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Dornock River Head Rising, St. Ann, Jamaica

Where the river emerges from underground... And a surprising cotton tree!

The Dornock River Head Rising is not a visitor attraction. It is a beautiful place known to relatively few, and fewer still who go there for a swim and/or picnic. Most Jamaicans have never heard of it. Special thanks to Brian Miller, long time visitor to Jamaica and repeat visitor to Silver Sands Villas, for his shared inspiration in Dornock (also known as Dornoch) adventure.

This is really off the beaten track. There is no sign, no lifeguard, no construction or facilities of any kind.

In October 2002, Michael Stewart (one of our independent contract drivers), Belvitt (the houseman at The Orchid House and Endless Summer) and I decided to visit this elusive spot. After I told Michael about it a few months earlier, he decided to "find" it, and he did through some friends of his who live in the area. 

donorck river head rising jamaica
Dornock River Head, August 2003. See more at Chadeesingh Family 2003.

From Clarke's Town, we headed East, a beautiful drive through more cane fields and through Jackson Town, passing Biddeford, and then heading South, i.e. uphill to Stewart Town. I was very interested to see the Westwood School, situated on the peak of a hill with a commanding view of the valleys, as we got close to Stewart Town. A very young lady left Ireland many years ago to take up a teaching position at Westwood School. Later she married Dr. Leo Freeman, a renowned Jamaican surgeon, and they produced one child, a daughter, Alice, who married my brother, Kamal, over twenty years ago. 

We took a kayak and floats when we went back to Dornock River Head, in August 2003.

It only took us half an hour from Silver Sands to reach the crossroads at Stewart Town, but it already felt like we were in a different country. At these crossroads, we made a left turn, heading North towards the coast. The road became very narrow and we soon passed the Stewart Town Basic School before the road split around a beautiful old cut-stone church, the Webb Memorial Baptist Church founded in 1829 by Rev. J. T. Mann.

clean water emerging from underground  river flowing into rio bueno
More views of the Dornock River Head. At left, the photo shows the clean blue-green water emerging from underground, before it becomes muddy.

It only took us fifteen minutes to walk downhill to the river. The track was rough and covered with loose rocks in some places, so walking boots with good ankle support would be ideal footwear. A Landrover or other four-wheel drive off-the-road vehicle could easily make this journey. There are two other tracks leading off from this one. We went straight on at the first (about ten minutes walk from where we parked), and then kept left at the second, and there it was, a clearing, a cow pasture really, with the river silently flowing by.

Alan Fincham writes in "Jamaica Underground" that the Dornock River Head is the largest river rising in Jamaica and is known, by water tracing, to be the resurgence for at least two rivers which flow underground, the Quashies River and the Cave River. It is about thirty yards in diameter and forms the head of the Rio Bueno, which flows to the sea at the town of Rio Bueno. You may purchase Jamaica Underground from Amazon by clicking this link!

Book  Jamaica Underground: The Caves...

Since we didn't want to swim in the muddy river, we explored the surroundings. We found the remnants of a camp fire that had recently been abandoned. A few cows gazed at us as we scouted the river bank, past the cocoa trees, until we discovered the largest cotton tree that any of us had ever laid eyes on. 

Very big cotton tree
Huge cotton tree on the bank with roots extending into the river.

Cotton tree towering overhead  cocoa on the tree
The huge cotton tree towering overhead with roots extending into the river. At right, green (unripened) cocoa on the tree.

The massive trunk of this cotton tree is split open on two sides. On one side it is a small split, not large enough to put one's head in, but on the river side, it is a huge opening where one can comfortably walk into the tree. We carefully climbed down the slippery river bank and over a large root which disappeared into the river. No one wanted to slip and slide into the cold muddy water. Holding on to branches for safety, we climbed back up the river bank and walked into the trunk of the tree. 

A split in the tree Belvitt, cotton tree
A split in the tree trunk allowing one to see through it into the river.

Large root of cotton tree on river bank Standing at opening of tree trunk
Michael, climbing down the bank to get around this large root of the cotton tree. Michael, standing in the opening of the tree trunk.

Yes, we walked into the trunk of the tree. It was like a tent, at least twelve feet high and more than that wide. The inside of the trunk was blackened in places, looking as though it had been burnt. The floor was muddy and very slippery. We felt very satisfied, like great adventurers. We did not encounter anyone else from the time we left the van until our return. This is truly off the beaten track.

Inside the cotton tree Inside the cotton tree
Michael, looking up inside the tree. Note the river flowing past outside. And that's me, Prem, standing inside the tree trunk.

Ground inside cotton tree
The floor inside the tree trunk.

The hike back uphill to the van only took us twenty minutes. We decided that we had to return when the river would be clean, so we could swim. We wondered about the feasibility of taking kayaks and how far we could go on them downstream. We planned that we would take a picnic, maybe some seasoned meat to jerk on a fire on the river bank.

We decided not to back track, but drove on towards Discovery Bay, a journey which took twenty minutes, leading us through bauxite country, across a mining train line, pass the Home Castle Estate and the Grateful Hill Baptist Church. From Discovery Bay, we completed the loop driving along the North Coast highway for about twenty-five minutes before arriving back at Silver Sands.

Of course, Michael is now keen to take visitors to this site. He has planned a tour of a half-day duration from Silver Sands for US$10 per person, minimum of four persons.

Charlotte Watkins visited this area and you may view her review on TripAdvisor.

For more information on caves in Jamaica and other related topics, take a look at the following:
"Jamaica Underground: The Caves, Sinkholes and Underground Rivers of the Island" Alan G. Fincham, 1997, The Press University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.

Order Jamaica Underground Today!

Amazon's Book Description:
"Greatly extending the long out-of-print first edition, this new volume features over 300 specially redrawn cave plans, colour plates illustrating the Jamaican underground scene and numerous extracts from previously unpublished expedition logs and anecdotal accounts of explorations. This second edition of "Jamaica Underground" provides the only single source of detailed information on the caves of Jamaica."

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