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St Clair Cave
June 3, 2006
Team: RS Stewart, J Pauel, A Haiduk
Notes: Jan Pauel

I had nuff apprehension leading up to the visit to St. Clair, having read the exciting accounts of the previous mission, which ended with toxic air halting the progress suddenly. Stefan was quite familiar with the cave, but Andreas and I were going for the first time. We all had an idea of what we were in for.

We decided to carry scuba gear with us – large, heavy and cumbersome as it was, as we had no smaller contained breathing devices, and we wanted to take air samples of the noxious gasses safely, taking no chances.

The Saturday morning was overcast and rainy. Andreas came over from Kingston very early and after coffee and a nice breakfast of ‘fried dumplings and salt fish’ prepared by Marie, we donned our gear and Andreas produced a wicked backpack which was big enough to hold the now ‘much smaller’ scuba tank loaned to us by Christian Rance, owner of Jamaica Scuba Divers in Runaway Bay, Jamaica. We were extremely grateful for this, as the original larger tank would not have fit in the pack, and the PVC pipe carrying vessel we made to carry it would just have been too big and heavy. These tanks are filled to 3000p.s.i. of air pressure, and a rupture would have been catastrophic! Anything, therefore, that would make this set-up easier and safer was critical.

We set out on the approximately 20 – 30 minute walk to the river bed shortly before 9am. The first major surprise met us at the previously ‘Dry river bed’. It wasn’t dry, but was in fact, a fast moving, deep, brown colored, and sweet smelling torrent. Andreas stated that it contained substantial amounts of waste material from a Sugar Cane factory hence the sweet smell. We were able to travel upstream only a few dozen yards on the river bank before that became impassable, and so into the river we went.

It was very tough going. We were walking upstream, and the river bed was full of submerged trees, and many small rocks that moved underfoot, so it was arduous trekking one careful step at a time with no handholds. Andreas had volunteered to carry the heavy scuba pack, so I led the way trying to find a path that was not too deep or unstable. A couple times I stepped into holes in up to my neck deep in water, and even got a couple mouthfuls of the horrid looking ’sweet’ water!! It tasted surprisingly better than it looked.

After about 30 minutes, we found a spot on the bank where we could come ashore and take a GPS reading. Stefan pointed us about 100 yards further, so we continued, and the next reading stop had us within a few yards of the track to the entrance. From there it was an uphill trek on a steep and slippery slope to the cave entrance. Slipping and sliding, we finally we got to the passage opening at the base of a huge sinkhole. It’s impossible to miss, because there is a GIANT tree growing right on the rim of the hole, whose roots ooze outwards from the base and create a giant flow down the sides to the floor. These roots were also our means of descent to the bottom of the hole. I must admit I was a little apprehensive at this point, everything was wet and looked slippery, and it’s about a 15 – 20 ft climb down the roots. I hoped I wouldn’t mess up and get hurt before I even got into the cave. Turned out to be quite fun actually; first we lowered the scuba pack down on a line, and then we climbed down the roots to the base.

An important ritual then followed. Stefan had brought along a “Q” (small bottle) of Jamaican White Rum, which he ceremoniously splashed around the entrance paying respect to the cave ‘duppy’. (Jamaican for a ghost or spirit, that usually has bad intent). Respects being paid, we entered, only after Andreas insisted that he was still ok carrying the heavy scuba pack which now had increased in weight by a few pounds due to its swim up the river.

We proceeded for a while before we stopped at a large flat rock. At this point I took over the scuba pack. While stopped there we first heard the ROARING sound. Notes by the previous cavers said that it sounded to them like a river, but to me it sounded just like the constant roar of a strong wind you hear in a hurricane. It was the bats, lots and lots of them.

We started out again through the Inferno. The reports of millions of roaches were not exaggerated, they were everywhere. Floor, walls, rocks, all sizes. We saw a completely white one which caught our attention for a while. It looked like they ‘molt’ and the white color turns normal brown afterwards.

The air now started to smell, to me, like a barnyard, due to the massive number of bats, also, the humidity and temperature levels rose progressively as we moved forward. It was quite a task, while carrying the heavy backpack, to remain on my feet and not fall on my rear. Thick, deep, slippery mud and guano deposits on the sides of the passage, all sizes of slippery rocks, and a stream in the center made the trek very slow and tough. I stumbled a couple times and did end up on my behind. The water level rose quite a bit in places as we progressed. It was a reddish brown fecal, muddy soup, filled with dead and live roaches and some dead bats, getting thigh deep in spots. We were drenched in sweat resulting from the extremely humid and warm environment. I now fully understood the accuracy of “INFERNO”. It was quite exhilarating walking through the thick mass of overhead roosting and flying bats.

We plodded for a while, still in awe at the number of roaches everywhere, when we noticed that we had pretty much passed all the bats. I started to feel quite winded at this point. I had been training for a few weeks prior to the expedition, so that I’d be in somewhat decent shape, and even though the pack didn’t feel too bad, I was puffing and breathing heavily. Ten minutes more, and I was having great difficulty getting deep, full breaths. I was feeling really bad now, and was starting to worry that I’d have to tell Andreas and Stefan that I couldn’t go on. My lungs just couldn’t get in enough air, and my heart rate was stratospheric.

Finally we came to the end of the Inferno passage, which was marked by a huge blockade of large boulders. I couldn’t say anything but just planted myself and the tank down on a huge boulder, panting and gasping for a full breath. I told them that I’d have to have a good rest because I was busted! Stefan and Andreas then started to scramble around looking for the entrance to Inferno Plus.

They searched in and around and climbed all over the boulders for a few minutes, while I tried to get my breath back. But it just wasn’t happening. I felt now for sure that I wouldn’t be able to continue when they found the entrance. Then almost simultaneously the two of them came back to me speaking of shortness of breath. We sat still trying to get deep breaths, and concurred that the air quality was not right, and certainly not good enough to continue. Andreas then assertively stated “We must turn back now!” There was no opposition.

At this point we all instinctively looked at the scuba gear with like minds, and I quickly unfastened the pack and brought out the two breathing hoses. Most selfishly, I stuck one in my mouth and took four deep breaths, before handing it over to Stefan, while Andreas puffed on the other. For the next minute or two we sat there breathing deeply trying to feel some relief. We then managed to break smiles and make morbid jokes. Stefan brought out the air sampling gear, and filled two sample bags with that bad air, deciding to fill the third, for comparison, closer to the entrance where we knew the air quality was good.

That took a few minutes, and after stowing the samples, we donned the packs and turned around to head back to the entrance. The going was still a bit difficult; I was still not managing to get full deep breaths, but despite this, we moved at a decent pace. Further on, we started to hear that familiar roar of the bats, but it was much louder this time. For some reason, the passage was alive with them, as if they had all departed their roosts and were buzzing around to welcome us back. Stefan remarked that the bats stopped roosting at the end of the ‘good air’ and that it might be a possible indicator of foul air in future situations. Canary in a coal mine - Bats in a cave!

The cooling breeze from the bats was as pleasing as entering an air-conditioned room on a blistering summer day. We could now breathe more freely, and the humidity level and temperature were not as severe. There were so many bats around us that I had to stop and try to get a photo, which later showed that they were flying mere inches from us.

That section was like a happy homecoming with good air, the bats, and the knowledge that we’d soon be out. All I had on my mind then was the thought of that cool, refreshing river and how I couldn’t wait to submerge myself in it. We started to talk and joke again as we plodded through the fecal soup. A few minutes later Andreas exclaimed out loudly that he’d been looking at a motionless bat on the water that seemed to be dead, when suddenly it just took off and got airborne straight from the water. That feat prompted an excited discussion among us.

Ten minutes more and we arrived back at the big rock where we took the third air sample. Only a little way more to go, and I was still thinking how I couldn’t wait to get into that river and cool off, as I was now quite worn down and overheated from the exhausting walk and tough conditions.

We reached the entrance and I had to crawl on my stomach and knees to get over the boulders and through the small space without taking off the backpack which I then felt I did not even have the energy to do.

At the cave entrance we were greeted by daylight and the odor of the ‘white rum ritual juice’ that was offered at the start of the journey. We came out into the hole to be greeted by the still very overcast sky and the massive tree roots. A rest was in order while we rejoiced about our safe return and enjoyed the high state of exhilaration we were in.

Next was the climb out, and a photo stop at the top of the hole. I was now dying to get back into the water which only a few hours before I was not too pleased to be getting into.

 As we started off down the slope, I spotted one of the resident black cats, quite big and healthy looking, glancing nervously at us as it scampered through bush and headed towards the massive tree.  He was very fortunate Stefan didn’t see him. The cats all know his dislike for them.  As much as I love cats, they have to be removed from there. The poor bats have enough life stresses without one of nature’s supreme predators at their door getting fat on them.

I thought the return wade would be easier going with the flow, but it wasn’t so at all. Andreas had taken over the backpack again, and we had to stick close together to grab each other when footing was lost. I did try to swim/float with the current once, but it was too treacherous, and we had to just carefully plod one small step at a time. The going was very slow and I was amazed at how Andreas was packing the heavy weight so seemingly untroubled by it. He’s definitely part pack mule.

At last we reached the bank where the trail through the forest home began. Another brief rest and off we set, my mouth watering and mind engrossed with thoughts of the last three Ice Cold Red Stripes patiently waiting for us in the ice chest in the truck.

Half hour later we were home, I think around 3:30pm or so. Packs down, and off with the bottle caps. We then all broke out into massive grins and chuckles as we downed the cold brews in record time. Marcia, our wonderful hostess, promptly appeared and enquired how it all went. She then warmly announced that dinner of curried chicken and rice and calalloo was ready when we were!

Wet, tired, and hungry we could now relax and start recounting the incredible several hours long adventure we traveled together that day. We meshed really well as a team.

We will return in the dry season, when the river bed is again dry, and make another strong effort to complete the missions.

Can’t wait!

Map of St Clair Cave
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