St Clair Cave
March 21-22, 2006
Team: RS Stewart, G Van Rentergem, H De Splenter.
Notes: RS Stewart
In January of 2005, a team consisting of McFarlane, Christenson, Lundberg, van Rentergem, Conolley, Bellinger, Slack, Stewart, and Hyde had visited St Clair Cave in search of a very rare bat, Phyllonycteris aphylla. Explorations carried out at that time by McFarlane, van Rentergem, Christenson, Conolley, and Bellinger resulted in the discovery of a route through the breakdown boulders at the end of the Inferno that led into a continuing passage. Time constraints had prevented a full exploration of this new ground, but mapping was done from the farpoint back to a tie-in with the existing survey. This return visit, in 2006, was devoted to finishing the exploration and mapping of the new passage, dubbed Inferno Plus.
In order to save money, we had decided to sleep in the cave itself and had come prepared for this. Guy and Hilde would sleep in hammocks hung from bolts, and I would spend the evening on a tarp on the floor of the cave. Although the hammocks were a much more sensible solution, I knew that if I had to sleep on my back, I would snore through the entire night, while if I could sleep on my stomach on the floor, I would not snore at all and would have a better rest. In my early considerations on the matter, I had studiously avoided thinking of the roaches that would be my companions on the floor of the cave, and simply accepted it as an unavoidable fact. It would turn out to be harder to ignore these disgusting pests in practice.
Our day, Tuesday, had begun in Windsor, Trelawny, and it was not until mid-afternoon that we were struggling up the bouldery, dry river-bed that leads to the cave, bearing the heavy loads of water and gear that were necessary for an extended visit. After first missing the short track up the side of the valley that leads to the entrance from the river-bed, and then checking things with the GPS, we finally chopped our way through the new growth that concealed the trail to arrive at the entrance at about 17:00.
The various packs and water-bags were soon lowered into the entrance pit, and then down a series of scrambly steps, as the three of us made our way into the cave. Upon reaching a suitable section of the upper-level passage, about a five minute journey from the entrance boulders, we began the process of establishing our base-camp.
At 18:17, as we were completing our arrangements for the evening, the passage suddenly filled with a great rush of bats; the nightly emergence had begun. In order to cause the least disturbance, we greatly limited the time that we observed this spectacle with direct light from our headlamps, but in these short periods we could see at least 10 bats per second racing past, and during the height of the torrent, many more. This river of flying creatures continued at strength for over an hour and was terrifically impressive. Short sessions were recorded on video, with good lighting, but it was quite apparent that this disrupted the flight, so these were kept brief and few. Nevertheless, viewing of the footage afterwards showed it to have successfully captured images of individual bats, and with the time indexing we should be able to get a better grasp of the numbers that were involved.
After an hour of bat-watching, I decided to make the trek out to Pollyground to find food and have a couple of Red Stripes. Guy and Hilde, still suffering from serious jetlag, would guard the fort and get an early night's rest. Forty minutes later, I was at friendly cookshop in the village, having a cold beverage, and waiting on my chicken and rice. The local people who were there were very friendly, although rather amazed that I would return to the cave later to sleep. It was decided that we would henceforth call it the Hotel St Clair, and that I would make rooms available at a very cheap rate if anyone was interested (no takers, so far). Some of them were aware of our adventures at Hutchinson's Hole, having seen me on television during that event, and I once again related the full story, adding the nastier parts not given in my online account. As I have now had much practice in the telling of this morbid tale, everyone seemed to find it quite entertaining. During the course of this pleasant visit, a very nice lady named Marie offered us a room for the following night, an invitation that I assured her we would probably take advantage of. Upon completion of my second Red Stripe, at about 21:30, I headed off to return to my humble abode, assuring those whom I left behind that I would indeed be careful to not disappear forever into the bush.
My solo jaunt through the bush and dry river-bed, and climb down into the cave, was one of the high points of the expedition for me. It felt very daring and adventurous, although in truth I knew the route well and took it slowly and carefully. Nevertheless, I had never done anything like that before, and the journey seemed mysterious and magical. For thirty minutes, I wended my way through trees and boulders, until I finally saw, in the distance ahead, the little, red, blinking LED that I had left at the bottom of the final track. Upon reaching this, I stopped for just long enough to retrive the LED and then hauled myself up the hillside to return to the entrance.
I decided to take a short break before starting the scramble down, and leaned on the fallen log that lies across the edge, puffing on a cigarette. Below me, in the dark, I could hear what sounded like voices, faint and indeciperable. Could it be Guy and Hilde, returned to the entrance pit for some reason? This seemed unlikely, as they should have been asleep for some time and I began to wonder if there were problems ahead. I had been told repeatedly at the shop that everyone regarded the cave as being haunted, and I now began to understand why. With the hairs on the back of my neck rising slightly, I lowered myself into the pit and climbed down the mass of tree roots that line the wall. Again, the voices murmured below me, from further in, as I carefully moved downwards. Once at the bottom, I left the relative safety of the roots, and entered the breakdown area at the start of the first passage. The regular denizens of the entrance section, the feral, bat-eating, parasite-ridden, black cats, awaited me, their eyes glowing in the light of my headlamp. I felt slightly giddy at the sheer bizarreness of the situation. I addressed the cats in my usual fashion, that being, "you don't scare me in the slightest, duppy-cats - I'm going to poison the lot of you one of these days", and as I finished doing this I suddenly figured out the source of the voices - Mormoops blainvillii, the coolest bat on the island, buzzing and zooming in their show-off way through the entrance passage. With a laugh and a final insult delivered to the cats, I carried on into the cave, reaching our base-camp soon after to find Guy and Hilde awakened by my arrival. After sharing a few pleasantries, and interesting observations (amongst which was Guy saying that it sounded like there were children playing in the cave, further in), I took out my contacts, climbed into the sleeping bag that I had placed on the tarp, and attempted to get some sleep. This would prove to be rather difficult.
For the next eight hours, I alternated between sweating in my sleeping bag, which I would huddle in with only my nose protruding so that the roaches couldn't run around on me, and unzipping it somewhat to at least have my arms out so that I could cool down, whereupon I would repeatedly feel roaches criss-crossing on me until the creepiness of it forced me back into the bag. My greatest fear was that they would crawl into my ears, although as it turned out they seemed more attracted to my nose. My sleep was not helped by the incredible sound of the bats returning to the cave in the hours before "sunrise", since my resting spot was directly under the main flyway (Guy and Hilde were quite sensibly hanging above the ground in a little alcove to the side). In addition, I could hear and feel a drizzle of urine and faeces falling on me as they passed over, so to combat this, I wrapped myself in the tarp and this essentially had me lying in a very hot, humid, plastic bag. I believe I got, at best, about three hours of sleep, and finally ended the ordeal in the morning (if it can truly be called that when you wake up in a cave) with a slight fever and heavy congestion in my sinuses. In short, it was not the most restful night that I have spent in my life.
My first hour of the new day was spent in chewing a handful of ground coffee, eating half a cheese bun, and trying to not moan. Eventually, thanks to moist towlettes that Hilde produced from her well-stocked backpack, I got my contact lenses into my eyes, with a minimum of mud and guano accompanying them, and brushed my teeth. At about 8:00, the three of us were ready to begin the true work of the visit - the further exploration of the reaches beyond the notorious Inferno. After stashing all of our more valuable things in the lower level of the cave, we waded into the water of the main river-passage to then enter the bat-filled, roach-infested realm that would be our stomping grounds for the rest of the day.
During my one other visit to St Clair Cave, in January 2005, Elizabeth Slack and I had spent our time in the section towards the Lemon Ridge entrance in search of cave-adapted inverts and had not entered the Inferno, but I had certainly heard much about what the others had gone through, and expected the worst. Surprisingly, on our initial trek through the passage as we journeyed to the previous farpoint, I didn't find it too bad. It was much like the main roosting chamber at Windsor, between Royal Flat and the Top Entrance, although with water, and worse, of course, but entirely bearable. We reached the breakdown boulders of the end of the Inferno proper in what seemed like a relatively short time, and after some minutes spent looking for the previous route through, Guy led us down between several tight squeezes to arrive at a pool of water in the continuing Inferno passage, here separated from the rest by the giant boulders we had wormed our way between. We were now in the Inferno Plus.
The plan was that we would finish the exploration first, and then survey back. Accordingly, we pushed onwards. For the first tens of metres, we were still underneath giant boulders, at times climbing up through voids higher in the pile to then climb back to the lower level. After some distance, perhaps a hundred metres, with the last half of it beyond the breakdown boulders, it was decided that Guy and I would carry on alone and that Hilde would watch over the packs and await our return. Another 100 metres or so of passage was travelled through, with the ceiling true native rock, and at least 10m high. Through all of this, many bats roosted above us, with numbers similar to the Inferno proper in places. This soon changed, and rather abruptly the bats were absent despite there being good roosting space in a large passage. Ahead of us, we heard a dull roar of what might be fast-flowing water. I had been fooled before by the sound of many bats flying, thinking it was a river, so when Guy suggested this, I expressed my doubts saying, "I don't know, man, maybe just more bats". After another ten metres, it was unmistakable - ahead of us, at the bottom of a steep pebbly slope, through a low arch about one metre high, there issued the roar of what was undoubtedly a serious river. Both of us enthusiastically slid down this final slope, and through the low opening, to see a large passage, complete with a fast river, crossing before us ten or twelve metres further down-slope. This was incredible. However, as we had slid down into this new passage, we had smelled an increasingly strong odour of sewer gas and now found it quite intense past the arch. I began to feel faint and to see black blobs floating in front of my eyes. Becoming very concerned, I said to Guy, "How much of this shit can we breath, man?". Without another word, the two of us immediately turned and scrambled back out through the arch. It is the opinion of both of us that we were very close to death at that point, and if we had rushed right down to the river's edge at first, we might still be there now.
I must stress the danger of the gasses described above to those who might read these notes and feel an urge to push exploration into the new river - this passage has the potential to be deadly. A similar effect occurs at Riverhead Cave (although in that case it appears to be more a situation of low oxygen and high CO2, rather than the hydrogen sulfide that we seemed to smell at St Clair), which is in the same district. It presumably occurs because of sugarcane waste at Riverhead, but this new passage at St Clair is worse. Do not go into this part of the cave without using an appropriate breathing apparatus.
After recovering our wits, Guy edged back in, staying high on the right wall of the junction chamber. He pronounced it survivable, and I nervousingly joined him. While I added my light to the view of the river before us, Guy took pictures and obtained survey shots with his laser disto, clino, and compass. The entire time, although I was not winded or even moving, my breathing took the form of panting which I was unable to stop. I found it necessary to take a breath every 2-3 seconds just to get enough oxygen. About five minutes of this passed and then Guy said we had what we needed, so I went back to the arch to take station for the outbound survey leg; Guy soon had his data and joined me. Now, we began the survey back to Hilde and then our tie-in point at the end of the previous survey.
The first 50 or so metres of the survey went quickly, and we then heard Hilde calling us from further out in the Inferno Plus. She had become concerned at our extended absence and had come forward to see how things were. We reported what we had found, and the three of us continued surveying outbound. Hilde soon took over the duties of setting stations for Guy's measurements, and I scouted ahead to be sure of the route. At one point, as we first hit the breakdown on the return, we had a couple of minutes of confusion as we refound the path through the voids. At last, we hit the end of the previous survey, and could move ahead with more alacrity to extract ourselves from this godforsaken passage. Upon reaching the final scrambles that would take us back up through the boulders, I found it difficult in the extreme. The upper surfaces of the boulders were covered with a layer of wet guano 10cm thick and there was nothing solid to hang on to. The squeezes themselves would not be easy under good conditions, but with the slimy muck defying all attempts to grasp rock, it was insane. Nevertheless, all three of us made our way out through this to again return to the heat and humidity of the Inferno.
During the last hours, my right eye had become very gummy, no doubt due to guano and filthy water coating my contact lens, and I was half-blind during much of the rest of the journey out. This trek was horrible, with hundreds of fungal gnats crawling into my ears, eyes and nose, overpowering heat, millions of roaches, and sharp rocks hidden in the filthy water through which we waded. It seemed as though the length of it had somehow trebled during our time in the Inferno Plus, and it felt endless. My lighter had refused to light for the last few hours, due to wetness and fingers that looked as though they had spent a week in a bathtub and could not rotate the flint wheel without tearing off skin. The desire to get out and finally have a cigarette was the main thing that carried me through this hell of roaches, heat, batshit, and gnats. At last, after what seemed like an eternity, we staggered back to the main river-passage and left the worst of it behind.
Despite the difficult time we had just spent, we were very pleased with our incredible discovery. St Clair Cave, one of the most famous caves on the island, had revealed itself to extend much further than previously believed, and with the aid of breathing gear that would allow survival in the new passage offered yet more new ground to be explored. All of the territory up to the new passage had been surveyed and mapped, thanks to the indefatigable Guy. We had accomplished something wonderful in terms of pure caving, and had made an important hydrological discovery . We were justifiably quite proud of what we had done.
The time was now only about 16:30, and we had nothing more to keep us underground, so after gathering and stowing our gear, we began the final journey through the upper level passage to exit the cave. Soon, after a final comment delivered by me to the cats , en route, we pulled ourselves, blinking, into the bright light of a late afternoon. We made our way down to the dry river-bed, and within 10 minutes my lighter was again working, and I was enjoying my long awaited cigarette as we wearily hiked through the boulders on our way back to Pollyground, cold beer, food, and a decent place to sleep courtesy of Marie.
It should be noted that the visit would have not been successful without the efforts of all three of us, but Guy was truly a star in not only his caving, but also his mapping . Hilde, along with her tremendous work on the survey, kept pulling items out of her pack that enabled me to survive the visit. As for what I personally contributed: I helped with the survey, I gave Guy a team-mate for the final push to the new river, and supplied my usual "chat up the locals" liaison skills. That said, Guy was the principle reason we succeeded and I continue to be impressed by his abilities.
 - We have settled on the name "Acheron", from Dante's Inferno, for the new river found at St Clair Cave. Alan Fincham has suggested that it might be a downstream extension of the Worthy Park - Riverhead system, and we intend to look into this in the future (funding for tracing from interested parties invited).
 - I'm not entirely joking when I talk about poisoning the cats. Not only are they an invasive, they're carrying a hookworm, Cutaneous larava migrans. A group of Peace Corps Volunteers had problems with it several years ago, and also Joyce Lundberg in Jan 2005 (identified in Canada upon her return). You have to be very careful where you sit in the entrance area (best not to sit at all). The only thing stopping me from eliminating the works is the possibility that I might vex a resident duppy.
Information on the cat parasite follows, courtesy of investigations by Don McFarlane:
Background: Cutaneous larva migrans (CLM) is the most common tropically acquired dermatosis. It presents as an erythematous, serpiginous, pruritic, cutaneous eruption caused by percutaneous penetration and subsequent migration of larvae of various nematode parasites. It is most commonly found in tropical and subtropical geographic areas and the southwestern United States; however, the ease and the increasing incidence of foreign travel by the world's population have no longer confined CLM to these areas.
Pathophysiology: The life cycle of the parasites begins when eggs are passed from animal feces into warm, moist, sandy soil, where the larvae hatch. They initially feed on soil bacteria and molt twice before the infective third stage. By using their proteases, larvae penetrate through follicles, fissures, or intact skin of the new host. After penetrating the stratum corneum, the larvae shed their natural cuticle. Usually, they begin migration within a few days.
In their natural animal hosts, the larvae are able to penetrate into the dermis and are transported via the lymphatic and venous systems to the lungs. They break through into the alveoli and migrate to the trachea, where they are swallowed. In the intestine they mature sexually, and the cycle begins again as their eggs are excreted.
Humans are accidental hosts, and the larvae are believed to lack the collagenase enzymes required to penetrate the basement membrane to invade the dermis. Therefore, the disease remains limited to the skin when humans are infected.
 Preliminary Plan for the Inferno Plus, with new data adapted by G van Rentergem to JU pg340 version of existing survey (final map to follow):