From the peak of our subterranean mountain of collapsed rock inside Windsor Cave in Jamaica, my companion Cindy thought she heard a river in the distance. The blackness of the cave loomed about us — scarcely illuminated by the brilliant yet smoky kerosene torch carried by our guide, Franklyn Taylor, a Rastafarian better known as “Dango.” He informed us that it was not a river but the hum of countless fruit bats. The ceiling of the cave was so far above our heads we could not make out individual bats.
Stumbling along the vague trail among muddy rocks, I nearly stepped on a boa constrictor that sat loosely coiled among gunnysacks of guano, awaiting what our dreadlocked guide assured us was an equally oblivious rat.
Welcome to the latest in tropical ecotourism.
Having had our fill of ziplining through rain forests on previous trips, we sought a more fulfilling and educational experience beyond the reassuring tourist “bubble” of the resorts.
We found it in the Cockpit Country of Jamaica, a chunk of nearly impenetrable ruggedness the size of the District of Columbia, and named after the gigantic limestone sinkholes that make travel difficult.
Seen from the air, it’s easy to understand why it has been called egg-carton topography. In past centuries, these cockpits provided refuge for escaped slaves from the island’s sugar plantations. More important, the Cockpit Country is the heart of Jamaica’s karst, or cave country.
According to the latest edition of Alan Fincham’s “Jamaica Underground,” the bible on this topic, there are more than 1,100 caves in this Caribbean island nation. Naturally acidic groundwater, draining downhill from the mountainous interior of the island toward the coastlines, dissolved out immense, tubelike caverns in the white limestone layer.
ROAD LESS TAKEN
Jamaica, which we visited in December, was a welcome respite from the worst Minnesota winter in decades. Calvin, our taxi driver, hired for the day to navigate the left-side of the sometimes perilous roads in this former British colony, collected us at our all-inclusive resort at Bloody Bay in Negril — named because butchered whales used to stain the bay’s turquoise waters red — boasting of his ability to find anything on the island.
After spending the morning touring the James Bond “holy sites” along Jamaica’s north coast near Ocho Rios, including author Ian Fleming’s cottage at Goldeneye, where he wrote the original Bond novels, and the Green Grotto, a completely domesticated commercial cave where scenes from the 1973 Bond movie “Live and Let Die” were filmed, we turned off the well-manicured coastal highway (A1) at Falmouth, the capital of Trelawny Parish.
Gradually ascending the winding, ever-narrowing — but still paved — roads in search of Windsor Cave, our driver expressed some misgivings. But I had studied the route provided by the Jamaican Caves Organization on its website and knew it was 9 miles inland. The road mostly follows the Martha Brae River, famous for its bamboo rafting, especially when the big cruise ships dock at nearby Falmouth.
After several false turns in the poorly marked farming villages along the way, we pulled up to a wood shack painted red, yellow and green with the words “Windsor Cave Station” on the side. Dango strode forth to greet us, even though we had found no way of contacting him in advance, as he lives “off the grid.”
I did notice, however, that cell phone towers are creeping ever closer to this rural enclave. The local inhabitants, who speak English and a native patois, typically live by growing bananas, coffee and yams in the cleared sinkhole bottoms called “glades.”
From the shack, Dango presides as the “Cave Warden,” selling cold beverages and snacks. Everyone must check in with him before entering the cave.
Dango has been wandering the far corners of Windsor Cave for 39 years, most recently for the World Wildlife Fund, which owns the property.
Wearing muck boots, blue jeans and a striped shirt, Dango was ready to go within minutes of our unexpected arrival, and we followed him along trails through a meadow and uphill to the cave.
Without warning the trail dropped into a gigantic cockpit filled with towering trees that reminded me of a set right out of the movie “Avatar.”
Calvin, who had accompanied us thus far out of curiosity, expressed amazement, declaring that he was unaware that such scenery existed on the island. And he was a native of Jamaica who traveled for a living. At this point, I knew we were in for a treat.
NATURAL, UNALTERED STATE
We skirted the soaring white limestone walls of the sinkhole, like mice hugging a wall, weaving our way among boulders and lush, primeval fig trees festooned with orchids, Spanish moss and vines.
The entrance to Windsor Cave, also known as Windsor Great Cave, was surprisingly small, just large enough to admit one person at a time.
Calvin stopped at this point, choosing to remain outside rather than sully his immaculate white shirt and red pants, the standard uniform of the Jamaican cabman.
“The cave itself is one of the finest in Jamaica,” writes one Jamaican caver, “both physically and in its biological importance.”
This refers especially to the colony of 50,000 fruit bats inside. One of the cave’s former owners, Dame Miriam Rothschild, a wealthy and world-renowned parasitologist, was interested in studying the fleas that live upon the fruit bats.
She eventually sold the property to the Kaiser Bauxite Company but donated the cave itself to the World Wildlife Fund, with the stipulation that no “improvements,” such as stairways or lighting, be constructed. The cave was to remain in its natural, unaltered state.
Unfortunately, an aggressive invasive species, the American cockroach, has been found in the cave.
I had brought a helmet with headlamp from home, and while the lamp illuminated the petrified forest of stalagmites as we entered the cave, it also drew annoying clouds of fungus gnats about my head.
As a lifelong caver, I was familiar with stalactites, but those of Windsor Cave were distinctive in resembling giant hands reaching down from the vaults, as if to pluck unwary spelunkers from their earthly domicile.
We then ascended the 75-foot high subterranean mountain inside the cave, dubbed “Jaram Top” by cave mappers.
I also carried a respirator. I clamped this over my face when I insisted on going into a part of the cave where the guano was raining down from the bat roosts above, providing amusing Darth Vader-like sound effects.
Ghostly white insects swarmed in the guano, which oozed up around my sandaled toes. The guano used to be bagged as a fertilizer, but its extraction is now discouraged because it provides an energy source for the cave ecosystem.
Windsor Cave is more than 1 1/2 miles long. Dango was willing to continue deeper, but it was late in the day and our driver had expressed concerns about remaining in the Cockpit Country after sunset and losing his way on the winding roads.
Had we continued much farther, however, we would have come to a curious stalagmite called “Brer Rabbit” from its appearance, and finally to a 30-foot mud slope leading to the lower level of the cave.
The slope is steep, requiring rope, and not for the casual tourist. The lower level contains a stream — the ultimate source of the Martha Brae River — that floods the passage during wet weather. But the main upper cave has never flooded in Dango’s memory. This subterranean stream is the home of cave-adapted crabs and shrimp.
It was already twilight as we exited the cave. We gave Dango a lift back to his home in the nearest town, Sherwood Content. He did not ask for money, but we gave him a handsome tip nonetheless — U.S. dollars being much preferred.
It’s best to employ a cave guide if you are not already familiar with the cave you are exploring, even though Windsor Cave is pretty much just one major trunk passage, running north and south, with few misleading side-passages.
Having visited many commercial caves around the world, I appreciated Dango’s laid-back style and lack of hokum. We were not assailed with requests to visualize imaginary shapes like Bob Marley’s head in the cave formations, asked to turn off our lights to experience the total darkness, nor belabored with superstitious duppy lore. Duppies are the spirits often said to inhabit Jamaican caves.
And back at our posh resort in Negril after a day of adventure, elegantly dressed patrons at the bar openly gaped at our disheveled appearance. Not even James Bond, it seems, would have guano-stained toes.
The general public is welcome but bring your own equipment, such as lights, as none is available at the cave. Allow several hours to tour the cave. While the most popular tourist maps of Jamaica depict the location of Windsor Cave, the detailed route there (and to other caves) is best described by the Jamaican Caves Organization at jamaicancaves.org.
Ongoing conservation and research conducted at the caves is described atcockpitcountry.com. Another useful website for tourist caves worldwide, including Jamaica, is showcaves.com. Our taxi driver, who knows the route to the caves, operates Calvin’s Tours, Savanna-la-Mar, Jamaica, 1-876-895-5791.
Greg Brick is a native of St. Paul and the author of “Iowa Underground” and “Subterranean Twin Cities.” His website is GregBrick.org.