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[An edited version of the following article by Alex Padalka, titled "Jamaica's Cockpit Country", can be found at Caribbean Travel and Life. We present the full version here as a trip report for Devil's Staircase.]

Devil's Staircase
April 1, 2009
Team: A Padalka, RS Stewart, M Taylor.
Notes: Alex Padalka

            Standing on the edge of a 15-foot-wide hole in the ground and not seeing its bottom, Stefan Stewart examines the surrounding trees for possible anchor points for our rope as Martel “Malibu” Taylor lights a small fire to ward of mosquitoes. The Devil’s Staircase, as this cave is known, was first catalogued by one FC Nicholas:


            I directed my guide to drop a boulder over the side, and noted seven seconds before the crash came, indicating a fall of about 800 feet, while the fragments could be heard for five seconds more dashing against the rocks, and the sounds seemed to die away in the depths of the earth.

            (from Alan G. Fincham’s Jamaica Underground)


It has not been visited in almost three decades.


            Here in Cockpit Country, in northwestern Jamaica, most of the caves have not even been found: the 500-square-mile area that unmistakably resembles an egg crate when seen from the air, with steep hillocks covered in vegetation split up by a maze of narrow ravines, remains perhaps the least explored corner in all of the Caribbean. The karst topography of Cockpit Country, formed by hundreds of thousands of years of both above-ground and subterranean limestone erosion, creates a landscape of no discernible summits for orienteering, few straight lines, and a bottom full of hidden caves and the ever-growing sinkholes: as the water eats away at the roof of these underground chambers, what remains of seemingly solid ground is often a cover of a fraction of an inch ready to collapse under a careless step.


            The flora, which include both endemic and invasive species and aided by abundant annual rainfall—although none of it stays aboveground, requiring us to bring gallons of water several miles into the bush—finish the job of shrouding Cockpit Country from civilization. Just to get to the Devil’s Staircase, Stewart and I spend a full day wielding two-and-a-half-foot-long cutlasses clearing one of the “busiest” trails in the region, which connects the towns of Windsor and Troy, to this day used by villagers visiting family, and originally constructed by the British in the 18th century wide and flat enough to accommodate small artillery. The jungle just eats it up—and that’s just the well-known trail, one of two that transect Cockpit Country north to south. There are countless other routes used by farmers escaping taxation, illegal loggers in search of the disappearing broadleaf and cotton trees, yam stick and wicker vine collectors, and, of course, marijuana growers. There are also many places within the area that are left intentionally unmarked: Miss Lilly Bolt, proprietor of a small bed & breakfast and bar in nearby Coxheath, asks us if we have come across “where the butterflies are.” Intrigued, I ask her where that is. “It’s a hidden secret,” she says, smiling, after a meaningful but silent exchange with another bar patron. A team of biologists discovered it, showed it to Bolt, and asked her to keep quiet to preserve it.


            This sense of unadulterated discovery and adventure seems to engulf Stewart. A lanky Ontarian who appears to derive nourishment solely from Canadian cigarettes, canned sardines and the occasional Red Stripe, the 56-year-old Stewart resembles a nine-year-old boy, cutlass always by his side, shoulders slightly stooped, eyes often open dangerously wide, doing everything but pricking his ears to listen to the sound of the bush while plotting GPS waypoints into his Garmin handheld. He is on week three of an expedition that had him slashing through shrubbery, descending hundreds of feet into caves never visited before, swimming through underground rivers, and frequently crawling through guano—bat feces for the layman, or “rat bat dung” in Jamaican patois—in search of connections and networks of subterranean rivers, with a team of Jamaican and foreign volunteers known as the Jamaican Caves Organization.


            Founded by Stewart in 2002 with financial support from the U.S. Nature Conservancy, the speleological research group’s mission is the the study and protection of Jamaica’s caves, the preservation of which is critical to the entire island: aside from the paleoclimatic record found in guano and the numerous endemic invertebrates that inhabit caves, 50 to 60 % of the island’s potable water comes from Cockpit Country, and the caves’ bats are both pollinators and mosquito hunters.


            “We are the only guardians of Jamaica’s caves,” he declares. And while he welcomes cave tourism, he is adamant that certain systems be completely off-limits due to their sensitive nature, to a point that the JCO’s east-west transect between the well-known Troy and Quick Step trails, which the group is establishing to reach more remote caves, will be camouflaged after they’re done.


            Caves are endangered not just by big foreign industry—currently, the biggest threat is bauxite mining—but by townspeople unaware about the connection between throwing garbage inside a hole and drinking water that comes out downhill, or the devastation wreaked on the entire ecosystem by collecting guano, which is used for fertilizer but is also home to species that form the base of the entire food pyramid of the cave world. Stewart wants to bring attention to these issues, although the spirit of discovery is a large part of his fascination as well.


            It's hard to be an explorer these days, so it's nice to be able to explore something that no one has been to before,” he explains. “But there's also the discovery and exploration of the biota and what the water is doing, rather than just being the first person to travel through it and have a look at it—it's also discovering what's living in the caves.

            “It's a three-dimensional environment—rather than walking on horizontal surface, there's uphill and downhill in caves: you go along a bit, you're winding down, there's spiral-like passages, you get to do all this three-dimensional mapping and mind where you are—it's a very unique thing compared to the outside world.”


            There are thousands of caves on the island; Stewart, who first came to Jamaica as a climber in 1987, has been in over 250 of them, around 50 of which were first recorded descents, including one that led to the discovery of the 194-meter Smokey Hole Cave, the deepest found on the island, and several sites with traces of the ancient Taďno peoples, the original settlers of the Caribbean that arrived by canoe from South American and were wiped out by the 19th century by disease brought by the colonizers. He is famous and well-liked: everyone we meet in Windsor and nearby Sherwood and many people as far southwest as Accompong greet Stewart by name—but Cockpit Country was not always this hospitable to white men. Place names such as the District of Look Behind and Me No Sen Yu No Come are testament to its mysterious, and rebellious, past, all tied to the only people able to defy the British onslaught into the Western Hemisphere: the Maroons.


            The word Maroon is a derivative of Cimaroon, from the old Spanish cima, for mountaintop, and marrano, for hog, and originally referred to runaway pigs introduced by the Spanish to the West Indies, according to The Cimaroons, a 1978 book by Robert Leeson.[1] Eventually, the term came to describe anything gone wild—and, namely, runaway slaves who managed to escape the plantations, retreat to remote hills, and start self-sustaining societies in many colonized territories from Suriname to South Carolina, many of which continue to exist to this day.


            In Jamaica, the first Maroons were slaves released by the Spanish settlers fleeing the British invasion of the island in 1655. They were trained for warfare by the retreating Spanish, but also adopted key elements of the guerrilla tactics of their homeland, including ambush, head-to-toe camouflage, and coded long-distance communication using the abeng, a bugle made from cow horn. Some Maroon towns were destroyed, some were brought in to fight other Maroons, but in 1690 the Leeward Maroons leader Cudjoe brought several settlements together for an organized assault on the British that came to be know as the First Maroon War. He was so successful that in 1739 the British signed a peace treaty, granting the Maroons 1,500 acres of land and autonomy from the colonial government. Cudjoe became leader of present-day Trelawny, his brothers taking over other settlements, including Accompong, where on Jan. 6, Cudjoe’s birthday, thousands of Maroons from across the globe gather to celebrate their freedom.


            “We were free a hundred years before emancipation,” proudly points out Sydney Peddie, Accompong’s colonel elected by the entire town and in control of government funds. “All the Maroons come to celebrate with us.”


            The Second Maroon War, started in 1795 by the Trelawny Maroons, was not such a success: faced with a highly trained British force outnumbering them five-to-one, pursued by fierce dogs trained in Cuba to hunt runaway slaves, and, at times, by the Accompong Maroons that not want to lose their hard-won freedom, the Trelawny Maroons were forced into a peace treaty that was subsequently broken. The rebels were shipped to the cold coast of Halifax in Nova Scotia, and eventually moved to Sierra Leone.


            But the Maroons of Accompong remain independent of government meddling. To this day, Cockpit Country is divided into Maroon land and a forest reserve—although many Maroons think that even the reserve part is their territory. Accompong residents pay no taxes or fees on land (which passes on within families and is not allowed to be sold to foreigners). There is no police station—the “babylon,” as the police and outside government in general are called here, must be invited, just as under Cudjoe’s treaty the British colonial government interfered only in crimes that carried a capital punishment.


            The Maroons have kept their self-sustaining habits as well: everyone in Cockpit Country grows at least some of their food and this mentality extends even to parts of the area where there is little Maroon heritage left, in stark difference to the rest of the island. And they retain many of their centuries-old traditions: while the goat-skin square goombay drums sold as souvenirs are obviously fakes, a local carpenter makes real ones on request for ceremonies, and the abeng lives on as a communication tool in the bush—although instead of a cow horn, it is now usually a glass bottle, skillfully manipulated to resonate across miles of terrain.


            Accompong Maroons are able to sustain their lifestyle due to an unfortunate population control mechanism: due to limited employment, many young people leave for Kingston or MoBay or “foreign” (abroad). While many come back—Colonel Peddie spent 33 years in England—most stay away, keeping the population at around 700 residents, with plenty of farm land for everyone deciding to call Accompong their home. But the few that do come back bring stories of crime and famine from the cities, and the current residents are keenly aware of their privileged status in a country where over 1,600 murders occurred in 2008. This realization, combined with a desire to keep the money in the community instead of sending it to international hotel chains that dominate Montego Bay, has led them to be particularly careful about the type of tourism they want in their home, and has led the town’s elder’s to embrace community-based, culturally-sensitive tourism, and oppose bauxite mining despite large monetary offers.


            Our land carries value, from generation after generation,” explains Sydney Peddie’s right-hand man Melville Currie. “We will not sacrifice the future of our children. Our lands have no price.”


            Sink hole and getting lost dangers aside,  Cockpit Country is a surprisingly benign jungle: there is not one poisonous species of insects or snakes, the mosquitoes are surprisingly small, in large part thanks to the bats, and the “red-back” ticks that populate areas around pastures are easy to pick out and don’t carry lime disease, although, unfortunately, they tend to steer for the crotch area. There’s the silver-backs, another insect that is easily removed, and a nettle plant whose sting marks, if scratched, can spread in a poison ivy-like rash. There are small critters, but the days when wild pigs roamed the territory seem to have gone, leaving no animals large enough to be a threat to humans.


            Other than that, Cockpit Country is mostly a plethora of tasty things to eat (aside from the popular breakfast fruit ackee, which is poisonous until ripe): come June, the mango season starts, with up to 25 different varieties, by some estimates, that often grow right along the trails and are yours for the picking. In addition, there’s wild yams, oranges, bananas, coconuts, and Jamaican apples. Wild sugar cane makes for a sweet snack. On the farms along the roads you could purchase pineapple, potatoes, plantains, breadfruit, dasheen (a potato-like root that is more woodsy tasting), cassava (yucca), callaloo (a spinach-like leafy vegetable), bok choy, Scotch Bonnet Peppers, and the very rare and perfectly named custard apple. It’s a cook’s paradise, particularly considering the abundance of pimento (allspice) and annatto, a tumeric-like seed. Some things remain to be tried: the large snails covering the trails up and down Cockpit Country look surprisingly like escargots, but Jamaicans have an aversion to all things crawly and so far no one knows if they’re a gourmand’s treat. Most people in Cockpit Country, however, are well versed in the medicinal properties of roots, vines, and herbs.


            I strap into a harness, turn on the headlamp on my helmet, and start the descent. About 30 feet down, I accidentally bang against a stalactite formation; it responds with a metallic ring. I tap a smaller stalactite next to it and the pitch is slightly higher. Carefully, I swipe a few of them in one go and make cave music. Unfortunately, they are fragile structures, but the idea of a cave as an orchestra doesn’t leave me as I lose the wall after an overhanging section of stone, and continue down the rope, slowly twirling in mid-air as the lighted hole above me gets smaller and smaller. I seem to be the only living thing here—no bats, no American cockroaches introduced to the island by the settlers, no feral cats known to inhabit caves and hunt—until I hear the mild croaking of a small frog and wonder how it plans to get out.


            At the bottom, about 150 feet below surface, is another chamber leading down, directly next to the ground of the main one. Next to it is a small crawl-hole to yet another pit—I peer in but can’t see the bottom. Everywhere I turn my lamp is dust—some of it from the rope that’s had two weeks of extensive, wet use, some of it falling off the walls that I brushed against, and all of it covering my exposed skin with a layer of red grime and shutting down my camera after only two shots. It’s hot, completely quiet, the sounds from Malibu and Stefan blending in with the chirping of birds, and aside from my amphibian buddy I am utterly alone. I pause my breathing for a few seconds to listen to the silence, and get back on the rope to climb back up. I leave the floor of the cave as explorer, not visitor.


[1]     Incidentally, the buccaneers, before they became known for piracy, were freelance “cow-killers” that hunted runaway cattle and hogs using muskets known as “buccaneering-pieces,” according to Clinton S. Black’s Jamaican school textbook A New History of Jamaica.