Jamaican Caving Notes
St Clair Cave
March 21-22, 2006
Team: RS Stewart, G Van Rentergem, H De Splenter.
Notes: Guy Van Rentergem
After my first visit to this notorious cave, in January 2005, I wrote down:
"St Clair is about bats, bats and bats. Oh and cockroaches... It's difficult to explain what it is like, but if you have been to the movie "Batman Begins", then you will have the picture. I've never seen so much life in one place (ok maybe an ants nest, but I'm speaking about mammals). It's really like a kind of underground Serengeti. It is more than impressive. The environment is rather hostile and very demanding to equipment and people. Let's give an impression:
The cave is smack in the middle of a jungle in very rough terrain. You have to carry everything on your back. There are so many bats that you have a natural phenomena they call thermoclines. Walls of heat. From one step to another, the temperature rises 2-3 degrees. This goes in different steps, from 25 degrees C to 33 and higher. Humidity 100%. Oh, and you have to go through chin-deep water for hundreds of meters. There are also passages you have to slide through on your belly like a snake. And take into account that all these animals have to poo and you can see that the ground is covered with an immense carpet of bat guano (batshit). Ah, and some Old Bat lore: Never fly with a full bladder. So when they start to fly in the evening, it starts raining... And for the not faint of heart, the floor is covered with a living carpet of cockroaches..."
It's one year later, and here I am back again on my way through the dry Black River to St Clair Cave. The river has changed since last year. Some hurricanes have passed and the riverbed isn’t so rough anymore. There’s much more smaller material which makes progressing more easy. This is important for us, because we carry a lot of gear with us. Indeed we are planning to sleep in the cave.
It’s going so easy that we miss the place where we have to leave the riverbed and start the steep climb to the entrance. Becoming suspicious, Stef gets his GPS, and indeed, we have overshot the cave by 300 m. This soon is corrected, and in no time, we stand at the entrance of the St Clair Cave.
The gear is lowered into the entrance pit, and soon we reach our campsite. The base-camp is roughly 10 meters before the upper entrance of the Junction room. Last year, there were already a lot of bats in this section of the cave. Now, there are none. Are they all gone?
I start to drill the holes so I can place the expansion bolts where our hammocks will be tied on. During the hammering of the last bolt we hear the swelling sound of rushing water. The bats are coming!! It’s 18h17. The flight of thousands of bats passing by is breathtaking. We can see that our lights make them afraid, slowing the flow. So we decide to use light only to film or to take pictures. In the dark, the sound of the Bat River is even more impressive.
After an hour or so, Stef decides to stretch his legs and follows the bats. His Red Stripe meter must be low and he’s hiking to the nearest village. Hilde and I stay in the cave and crawl into our hammocks. We only arrived yesterday on the island and since there is a six hour difference between Ja and Belgium; jetlag is our part. The hammocks are very comfortable, and are far away from the guano-covered ground where the roaches reign. Stef will sleep on the ground. I don’t think he’ll appreciate the company of the roaches and other crawling things...
At 9h45, the river of bats seems to slow down and comes nearly to a halt. But still there are a lot of bats flying in the cave. We hear the Mormoops zooming by and in the Junction Room the sound they make is like kids playing in a schoolyard.
Later that night, Stef returns and tells us we can sleep the next night in a real bed if we want. It all depends on if we can finish this cave tomorrow.
Next morning, hell it’s always dark here, we prepare our gear for the main purpose of this visit. Our goal is to push the limits of the Inferno+, which was discovered last year and left only half-explored. The Inferno, as always, is an experience on its own, with its bats, overwhelming heat, extreme humidity, guano, water and cockroaches. It’s a place that is very demanding on people and equipment.
When we arrive at the squeeze through the boulders for the Inferno+, we are already overheated. Finding our way through the guano-covered slippery rocks is tricky and takes some time. Once through this difficult passage, we reach a little lake where we plunge in to cool down. Here, we discover that cockroaches can swim too. We aren’t even safe in the water from these pests!
Soon, we reach the place where I ended the exploration last year, and working our way up through a choke, we reach a larger chamber filled with a big colony of bats. This chamber is high, and is 8 meters wide, and 40 m long. The weariness gets to Hilde at this point, and she decides to wait for us in the company of the bats.
Stef and I go further, bitten by the exploration virus. We have to find our way through chaotic rocks, and then come, at last, into a wide corridor. Soon, the cave changes and the passage starts to slope down. The bottom is covered with small pebbles, and sand, and we hear a sound like running water. Since sound behaves strangely in caves, we weren’t sure yet. It could be another colony of bats too. Closing in reveals the real nature of the sound. What we hear now is definitely a roaring river. Meanwhile, the cave also starts to smell like a sewer. We go faster, duck under a low arch and behold... we arrive in a large corridor with a large river. The passage is 8 meters wide; at the left, there is an ink black lake. A river spills over the right edge, and tumbles down a chaotic slope right into the black void of an immense passage. Euphoric, we continue our fast descent to the river, but suddenly we both have to stop! In a fraction of a second, we both instinctively turn around and scramble as fast as possible to higher ground again. It’s only now we realize the smell of sewer gas is overwhelming. Something down there is not right. And we decide wisely to stay on high ground.
After some time trying to get our breath under control, I realize we still have a job to do. I have to go down again and try to survey what we can. I inch back slowly towards the river until I find a place where the air is just breathable. 10 cm lower and I would suffocate. I quickly take the compass bearings and also take some pictures. Be damned, this is really so frustrating! There is this massive collector right before our nose, but we can’t explore the damned thing. Later, we decide to call this river the Acheron. After one of the four rivers of Dante’s Hell. A well chosen name if you ask me!
Since the Acheron leads to a certain death, we decide to go back and survey the new ground we found in the Inferno+. This survey goes fast at first, but when we're once again at the new chamber with the bats, the cave becomes more chaotic, with big boulders, and the surveying becomes more tedious and slower. Meanwhile, Hilde joins us and our troop is complete again. After what seems hours and hours we finally reach the old survey point of last year. Our goal is reached!
Now, the only thing left is to get out of the cave as fast as possible. We all look boiled and are rather fed-up by this part of the cave. But the Inferno+ is not to be taken lightly and the passage through the boulders into the Inferno is a hard nut to crack. We have to squeeze our way up through slimy guano covered rocks. Here, I help the others with my shoulders and back to be used as step. Someone even used my neck. I didn’t say a thing, but the experience was rather special (getting an ultra-muddy foot in one's neck, covered with inches of guano).
Once in the Inferno, my light became weaker. Which was my luck considering it now. The others had stronger lights and this attracted the gnats to them. These little flies are a real pest. Strange as it is, we haven't had any trouble with them on the way through. I've experience with them from Windsor cave and they can drive a perfectly normal person insane in no time. They crawl everywhere and make your passage through their territory a living hell.
But, in the end, we all reached the living daylight again, safe and sound. We retreated from the cave and drank some well-earned Red Stripes at the local bar, and even slept in a decent bed thanks to Maria who Stef had met the night before.
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