Belfry Bulletin

Search Our Site

Article Index


Jamaica - "Boonoonoonoos"

(or in the local patois, "Something Special") .

THE BIG BAMBOO RECCE EXPEDITION - JAMAICA '89.

Yet another Trebor/Stumpy wrecky/reccy extravaganza to Jamaica.  If you're off anywhere nice, seek out Trebor and Stumpy who'll recce it for you.

How nice to get away from Butcombe, sharky caving gear vendors and piddly Mendip caves.  Why waft across flat grass fields to Swildons when you can sweat through ganja-riddled, mongoose-ridden, rum-soaked jungle in the Cockpit Country of Western Jamaica?  Oh the joys of shorts and T-shirt caving amongst mountains of bat guano.

That's the silly bit over with.  Now some proper stuff.

China is not the only place with pinnacle or cone karst.  The Cockpit country is a quite outstandingly dramatic, beautiful and remote circular area of Western Jamaica, some 20 miles in diameter and about 15 to 20 miles inland.  Access into its heartland is very pedestrian - "Is this thing really a path?" Cockpit is a term used to describe a closed depression, perhaps on average ¼ mile across, with sides lobed convexly inwards making them almost star-shaped.  Numerous gullies run into the centre, usually dry but carrying streams after heavy rain.  The residual cones or pinnacles are rounded and quite evenly spaced giving a 'basket of eggs' appearance.  All of course is cloaked with thick matted jungle with the occasional clearing for sugar cane, pineapple or ganja.

The Cockpit or depression obviously provides a neat receptacle for water catchment and bedrock shafts at the lowest point of the depression are a feature.  Cockpits with steeper sides and a fair amount of exposed limestone resemble dolines.  Cockpit karst is generally found on pure, massive limestone.  Often a depression is linked at one point of its circumference with another depression, thus forming chains of 'glades'.  Annual rainfall in the area can reach about 250cms. so in the wet season flash flooding is a serious consideration.

Climate and vegetation is a very significant factor in cockpit karst, as it no doubt is in all tropical karst forms.  The forest covering conceals the more pronounced relief and floor litter, humus, roots and talus can cover shafts, fissures and caves.  It also makes perambulating very difficult.  Exposed limestone can usually be seen         on overhangs, cliffs and cuttings and here there is usually a profusion of stal forming externally.  Bauxite is also found in depressions and in some places is mined commercially for aluminium production.

The theory of depression shafts went out the window when we had a gander around what is called Windsor Cave, on the northern edge of Cockpit Country in a remote spot taking some finding.  At the end of an endless track in mid-jungle next to a river, you shout at a hut for Rastaman Franklyn who stirs himself to show you where this place is.  A brief sweat into the undergrowth down an apology for a path you come across a small cliff face with a stooping entrance leading into a magnificent entrance hall dripping with speleotherms.  It's all very old fossil stuff but immense. Maximum passage width noted was 50yds and max height possibly 100 ft.  Bats and their heaped deposits are everywhere.  Our Rastaman had some novel illumination - a big bamboo pole filled with kerosene and a rag stuffed in the end.  When the light looked as though it might die he merely tips it up to rejuvenate the wick.  It looked like a mortar, probably potentially explosive and the spewing fumes and black smoke not only gave the bats something to think about but soon had us on the retreat.  But, as he said, it lasts for days and no bulbs to blow.  It also had the added advantage of incinerating the myriad guano eating flies that get in every orifice.  I'll stick to my clean, anti-polluting petzl zoom.  Apparently there's 14 miles of passage but we've not come across any surveyor detailed account of the place and we doubt that Rastaman has done all of it, so we took this measurement with a bag of salt. Very impressive nonetheless.  He told us of another large cave nearby, Bethany Cave, but our time in that area was up.

Snippet of useless info'

As a point of archaeological interest, on the way up to find this cave we passed through miles of cane plantation.  'Parked' on the side of the road was a wonderful old cane crusher a bit like an old washer woman’s clothes mangle.  Made in Glasgow of all places.  Elsewhere throughout our travels we found much evidence of old cane works, such as a very impressive wreck of an overshot water wheel between Montego Bay and Lucea and numerous stone cone buildings, the remnants of windmills, scattered about.

Local Waffle

The inhabitants of Cockpit Country are loosely called 'Maroons', who are supposed to be the interbred descendants of escaped sugar slaves used by the British.  They were slightly menacing at first and mesmerised by us whiteys, and Stumpy in particular, scooting around is a beat up car asking about holes in the ground.  They soon softened up with a huge however when confronted by Stumpy, hands on hips going" 'ere wang, where's t'caves, pal?” The locals exhibited a remarkable phenomenon though, a magical codeword in the local patois - 'jayratt', which when uttered raised the price of everything they were trying to sell you.

Ipswich Cave was a real day out crunching along unbelievable 'roads' literally miles from anywhere.  We winced at every bang, rattle and thump as it only needed a tyre to blow or an oil sump to rupture and we would really be in the bat guano.  We were heading for the metropolis of Ipswich, a village spread out through the jungle high up in the cockpit and one of the few places to have the luxury of a 'road'.  We suddenly broke out into a clearing with, would you believe it, a station in the middle.  Stand back in amazement.

Taken aback we sought a cold drink and asked a local where we were.  "Swich maan" he said, "no problem, want sum ganja?". The railway line is apparently the link between Kingston and Montego Bay and rumbles through the jungle at this point.  A great piece of engineering hacking it through this lot. The line had been 'broken' for 6 months or so and they hadn't seen a soul for some time.  Luckily a local lady wanted a lift home to the other end of the village 4 miles away so she agreed to show us the cave's whereabouts in return for a lift.  After more bumps and rattles, we stopped where the railway passes across the road and hoofed it up the railway track in a northerly direction for three-quarters of a mile or so.  At the base of a big cockpit depression was a small cliff face with the entrance in the side of it.  To get there, you walk along the line as far as a small platform just before a big tunnel and then follow the obvious path down to the right.  It's a 'show cave' of sorts meaning it’s got a gate on. Apparently you can take a train ride tour from Montego Bay, part of which passes this way.  You stop at the little platform, leap out and gander around the cave.  Since the railway is bust nobody comes anymore but you can get the key from the station master at Cadapuda nearby.  An impressive place.  Pat poked his nose into a shaft on the side of the path and a dropped stone indicated possibly 80 ft.  No tackle though?  There is also a cave entrance actually within the tunnel itself independent of the main Ipswich cave.  Our lady guide was Icella Thompson and she obviously knows the area well. She lives on the outskirts of the village right by the track where it leads onto the road junction with the village of Ginger Hill.  Ask and most people will know her.  A useful contact.

More Waffle

a)       Pat invented some new cocktails: 'Bovril Driller', 'Shirt Lifter' and 'Uphill Gardener'

b)       Take care not to succumb to the three G's  - ganga, grog and guano.

c)       The 'restaurant' at our hotel was called "The Seething Cauldron". All it seethed was Americans and cockroaches.

d)       Instant hair dryer - just stick your head out the car window.

e)       For a while we saw loads of ferrets leaping across the road in front of us.  Now Pat likes ferrets and was thus very disappointed when they turned out to be mongooses (or mongeese).  There are two types of snake; both very shy and you are very unlucky to come across them. So they say.  There's also an evil snake thing in the sea which bathers ran away from but in fact it's only a snake eel; blissfully happy, friendly, non-toxic and turns belly-up for a tickle when encountered.  Jamaica has no known sea snakes.

f)        We saw some limbo - a slip of a girl getting under 6".  A hell of a squeeze.  We'll recruit her for the next caving expedition.

g)       Bars had interesting names; one with a corrugated iron roof called 'Silver Thatch', another called 'The Hunters Bar' and another 'No Problem Cafe'.

h)       If you go to Negril on the west coast where we were, the best taxi chap is Leroy.  Ask anyone for him honest and reliable.  He has a brown car and is usually parked outside the Negril Beach Club.

Local Waffle

Whoever named many Jamaican villages was a real joker and obviously quite a lad.  What warped mind dreams up "Barbeque Bottom", "Good Design", "Maggotty", an area called "The district of Look Behind", "Sherwood Content", "Quick Step", "Big Bottom", "Gutters", "Alligator Pond" and "Wait a bit"?

Perhaps the most fascinating speleological/geological and hydrological bit we saw was the Roaring River area at Petersfield, not far from the largish town of Savanna-la-Mar on the south western coast.  To begin with, a stonking 8 ft. wide river, 2 ft. deep issues straight out of the side/base of a cockpit cone.  Too powerful a current to dive in against but a days digging could reap dividends.  The river then flows down a valley for ½ a mile until it widens into an area that can only be called an oasis - palms, trees, ferns etc.  Quite magnificent.  In the widened section, a hole in the river bed 10ft.       across literally churns with up-flowing water - obviously some sort of underground sump/passage.  Again too powerful to dive in against.  Immediately adjacent to this area, but apparently independent from, is a so-say 6 mile cave system which we had a quick shifty round.  Hydrologically and geologically we couldn't work the place out but then these subjects have never been our strong point.  Some local kids were messing around in the entrance chambers with illumination a bit like Franklyn's in Windsor Cave but these were milk bottles filled with kerosene, lit and held high to decimate the bats.  A Molotov cocktail if ever I saw one.  We again retreated.  An outstanding area though.

Little has been done in the cockpit except a good six week effort by Liverpool University speleos in 1977, based at Troy on the south eastern edge.  Their one main find was Still Waters Cave at 11,800 ft. mapped length. We feel the area is still wide open but would need 15 people minimum to cover the terrain.  Locals say lots of "scientists" have been over the years but not many speleos it seems.

Runaway Bay and Arawak caves, between Ocho Hios and Montego Bay on the northern coast were real collector’s pieces.  Not too far above sea level, they were of magnificent white limestone. Amazing passage configurations, possibly sea eroded at some time.  Runaway Bay Cave stretches inland for some distance, some say 14 miles but as usual we've learnt to take these distances with salt.  A feature is the profusion of tree roots which descend as far as 100 ft. underground like tentacles searching for moisture.  Quite bizarre.  Some as thick as your leg.

Arawak Cave was little more than a large single chamber, possibly sea eroded. The rastaman who lives in a hut outside and who is trying to make it into a show cave, has a party trick of leaping off a ledge 40 ft. up on some aerial roots which dingle-dangle to the floor. We found the large, resident white snowy owl more interesting.

The final gem we unearthed was, for want of a better word, a "blue hole" in the back garden of Hedonism II Hotel at Negril.  At first sight it's just a lily pond but on closer examination it has a limestone rim.  It's only 50-60 metres in from the shoreline.  We had minimal cave diving gear so Pat made a spectacle of himself by donning two 80 cu. ft bottles, borrowed hand torches and a water ski tow rope for a line.  He parted the lily's and descended into the crab-infested murk.  At 10 metres he returned when silt from the underside of the lily's blotted out visibility.  Worth another good look with proper gear.

There's a box file in the library containing all notes maps and other info we possessed.

References:

a)       Karst Geomorphology by Jennings Jamaica Underground by Fincham

b)       LUSS expedition report by McFarlane

c)       Trebor July 1989