Jamaican Caving Notes
Belmont and Drip Cave
June 2, 2006
Team: RS Stewart, J Pauel, A Richards.
Notes: RS Stewart
This would be my third visit to Belmont and Drip Cave (they are in fact one cave with two entrances). Like the others, this one would be devoted to a search for specimens of an undescribed species of the Genus Nelipophygus, but once again, the visit would prove to be fruitless. However, it did enable us to carry out monitoring of the cave (still P. americana free), and supply some practice in caving to two new members, Jan Pauel, and Andrea Richards.
The day before had been spent by Elizabeth and I in an initial bit of recon at Kew Park, in the northeast of Westmoreland. This visit was courtesy of Andrew Ross having pointed us toward Dr Gina Green, whose family owns a large estate with several caves and shafts that are either poorly described (One Day Cave), or not listed. The morning had begun in Maggotty, where we had spent the night at the Apple "something" guesthouse, and then after a very successful stop at Kew Park, we had carried on toward Maroon Town, along unfamiliar minor roads, with Elizabeth serving as a very effective navigator, to then pass down to Springvale, and across to Coxheath, to finally reach Miss Lilly's. This was where we would link with Jan and Andrea, who had made the drive across from Kingston in the afternoon.
I hadn't met Jan or Andrea before. They had been independently apprised of the expedition by Ivor Conolley several weeks prior, and this would be their first time with the JCO. Fortunately, timing had worked out such that Jan could give Andrea a lift from Kingston to Windsor on the Thursday, to put them in place for an early morning departure the next day to Belmont/Drip. I had just spent four days either caving or in transit (this included over one complete loop around the Cockpit Country, driving on winding roads most of the time), and was working with a real sleep deficit, so I tried to remind myself to appear half-ass serious, and coherent, for our first meeting (first impressions, etc). Accordingly, I had limited myself to two cold Red Stripes on the journey past Springvale (these bought in Liberty), and when Elizabeth and I had completed the final leg of our journey across the backroads from Friendship to Sherwood Content, I was in about as presentable a state as can normally be expected from the likes of me.
Upon finally reaching Miss Lilly's, we found Jan and Andrea already there, and introductions were soon made. Jan immediately struck me as an easy-going type, and the sort that wouldn't complain about less than perfect conditions in the field. This was good, because in his emails he had shown great enthusiasm for joining our ragged crew, and had already supplied valuable assistance on prep work; I was hopeful that this would continue once we were actually at things. Caving in Ja is often many hours of frustration, to accomplish a few hours of brilliant work, and the only ones who stick at it are those who won't become thoroughly discouraged after a few, successive, bad days. Jan seemed to have the right attitude, and even better, he liked to quaff a few beer at the end of the day.
A very pleasant introductory session ensued, but despite the temptation to carry this on over a few more Red Stripes, while enjoying the good company, we limited our time at Miss Lilly's. We needed to get an early start the next day, and with this in mind, we headed down the road to The Last Resort, in Windsor, by 9:30 PM or so (probably a little later than that, and my apologies to Eliz and Andrea who might have wanted to leave somewhat earlier). Once there, beds were arranged, and after a short while of chatting on the porch, we all crawled off to bed.
We hit the road fairly early the next morning (about 8:30). Elizabeth would be dropped off in Stewart Town, to then wend her way via route taxi back to Castleton, in St Mary, and for the rest of us, after Belmont/Drip, it would be on to Ewarton to be in place for St Clair, the next day. The earlier we set out, the better (despite my continuing need for more sleep). By about 10:00 AM, we had deposited Elizabeth at the Stewart Town square (not leaving until we knew she could get a route-taxi onwards), and the rest of us were southbound, toward Endeavour and the location of the day's target.
I didn't immediately spot the lane that leads toward Belmont/Drip when we reached the area, and I had to run the GPS to sort things out, using my previous, quite-good position. This done, we were soon on the right track, and able to drive most of the way, as we were collectively in two 4x4's. As usual, when we reached the start of the hike to the cave, a few farmers were out on the land. After spending a few minutes chatting, and explaining what we were up to, we made the short trek to the cliff-face under which is the entrance to Drip Cave.
Before I continue with the account of our visit to the cave, I will give a short description of the layout (with the assistance of a scan from Dr Alan Fincham's work, "Jamaica Underground", which presents a map of the cave):
First, there is only one cave, with two entrances. Both are in an embayment (this term not used in the coastal sense) in a northwest facing cliff of about 15m height. This cliff is on the side of a Cockpit Country type hill that is about 400m across. To the east-southeast, 800m away, is the great pit of Dunn's Hole Cave. In this direction, the hill in which Belmont/Drip is located first rises, then falls again, to give way to a low saddle, after 400m, with another hill rising soon after to loom over Dunn's Hole on the northwest side.
The semi-circular cliff/boulders that holds the Belmont/Drip entrances is about 50m across. At the base of the cliff, to the right, above a scramble of boulders and scrub, an entrance about 4m wide and 3m high leads into a cylindrical chamber that cuts up into the hill above, creating a marvelous, large lighthole. This is the Drip Cave entrance. Here, it is necessary to tie a rope for a short descent of about 6m to a passage that continues past the lighthole chamber. After another apx 40m, a second short descending vertical of about 7m is met. Now, a moderate-sized passage (~15m wide by high) is reached that extends south for about 150m until a scramble up in a circular pit is encountered. This is the connection with the Belmont Cave part of things. From here, a higher-level passage, somewhat larger, runs back to the north, slightly to the east of the lower level, until the hillside is again reached at the Belmont entrance. This entrance is somewhat higher than Drip, to the left (east) as one looks at the cliff from the farmland to the northwest, and about 40m to the northeast of the Drip entrance (the scale seems to be a bit off on the McGrath map plan and elevation). The Belmont entrance is the one that most people enter, as there is no vertical work involved, and is the one that we had used on our previous two visits.
Today, having never done the route from Drip to Belmont, it was our plan to enter the Drip entrance and then make our way through until we hit familiar ground. Both previous visits, we had been stymied on this by lack of enough rope (the first visit, we had none at all, and the second visit, only enough to get past the first pitch). To handle this, we brought two ropes this time, one being Guy's 100m x 10mm line, and the other my orange 60m x 11mm. As it turned out, the first rope, the 100m, was long enough to extend all the way to the bottom of the second pitch, and the 60mm just came along for the ride.
A very large, smooth column is conveniently located a couple of metres inside the Drip entrance, and this is what we used for our anchor. Once the 100m line was sorted out, tied, and tossed into the pit, I gave a very basic lesson to Jan and Andrea in how to rappel. They understood quickly, and Jan was soon heading down the drop, to be followed shortly after by Andrea. I would go last so that I could check both of them prior to their descent, and chant the regular SRT instructor's mantra, "remember the braking hand, remember the braking hand", as they went down. They both did splendidly, and as soon as I heard the second "Off-rope!" shouted from below, I got on rappel and slid in to join them.
At the base of the second pitch, we swung right, to take us in the direction of the Belmont link. I wanted to first find the connection, and then devote the rest of the time to looking for the Nelipophygus sp. Before too long, we hit a scrambly ascent up a slope of dry, loose soils, and very rotten rock. It wasn't that high, or steep, but once I was toward the top of it, it began to look very dodgy. I remembered Guy's past admonitions to me, that I cave like a climber, avoiding use of my knees to move up, and that "you must use your entire body when caving!", so I decided to slide up it on my belly, thereby getting maximum contact. This worked, but I then watched Jan nonchalantly step up to easily hit the top in a few moves. What made things more ridiculous was that once at the top, I realized we had just climbed out of the circular pit at the end of Belmont Cave, and that I had done this twice before exactly the same way that Jan just had. Those times, I had seen it first from the top, and had just carefully stepped down, and then back up on the way out. At any rate, we had made the connection, and now I wanted to backtrack to the base of the second pitch, at Drip, to have things set in my mind.
I had not expected to come out at this point, as Guy and Adam had pushed the route in Jan 2005, while I had been searching for cave critters in the Belmont section, and had not found the Drip entrance. Although I hadn't taken a close look behind us at the base of the second pitch, it seemed to me that there should be light making its way in to reveal it. It all seemed somewhat confusing. A return to the rope, and then a slow return to where we were, seemed the best order of business. Accordingly, after having a look around in the upper level to establish things, we headed back down the way we had come.
While Andrea awaited us, Jan and I backtracked. It wasn't long until Jan spotted the rope hanging into the side of the passage, toward the end, as I walked past it further to the far side (he had a 1W LED headlamp also, with a tight beam). Ahead, the passage continued for a short distance before coming to a dead-end. At the point where the rope hung down, there was nothing obvious to indicate a route up to an entrance. We could see no light whatsoever. Both Jan and I turned off our lights, and at first still saw nothing, but after some tens of seconds, we both saw the faint gleam of light bouncing in from the Drip entrance, high in the top of the passage on that side. Unless all headlamps are turned off, the dim light is indiscernible. It triggered thoughts of how many other unseen passages have lurked in caves that we've thought we know well. Here, the illumination will reveal it if one happens to turn off all lights, but in other caves, far from entrances, upper level junctions could be just as easily missed. Perhaps during the kind of intense visit that produces a map survey, it would be seen, but in a casual visit... even Guy and Adam, two highly-experienced cavers, had missed it. Myself and Jan - if it hadn't been for the rope, and us having come down that way, we wouldn't have spotted it.
Now, if I had simply spent more time looking at the map from JU (included with these notes) before I had gone into the cave in the first place, it would have all been obvious as I made my way through the system. However, it had always been an "easy" cave for us, dropped into an expedition schedule of much more serious targets whenever circumstance allowed. Plain and simple, I never got around to looking closely at the map beforehand. I hadn't even bothered to scan and print it, to bring along in a ziplock. To a certain extent, I find it a disturbing indication of incompetence on my part, but at the same time, having explored and learned the cave without much use of the map, it made it seem much more rewarding when the layout was finally imprinted in my mind. Studying the McGrath survey afterwards has helped to fine-tune it, but I believe that the memory of the layout will be more deeply ingrained from having learned it from the inside out.
Our return journey from the bottom of the Drip entrance pitches went slowly, with us spending much time looking into what could be found living here. Even though the exploration had been fun, the biology of the cave was what had prompted the visit.
Belmont/Drip Cave is one of the relatively rare caves in Jamaica that has suitable conditions for cave-adapted invertebrates, and no invasive American roaches.
A mixed species batroost supplies a steady input of nutrients, with guano mining and associated disturbance occasional, but infrequent. Inquiries in the vicinity of the cave, supported by observation, suggests that most of the crops grown in the local area are entirely of a legal nature, and done on a large enough scale that commercial fertilizers are necessary. The usual activity that produces small-scale guano extraction, that is, growing small plots of Ganja, does not appear to be a factor here. In fact, chatting with the local (hard-working) farmers indicated that none of them had ever been in the cave, or had any desire to do so. That said, there is evidence of guano mining, in the form of an old shovel, bottle-torches, several small dug pits in the floor, and various other indicators. But it appears that these are not recent, and activity is not ongoing at this time. This, of course, could change. We have observed a correlation between incidence of roast infestation and the historical time when mining was carried out - i.e. the more current the mining, the more likely that roaches have been introduced (the species Periplaneta americana seems to be increasing its numbers in Jamaica as time passes). A resumption of regular visits for guano extraction could quickly, and permanently, introduce invasive roaches, which would subsequently eat every other invertebrate in the cave out of house and home.
Our main concern regarding the potential for the introduction of the American roach, as described above, is that this is one of the sites where Dr Stewart Peck found, but did not describe, an entirely different sort of roach, Nelipophygus sp. This critter is a troglobite, with lack of pigmentation, reduced or absent eyes (there may be two species), and all the other evolutionary changes that happened since its distant ancestors decided to go underground. Once again, this visit, we did not find it, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Dr Peck "baited", with bits of fruit, etc. We have done this only once, in 2005, but only had about an hour to spare to see if anything showed up. However, we have spent much more time than that now, during the three visits, looking into nooks and crannies in search of an odd looking roach, with no luck yet. However, during the course of this, we have spotted a good variety of other cave-adapted invertebrates, including large numbers of several species of spiders (including a Gaucelmus), and various Diptera. There are sections with deep fluffy guano deposits, and these should hold a good diversity of microinvertebrates. In short, even if our undescribed roach cannot be found, this is an important cave all the same, and in need of protection.
As of June 2, 2006, this cave remains in a biologically healthy state (this in terms of original fauna, and including the batroost). Although bat numbers are not great here (in the 500-5000 range), available roosting space is being used to some degree throughout much of the cave. We have seen no appreciable change in invertebrate numbers and diversity since our first visit in Jan/05. Because of the continuing "near-pristine" state, we regard this as a good candidate site for long-term monitoring.
We ended the visit by exiting from the Belmont entrance (where we had a giant sloping, pile of yamsticks to get past on the hill outside), and then after I took a few minutes to pop back up to the Drip entrance to retrieve the rope, we were done.
On our hike out from the cave, we stopped for some minutes (despite a rain that fell upon us as we did this) at the small shelter where the farmers get out of the wet, and as during the other times, tried to explain how important it was to keep this cave "kriss" in ways they would understand. Specifically, I asked that if they knew anyone who was going in to take out "Ratbat dung", that they shake out their fertilizer bags thoroughly before they go in and look for roaches. I tried to get this across several ways, and perhaps they will remember it and pass it on. Something as simple as that, if dutifully done, could keep the invasives out of the cave.
With this visit now complete, we climbed into our two vehicles (my rental Grand Vitara, and Jan's Mitsubushi bushmobile), and began a long drive to Ewarton, and Pollyground, where we spend the night at Marie's. This would have us in place for the next day when we would tackle St Clair Cave.
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