We’ve been adventuring with a vengeance for the past two weeks, and it’s starting to wear a few of us thin. Ali started feeling a little sick the other night and I’m starting to feel the exhaustion kick in, too.
Despite the onslaught of an enormous migraine and some very swollen lymph nodes, though, I am determined not to sleep through tonight’s activity, because tonight…we’re going caving.
At dusk we load up in the bus and bump our way up a rough trail through a heavily wooded area with the trees around us towering unfathomably high. Many of the trees are completely smooth and bark free, and other trees lay fallen, still smoldering from the controlled burns that supposedly take place in here all the time.
The bus pulls up to a small empty house on the mountainside and we all hop out. A guide meets us there and instructs us to put on white jumpsuits and white helmets with headlamps. We all look like a cross between the Michelin Man and an old miner, with some of our jumpsuits in a much better state than others. Mine, for instance, looks like it’s been groped by Edward Scissorhands, but no big deal—so long as my pants don’t rip underneath, all is well.
Jumpsuits on and excitement rising, we start to trek on foot through the forest, hiking our way up the mountainside to the location where we’ll explore the caves. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. The mountainside is incredibly steep but the trees nevertheless climb sky-high like giant shoots, defying the topography of the landscape. Smaller trees and shrubs crawl and wind their way across the soft dirt between these behemoths, encroaching onto the path every so often and forcing us to duck and wind our way down the path like explorers. We can hear birds singing in the distance and every once in awhile, we’ll see a bat zigzag its way across the darkening sky. It’s absolutely unreal.
Before long, we reach a small clearing with some rocks that’s apparently just a short way from the cave. We’ve been divided into two groups, and since we’re to be the second group to go caving, we’ll be hanging out in the dark for about an hour and a half or so. The stars are starting to come out and most of us have our own headlamps to use in the dark, so the wait isn’t too bad, especially since we have each other for company. The darker it gets, the more bats we can see swoop in and out of the beam of our lights. Jake and I trade bat references back and forth.
The other group thankfully returns before long, as everyone has gotten sufficiently tired of Jake and I saying incomprehensible things about bats. We snag the clip-on headlamps from the first group, ask them how the caves were (they were great), and then head off down the trail after our guide to see for ourselves.
Now, I don’t mean to diminish the glory of anyone’s past caving experience, but I do want to make an important distinction. The caving we will do tonight is not like caving in the states (or not legal caving anyways). There will be no ropes, no stairs, no handrails, and no harnesses. These caves were mapped out by cavers from the Congo who love to cave and would rather meet their demise having mapped out a new portion of a cave than move to South Africa for a desk job. These are the things they explain to us all as we group up just inside the mouth of the cave in a humungous cavern made up of several different layers of collapsed boulder.
They explain that while our route is of course 100% safe and has been done about a thousand times by both our guides and other adventurous tourists before us, it is of the utmost importance that we listen to our guides very well, because if we break a bone that we use to scramble and climb, it’ll take the paramedics up to a week to get a stretcher in and out of the caves.
Well versed now in the importance of safety and how to achieve said safety, we divide our larger group into two smaller groups: not claustrophobic and sometimes/frequently claustrophobic/oh dear lord I hate small spaces. Even though I’m not huge on tight squeezes…or being underground…and am feeling sicker and sicker from having sat in the cold for over an hour, I go with group one. How often do you get to go caving in Swaziland?
Right off the bat (hah!) I’m happy I chose the first group. This is not scary at all, in fact it’s amazing. We crawl through holes barely large enough for our shoulders, contort our bodies through nearly invisible cracks between boulders, and drop blindly through crevasses hidden underneath the ever-prevent overhanging rocks. It’s a team activity through and through, and we push and pull each other up over rocks and overhangs as we make our way deep into the earth to where we can hear water rushing. Bats hang upside-down, peacefully hibernating, and we do our best not to disturb them. The bats sleep all though winter, and sleeping for this long without feeding takes so much energy, if we disturb them enough that they fly around, they lose the precious energy they need to hibernate and might not actually survive the winter.
Sadly, with the size of our group and the noise and light that comes with us, several wake up and flap around. We shush each other and pray internally that they’ll be all right.
The whole experience is incredible—so much that, as long as we don’t stay sitting for too long, I don’t even feel that sick. My already shredded jumpsuit tears even further with each tight squeeze, but it winds up being more hilarious than problematic. We’re all having a blast, including our guides, who like to ask us which way is up whenever we get into a larger cavern. Every once in a while they’ll ask us which way we think our path leads too, and we’ll each point to a different hole or crack in the rocks. We’re almost always wrong, and the real one is often impossible to even discern from the overlapping boulders around us. Before they show us the path though, they always shrug in response to where we think the path goes and say, “Maybe. Who knows?”
There’s so much unexplored cave down here, those paths could go anywhere. For now, though, they tell us which path to take for our pre-mapped caving route.
Eventually we get to the lowest portion of our caving experience. Water drips all around us and we can hear the rushing of an underground river below us. It’s an almost ethereal experience: the dripping water making waterfalls of mineral deposits along the walls, the sound of the river—completely invisible—echoing through the cave, and the dark so oppressive that when you turn off the lights you can practically see the blackness.
The water is supposedly so pure down here from all of the mineral-rich rock it filters through that you can drink it straight from where it drips off the walls and ceiling of the cave. Having seen all of the bats up above us, I’m not entirely convinced, but I let some of the water drip onto my fingers and drink a tiny bit anyways. It does taste pretty clean (not that my hands are though, come to think of it).
After a quick break down there at the base of the cave, we start making our way back out. Again, our guides play the “which way do we go” game, and again we all fail, pointing to the path from which we think we came. Our guides laugh and then lead us down a different path. After plenty more scrambling, pushing, and pulling each other through the caves (including through one particularly tight squeeze that one of our guides hilariously called “the birthing canal”), we arrive right back where we started in the enormous cavern.
When we all emerge back in the entrance cave we can’t believe we just went caving, or that the tiny, cramped rock tunnels we just wriggled through led right back to here: the big, open, roomy cave. We congratulate ourselves and then follow our guides out of the cavern.
I can feel the exhaustion creeping back in as we hike our way back up to our waiting area, but luckily the guides brought us some granola bars, and I start to feel human again as we hike down the mountain in the dark.
This night was undoubtedly one of the coolest of my life, and though I can feel an enormous exhaustion-induced migraine creeping in, I wouldn’t trade tonight’s caving experience for the world. Besides, with the number of rocks I banged my helmeted head on over the past hour, I should be glad I can feel my head at all.
In case you can’t tell, all photo credit goes to Swazi Trails adventure company.