Hip indie flick “The Descent” has a 700 word plot summary on Wikipedia which I can condense down to its component parts whilst still capturing the full flavor:
“They hike up to a cave entrance and descend”, “collapses”, “trapping them”, “breaks her leg”, “neck ripped out”, “Beth begs Sarah to euthanize her”, “psychotic breakdown”, “dragged back and eaten alive”, “Sarah has reached a dead end.” And that’s the whole movie. It was legitimately one of the best films of 2005.
The American term for cave exploring for either “fun” or science is ‘spelunking’ which makes it sound like a delightful romp, like ‘wassailing’ which means to get really, noisily drunk, mostly at Christmas. The British have a more dour term for caving, calling it “potholing”. Pot being the Middle English word for pit, meaning the British essentially go ‘hole-holing’ which is nonsensical and doesn’t sound nearly as merry.
Whatever name it goes by, my feelings as I approached Jenolan Caves for what the brochure described as “adventure caving’ were ‘guarded’. My girlfriend and I arrived late on a Friday night, relieved to find the place unscathed having spent the last hour driving through the heaviest fog I’d ever seen. It was like piloting a plane through a cloud.
The parade of other cars on the lonely mountain road which we assumed could only possibly be heading where we were heading, mysteriously all turned off a valley side path leaving us to the hillbillies and monsters. Where the fuck were they going? Klan meeting?
Our hotel for the weekend, Jenolan Caves House built into the base of the Blue Mountains was a Victorian-era edifice, slightly coming apart at the edges and bearing a close resemblance to The Shining’s Overlook.
Whilst we encountered no evil twins or axes, our bed did come with a leech which I banished to the hell from which it came (flushed it down the toilet).
The following morning we found the leech still there, waving around as if to say “come me at, bro!” It was actually un-flushable, attaching itself to the inside of the bowl like a lamprey whenever I depressed the button.
Drawing on my boy-scout training and post graduate degree in marking, I elected to go chemical. A blast of deodorant was in-effective, but a big blurp of hotel-brand body wash had an immediate and disturbing effect, causing the poor leech to vomit up the previous night’s feast of blood, writhe around for a minute and then sink, perfectly still.
Joyously did we eat our breakfast.
Our caving adventure was booked in for the afternoon, so with a few hours to kill we went on a bush walk through the hills. The Blue Mountains under a light rain, mist obscuring the valley peaks is entrancing pretty. The so-called “blue lake” was perfectly blue, droplets beaded every fern, and the forest abounded in bubbling brooks into which I peered hard for platypus. It was like walking around inside my “rain sounds for relaxation” playlist.
Tiny, plump-looking finches bounced around the lower branches, we spied a lyerbird stalking out worms and two black cockatoos. A sign said peregrine falcons and wombats were present in the area. I ached to pat a wombat.
By a riverbank we instead came across a spine. Legit, a spine.
A plague of flies arose at our approach. It retrospect it may have been a kangaroo tail but in the moment I immediately wondered if The Descent’s cave cannibals were based on a true story. We then noticed various leeches cartwheeling towards our ankles, and so retreated back to the hotel.
At caving HQ we were instructed into rugged blue overalls. A surgical bandanna was deftly tied around our head, and onto which was plopped a miners helmet with a nifty headlamp attachment. Clearly we were in for some adventuring. Spying my girlfriend in her saggy spelunking attire, I remarked to her that I’d never been more attracted to her than I was at that moment.
Our two guides had the dimensions of stocky jockeys i.e. squat rectangles. I later noticed that all the guides around the caves had this body type. Apparently the better to squeeze and haul themselves through obscenely tight spaces unaided. This also happens to be my body type, which relaxed me slightly.
The rest of our tour group were an eclectic bunch. It consisted of:
- The white people version of my girlfriend and I,
- Two portly middle aged men and their soccer-playing teenage daughters,
- A couple where the guy was clearly batting out of his league, and
- A teenage boy with an astonishingly close resemblance to the Jew-fro kid from 40 Year Old Virgin.
I’ll only refer to him here as “Will” because it’s his real name and I hope he reads this the little shit. The older man accompanying him we awkwardly learned was not his real father.
And so a spelunking we would go! Over the course of two hours we scrabbled around in the near darkness. And it was awesome. It became immediately apparent why shortness was a virtue amongst adventure cavers, as just getting into the cave required proceeding in a low crouch, like soldiers through a trench. The bowels of the cave itself I’d describe as “dusty and sharp.” I banged my head non-stop.
On some of the walls were inscriptions from the early 1900’s written in candle smoke by adventurous aristocrats. Usually when I find graffiti which says something like “Dave woz here” I always write “no he wasn’t” underneath, but these were just people’s names, all long dead.
Our guide pointed out the word “Arnott’s” as in Halse Rogers Arnott, director of Arnott’s Biscuits and inventor of the Tim Tam cookie, which for Australians makes this particular hole-in-the-ground a religious shrine.
To get from the top of the cave and emerge weary at the bottom meant very slowly descending in single file through a procession of chambers, linked together by improbably small tunnels for which we’d have to variously lower ourselves feet first, head first, on our back, on our stomach and otherwise contort ourselves into V’s, S’s and L shapes and suck in our gut.
In every cavern I’d spy an obvious-looking person-sized exit against a far wall, and every time the guides would instead point at a divot on the floor with the dimensions of a basketball and fall through it, calling for us to follow.
Will did not enjoy any of this. At every tight squeeze he’d have the top half of his matchstick physique in one cave whilst his legs dangled and wiggled pathetically in another. To every piece of advice given on what to do next he’d neigh “I’m TRYyyyinggggg.” Shut up, Will. It became so irksome that we all agreed to eat Will first in the event of a cave in.
Later, for a laugh, the guides instructed us to turn off our head lamps and sit for a minute. It turns out that this deep in the cave system there is no light at all. If you wave your hand in front of your face you actually hallucinate the shadow of your hand passing by. Somewhere, Will whined “All I see is blackness”. Fuck off, Will.
Apparently, your brain puts the shadow there to try and adapt to your new unhappy situation. After a long enough time you’ll think you can see the cave, and so you’ll walk to what you think is the way out, but instead fall to your death.At length we emerged sweaty and streaked in mud, but immensely pleased with ourselves to have survived. Sadly, Will was still amongst us.
What I will say though, is that the adventure caving tour isn’t particularly “visual”. Taking photos will just provide a lot of dankness. To make up for it, later that night we took in a walking (read: wuss) tour of a more accessible cave.
The guide remarked as we set out that this cave system (known as The Orient) contained 1,500 stairs to climb. “Only 750 if you take them two at a time” I remarked rather drolly to my girlfriend, who laughed and laughed and laughed. Up ahead, someone else remarked, louder, “Only 500 if you take them three at a timeAHAHAHAHAHA!.” Motherfucker. “Bigger” doesn’t mean “funnier” you stupid Will…
The Orient Caves are 340 million years old and beautiful. Go there man. Don’t go with Will.