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Caving On Bonaire

by Peter Glanville

Continuing the BEC's search for new caving regions to explore I organised the first speleological reconnaissance trip to Bonaire last autumn.  Unknown to me, one island over (Aruba) Martin Grass was doing the same which only leaves Curacao to be examined.  I have to say that world length and depth records are unlikely to be achieved in Bonaire and the river caves aren't very big either.

Bonaire lies 40 miles off the Venezuelan coast.  The car number plates leave one in no doubt as to what the main attraction of the place is i.e. "The Diver's Paradise".  But that is another quite different story.  According to the Underground Atlas there were no references to karst features on Bonaire but on our arrival it was quickly clear that a large proportion of the island is covered in high quality reef limestone lying on a base of volcanic rock.  The wave pounded east coast, exposed to the constant trade winds, possesses lines of low cliffs studded with fossil coral and eroded into a viciously sharp maze of limestone edges.

The map and guide books showed locations marked 'grotto', Fontein and most excitingly Spelonk. Diving was the main objective however (and some medical education) so cave hunting took place to and from dives or in the early morning.  The first caves we found were very shallow but well visited.  They seemed to be on a wave cut platform a long way from the sea and probably represent old sea caves.  Certainly on the opposite side of the island there was one massive arch set high up and back from the current coast line.  The caves are of interest mainly because they contain Arawak indian inscriptions which nobody seems to have managed to decipher.

At Fontein water was flowing from somewhere to supply a small experimental farm.  Half an hours search in a sort of Lost World landscape inhabited by huge but only half seen iguanas and massive spiny green melon cacti, got us to a series of old water tanks fed by a small stream.  This emerged from a steamy short and seemingly semi artificial cave.  The cave harboured a couple of bats and was interesting for the massive pillars of calcited tree roots in the final chamber 10 metres from the entrance.

The limestone cliffs above Fontein are a climber's paradise and are probably totally virgin.  There were a number of small phreatic cavities at their base filled with dry stal.

Our searches for Spelonk were unsuccessful.  There are few good roads on the island and the tourist map was useless.  Our appetite had been whetted by the guide book description of two caves one of which was 300 feet long 66 feet wide and 13 feet high containing many stal columns and many rock drawings.  A walk in would seem to be the best way to find the caves but the terrain is very rough on the feet.  Near Spelonk there were solutional features in the limestone beds on the coast i.e. miniature bedding collapses and caves.   There should be some good blue holes here in a million years or so!

Bonaire is a small island (26 miles by 7 miles) and apart from a rather incongruously sited oil processing station has little to support its 11,000 strong population other than tourism and the salt pans in the south.  The tourist accommodation is expanding but the place does not exude the razzamatazz of some other Caribbean islands.  A far sighted policy of making the entire coastline to a depth of 200 feet into a national park has resulted in virtually undamaged coral reefs, mostly only a short swim from the beach.  A national park in the hilly north of the island supports populations of iguanas and flamingos as well as other bird species.

To get there one flies KLM from Heathrow via Amsterdam.  Some travel agents will book a package type holiday there.  If you are into diving in a big way I can recommend it.  If you do go and you find Spelonk, let me know.