To the Bat Cave! ... Exploring Trinidad's Tamana Hill
By MeiMei Thai
Heading south for the Central Range in Trinidad, we drove along the left side of the winding road of twists and turns on a Tuesday morning in early November. The views seen from our windows were more of a natural setting with heaps of cocoa and bamboo trees. We drove past many farms, forests, and rural communities.
We were nowhere near the city, but we were on our way to explore a bat cave at Tamana Hill, rising about 940 feet high. We just left our four night stay at Le Grande Almandier Guest House in Grande Riviere to see this. It was not your typical tour adventure. Trekking through a dense rainforest and into the cave sets off a wave of emotions – excitement, fear, anxiety, and disgust.
Getting to Tamana
When we finally reached Tamana, we climbed out of our vehicle to prepare ourselves for the hike. We were dressed with our long trekking pants tucked into our socks in order to avoid getting guano (bat excrement) onto our skin. Courtenay Rooks, our main Trinidadian tour guide, explained that if one of us had an open wound, we can get bacterial infections from the guano. If not treated right away with Detol or any other cleanser, there is a risk of getting a fungus called Histoplasmosis, which infects the lungs. With that said, we definitely wanted to cover ourselves up as much as possible.
Then, we sprayed ourselves with bug repellent, rubbed on sun block, and loaded up on crackers, granola bars, sandwiches and water bottles for our hike up the trail to the cave. Some of us ate beforehand for fear of touching guano and then eating with our bare hands.
To the Bat Cave!
To the bat cave we went. We were about to encounter a place filled with 500 thousand to 3 million bats. They range from insectivorous and frugiverous (fruit-eating) bats to nectivorous and the rare blood-eating bats (vampire bats).
This was the moment I’ve been waiting for, I thought to myself. I can’t wait to see this.
We walked up the trail. The night before had rained, making our journey through the forest difficult. The rough pathway was muddy and slippery, and we had to be on the look-out for green nettle plants that have bumps on its leaves. If you happened to brush your bare arm or hand against it, you would feel an uncomfortable stinging sensation. Trish, owner of BikeHike Adventures, touched a nettle plant by accident and said, “It feels like a thousand mosquito bites.”
Bats flying About
Peering into a hole, we saw bats flying about and thought we had reached the entrance to the Tamana bat cave.
There is no way in hell I am climbing down there, I thought.
It was too steep, about 20 feet down. There weren’t any rocks to hold onto if we were to climb down. Jumping would probably be the best technique if you were willing to risk injuring your knees. A risk I wouldn’t take.
“This isn’t the entrance to the cave,” Courtenay says. It was the end of it, where the bats flew out for their nightly hunt.
What a relief!
We hiked up the trail for a few more minutes and made it to the entrance – about 30 feet wide, surrounded by plants and trees. To get to the entrance, we had to climb down a muddy slope that was about 80 feet deep. My excitement and hesitation crept up on me all of a sudden.
I hate bugs, especially those with wings. Back home in Lawrence, MA, if a bumble bee buzzed closely around me, I run like the wind! Sometimes I’ll try to swat it away, but the thought of angering it makes me sprint instead. Even though I was nervous about the bats flying above my head, the opportunity to enter a bat cave where millions of bats inhabit is truly remarkable!
There were different levels of intensity inside the cave. The deeper you go, the more and bigger the bats and bugs you’ll see, hear, and feel. Courtenay said if any of us wanted to turn back and leave at any point, we could. I was still debating about how far I wanted to go.
Climbing down to the Cave
One behind the other, each of us holding a flashlight, we climbed down through the muddy and rocky slope into the entrance of the cave. It was a struggle. I tried to walk down carefully, but it wasn’t a smooth task. I slipped and slid a few times. I fell once, having to wipe damp, thick mud off my grey sweats only to get my hands dirty.
At another point, my New Balance sneakers sank into the soggy mud causing me to lose my balance. I caught myself on a rock with both hands. Standing near the entrance to the caves.
Probably covered in guano, I thought, as I pushed myself back up and noticed the mud-guano mix under my fingernails.
I continued slipping and sliding down towards the cave until we were on the flat ground of the cave that had an ankle-deep pool of water mixed with more guano and mud. Looking inside, I couldn’t see a thing without a flashlight. The light can only beam so far, so I couldn’t get a good look past the first chamber of the cave.
Standing there, waiting for the others, I looked up and saw hundreds of bats hanging on the ceiling of the cave about 6 to 20 feet high above, while others flapped around and over us. I lowered my head and tried to make myself smaller. I didn’t want them to fly into me. But I did watch them flutter around and heard them squeaking.
This is so cool, I thought to myself. I can’t believe there’s so many of them flying around me.
Pool of Guano Water
Courtenay, Gary, and Brett were ahead of me and continued trudging through the pool of guano water to the other side of the chamber. I stood there for a good five minutes.
Should I go in? It’d be cool to go through the whole thing, but I can’t deal with the cockroaches. What should I do?!
When the three of them made it to the other side, our gaze turned to the ground they were standing on. There were thousands of cockroaches crawling and scurrying around by their feet! The light-brown roaches carpeted the whole ground. I hesitated some more.
Trish and a couple of others decided to leave and began climbing out of the cave, while Kerry and Jeremy walked past me and went further in.
I sighed, and turned around to follow the others leaving the cave. Feeling disappointed in my decision because of how much I hated bugs, I joined them sitting outside the entrance.
For about an hour, we talked and took pictures while it rained. All of a sudden, we heard our fellow adventurers screaming from the other direction – the end of the cave that we saw earlier. We hiked over and peered into the hole again. They made it to the end.
Once they backtracked and climbed out of the cave, we were still standing in front of the end of the cave waiting for the grand finale. Around 5:30 P.M., millions of bats began to soar out of the cave. They flew over our heads and into the night. Some brushed against our cheeks and arms, but thankfully, not a single bat flew into any of our faces.
Courtenay had said that as long as we didn’t make any sudden movements, they could detect our sound waves and avoid hitting us. I made sure I was standing still. But while I took photos, I moved slowly and cautiously.
After watching the bats continuing to fly out of the cave, we hiked out of the rainforest. By then, we were in complete darkness. We only had our flashlights to illuminate our path. Due to the weather conditions and the bloody rain, it was a slippery trail. Many of us fell. Some tripped over roots and rocks. Others just couldn’t stand without having trouble. It was a dangerous, yet humorous trek back.
Not for Everyone
Not everyone enjoyed the Tamana bat cave experience. Some said it was dangerous and disruptive for the creatures because of our presence. But others thought it was an adventure.
Brett went through the entire cave and said, “The worse thing was the extreme humidity, being shit on constantly, pulling 3-inch cockroaches out of your pants and the thought of being stuck in this ‘hell hole’ forever.”
“The Tamana bat cave was one of the freakiest experiences of my life! The experience of watching the bats expel from the cave in swarms at dusk was fascinating,” Trish said, “I’ve never encountered anything like that before. I could feel them flutter past my cheeks. I was afraid to move in case I was hit in the face.”
“Every time I go through the cave, even though I have gotten acclimated, it is an intense experience,” Courtenay said. “It basically attacks all senses, the smell is strong, the sight of bats, cockroaches, frogs around, close and on you, the feel of holding cockroaches or the wind and touch of flying bats, the sound of nervous laughter, bats squeaking and much all make for the most intense sense experience many will ever have.”