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MAY 10, 2003

BARROW'S CAVE


Field notes: I. C. CONOLLEY

Cavers: R. S. Stewart, I. C. Conolley, M. Taylor

May 10th and 11th, Saturday and Sunday I am caving with Stefan again. Malibu, Stefan and Ivor - the intrepid crew. Over by the Victors caves again but this time further into the bush and off his property and onto the Barrow property and into the Barrow sinkhole.

It is a frightful hole we are told. It has no bottom. You throw a stone down there and the stone keeps travelling until you donít hear it anymore. Yes, so far away that the sound of it moving through the air becomes inaudible.

Yes, Stef has heard this before. And so have I. The legendary bottomless caves that turn out to be a scramble down a steep ravine. So with a good taste of skepticism we approach this "bottomless pit". The guide, Craig Wilkins, a man possibly in his forties, is hesitant and then downright adamant he will not take us there. It is too dangerous. A young man, Franklyn Pinnock, from the area is hanging around. He is waiting to make the trip too. He wants to see it. He knows the bush and has heard of it but had never gone there. I am busy trying to convince Craig to take us as arranged. He has a sort of sparkle in the eye that we in Jamaica would define as jinnal (playing smart). His friend says to me, "Im wi go, man". But I sense in him a genuine worry. He is not asking for more money. He eventually gets up. He looks toward the young man on the scene and then to us. "Me wi take you there but me not staying." Then he adds, looking at the young man, "You can carry them back." He agrees. He is glad to be included officially.

We start the hike. We have been on this track before when going to Rotten Goat Cave, one of the Victor Caves. Instead of following the track straight, however, we turn left up into bushes, supposedly a track, but by no means well worn. About a half an hour later we are at the mouth of the sink hole or cave, if you will. It seems to have potential but we need to look into it and walking to the observation point is not so safe. Stef is already securing the rope and he uses it to get a peep. Looks good. Very deep. We secured the two hundred foot rope. Now we tie on another 100 feet just to be sure and put a knot at the end. We have not seen the bottom. We gear up. Stef is ready first. Going down. In no time he is on rope and after warning the young man to keep away from the mouth of the hole lest he steps on rocks that slide into the hole, he slithers into the darkness of the pit. The young man, he later told us, was looking at him literally open-mouthed and in absolute astonishment. I am geared up by now and ready to go.

"Off rope." I hear the shout from the depths. Yes. Judging from the time it took him to go down there is depth. He provides some information from the bottom. It is less the two hundred feet. The first length of rope was good enough.

Okay, I think, I donít have to exercise my newly-learned expertise in moving around a knot on the rope during descent. I am getting the rope into the figure-eight... all thumbs for some reason... Malibu helps. Still not too right. Pull it and go again. Okay now. Whatís wrong? I am trying to get it so that when descending I am using my right hand as the brake hand so the rope falling away into the hole must be on the right of the figure-eight. So, ready to go. Lights on and I fall away into the airy depths.

Ha, there is Stef, like an ant at the bottom of the hole. Canít quite see what he is doing. Yes, itís a long way down. The first ten feet is using the feet and pushing from the side and descending; then I am hanging free. Now you descend as fast as you please. One caution. The faster you go, the hotter the figure-eight descender becomes. So not too fast to damage the rope and possibly even get burnt. I look around as I go. The sides are only mildly pitted but also contain gaping holes like very irregularly shaped chunks of rock on the sides and top over time broke and fell leaving huge gaps and open cracks, small fissures in the wall. I periodically look down. Yes, Stef is getting bigger. By now he has moved across. It seemed to me "across" from the distance. I was soon to realise he had gone further down.

I am there. "Off rope!" Stef later estimated this at 120 feet.

Now I see the formations. It is a dry cave yet the formations resemble that of a wet cave with its growing limestone, stalagmites, standing out of the ground in various and attractive shapes; but there is no evident commensurate stalactites stretching down to reach, to touch, to join these to form staunch columns. There is some calcite sparkling in the calcium carbonate, the limestone, of the Cockpit caves.

I am now scrambling further down and am amazed to see that the hole continues. I proceed further down. The formations now give way to loose rock and dirt. No rope is necessary to descend this, just caution so as not to dislodge rocks on the person below. Whatís that dark spot in the distance at the bottom of the hole? Certainly not water? My curiosity is peaked.

I am there. Itís guano. A very small deposit. But no bats. Maybe they only use this place periodically.

Way down here, where there is some soil, the typical "front of interior of cave" vegetation is found. Not sure what these plants are. But the seeds found their way down here and have sprouted. Theirs will be a short life as limited sunlight and possibly inadequate moisture will prevent their growth to mature trees. But now I understand why the people in the area thought the cave bottomless. If you throw something in a pit, you hear its whizzing until it hits something.... you hear it hit and the whizzing stops. That is the bottom. If you throw a rock in, it whizzes, it hits, then whizzes again hits, then whizzes again and that whizzing gradually disappears with no final thump what are you to conclude? The rock did not hit the bottom. Ergo, no bottom. No, no, no. In this case it did hit the bottom but the bottom was soft dirt and was so far from the top, and indirect as well -not straight up - that the sound did not travel far enough up for you to hear it.

We estimated that the total depth was 200 feet. This was the deepest I had plumbed. We took photographs.

I did what I always love to do when way down so far. I looked up at the entrance. It is a beautiful sight. There is the little aperture up there surrounded by shrubbery with an inset of blue sky. It evokes a smile.

Time to go back up. I am first on rope and it is slow going. I should have tied a stone at the end of the rope to prevent it from following me up as I climbed. Now I had to use extra time and energy to keep pulling the rope down as I moved up. not a difficult exercise, only time consuming. Now the transition from free movement onto the wall. Never liked this part. Swing away from the wall, pull up the feet into the crouching position, push up the ascender, stand up. Okay on the wall now. Use the knees to push away from the wall. Okay ascender up and the routine continued until I am totally on the wall of the hole. Easy going again... over the ledge and onto terra firma. There is Malibu and Pinnock. I get off rope and holler to Stef "Off rope". I get out of my gear. Some light conversation and in no time I see the man appearing from the depths. Is he running his gear on electric? Yes, Stef is up and modest in his record speed. He is pleased with the size of the cave. It was really worthwhile, he says.

Rain prefaced our journey to the cave but had stopped by the time we got there. Now as we make our way back it starts again. A really good shower. I use rubber rather than leather boots and they are filling up with water. Okay. Some shelter before we move on.

This could have been enough caving for the day. But there were caves on the other side of the road, not much of a hike in, which we had been told about months before but just never had to time to investigate. Stef figured we could look into these.

Now the men around, including Craig Wilkins, who had gone back home and peeped out on our return in the rain, suddenly regarded us with new-found respect. We had in fact gone into the bowels of that hellish hole. Perhaps, they could be less hesitant to take us to other equally dangerous places. So now, there was Craig, his brother, Cecil, Franklyn Pinnock, and Victor himself who had been out and had now returned. There was chat that he left because he did not want to be the one to take us up there. Well, they now seem to figure we have undergone the baptism so they need not hesitate in the future. We may not be so stupid after all.

(Continue to Fitzie 1, 2, 3)
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