Karst is one of the Caribbean’s oddest geological features, a pattern of limestone that appears in several of the Greater Antilles and which has become a sight in its own right.
The rock (which takes its name from the Krs area of the former Yugoslavia) has been uplifted by tectonic movement and exposed to erosion. Any split in the rock has been exploited by the tropical rains, which have rushed through, carving and cutting holes, hollowing out caves and gradually dissolving the rock (limestone is soluble in acid). In places it has eroded in fairly regular patterns, leaving an extremely weird landscape. In Jamaica’s case, the Cockpit Country is like a massive, shaggy green eggbox that stretches for miles and miles.
The most famous sections of karst are the Viñales area of western Cuba, where the vertical walled outcrops marooned in the fertile plains are known as mogotes, and in the Dominican Republic, where there is a whole range of furry green lumps appear in the Los Haitises National Park in the north of the country. From above, the park looks like a very difficult green jigsaw. Similarly, in Puerto Rico there is a range eroded into the limestone plateau in the north of the island.
But the Cockpit Country is the most extensive of all. A flight from Montego Bay to Kingston flies above it, a sudden belt of uninterrupted and uninhabited green in an otherwise extremely populous country. In places the formations are as regular as an egg carton. It’s just that the indentations are 300 feet high and there are hundreds and hundreds of them.
The name Cockpit comes from a different assessment of their shape – the slopes of the peaks are steeply angled, creating pits between them which are just the shape of the auditorium for fighting cocks (a sport which doesn’t really exist in Jamaica any more, though it can still just be seen in some of the other islands).
Interestingly the Cockpit Country has other names too. The area was used by the Maroons (early runaways) when they were holding out against the British colonialists in the early 1700s. It was easy ambush country. In fact so dangerous that it was known as ‘the Land of the Look-Behind’- soldiers reputedly rode sitting back to back on horseback in order to defend themselves – and simply, chillingly ‘You no send, me no come’.
To get an idea of what the Cockpit Country looked like on a terrain map of Jamaica, see Google Maps.
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