I was a visitor, a spectator and the only thing I could do was follow them and not be a nuisance. But it was hard, I can tell you. It took us 1 hour to bring us 100 meter closer to Windsor which was still 7 km away!! During that hour we climbed 300 m down and 300 m up. This was mountaineering without a summit. It was insane. And then the second miracle happened. We hit the path again!
This time, we wouldn't lose the trail, but I had already spent a great deal of my energy and my water supply was already halved. Don't forget that under the dense canopy covering the Cockpits it is like an oven and there is no breeze to bring the littlest of refreshment.
Now, we were on the trail again and a dreadful march began over the old remains of the Troy Trail. It spooked through my head how the British troops and slaves made this trail hundreds of years ago. The poor devils. I also felt like a member of the fellowship from the books of Tolkien following long forgotten paths of ancient realms and kingdoms.
And at last we reached the Devils Staircase. From there on it was known terrain for both Stefan and Malibu. Another two hours and we would reach Windsor again. And finally there it was, the green valley at Windsor. It took us 10 hours to reach it.
I can tell you, I was very exhausted and very, very thirsty. But hey, we did it. The three of us were indeed very happy we made it. It was really a great accomplishment for both Stef and Malibu to find the route through the Cockpits. This was top class and I'm very greatful I was part of such a magnificent team!
7. The 2006 expedition
7.1. St Clair Cave revisited
Cavers: R.S. Stewart, H. De Splenter, G. van Rentergem
After my first visit to this notorious cave, in January 2005, I wrote down:
"St Clair is about bats, bats and bats. Oh and cockroaches... It's difficult to explain what it is like, but if you have been to the movie "Batman Begins", then you will have the picture. I've never seen so much life in one place (ok maybe an ants nest, but I'm speaking about mammals). It's really like a kind of underground Serengeti. It is more than impressive. The environment is rather hostile and very demanding to equipment and people. Let's give an impression: The cave is smack in the middle of a jungle in very rough terrain. You have to carry everything on your back. There are so many bats that you have a natural phenomena they call thermoclines. Walls of heat. From one step to another, the temperature rises 2-3 degrees. This goes in different steps, from 25 degrees C to 33 and higher. Humidity 100%. Oh, and you have to go through chin-deep water for hundreds of meters. There are also passages you have to slide through on your belly like a snake. And take into account that all these animals have to poo and you can see that the ground is covered with an immense carpet of bat guano (batshit). Ah, and some Old Bat lore: Never fly with a full bladder. So when they start to fly in the evening, it starts raining... And for the not faint of heart, the floor is covered with a living carpet of cockroaches..."
It's one year later, and here I am back again on my way through the dry Black River to St Clair Cave. The river has changed since last year. Some hurricanes have passed and the riverbed isn’t so rough anymore. There’s much more smaller material which makes progressing more easy. This is important for us, because we carry a lot of gear with us. Indeed we are planning to sleep in the cave.
It’s going so easy that we miss the place where we have to leave the riverbed and start the steep climb to the entrance. Becoming suspicious, Stef gets his GPS, and indeed, we have overshot the cave by 300 m. This soon is corrected, and in no time, we stand at the entrance of the St Clair Cave. The gear is lowered into the entrance pit, and soon we reach our campsite. The base-camp is roughly 10 meters before the upper entrance of the Junction room. Last year, there were already a lot of bats in this section of the cave. Now, there are none. Are they all gone?
I start to drill the holes so I can place the expansion bolts where our hammocks will be tied on. During the hammering of the last bolt we hear the swelling sound of rushing water. The bats are coming!! It’s 18h17. The flight of thousands of bats passing by is breathtaking. We can see that our lights make them afraid, slowing the flow. So we decide to use light only to film or to take pictures. In the dark, the sound of the Bat River is even more impressive. After an hour or so, Stef decides to stretch his legs and follows the bats. His Red Stripe meter must be low and he’s hiking to the nearest village. Hilde and I stay in the cave and crawl into our hammocks. We only arrived yesterday on the island and since there is a six hour difference between Ja and Belgium; jetlag is our part. The hammocks are very comfortable, and are far away from the guano-covered ground where the roaches reign. Stef will sleep on the ground. I don’t think he’ll appreciate the company of the roaches and other crawling things...
At 9h45, the river of bats seems to slow down and comes nearly to a halt. But still there are a lot of bats flying in the cave. We hear the Mormoops zooming by and in the Junction Room the sound they make is like kids playing in a schoolyard.
Later that night, Stef returns and tells us we can sleep the next night in a real bed if we want. It all depends on if we can finish this cave tomorrow.
Next morning, hell it’s always dark here, we prepare our gear for the main purpose of this visit. Our goal is to push the limits of the Inferno+, which was discovered last year and left only half-explored. The Inferno, as always, is an experience on its own, with its bats, overwhelming heat, extreme humidity, guano, water and cockroaches. It’s a place that is very demanding on people and equipment. When we arrive at the squeeze through the boulders for the Inferno+, we are already overheated. Finding our way through the guano-covered slippery rocks is tricky and takes some time. Once through this difficult passage, we reach a little lake where we plunge in to cool down. Here, we discover that cockroaches can swim too. We aren’t even safe in the water from these pests!
Soon, we reach the place where I ended the exploration last year, and working our way up through a choke, we reach a larger chamber filled with a big colony of bats. This chamber is high, and is 8 meters wide, and 40 m long. The weariness gets to Hilde at this point, and she decides to wait for us in the company of the bats.
Stef and I go further, bitten by the exploration virus. We have to find our way through chaotic rocks, and then come, at last, into a wide corridor. Soon, the cave changes and the passage starts to slope down. The bottom is covered with small pebbles, and sand, and we hear a sound like running water. Since sound behaves strangely in caves, we weren’t sure yet. It could be another colony of bats too. Closing in reveals the real nature of the sound. What we hear now is definitely a roaring river. Meanwhile, the cave also starts to smell like a sewer. We go faster, duck under a low arch and behold... we arrive in a large corridor with a large river. The passage is 8 meters wide; at the left, there is an ink black lake. A river spills over the right edge, and tumbles down a chaotic slope right into the black void of an immense passage. Euphoric, we continue our fast descent to the river, but suddenly we both have to stop! In a fraction of a second, we both instinctively turn around and scramble as fast as possible to higher ground again. It’s only now we realize the smell of sewer gas is overwhelming. Something down there is not right. And we decide wisely to stay on high ground.
After some time trying to get our breath under control, I realize we still have a job to do. I have to go down again and try to survey what we can. I inch back slowly towards the river until I find a place where the air is just breathable. 10 cm lower and I would suffocate. I quickly take the compass bearings and also take some pictures. Be damned, this is really so frustrating! There is this massive collector right before our nose, but we can’t explore the damned thing. Later, we decide to call this river the Acheron. After one of the four rivers of Dante’s Hell. A well chosen name if you ask me! Since the Acheron leads to a certain death, we decide to go back and survey the new ground we found in the Inferno+. This survey goes fast at first, but when we're once again at the new chamber with the bats, the cave becomes more chaotic, with big boulders, and the surveying becomes more tedious and slower. Meanwhile, Hilde joins us and our troop is complete again. After what seems hours and hours we finally reach the old survey point of last year. Our goal is reached!
Now, the only thing left is to get out of the cave as fast as possible. We all look boiled and are rather fed-up by this part of the cave. But the Inferno+ is not to be taken lightly and the passage through the boulders into the Inferno is a hard nut to crack. We have to squeeze our way up through slimy guano covered rocks. Here, I help the others with my shoulders and back to be used as step. Someone even used my neck. I didn’t say a thing, but the experience was rather special (getting an ultra-muddy foot in one's neck, covered with inches of guano).
Once in the Inferno, my light became weaker. Which was my luck considering it now. The others had stronger lights and this attracted the gnats to them. These little flies are a real pest. Strange as it is, we haven't had any trouble with them on the way through. I've experience with them from Windsor cave and they can drive a perfectly normal person insane in no time. They crawl everywhere and make your passage through their territory a hell. But, in the end, we all reached the living daylight again, safe and sound. We retreated from the cave and drank some well-earned Red Stripes at the local bar, and even slept in a decent bed thanks to Maria who Stef had met the night before.
...to be continued (be damned sure of this, St Clair Cave still holds its secrets, but we'll find them!!)
8. The 2007 expedition
8.1 Breaking the lock on Golding River Cave
Cavers: R.S. Stewart, G. van Rentergem, G Shiffer
February 19, 2007
This is my second visit to Golding. I knew the number of JCO tries to get into this cave already counted five. This time we have to break into this damned cave, even if I have to chew my way through the rocks.
The scenery has changed since last year. A massive 3 feet diameter tree has fallen across the valley. This is a perfect bombproof anchor for the rope. I'm coiling the rope to get into the entrance. The roof of the cave is still this unstable pile of rocks. Not a moment to sneeze or make brisk moves. Once at the top of the pit, there are still three large boulders. No possibility to move them. And there is not enough room between the first and the second boulder. The second boulder is remarkable round and can be wiggled a bit. This is not very assuring. But there is some space between the second and third boulder. Ok, I give it a try. Very cautious, I slide backwards over the second boulder and try to pass under it. But the space is too small. If I could push that third rock a bit more down, then it would be possible. Now I start to move this third rock back and forth with my foot. I really need a miracle, because this rock is stuck very firmly between the walls of the pit. And then it happens. After what seems to be ages, the rock moves 2/3 of a foot down into the pit and stays stuck. This should do it. I throw the rope over the second boulder, into the pit, and prepare for decent.
Very slowly, I slide between both rocks with my feet first, and then at last I am hanging in the 21 foot pit. The lock on Golding is broken! Once at the bottom, I search for a safe place and yell at Stef and Greg that all is ok, but that it is no option to come down to because it's enough that one madman is taking this risk. On the question of Stef, if he should pull the rope, I answer "NO". Although I'm not very fond of climbing up the rope through those unstable blocks again. It is only an option if I'm desperate. So, I have to go through the cave in search of the lost entrance.
The passage I'm in is 5 m wide and about 2 meter high. The bottom is jagged limestone. Don't fall, this will hurt. A last "goodbye and soon come" to the surface and I'm on my way. I'm armed with my compass and a 1965 survey. I make good progress til I hit water. Hum, let's see how deep this is. To the knees, no problem, two steps further, to the neck, no good, this will be swimming. The next step, I don't find the bottom. I look into the gloomy dark trying to figure out how far this will go. There is water as far as my light goes. A quick check on the map shows it should only be 20 meters. Ok, stop trying to think and start swimming. Slowly I'm leaving firm ground and swimming into the unknown. The ceiling is getting closer and closer to the water, and at last only one feet of air is left. The mud on the walls shows that this passage can fill completely. After 20 m swimming, no ground yet reached. I'm concerned. The water causes that strange sound in hidden spaces, and makes it all very spooky.
Ah, here at the left there's a steep passage. Like a wet rat, I climb up the jagged rocks. I feel a faint breeze. This could be the passage. I'm 15 feet higher than the water, in a high chamber, but then I see this can't be the passage I'm searching for. It is not on the map neither. High up in the shadows, there seems to be some continuation, but I'm alone here and am not prepared to take additional risks. So, I'm back into the water. Now, the passage becomes really low, but then the ceiling is getting higher again. At the right, broad water is seen. This must be the Sleeping Pools. Man, this is a big cave. And at last I reach dry ground again. This must have been a 40 meter swim.
According to the map, there no more swims on the menu. I hope I find the exit, because I'm not very fond of these lonely swims. The dimensions of the new passage are considerable, and it goes off in the right direction according to my compass. I'm sure this is the right passage, and I start my journey to the light.
The ceiling of this part of the cave is decorated with enormous stalactites. This makes the journey all very unearthly. The bottom is sometimes covered with more than knee deep mud, and then it is again very rocky and dangerous. I pass some side passages and come into a chamber where I hear the loud sound of a running river. I'm now in a part of the cave with smaller dimension and the floor is strewn with big jagged boulders. Advance is rather tedious. And it is getting even smaller. Over a boulder, through a foot wide crevice and then I see LIGHT! Yes, I made it. The exit is a small rabbit's hole. I hear a loud whistle. This must be Stef! I give a loud "YIHA" and squeeze myself through the exit into the open air. There they are, only 30 feet lower than my position. Although it seemed ages for me, I've been in the cave for only a bit more than hour. But it was one of the loneliest trips I've ever made.
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