|Quickstep - Journey of Love|
By Ivor C. Conolley
We took the short cut and in Jamaica there is a saying, ĒShort cut draw blood.Ē We were to prove the efficacy of this proverb as we traversed the supposed short distance to the other side of the Cockpit on our caving expedition.|
We journeyed from Windsor, a district located on the northern side of the Cockpit Country of Jamaica. The Cockpit is riddled with caves and sinkholes - one of its many unique features. And we wanted to get to Quickstep, shown on the map as only a few miles journey southwest of us, but embedded deeper into the Cockpit Mountains than we were and with a higher topography. To get to Quickstep by road we had to travel around the Cockpit. And if we wanted to use the better roads we would, as far as distance goes travel at least twice as far. We opted to hug the Cockpit thereby using the lesser quality roads but in the process clocking less mileage.
We left Windsor on Thursday morning, November 21, 2002. We had to gas up. This took us to the parish capital, Falmouth, forty minutes away, yet a mere 12 miles distance. Here beganeth the episode. It was a bright morning. Perhaps the unpredictable, or should I say predictably wet, Cockpit weather would give us a break and we would enjoy a dry time of it.
There was Stefan, head honcho, and his sidekick Malibu, Ivor, a recently acquired interested party loving caves and learning the ropes (literally and figuratively) from Stefan, and Thumpa another interested party from the area. With this motley crew we headed out for adventure in Quickstep. Our mission, as we had decided to accept it, was to find and explore caves and sinkholes in this peninsula of civilization protruding into the rugged Cockpit.
From the north coast town of Falmouth we headed inland and southerly. Martha Brae swept by as Stefan pressed the gas, then Bounty Hall, Wakefield, Deeside and we were off the paved road onto the rugged rough dirt road that would take us into Maroon Town and back hopefully to an asphalt journey.
We were now in cave territory. This rugged road had along its length into Maroon Town a plethora of caves and risings, some with recorded exploration and some not even mapped. Exploring along here would be the job of another mission. Our eyes were set on Quickstep.
Stefan had had a previously unsuccessful escapade into this territory when after having arrived in Quickstep his traveling companionís vehicle broke down -the only vehicle they had used. They summoned help, which came in good time, but before they could successfully find and explore any caves. So they were taken back to their civilization and an aborted attempt recorded. This experience smarted and he would not be defeated by Quickstep this time.
The Lada bounced along the road, a high vehicle, more suitable to these roads than the other popular vehicle, the Toyota Corolla. Spirits were high. We would do some exploration on arrival, overnight in Quickstep, more work the following day and then head back to Windsor, or rather Coxheath, where we would celebrate our success at Miss Lilyís Bar. It just so happened that there was a planned Round Robin Session there that Friday night which meant Reggae music and plenty liquor.
Stefan heard an unusual sound. Was it muffler? Yes. The Hartís Flower Farm was not far away. Perhaps we could get a piece of wire and tie it up. Well, we did have webbing that could endure some heat. We could tie it with that.
Some workers were on the compound. Stefan straight away bounded out of the vehicle and headed for them. Okay, the rest of us thought. He is taking the bull by the horns. No delays. Get the wire. Get it fixed and get out. In no time he was coming back with a piece of barbed wire, and trailing behind him, but not trying to keep up, was the worker that lent assistance. In no time, Stefan was under the vehicle, poking and prodding the hot muffler. Ivor went under too, assisting. Someone else got a rock and put behind the rear wheel. One didnít want the vehicle to roll away while the driver was under it. That would be no way to get to Quickstep or get back home for that matter.
The barbed wire was not working out. The barb prevented the wire from sliding through a hole in the chassis where one wanted to secure the muffler. So out comes the wire again. Pliers now to remove the barb; not so easy. Get another piece of wire. No, the other wire is rusty. It will break. Double it. Try it. Someone still trying to remove the barb. The barbed wire is the best thing. Finally another piece of wire is found. Back under the vehicle and voila the muffler is tied in place. Thanks all round and itís rolling time again.
Stefan drops the word for the first time that this f------ Quickstep journey is jinxed. One finds that Stefan likes this adjective. Itís one of these all-purpose words that fills a need, expresses the appropriate level of drama, emphasis, disdain, purpose, disquiet, you name it.
We are still in familiar territory, at least up to Maroon Town. We now consult the map and begin to ask directions, really asking just to confirm that we have not slid off accidentally onto a road thatís not on the map. Yes, we are going good.
We are going through.... should be getting to ... anytime now.... why arenít we there yet? Is this the way to...? Yes...! Straight ahead.... okay, we are on the right road.... but on the map this road doesnít seem so long. Then the road loses pavement again and there is grass growing in the middle. Certainly this must be the wrong road. Another person on the roadway. Excuse me sir... Is this the road to ....? Yes, yes! And so we move on. Are they pulling our leg? No. Jamaicans donít have a reputation for doing this. But how? Finally as if by magic we come to an intersection. And there ahead of us is a main road - a paved road. Civilization. Yes, Lord. We are somewhere. A map check and itís a left turn. More confidence again and we roll.
Stef says that the red light is on. He is losing brake fluid but has none in the vehicle so we must get to a gas station. Maggoty is the nearest gas station we are told. We check the map. Where we are? Where is Maggoty? Somewhat out of the way, but necessaryÖ Maggoty it is. The roads are paved, winding and narrow, but paved and so we proceed.
So many deep corners.... Then suddenly itís screech and crunch. Yes, a fender bender around one of the deep bends... and guess what, itís someone Stefan knows, we all know. Of all the people in Jamaica... weird. Oh boy. All right some discussion takes place and we move on again.
By now I am sensing that Stef is feeling that things could be going better. Anyway weíre going to get some fluid before it begins to tell on the brakes. We get to Maggoty and there is the gas station. Brake fluid? Yes. Good. We top up. Itís not topping up. Look under the vehicle. Fluid is draining from somewhere. Okay. The brake flex hose is broken. Okay what else. There is a small hole in the metal line. Okay. But guess what. God is good. There is a mechanic right there. He comes over enquiringly but not revealing his identity quite yet. We need help. Yes, he can help. Yes, he has tools. Jack up the vehicle. Cotch it with a stone. Pull off the hose. Need to take it to an auto accessories shop to get a similar one. Where is nearest shop? Santa Cruz. How far? About a half hourís drive. Quick calculation. Half an hour to go, half an hour to come back, fifteen minutes to purchase, maybe half hour to install.
Okay, time is marching on. The day is going. Stef is worried we might not have time to get any caving in today. The day is moving on. Anyway, spirits are still up. Letís move fast. Mr. Mechanic is more than helpful. Heíll get a taxi. Route taxis are plentiful in the area. They simply load up and take off. Not much of a wait necessary and quite inexpensive travel -equates with, as it is, public transport, not private hireage. Mr. Mechanic finds the person that will help. He comes already filled up. Somehow, Stef and myself - oh I am Ivor - manage to squeeze in. The driver is briefed by Mr. Mechanic. He is to take us to get the brake hose. He is told where. And to wait for us and bring us back. We get to Santa Cruz and start the search. No, we donít have that. No we donít sell Lada parts. Yes, we used to sell Lada parts but donít sell them anymore. You tried the place near the market? You know there? They sell Lada parts. And luck is with us. They have the hose. No delay.
We buy it and are on our way. Mr. Driver has been up and down with us - beyond the call of duty. He hasnít complained. And we know within ourselves that a tip is definitely going to be in order. We get back to Maggoty. Mr. Driver is pleased with Stefanís payment offer. Everybodyís happy. Mr. Mechanic by now has got the metal brake line bronzed so with this patched and the hose secured time for installation. Done. Bleed and pump up the brakes. Done. Well not quite done but it seems workable. And we have lost enough time so we are happy to move on againÖ Quickstep bound. So we are rolling again.
Road surface is good and we finally get to Quickstep. Meet Minocal. He helps to arrange sleeping for the night. Joan and Hortence have space. They are just on the other side of the road on the hill. Thatís fine. But Stef has a lingering hope that he can still put in some exploration before dark. He has not quite articulated it outright but Minocal gets his drift and makes it clear that it is too late to go anywhere - the distance to be traveled prevents it.. Will start out early tomorrow. He is right. Just standing there talking and the dusk is fast approaching - the time of year too, short days and long nights.
We get to Joan to discover that they have links with Windsor... close family. Yes, we know her Mom, Miss Herma. Okay, we are practically family. We know we are going to be taken special care of.
Minocal, alias psyche, takes us to a bar/shop and Stef takes his liquid refreshment - Red Stripe beer. We wind down. God. Itís been a day... muffler, accident, brakes, long journey. Whew. Well, we are here and getting good co-operation.
The night passes and a beautiful Cockpit Country dew-filled morning emerges.
We want to go to Marta Tick. Marta Tick is pretty far as walking goes. Youíve got to drive again on rough road and then walk. We are ready and the day is not hot, but pleasantly overcast.
Minocal is not only a cave guide, he is a farmer and a herbalist. He makes roots tonic and knows what herbs and bushes are good for what ailments. He does charge for his service. We seem to be walking for an eternity but thatís only because we donít know the trail. The signs of the yearís earlier rains are evident. Whole areas of valleys are brown with rotted vegetation, an indication that the water had only recently drained off the land. Minocal wonders if there will be water in the way to stop our passage. But we proceed.
The water has already all drained off and we get to the cave entrance. There had been, however, much debris in the path, partly the result of the flood rains bringing down huge trees across the trail.
We unburden ourselves of our equipment and relax a bit. The cave is vast with more than one entrance. Minocal shows us a huge chamber somewhat on the left. These are where the bats live. As we go in they sense us and with their high-pitched tone scream at us flying around before they settle in again - we are friendly after all. Guano is there. The flies that are usually associated with the guano are there too. They are in my face, close to getting into my eyes. I take off my headlamp and hold it in my hand like a flashlight. Thatís better. Stefan and Malibu waste no time. They are scrambling down into the chasm and no ropes. I watch their descent ready to get ropes if need be. But they donít need any. I observe them from the upper chamber and am getting ready to descend, wondering what the plan is. Are we exploring this artery? No, weíre not. And they return.
Minocal shows the main artery of the cave. It is a crawl for a chain [about 20 metres] he says and then it opens out into a vast cavern that extends for miles he tells us. It is an explored and mapped cave and Stefan whips out Jamaica Underground and finds it. We share the visual. We are going in he says. We obviously canít go in with knapsacks on our backs. I take off mine. Stefan, Malibu and then myself start the crawl. Minocal and Thumpa wait outside.
We are on our stomachs, flat on the ground on hands, elbows, knees and feet and sometimes dragging ourselves along the cave floor. We then come to a small opening. To this point the cave ceiling is low but side to side space is super adequate. Now all has narrowed to an aperture. I am not au fait with such but the others go through. Stef is small but Malibu is closer to my size and he makes it okay. I start the squeeze. Itís tight but doable. The headlamp shining through the hole reveals the huge cavern that Minocal spoke of. I complete my passage and catch up. Malibu has walked around checking out the way. Itís the first any of us have gone into this cave. Minocal who knows the cave has not followed us in. We have tape for marking. We start laying them to find our way back out.
The cave is a complex one. There are several passages. A wrong turn is easy. We keep going. I found it strange, however, that in spite of all the possible wrong turns we could have made that we somehow followed the correct course in, proved by our seeing, having traveled for a good distance, a marking left by earlier cavers indicating direction of travel. We moved through until Stef said he saw a bat and Malibu said, well he said this when we had come out, that he heard a strange sound coming from a deep hole that he had looked into. He had beaten a hasty retreat from there. After Stef saw the bat we started to look more assiduously for signs of guano and also other possible entrances to the cave. We went for quite a distance more but saw none and did not observe any other bats. Stef figured we had gone far enough. This was after all the first time in and we had gone in pretty far.
We retraced our steps and the value of laying marking tapes was evident as the return journey showed all the different passages which we could have taken and which we would take were it not for the markers. One occasion, the marker was not in immediate sight and we had to search around a bit before finding it. Then we moved on again. The cave is truly complex.
In one section, it brought out the need for physical flexibility and a sense of acrobatics. You move through one aperture head first in a crawl then having gone you pull your body up into the tight space; you turn left and over, lie on your back, and lower yourself feet first through an opening on the left, equally narrow ...and lower yourself slowly, having predetermined where your footing would be... sliding ever so gradually until your feet grip then you extract yourself and with a turn you are normal again. Yes, exciting times.
But we are on our way out and as we are getting back to the narrow hole, advent to the crawl to make it to the entrance, we are smelling smoke. At first it is not so bad but the closer we get to outdoors, the worse it is and it is suffocating. Happily, not for long as we speed up movement and we are out. But Stefan does not take it lightly and using his favourite expletive with abandon makes the point that lighting a fire was a bad idea. The smoke was feeding into the cave and that air was the only source of fresh air for the cave and us the cavers. That over, we cool off, relax. Stef gets his GPS reading and we are off again for the interminable trek back to civilization.
Minocal is slow in getting off the mark. Then he continuously stops to collect healing twigs and bushes and in a rather wily way expounds on his knowledge... you know expounds on it without revealing much... Cute!
He tells us he has somewhere special to show us. Somewhere he has not taken anyone before. Waterdrown Gully. It is impressive. We do not go in. Could not go in. It was full of water. It is a combination of a trench and possibly a sinkhole. We observe it from a number of angles. Stef take a GPS fix and he figures we will be back in the dry season when the hole is dry and we can make the descent by rope.
We are back on the trail and with Minocal still stopping and starting, Stefan takes the lead and soon we lose sight of him. We come to a fork in the trail. An instinct suggests I shout his name. He responds. I shout. Weíre on this trail. He heads back. A few steps later there is the vituperations of a woodsman. He is carrying recently sawed lumber ... heavy, a very heavy burden. He is carrying the pieces on his head and he does not want anyone ahead of him. Obviously, Stefan was, and so was getting the end of his lip.
Soon they catch up with us and we are happy to let the woodsman pass. He passes, then stops, and replete with expletives, tells us that he does not want anybody warra-warra walking behind him. So we pass him and try to keep up a pace to outdistance this irritable man. Minocal has continued his periodic stops by now burdening Thumpa with some of his collection and Thumpa burdening me with his own. Then the mother of all collections, Minocal begins chopping a huge piece of a rotted tree trunk. By now we are tired of asking what is this for and that. But we do ask. There is no run around this time. He just does not bother to answer. He heaves the burden on his shoulder and off again. Stefan has not yet connected the dots.
We get to the vehicle open the trunk hatchback type - and begin loading up. Minocal pushes the massive log into the trunk. Stef stares in horror racking his brain for a diplomatic way of saying this canít work. But he is no diplomat and directly makes his point. We all expect Minocal to remove the tree. Minocal might as well not have heard. In resignation, Stef gets in, we all get in and move off but predictably with too much weight. Thumpa and myself get out, walk ahead. By the way, we were doing this on the inward journey but just over the bad spots. Then we hit on a solution. Thumpa and myself sat on the fenders - left and right and this is how we safely got out to the asphalt road. Thank you, Lord.
We had lunch, prepared by Joan, and with all pleasantries passed we headed back out for home. Stef said the brakes were still giving trouble. By now we had a tyre pressure problem and had to be periodically pumping a tyre losing air. Happily, we had a hand pump. Note, I did not say a foot pump. Minocal directed us to a garage some miles down the road. We got there and the brakes, not the tyres this time were pumped up. The mechanic bled out quite a lot of air, pumped up the brakes and we were off again.
Not much further on the brakes gave trouble again. By now we are tiring of the problems but where is the choice? We do decide to take the longer but better road back - that will avoid beating up on the muffler. We need brake fluid so itís back to Maggoty. Gotten and away we go.
Stef. I hear a sound on my side. Stop. Stop. Stef stops. We have a puncture. Consternation... do we have a spare? Yes we do. A quick change and we are off. But guess what, the tyre that has punctured is not the one with the slow leak.
Okay. Stef says he needs gas. Okay, gas and tyre repair is our next stop. Where is that? Next main town ... Balaclava.
And we move on. Stef has reconciled himself to the brake problem and lets us know heíll have to creep back. For myself I saw the feasibility of attending Miss Lilyís Round Robin Session receding in the distance.
We move slowly on in this unending journey.... Then finally we are only three miles away. Pffttt. Yes, another puncture. But remember we had fixed that punctured tyre? Good for us. So we put on that tyre and are off again.
I think to myself. I wonder whatís going on in Stefís mind? Is he reflecting on his jinx theory? Delays, punctures, brake problems, accident, muffler breakages....
Then we are in Sherwood, at Miss Lilyís bar. Music is blaring but the crowd has not yet gathered. We all get out. Malibu and Thumpa have reached home. They are going to clean up and head back to Miss Lilyís. Stef had changed and is relatively clean and heads in for a Red Stripe. I am four miles from home. I would have to get home, bathe and change. I was still full of mud. Well, I may get back to Miss Lilyís but I am not making any promises....
As I walk on through the night I can hear the music pounding in the receding distance. Did this all happen? Could this have all happened? I laugh quietly. Quickstep did have a silent charm. I liked it there. I had told Joan that. I wanted to go back there, not driving, but walking through the mountain trail. Yes, I would stay with them on my return. Sometime early next year.
I pictured Stefan winding down with Red Stripe in hand, Thumpa as well as Malibu readying themselves for the night out after two grueling days. You had to like this caving thing to do it. No, you had to love it. You had to love it to journey thus and still be mentally intact after it all, still taking it all in stride. Yes, this, indeed, had to be a journey of love.
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