I could feel my heart thumping in my chest. Beads of sweat began trickling down my face like I’d just run a marathon. But I wasn’t running at all. I was standing still, using all my energy to remember where I had come from, to remain calm and concentrate. Through the eerie silence I could hear the soft sizzling of my candle, a slowly burning wick threatening to thrust my companions and I into a world of suffocating darkness. We push through a seemingly never ending river of mud, climb over a succession of jagged rocks and try to distinguish one column from the next. We question whether this was the same formation we passed an hour ago and come up with the same anti climatic conclusion: it all looks the same.
Initially the plan was simple. We would explore Guatemala’s Lanquin Caves armed with nothing more than a burning candle and a healthy sense of adventure. We had read that these caves were home to thousands of different species of bat and when the sun sets a flurry of wings will come out to play, exploding from the caves entrance in a wave of brown and black. This was something we had been longing to see, but what’s a memory without a little adventure, right?
Coming from a country such as Australia where rules, laws and restrictions are over-enthusiastically enforced the sheer simplicity of this ‘tourist attraction’ caught me by surprise. There was no external lighting, no guide (apparently you can hire one, which in hindsight may not have been a bad idea), no map and no way of knowing if our healthy sense of adventure had led us into hell-quite literally.
The Lanquin Caves were, and still are, accessed by Mayan Indians who believe whole-heartedly in the role of the caves in linking our world to the underworld. Essentially, the caves act as a bridge between the two realms and many believe that to venture too far into this system would expose not only a maze of unexplored and unnavigable tunnels, but hell on earth. We were lost. Hopelessly, inexplicably, terrifyingly lost in hell. Why hadn’t I thought to put this on my bucket list? Meet Hades, tick. Daylight ceased to exist and I instantly felt as if I was one of those unfortunate characters in The Descent (if you haven’t seen this film do yourself a favour: never watch it if caving is on the agenda).
Yes, I was lost in an unexplored cave system with Caitlin, a member of the Guatemalan Peace Core and a man who bore a striking resemblance to Jesus-in fact that’s what we called him. Coincidence? I think not. For many Guatemalans these caves are literally the ‘heart of heaven’, and I was being led by a man known only as Jesus-I struggled to make sense of the irony in this. Take from this what you will, but to be exposed to a strong cultural belief in such a real way was truly confronting.
For two hours we fought with the darkness, fought with each other and fought with our minds. When faced with the terrifying realisation that no one knows where you are-that you yourself don’t know where you are-it is frighteningly easy to begin recollecting past Bear Grylls episodes and asking: what would Bear do in this situation? Unfortunately my mind insisted on wandering back to The Descent, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would soon turn into a cave dwelling evolutionary marvel who would begin growing gills, learn to hunt by scent and get kicks out of scaring the pants off lost cavers. My mind was a mess, and as the wax on my candle slowly burnt out so did my spirit.
Hello new home, you’re a little darker than I’m used to but at least I won’t have to wash the dishes.
As we forged through the caves, leaving a sizzling trail of melted wax in our wake, a sense of familiarity began to welcome us. Fresh boot prints had been imprinted into the muddy ground, a candle we had sacrificed on the way still burnt on the mossy rock we had left it on (at least we did something right) and up ahead was a railing which led to the caves entrance; a railing that we foolishly left behind what seemed like an eternity ago. Soon after some much needed cheers and pats on the back we had once again welcomed the light. My gills began to shrink, my sense of smell went back to normalcy and I no longer wanted to scare the pants of cavers.
Not today Hades, not today.
We jubilantly exited the cave, rejoicing in our new found freedom which we had once taken for granted. Though despite the mud that covered us from head to toe, the melted wax that left a painful and indelible reminder on our palms and the bat poo caught in our hair we had come here for a reason, and by god we would see this through (or should I say by Jesus?). We sat at the entrance of the caves and waited for sundown. We waited for the bats that we had become so well acquainted with over the past few hours. We joked, we laughed, we recollected and we soon forgot about the darkness we had just escaped. Despite the fear I had felt in my bones I knew that this experience would be one of those defining moments in my life-the type of moment that highlights the reason for travelling in the first place.
Bats fly free from Lanquin’s Bat Cave
Suddenly the caves began to echo with a deafening screeching which could only be described as thousands of nails on a jumbo chalk board. We held our ears, smiling from ear to ear and waiting patiently for the explosion we had longed to see. The screeching suddenly stopped, and was replaced with the distant sound of flapping-a sound that was quickly upon us. Suddenly a wave of bats whooshed past our heads in a flurry of excitement, covering the sky in a blanket of brown and black (as promised). We sat in the eye of a storm of wings which dodged and weaved past our exposed faces and made a bee line for freedom. I couldn’t help but compare the excitement of these creatures, who call these caves home, with our very own joy when leaping out of the same exit. Their elation was contagious.
After fifteen minutes of dodging flocks of giddy bats the skies began to clear and give way to a bright, full moon. I sat where I was in silence, recollecting the events that had unfolded in a mere four hours. Never in my life had I experienced the range of emotions that I had undergone in this relatively short period of time: fear, exuberance, impatience, giddiness, acceptance and courageousness to name a few. However, I knew that as a traveller these were the moments that I lived for and I will forever cherish each and every one of these feelings. I hadn’t met Hades, but I had been to hell and back with a man named Jesus. And that is a memory that will last forever.