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by Karl Aiken


WRC commentary #1: The below narrative was written by Dr. Karl Aiken as he recalled his youthful exhuberance for exploring Windsor Great Cave and the associated overland trek(s) to get back to Windsor Great House. Needless to say, we're glad he and his fellow spelunkers managed to get directions from a little donkey so we can enjoy his story after all these years . . . and note that there's still no rescue service for Windsor Cave!

The Windsor Cave complex is the island’s largest group of cave tunnels and passages, so we were told by “the” Jamaica cave expert himself Prof. Alan Fincham as well as by expert caver and cave photographer Dr. David Lee (the late chemist). So, when as an undergrad at the UWI Mona campus, we were told by Dr. Lee that the UWI Caving Club was going there in late 1969 I think it was, we were thrilled and to say we were excited about it would be an understatement.

So, a bunch of us in the UWI club numbering around 6 or 7 (I have an old picture of us after the trip somewhere) were told to get ready for an early Saturday morning trip. We met near Mary Seacole Hall and off we went with at least one lady with us. We drove our minibus as far as we could into the Cockpit Country and stored out stuff at the recently abandoned (at the time) Windsor Great House and after a quick snack dressed ourselves in well-used safety helmets with old-style carbide lamps and a few loops of rope and marched off in to the jungle with David Lee in the lead in single file. Deeper and deeper into the bush we went. Every now and then, we heard rustling noises in the undergrowth and David Lee would calmly say in his deep inscrutable monotone, “Don’t worry, those are just yellow snakes”. Usually, on hearing this the pace would immediately pick up, especially at the back. My pal Raymond L, said : “Boy, Karl, this place far sah”. I think I was able to groan in agreement at the time.

Anyhow, we reached one of the many entrances of the Windsor Caves and Dr. Lee quietly briefed us about the days’ activities inside the cave. He told us of the immensity of the cave, the huge domed ceiling called the “Cathedral” and about the bats, the slippery guano- covered slopes in some places and about a vertical hole that we would descend by little collapsible metal ladder. Well, everything went fine. Our sole brave lady got stuck on the ladder though. By “stuck” I mean froze in fear. Not surprising as the hole was fairly deep perhaps 15 metres. Dr. Lee calmly descended first and let us join him at the bottom.

The lady would not come down past the halfway mark. Anyway, she did eventually and then we all explored some more passages. Then, taking a time and carbide lamp check, David decided it was time to come out of the cave. We silently agreed.

Well, we walked around now with a few lamps extinguished in an effort to save our carbide and water (flammable acetylene gas was generated when water was dripped in each lamp onto the carbide “rock” chips in the lower compartment). We noticed David’s gait was getting slower and slower. Then we stopped in the middle of nowhere. Hmmm. This was a first. In his calm deep monotone, we gathered round to hear him mutter, “I don’t think we’re in the right place”. So, we enquired, then where were we? A stunning reply. He slowly but clearly said, “I’m not sure”. We looked nervously at each other. The great David Lee lost? Impossible. He unrolled a battered map then looked around at the deep dark precipice in front of us and declared, “ Well, I think if we go down this drop we will be able to walk out of the cave”. Remembering that there was no Cave Rescue outfit in Jamaica, we immediately agreed. So, David asked, “Who can tie a good knot?”. As a former boy scout I foolishly said, “I can”. David said “OK, tie this rope round that big stalagmite and drop the ladder over the edge”. So one by one we went over the edge, each one trying not to be the last as the darkness pressed in upon us as each person with a light went down. Well, we all made it and somehow we disentangled the ladder from the rope and David calmly without another word, led us out via an opening that only he would have known existed.

Susan Koenig's (WRC) comment #2:   Given that they met-up with an elderly gentleman and his donkey, it's possible that Karl and his friends managed to extricate themselves using the Guthrie Trail rather than the Windsor-to-Troy Trail. Even into the 1990s, at least one farmer (Mr. Malcolm & his donkey) continued to access his 'ground' on a sidespur of Guthrie. "Salluh" would have been about the only person taking a donkey on the single-file Windsor-to-Troy Trail, to access his farm in the glade SE of the top opening of Windsor Great Cave . . . but "Salluh" was young-and-fit in the late 60s / early 70s. It's also possible that they met-up with the farmer on the two-track dirt road which passes "Mother Miriam's House" -- which is about 10 minutes from WGH. Only the farmer and his donkey knew where they were in this jumbly landscape!
Click here to view larger map image.
We staggered out into the light and rested, breathing quiet sighs of relief. So, David then said, “OK it's getting late and it will be dark soon so let’s go in that direction” to the Great House. Off we all went in single file. Hot and in failing light, one exhausting hour later we came……. back to the exact start point! We had gone in a giant circle. OK! This is not funny. David calmly said we should not panic but suggested we should go in the opposite direction and so off we went. Fortyfive minutes later, we came ……….back to the same old starting point. Those limestone hummocks really do look exactly the same, don’t they! Oh boy. Hmmmm. Had I told my parents where I was caving?? We were now in deep shadow and beginning to think of open revolt. As were about to head off in various directions, (every man for himself, damn it) to everyone’s amazement down the little track came a little old man in a hat on a little donkey, exclaiming in disbelief, “Wait! What all a unnu doing out yah so? Unnu no know sey night soon come?” We said we were lost cavers and could he point in which direction was the Windsor Great House and he calmly used his machete to point in a direction we were sure we had just walked. We quickly thanked him and 20 minutes later, sure enough in the dark now, there was the old but absolutely beautiful, wonderful Windsor Great House. Food !! Water!! Sleep!!!

That’s not the end of the story as next day we discovered we were each in certain places covered in dozens of tiny seed ticks (“grass lice”). Kerosene wipe ups galore. Boy, did we itch for days! But what a trip!! That was nearly 50 years ago and it was an unforgettable trip to the Windsor Caves. A bunch of us though swore never to go back and we never did.

KA July 2017.

Commentary #3:  In the 1980s & 90s, a German researcher used to traverse through the cave to get to his interior terrestrial study sites: he did this specifically to avoid the gazillions of "grass lice" along the trails!
So the great-, great,- great-children of the ticks which made the spelunkers miserable are still roaming around. Karl's contribution to Cockpit Country biota persists
Luckily, they didn't stop his on-going support for Cockpit Country.

The cave map is copied from Alan Fincham's very excellent book, Jamaica Underground, 1997, The Press, University of the West Indies. ( BUY a Copy).

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