Jamaican Caving

Quashies River Cave.
The adventures of Brian Zane, Paperfoot and BuddyH.

Quashies is located in the Cockpit Country of Jamaica. The Cockpit is so named for the sinks of this large karst region that reminded pilots of the pits used for cock fights.

An early start by Brian picking me up at the resort gate at 06:00. We zoom down the new highway to Trelawny and the Cockpit country. What a fun ride and education provided by Brian. Watching the town of Falmouth quickly change to truck produce agriculture and then to the sugar cane fields. Here nearly everyone we pass has a five gallon pale and two large cane cutters similar to machetes but with a hook at the end of the blade. I wouldn't want one of these guys swinging at me with one of those blades. Leaving the cane fields behind we head up hill. The road narrows now to a track and one half.

We are now in Cockpit Country and the road just drops off to shallow valleys holding livestock, mostly goats, and family gardens. The foliage is fantastic and mostly unfamiliar to me. The gardens grow tomatoes, peppers, and other familiar crops. What I thought were bean poles were actually poles for several different varieties of Yams. Something I have never tried to grow. As we head deeper into Cockpit Country, the terrain becomes more vertical and the roads narrower. This area is called the Alps. There are many limestone cliffs. The cliffs appear to hang on the side of the hills. They look like great climbing but the limestone has turned out to be too soft. The choss factor is high with large areas of soil washing down from the slopes above. Adding to the wash of soil are yam gardens eroding from the steep slopes above. Brian first came to Jamaica and worked with many of the local community groups and farmers providing environmental education.

We make a brief stop to purchase sardines and crackers. I'm amazed at the variety in the little shop. While there, the bread is delivered, just a few loaves. The small quantities are typical of everything else in the shop. Like almost everything else sold the price had to be negotiated. What I'm not seeing are gas stations.

After leaving the store and we head to the Fremen area. The roads degenerate even more. At some point in time they were paved but neglect has turned them to barely passable in many cases. Kids play basket ball, soccer and other sports in the the road taking advantage of a little level ground.
Abruptly We pull over and stop along the side of the road. Unpacking and changing, Brian answers questions of the residents that pass by speaking in patois (patwa). From this we learn that it has been raining almost every afternoon. This may impact the caving. Paperfoot arrives carrying a bag with a couple of ropes in it. We recoil these before we head to the cave. Leaving the road, the trail drops rapidly past goats, vegetable gardens and a house.

Houses are simple concrete block structures reinforced with rebar. Typically the houses are built one room at a time. The rooms are added when enough money has been saved to purchase materials. Work stops when the money runs out and resumes when more is available. Homesteading on government property for five years is a normal method of acquiring property. I wouldn't advise opening a mortgage company in rural Jamaica.
The trail is over grown with plants and I wish I had more time and a better camera. A glimpse of the Quashes river at the bottom of the gorge is afforded when the trail winds next to the edge. At some point on the trail I realize that I am walking between two men with machetes in hand and how easy it would be for me to disappear for ever. We quickly arrive at the down climb to the cave entrance. This is when I realize that I should not have played volley ball the afternoon before. My legs are already screaming. My desk job is killing me.

Access to the cave is a little different. Years ago some one thought they would pump water from the river for various uses. Left is a large I-beam buried in the ground and two ladders, sort of, used to reach the level of the cave entrance. Two bolts have been place and we set up for a rap down the ladders. The rap is just in case this is the day the ladders fail. Heading down to the first ladder is a very short scramble, though slippery. The first ladder is 3/8 inch rebar welded to a pair of two inch pipes. At the bottom of the first ladder is a concrete column that the ladder is perched on. Next a short traverse around the outside of the column to the next ladder. Here an option exists. There is a pipe that can be use like a banister or the bottom ladder can be used. I opt for the ladder thinking the weight on my back would spin me upside down. Brian does the same but Paperfoot takes the slide, that looks like more fun, darn.

Upstream from cave
Canyon upstream from cave.

Now at the bottom of the ladders we take a look around and take time to look at the gorge and waterfall upstream. Pictures I found of this were at a much lower water flow. I estimate that the flow on this day was 25 cubic feet per second (cfs). The pictures on the Internet look closer to 1 or 2 cfs. Exploring the entrance of the cave the old dam is passed. The pool has long since filled in and is easily mistaken for a water fall. The cave entrance is large and quickly presents a water fall. A previous group has placed a fixed static line to the side of the water fall. The knots were not up to par and needed to be retied.
Water fall in cave
The water fall known as Little Ape, Photo by Brian Zane.

This is the water route into the cave. The fixed line allowed access to the first pool and a room with interesting formations. A small crab without pigment was found. Two of these crabs were found within the cave.
Crab with little pigment
Crab with little pigment.

A look at the end of the pool reveals the top of Little Ape water fall. We head back up the fixed line to use a route that lead around Little Ape. It is obvious that there are times that this whole area is flooded.

Brain Bolting
Brian placing a bolt for our rappel.

The caving gets serious now. There was another fixed or abandoned line. This line is what I call a suicide line. It was a piece of 3/8 inch polypropylene tied with a series of half hitches and unknown tangles. Using one of the static lines carried in, Brian set up a hand line and lead a sketchy, slopey ledge to the bolt station. Two bolts that had been placed earlier have been removed. We proceed to take turns drilling two new bolts. Paperfoot heads out for a short meeting planning to return in 20 minutes. I rig for the decent and head for a ledge about 60 feet down where I will have to crawl up into the ledge and work around to a large landing. I however go down 59 feet to a ledge and start to crawl up into it. I quickly realize that it pinches off and wiggle back out. The ledge I'm on continues left after a short but nearly holdless wall. I get around the wall and continue across the ledge. As the ledge runs out I see the intended ledge and the large landing 6 feet immediately below me. The drop continues into what looks like a 30 foot diameter bore hole. Getting off rope I secure the end to me and start looking for an anchor for redirecting the line for the next drop. Brian quickly descends and finds the correct ledge. He cheats, well actually he has been down this way before. We quickly set up and Brian took the lead to the next station. I Quickly follow to the pool. No place to go but into the water. Brian having been here before, actually his far point, directs me to head up stream for a look. This is the bottom of Little Ape. Brian has a great picture of the falls on the JCO (Jamaican Caving Organization) at low water. All I can see is a roaring waterfall, barely though all the mist in the air. I try to take a picture. Just to much reflection of the flash from the mist. The roar from the waterfall makes communication difficult and can be felt in the walls. Brian points out the horizontal line Down stream that defines the top of the Big Ape waterfall.

We devise a plan for me to belay myself out a 20 foot length of line. The depth and current of the pool is unknown, so I head of carefully. I find little current and no bottom. I struggle to stay afloat and belay myself. A rack is not the best gear for this. I search for current to help carry me closer to Big Ape or some bottom to stand on. I get to within 5 feet of Big Ape and see a promising line to climb on the river left side and the bottom just before the drop. My Lost Creek pack did an amazing job as floatation but now is is taking on water. I'm spent by now and signal for Brian to reel me in. Now it is Brian's turn. Knowing current is not a problem we change tactics and decide to just belay him as he swims to the edge. Quickly he reaches the line of holds on river right and climbs out of the pool. This is now his far point and does a careful assessment for possible anchors to use the next time he comes down.

It is time to head out now. It is late afternoon and we both wonder what the afternoon showers would do to the water level. Adding to this thought is are a couple of logs 20 feet above that are about 8-12 inches in diameter and 8 feet long wedged as a stemples between the sides of the cave. Now we rig to the rope and start ascending. It is only 10 feet but it was a nasty edge to get the ascender over. Now I stop and realize I'm standing a shallow pool that has more plastic bottles than water in it. Soon we are at the bolt station pulling the line. Buy now Paperfoot is asking how long we will be before we are headed out. Next Brian pulls the last line and load up the packs and coil the ropes. It is a simple walk to the mouth of the cave except for the nice ankle busting boulders to negotiate. I've been snapping pictures all day and now get a nice one of the entrance.

Cave Entrance
Waterfall at Cave Entrance

At the base of the ladders I realize how spent I am. After a rest we head up the ladders. Now that I am moving slower now I can really appreciate the ladders. The bottom ladder has me carefully placing my feet as I realize how rusted through the rungs are. The top ladder has me taking it one rung at a time. Some one must have cut every other rung out while we were under ground as they are farther apart on the accent than on the decent. Reaching the top I drop to the ground totally spent. Now I know how my clients feel when I am done with them. No wonder they are asleep so early. As I strip out of my coveralls the mosquitoes swarm around me for dinner. The little buggers are easy to kill in these numbers. Rather than get eaten alive we head up the trail. Every step is an effort. Reaching the car is a miracle. Unlocking the car the phone is ringing. Did I mention that I had to be back at 16:00 (4:00 PM) for dinner with the wife at the resort. Well since it is now 18:00 I don't believe the 16:00 deadline is realistic. Quickly the gear is organized and loaded. Hey, is this feed bag the one the rope was in. As I load it into the car Brian and Paperfoot shout it stinks get it out of the car. Something dead must have been in it.

Spent from caving
Paperfoot and Buddy

We head off to drop Paperfoot at his house and Brian wants to get a Red Stripe but settles for a soda instead. The drive home has us going through Albert Town. We also pass the new but rarely used sports arena. The drive back to the resort goes quickly. I make it back in time for dessert.

The Jamaican Caving Organization has a lot more information on Quashies River Cave, the Cockpit Region, Bauxite mining that endangers the region and much more. Jamaica Caving Organisation

More photos of the adventure

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