The cave yawned. Scraggly teeth adorned the ceiling. Impatient from waiting for the slower half of the group to catch up a boy from the group sprinted ahead to survey the subterranean hall. Glancing back every now and then to catch a nod of approval from his parents he navigated his way across the creek cutting the cave in half. In the shaded darkness of the cave his pink shirt stood out like a neon sign. He had clever parents.
A rocky perch provided a welcome platform for my camera. With the shutter speed set to ultraslow and my mind focused on anticipating a calm moment I waited to pounce. There it was.
I’m really fond of that photo. It looks traditional, curious and somehow tragic but resolved.
I’d just entered Namtaloo Cave while on a tour of Cheow Larn Lake in the southern Thai province, Surat Thani. At a cost of 1,500 baht for a one-day tour I’d already completed the boat-ride, swimming, kayaking and trekking sections of the trip. My camera had survived a suicide dive into a mud puddle.
Life was good. I was about to walk through the winding tunnel branching from this cave’s mouth. I had a headlamp. I was filled with more anticipation than fear.
I’d been underground before at Crownsnest Pass in Alberta, Canada. Actually I’d entered Bellevue Underground Mine twice—once with my class in high school and then later with my German friend and cousin.
Snapping back to Thailand, the rest of the tour group had arrived and we moved into the tunnel. With our headlights blazing, beams of light cut away the darkness. A little bit. Actually it was quite dark even with our headlamps because most people had cheap, poor-quality ones. One girl stood out like a lighthouse with a headlamp designed for skiing/snowboarding at night.
I resolved to have a lamp like that if I signed up for another cave tour in the future…and to get a personal group together or hire a solo tour. With the current crowd steaming ahead along the track worn by the creek I struggled to admire the cave’s beauty, capture photos of it and not trip on the stones resting under the water. Even without my camera in hand and my eyes dutifully straining to see where I was stepping, I was crouched into a low stance as I struggled over the uneven floor.
How can you tell that a Canadian is unsure of his or her footing? They become shorter. Their knees bend as they bring their center of gravity lower. It’s an anti-slipping technique perfected from years of ice patches and broomball. I’d even had some additional practice from navigating the treacherous and deceptive popcorn rock of Dinosaur Provincial Park near my home.
Inside the cave I never slipped.
I swam (they had a waterproof bag for carrying cameras), I waded, I clung to walls, I tentatively stepped down a step ladder consisting of a line of wooden poles jammed over a narrow mini waterfall and I avoided twisting my ankles.
At one point my camera decided to give up on life after all and failed to respond. While silently freaking out over it I strayed to the tail of the group. I pushed and prodded the buttons all over its body, shaking it as dramatically as a mother who refuses to believe her child is dead. I clutched it to my chest and promised to find help as soon as I could, whipping my head back and forth as though I expected a camera ambulance to come screaming out of the black. Or at least a wandering camera technician?
I didn’t even have time to mourn my camera because I realized that my surroundings had suddenly drastically changed.
I remember it pretty distinctly. One moment there was a mass of lights filling the tunnel, the next a final solitary spark winked out as the last of the group turned a corner and left me behind. Suddenly there was only the massive cave, the repressive black, the cheeky water tickling my feet, my camera drooping at my side, the headlamp brashly pointing forward and I.
Half of me was freaking out.
They’d just walked on! They didn’t even notice that I’d fallen behind! That was the last guide! What if I got lost! What if I tripped and couldn’t move! What the ****!
The other half of me was actually relieved and considered just hanging back. I could move at my own pace. I could step away from the clutter of tourists.
With my camera out of commission I can just concentrate on walking and soaking in the sensation of exploring this cave. I’m the first explorer. I’m an underground creature of myth, a faerie of old. I’m a survivor of the Apocalypse.
With my imagination running wild and my self threatening to warm up to the idea, my responsible self stepped up and reminded me that I could get lost.
And darn it that would cause all kinds of trouble.
The darkness beckoned. The stillness was settling like a roused animal shrugging back to sleep. The noise of the crowd was fading.
While I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the idea of entering the mass of tourists again I acknowledged the cons of wandering on my own and doggedly sprinted to catch up.
I nodded to the last guide as he helped the stragglers navigate a particularly tough section of the route. He went back to concentrating on helping a woman step to the next rung in the gushing water.
After tucking my camera away into the waterproof-bag and dropping into the pool of water at the bottom of the ladder I was submerged in the tour once more.
Wading to shore I noticed the woman whom the guide had been assisting resting on a large stone, her arms propped up on her knees and holding her head. I’d talked to her daughters a bit on the boat. Their earlier cheerfulness wasn’t present as they crowded around their mother, their hands protectively resting on her shoulders. Approaching them I caught their eyes.
“She was terrified during that last leg,” they explained.
“When we asked if the tour would be ok for her they assured us she would be fine. She’s going on 60 but she’s stubborn and strong. That climb down though was not mentioned when we asked about the cave tour.”
“Oh.” I replied.
Bending low I looked the elder woman in the face with admiration.
“Well you did a wonderful job getting through it and it’s great that you can do such a tour at your age! Congratulations!”
Pulling her head up she managed to break into a grin. Nodding, she thanked me and after a moment took to her feet.
Restless silence passed. Then the herd flocked into the darkness ahead. Natural light was breaking through the stone. We could sense the sky just ahead. Feet quickened. Those who’d fallen quiet became energized again as though they were flowers in the predawn sensing the imminent arrival of the sun. Squeezing our eyes shut against the powerful presence of sunlight we broke free from the ground.
Just like that we were out. The ground had swallowed us up and spit us out.