I’m teaching high school Physical Education in Sydney, Australia. My hockey team-mates invite me to explore a non-commercial cave with them. I want to step into the unknown with courage and trusted partners. Entering the earth’s bowels without a guide, relying on the past experience of my friends, on maps and carbide lamps as we discover this mystical world will be a totally new endeavour for me.
Freedom is letting go of bounds and barriers as we hurl ourselves into the adventure of living on the edge – on the mountain, ocean or underground. I want to overcome my weaker self – use extreme experiences to break through the barriers in my own mind.
We secure our 75-metre climbing rope, climb into our harnesses, double-check our gear, light our carbide lamps
and drop into the pitch black of the cave entrance. My heart is jumping – I’m not sure from fear or excitement – perhaps a combination of the fear that I might never exit this underground domain and the excitement of scrambling through this new subterranean network. The tar-black darkness envelopes me as I drop into the bowels of the earth. The darkness reels my brain into a new level of fear. I rappel down twenty-five metres, join Tom and wait for our companions on this small ledge just big enough for the four of us. In the absolute stillness of the cave, I can hear the flow of the river below. Humidity closes in around me – it seems to crush my body. As I breathe in through my nose, the scent is musty. The absolute darkness leaves the world beyond our carbide lamps a mystery. We pull our rope, drive in another anchor as the chamber echoes with our pounding, secure our rope and descend another thirty metres. As I come to rest fifty-five metres below the earth’s surface, I feel the water as the underground river soaks through my boots and socks. My feet are drenched. The water’s cold. My forehead beaded with sweat. My arms tired from the rappel.
The cave is dead silent – the only sound, the tumbling water. I take time to bring my heart rate down. I look up at the thin shaft of sunlight – the last glimpse I’ll get for ten hours. As Tom coils our climbing rope, I realize there’s no turning back. We’re committed. We’ve got to follow this underground current until we emerge downstream. I can’t help thinking, What awaits us?
My carbide lamp reveals the river flowing through cavernous limestone rooms studded with ceiling-to-floor stalagmites and stalactites. I’m in awe of this underground architecture that has taken centuries to form, one drop at a time. As we wade waist-deep down the crystal-clear river, we enter a fifteen-metre grotto filled with colourful, crystallised stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone and towering columns. These stalactites are beautiful limestone formations hanging from the ceiling, resembling large icicles or draperies. Rising from the floor are the stalagmites, a similar formation reminding me of upside-down icicles. I gaze in wonder at the white flow slabs and the beauty of the speleothems that adorn the cave. It’s like walking through an underground castle – every room decorated with astounding formations resembling an abundance of sculptural decorations supported by fifteen-metre flying buttresses.
The river has etched and eroded the surrounding rock, allowing us to follow its course. At times we must turn sideways and squeeze through narrow openings above the water. Other times we get on our hands and knees in the water and duck under overhanging rock. Sometimes we climb through an overhead opening as the water plunges under a wall of rock. These underground passages seem to be guarding the unexplored chambers against intruders like us. The smooth, cool rock feels like silk worn smooth by centuries of running water.
Perched on a rock shelf above the river, we open our lunch and ponder our next move. Our carbide lamps unveil a wall extending from the river to the ceiling of our cavern. The river dives beneath the rock barrier. There is no way over the solid wall. To continue downriver to the cave’s exit, we must submerge below the river surface, swim underwater with the current in total blackness and hopefully rise into the next downstream cavern to inhale a life-saving breath of air.
Tom checks our maps. He’s sure we’re in the right spot. The underwater swim should only be about five metres. Tom decides every one of us can master this underwater swim. How does he know what I can do? He’s never seen me swim! He’s only seen me play hockey.
As I stare at the water disappearing beneath the rock wall, I fully understand there are no pockets of air between the river and overhead rock. I must hold my breath until I enter the next downstream cavern. Does the underwater tunnel actually open up into another cavity in five metres? Can I manage to swim the five metres? Is the tunnel large enough to allow full breaststrokes? I realise if these challenges are not overcome, this Australian cave will become my tomb – a 20th-century resemblance of King Tut’s burial chambers. Tom takes a big breath, sinks beneath the water, and vanishes into the chute. We listen intensely, hoping to hear his shouts of joy as he surfaces in the next room …. Nothing – not a sound. Did he make it?
It’s my turn! I prepare for my submerged swim, securing my helmet, hyperventilating to enable my deepest breath. My head seems light. My muscles tense. I start to shiver as if I’m in sub-zero Canadian winter. My breathing accelerates. I’ve committed to the group, but my gut churns with butterflies! Should I follow through with my pledge to go?
I’m fully aware of the possible consequences and my freedom of choice. I know the longer I sit and ponder this decision, the harder it will become. It reminds me of my first dive off the high diving board – go now, or I’ll never go.
“OK. Here goes. Pray I get to see you on the other side.”
I’m so nervous. I take the time to bring my heart rate down, murmur a short prayer and take a deep breath. As I submerge, my carbide lamp is extinguished. Blackness engulfs me. I see absolutely nothing. I’m not even sure which way is up or down. I’m encased in pure silence. My helmet bumps along on the overhead rock. I feel the current pushing. All my muscles are giving 100% – pulling and kicking. Horror swallows my thoughts. The cold water presses on every inch of my body like a hotdog bun squashing a wiener. There’s no air to breathe.
The current pushes me farther into the underwater channel. Is our map accurate? Are we reading it correctly? Will I be able to reach air in the downstream room? I must swim with all my strength. At this point, I know everything is at stake. No reversing my direction – no turning back. I must dismiss the grip of these dark thoughts.
I transition into an inexplicable level of concentration – a level I find difficult to produce in any other way. Many of us would become panicked. Instead, I become super alert – like I’m on some drug – with all my senses engaged. I begin to function like a machine. Everything around me fades away. My thoughts focus on my next move. My single-mindedness narrows. I exist only in the present moment.
In my experiences, I address my fear in an ever-escalating progression. Initially, fear fills my body psychologically, alerting me to the dangers of the situation. Second, my fear moves into the stage of psychological terror. It’s at this stage that I must act – take action I believe will pull me through based upon my skill set, past experience and mental toughness. I can’t give up. Third, I plunge into panic, a stage where I’m now controlled by the beast! My thoughts are not focused, my actions not intentional. Past experience has taught me that I must act while in stage two.
I no longer feel any fear. I’m focused on my precisely executed actions. I must stroke powerfully and dynamically – leave no chance for drowning. My hands pull. My feet kick. My body glides with the current. There is no wiggle room for any slightest slip of concentration. I move in a relentless rhythm, deliberately paying attention to every detail.
I burst through the surface, exhaling victoriously, gasping in fresh air. My body fills with exultation – I’ve made it.
Finally, after ten hours underground I spot a shimmer of light. As I emerge from our subterranean world, I feel the warm sun beat down. I can’t help but be proud. Caving (spelunking) is perhaps one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever encountered. To venture into uncharted, underground caves is to put your life at risk. There are several uncertainties – will our carbide lamps last; will my climbing skills be adequate; how far is the underwater passage; does it enter a new chamber; will we get lost in this underground labyrinth? There are only a few people who can imagine doing this and even fewer who will dare to try. It’s another occasion when I realise that if I let these opportunities slip through my fingers, I may never get this chance again. Check off another bucket list activity as I thank God for caving with me.