Roaring rip-off? Westmoreland cave tour a cause for concern

BY DONNA HUSSEY-WHYTE Sunday Observer staff reporter

Sunday, September 09, 2012    

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THE Roaring River Cave, once a thriving tourist attraction in Westmoreland, has been transformed into what some visitors have complained is a 'roaring rip-off', with unofficial guides conducting potentially treacherous tours in nearly pitch-black conditions.

Located in the cool climes of Petersfield, the cave — which descends some 21 metres below ground — once promised visitors a scintillating trek, a place to commune with nature and a glimpse of a more different time in Jamaica's history. Its walls echoed with the slightest sound, stirring one's imagination, spewing forth visions of people, from Taino to African slaves, who have trod through the series of caverns performing holy rituals and even, history suggests, blood sacrifices. It is a place where slaves sought refuge and solace, and is any spelunker's dream with its labyrinth of hollows carved by the natural action of water flowing for centuries on its soft limestone surface.

It might still offer all that if only visitors could actually see it properly.

Instead, darkness has engulfed the cave. It is unlit, save for the kerosene torch, candle, or cigarette lighter borne in the hands of "tour guides"-- members of the community who have taken on this task in order to collect much-needed funds. Patrons have to depend more on the guides' voices and descriptions of the scenes since they can't see it with their own eyes.

One visitor to the island wrote to the Observer about his disappointment with the cave tour which he described as 'a monumental rip-off'.

The dissatisfied guest, Karl Fraser, said he visited on August 15 and was charged US$15 for 15 minutes of "stumbling through murky darkness" in the unlit cave aided by a guide using only a cigarette lighter.

"The ticket office was accessed through an iron gate where I found a badly dressed woman who exacted US$15 or J$1,500 for which I got half of a perforated ticket that said 'meal'. Seated beside her was my guide who told me the proceeds from tours goes to send children in the village to school. Later, he said those same proceeds were to be used to improve lighting in the cage. Hmmm? He led me past a large tree which he said with impressive certitude was 900 years old...hmmm," wrote a doubtful Fraser.

The Jamaica Observer decided to do its own investigations and discovered that the visitor's concerns were justified, for, despite being closed for some years, some eight guides were somehow 'employed' there giving visitors a tour of what, from many accounts, was once a beautiful and educational attraction, now obscured by neglect.

The trip into Petersfield was very treacherous, with large water-filled potholes and no signs to point persons in the right direction. We had to depend solely on the mercy of strangers to keep us on the correct path.

When we finally arrived at the sign announcing "Roaring River Attractions", we were greeted by a guide with a thick imitation American accent who first mistook us for tourists.

He explained that we would have to purchase tickets at the 'ticket office', which was little more than an old, abandoned building with neither doors nor furniture.

At the 'office' he explained that the charge was $1,500 for tourists and $500 for natives. Making no attempt to conceal our fluency with the Jamaican dialect, I gave the woman sitting on a concrete counter $1000 for two tickets which seemed authentic at first, but which I soon discovered, like Karl Fraser had, were, in effect, a single ticket torn in half.

They read 'Roaring River Park Attraction — Cave Tour Meal'. I wondered whether or not this was a leftover meal ticket from when the facility was fully operational.

We were joined by another young man. He had a kerosene oil bottle torch in hand and I, not realising at first what it was for, jokingly asked if it was a bottle bomb. Explanation given, our first guide went his way and the other one took us up the concrete steps leading to the cave mouth.

We were the only ones taking the tour at the time. He opened the padlocked, grilled gate, lit the torch and we went in.

It was pitch black, and despite the small light he carried casting a faint glow, we could barely see. Our pupils had not yet adjusted to the change from dazzling sunlight to darkness.

The guide reassured us that we would be better able to see in short order, and within five minutes we were able to make out the rock formations around us.

We soon realised that lightbulbs had, perhaps long ago, been installed every few feet along the pathway, but were now covered in cobwebs.

The guide told us three different times that there was electricity in the cave but the power had gone out "this morning".

"It soon come back though, is this morning it gone," he said.

He pointed to what he said were naturally formed shapes in the rocks resembling human heads, faces, fish, birds and other animals. I tried desperately to make them out but for the most part simply couldn't in the dim light.

We were taken to the so-called "prayer room" where we saw numerous burnt-out candles. Apparently, 'prayer warriors', obeah workers and other spiritual groups often go there to pray.

We visited the "medication room" and were told to be silent for two minutes as a mark of respect to the cave. This room, the guide said, continued for some two miles onward.

"We always stop here to listen," he said. "A lot of people come here who lost their memory and this is the place they come to regain it. Very peaceful."

We were taken to the underground river running through the cave, which the guide claimed was mineral water and was a cure-all.

"This is the healing water. You could wash your face, take a dip, and it will cure all aches and pains. No sunlight reach it. Here we have limestone, and the limestone helps to purify the water. But it's the healing water. It runs straight to the cave that has no bottom." He said he had seen divers from as far as Alaska going down 180 feet below the surface of the river in an attempt to find the bottom, but none were successful. We were later taken to this bottomless cave in another chamber.

On our way there he told us of the "rat bats" that inhabited the cave but which had gone to roost in another section that had less traffic and light. He pointed out young plants growing on the cave floor that sprouted from guinep and almond seeds dropped by the bats after their meals and added that the bat faeces were a good fertiliser.

He was careful enough to tell us when to bend, when to stand still, when to hold on to the railings — which did not run throughout the entire cave — in order to prevent us slipping, or how to sidestep protruding rocks and avoid what could potentially be a nasty fall.

The tour ended 20 minutes after it started. The lack of lighting defeated the purpose of the entire trek and created a potentially hazardous environment.

An obviously annoyed Fraser described much the same experience.

"Crouching through a treacherous hole (which would have been exciting and easy had it been lit) — he (the guide) using a lighter to point the way — we arrived at a small cavern through which the river vigorously bubbled, the waters of which he said had healing properties. Hmmm...," wrote Fraser.

"And that was the tour. J$100 a minute to stumble through murky darkness. On the return to my car, while the guide badgered me for a tip, another guide was taking a pair of tourists in. You'd think that in the absence of proper lighting they would at least have used flashlights. I guess those in charge will act when a visitor has a serious fall in the slippery darkness. The attraction should be completely closed until TPDCo (Tourism Product Development Company) or another regulated agency takes charge and monitors. Until then, it remains dangerous and a right royal rip-off," Fraser concluded.

On July 27, Tourism and Entertainment Minister Dr Wykeham McNeil visited the rundown attraction and vowed to revive it.

"I am committed, the member of parliament (Roger Clarke) is committed, the parish council is committed... we are going to move forward to make something happen here.

"You can't have 250,000 visitors coming to Negril, hundreds of thousands coming to Montego Bay and have an attraction of this beauty sitting here and you don't have it doing what it should be doing. We are going to make it happen," said Dr McNeil then.

His commitment is the most recent in a long string of promises and proposals from various administrations and agencies to revive the once-popular attraction

People's National Party councillor for the Petersfield division, Donald Gordon, whom we ran into later on our trip to Central Westmoreland, said that the existing plans for Roaring River have been greatly scaled down and steps are now being taken to revive them. He admitted that while the attraction is not operating officially, members of the community have been "doing their own thing" for sometime.

"The community has set up a little group that sort of deal with the tour through the cave," Gordon said. "So it is opened every day, but it is not an official opening that you could sell it."

Gordon confirmed that the money collected from the tour is spent within the community.

"There are varying things that that money goes towards — sending students to school, assisting the needy, whatever else — so they have that as a community thing that is already enforced and we are trying to work through that plus making additions to that."

"When the minister came, the quantity surveyor came and everybody who would be a part of the project came, so they are waiting on us to set up this group (Community Based Organisation or CBO) so that will help them to channel their planning," the councillor said. He said this group should be in place this month, with TPDCo, the churches and the National Water Commission being a part of it.

Gordon, who had just concluded a meeting with some members of the community when this paper caught up with him last Wednesday, said there were other matters on the property that needed immediate attention. These include the cleaning of the park area, treating a severe termite infestation, and painting the buildings, which Gordon said should cost half-a-million dollars.

"We are waiting on the parish council to finalise the estimate for the repair of the roadway. It is in a bad condition in getting here and we are hoping that within two weeks we can have that so we can start looking at requisite funds to deal with that," Gordon told the Sunday Observer.

He said he was confident that while there is no lighting in the cave presently, everything will be sorted out shortly in order to allow the community to continue to earn tourism dollars.

"We are trying to encourage eco-tourism," Gordon explained.

"I think Roaring River has one of those products that are unique. Nowhere else you go that has this kind of product and we are hoping that we will be able to sell it, and people will be able to buy into it, and we will have a real development here.

'We are really trying to set up something that will last," he said.

Efforts to contact TPDCo to find out whether or not they had given the community permission to conduct the cave tours despite the rundown state of the facility proved futile as e-mail queries remained unanswered. Several telephone calls to officials there were transferred to other officials, with each refusing to answer, saying they were not authorised to do so.





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