Friday, 25 May 2012

Bat Girl in St. Clair Cave

Have been "off blog" for a while. No real reason, other than being fairly busy and thinking that I did not have anything interesting to say. I now have something interesting!

May 23rd was Labour Day and a national holiday. In Jamaica it is not about celebrating organized labour, it is about labouring on projects: fix your fence, clean your house, paint the house, work party at the local school, repaint the crosswalks (citizens do this, not government employees), spruce up the local park.  I saw many Jamaicans out and about and participating in community projects.  If Jamaica had a Labour Day every month, this might be a solution to the garbage-everywhere syndrome that is endemic here.

I, however, was labouring in a different manor. Opted in to a hike to and tour of the St. Clair cave, located near Polly Ground west of Ewarton, about 90 minutes from New Kingston. I and 3 CUSO friends were connected with Meg, who organizes island adventures about once a month - she is not a hasher, but knows many of us and is always trying to 'out do' the hash.  She succeeded beyond expectations and all of us swear that we will never again complain about difficult hashes!

While Jamaica has a number of caves and some of them well known and accessible to the public. St. Clair cave is not on the tourist track and you will see why.  It would be impossible to find, yet alone get into, without a guide. However, it is known internationally with cavers and is the model for the newly re-opened bat cave at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), complete with bats endemic to Jamaica. 

Upon researching St. Clair cave, I discovered that it is home to the endangered yellow boa which is endemic to Jamaica.  For those of you who know me, this scares me rigid!  I am comfortable with bats, rats, spiders, lizards, creatures of all kinds: but I have an indescribable, irrational, and complete paranoia of snakes. This usually applies to the water and garter snakes that I find at home (on Keats) but the thought of a wild boa on my path . . . Fortunately he/she was full of his bat-dinner and must have been sleeping when we were there.  Though I was vigilant. 

There are not a lot of my own pictures because I kept my camera in backpack most of the time - too busy using hands to stop from falling. Many thanks to Britta who had her pocket camera handy and forwarded some of the following pics. 

It took about 3 1/2 hours for the hike/cave/hike.  The hike to the cave was not far, difficult to determine the distance but took about 45 minutes each way, though extremely hazardous as we clamboured over slippery boulders and fallen trees.   Much of the trail is through a river bed and we were simply lucky that it was dry, as it can be a metre deep on a day's notice - which it was a few days ago.

In sum, this was 3 1/2 hours of slogging, scrambling, climbing, and slipping . . . all in the most beautiful country around Ewarton . . . and all covered in mud and bat shit. Stefan, our guide and head of the Jamaica Caves Organization - and a Canadian! - told us to always have 3 points of contact: eg. two feet and one hand; two hands and one foot.  I thought that if 3 were good, then 5 would be better. Hence I spent much time (in the cave and without) sliding down on my backside with heels in braking position and hands grabbing anything.  And anything was always covered with bat shit. 

Most of the cave that we explored was open caverns. However, we also had to slither through a narrow opening - less than a metre high - and also inch along a narrow ledge without falling into the abyss below.

We all had to strip and change into clean clothes for the drive home. This was no time for modesty as there were no facilities and no shelter where we parked our cars. The overwhelming urge to get out of these clothes was supreme; and we had to put our cave clothes and shoes in the back of a pick-up truck because nobody wanted to drive home with them inside the car!

This was the toughest challenge I have done in a long time. Ranks right up there with my triathalon. I think the combination of age, arthritic knees, and lack of upper body strength was giving me a message . . . it is two days later and still having trouble moving my arms, rolling over in the night, and watching my black and blue bruises come into full bloom.

I had the most appreciative shower of my life when I got home - I even turned on the hot water tank for 15 minutes!  And, miraculously, my clothes are now clean.  I even had to wash my backpack. 

We all look so clean and raring to go

Stefan, our guide

This is the path through the river bed . . . 

. . . and this, too, is the path . . .

This is the easy part!

Entrance to the cave; straight down and deeper than it looks

Beautiful formations on the ceiling

As we go deeper into the cave

Why is there always water?

Note the 'flahses" - those are bats.  And we look so happy!

The climb down and the only way back up
Me with my spotter, Stokely, on the way back up

Britta and I on a slippery slope

5 points of contact

Down the crevasse

On the way down - you can tell by the clean backside

Do I really have to climb back up?

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