Jamaican Caving Notes
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COCKPIT COUNTRY HIKE
AUGUST 19, 2006
By Jan Pauel
THE MISSION: Hike the trail from Windsor south through Guthries then east through Bamboo Bottom and finally north up the Troy Trail to return to Windsor. Clear the trail and flag it for future easy guidance
THE CREW: JCO veterans Ivor Conolley, Elizabeth Slack, Malibu Taylor, Pem Pem, Rona Sterling, and Marcella Phillips, along with Cetu (a UWI graduate student who is working on a forestry project in the Cockpit Country), myself, and several JCO associate members (the Silvera family, and guests).
Our plan was to leave the Last Resort no later than 9a.m. There had been heavy afternoon rains the preceding two days, and we expected that it would pour again that afternoon. Ivor, Pem Pem, and Mailibu were familiar with the trail, but nobody knew the state of it, as it had not been trekked recently.
We had a group of hikers arranged to accompany us, and due to delays, we were not all assembled and ready to leave until 10:30a.m. So at 10:55am we all set off on foot from the Last Resort, all having packed water and insect repellant and the cutlasses all sharpened to fine sharp edges.
The start of the trail was about a 10-minute walk down the road. We turned off the road onto the trail heading south through a patch of heavily fruited coffee and banana trees. It was sunny and very humid and the mosquitoes started on us for their brunch right away.
Stefan the Master Bush Navigator had sent us gps waypoints for the entire route, and also maps of the trail and area. The thick forest canopy, however, does not permit satellite signal reception, so the compass and maps were also along for guidance.
The first half hour of walking was relatively easy going through farmland and cleared land. Soon after that we hit some steepish uphill sections, here is where the fitter among us put a little gap between them and the less fit. That leveled out again and the farmland turned into moderately thick forest. The trail was still very easy at this point, clear and level.
It’s difficult sometimes to keep going at the group pace, as the trees, flowers and birds make some want to stop and observe and take photos. I kept hearing the machine gun bursts of woodpeckers around us, but didn’t get to see one. As we progressed, the sweat washed off the insect repellant, and the mosquitoes, which were thick around everyone started to get in to feast. You had to reapply frequently, though after a while I seemed not to notice them, only the annoying high pitched and very loud buzzing around my face.
We trekked South to Guthries where there were occasional clear patches allowing us to take gps readings and verify our exact position. Ivor stopped to show us a sinkhole alongside the trail, and then ten minutes later he took us off the trail to show us the ruins of a very old site. The foundation stones for the main house and the outer kitchen are still there. The forest growth is very thick around it, with some fairly big trees, indicating that it was built probably in the 18th century. It was quite amazing to me, as we were now deep into the bush, and one got the impression that nobody had ever settled so far and deep into the forest, but here was the evidence. Chances are that it was some sort of station for the British Redcoats, established there when they were engaged in the long wars with the Maroons.
The trail veered east into the area known as Bamboo Bottom. We could hear strong rushing water from a spring close by, but didn’t get off the trail to inspect.
Then we hit huge patches of massive bamboo. One patch had overgrown the trail, so we had a few minutes stop while Pem Pem and Malibu set to task with machetes hacking at the ‘steel hard’ green bamboo. That is a very difficult task, and I watched, as my cutlass skills are not in the same league as those two veteran bushmen.
Ten minutes past there, and we had to divert off the main trail. The area was under water, not much, about 4 to 5 inches, but we cut and flagged a little detour around that spot and got back onto the trail just a few dozen yards further.
20 minutes later, we were again halted by water. The entire low-lying area in-between two ridges was completely under water, and it was probably two feet deep. Looked like a small lake. We decided to cut our way along the southern ridge still heading east towards the Troy trail. We took a 15-minute break there and all munched on spicy buns and crackers.
At this point I stuck my machete in the ground, and within 20 seconds some beautiful beetles were swarming all over it. Now the cockpit country hosts the most dense and diverse flora and fauna in the island, and these beetles were some I’d never seen before. A minute later while climbing over some dead bamboo to take some photos, I disturbed a huge nest of ants in a rotting tree. They were the largest ants I’ve ever seen in Jamaica. Nothing resembling any I’d seen before. They were huge! This was quite exciting. I couldn’t guess whether they bit ‘hot’ or not, but didn’t want to find out.
As we set off from there, it was onto the ridge, which was another tough chopping job for the leading bushmen. The going was a little slow, as the trail went up and down steeply in spots. Was great, as it allowed me to see out over the water and bamboo patches and take some great photos. We noticed too, that the sky was becoming quite overcast, and rain seemed likely. After another 15 minutes, we were back on level ground, and the sky was now quite dark. Within a few more minutes, we could hear the sound of heavy rain in the distance roaring towards us.
At 1:45pm exactly it hit us, accompanied by MASSIVE booms of thunder. It was very exhilarating! The thunder boomed and boomed, pounding through your body like the massive speakers at a Jamaican Dance Hall. You couldn’t speak to the person in front of you so loud was the thunder and rain. We didn’t stop though, the ground underfoot was rocky and not slippery and best of all the mosquitoes instantly disappeared.
For me this was the best part of the hike, being deep in the cockpit country bush in a massive downpour and thunderstorm walking along trying to keep my eyes on the trail but being forced to gaze upwards at the massive cotton trees with huge bromeliads growing in the high branches. We came into a more thickly wooded section, and almost had to turn on the headlamps. Now that morning when Ivor announced that all should wear helmets and lights, there were several objections—“It’ll be too hot”, “Why do we need helmets to hike?” “It’ll mess up my hair!!” All understood by the end of the hike why they were required. You can easily hit your head on low branches when you get a little tired several hours into the hike, you can fall on a slippery section etc. As sunny and hot as it may seem, it’s always good to put on the hardhats before a trek into the thick bush.
Before long, we hit the Troy trail and headed north. The Troy to Windsor trail was cut by the British in the 18th Century as a means to get into the bush to chase and fight the Maroons. It is a magnificent feat of engineering, as the trail was wide enough to walk two abreast in places, and it is not just a path cut through the forest, it is actually built up with limestone rocks like a road.
This last part of the trail is the easiest walk of the whole hike. The rain had let up and the walking was easy. The group had split up into two by now, and I was in the trailing group. We did some flagging of some spots that we hope to come back soon and explore, a riverhead, and a clearing used for research.
We finally came out of the bush by the entrance to the famous Windsor Cave. It had taken us exactly 4 hours to the minute from start to finish. Well actually, we still had a little over a kilometer to walk back to the last resort, but the bush part of the hike was done.
On the walk back to the Last Resort, I quickly passed all the others cause I could only think of the ice cold Red Stripes waiting in the cooler, even better, nobody else there was much of a beer drinker! I had already changed into dry duds and downed two cold ones by the time the rest of the gang made it back.
After a little discussion about the days’ great hike, the guests departed, and the JCO crew enjoyed a wonderful meal of roast pork and rice.
It is a great adventure for all who would love to get a taste of what the cockpit country is all about. Flora and Fauna lovers will be in heaven. It is not difficult, but not for out of shape couch potatoes.
Check it out!
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