By: John Pint
The town square was already shimmering with heat although couldn’t have been earlier than 10 AM. We approached the stooped form a man relaxing on the only shaded bench around.Bright eyes glanced at us from a face that sported a harvest of wrinkles, perhaps from years of toil in the burning sun. “Good morning, caballero. We’ve come here looking for caves in this area. Could you help US?” The ancient eyes grew puzzled. “Ay! if it’s caves you’re looking for, you shouldn’t come to me. Why don’t you ask one of the old man around here?
AN OCCASIONALLY SMELLY WATERFALL
Thought we were unable to find any one older than our venerable informant, we did come across a friendly rancher who claimed to have a cave own his own property. He was even kind enough to draw us to the place, which resulted in our standing knee deep in a burnt-over swamp about 45 minutes later, hunt for a waterfall in an area that apparently had nothing more to offer than cane fields and tangled underbrush, well laced with poison ivy.
How wrong we were! Suddenly my bold brother-in-law Pepe, now covered with soot and dripping with mud, gave a whoop from behind a thick grove of thorny bushes. “Por aquí, Zotz... look what I’ve found.” It was a waterfall, all right, and a strikingly beautiful one at that with a special plus for cavers. Standing at its edge, we inhaled the vapors rising from the canyon some 20 meters below us ... and gasped, for in spite of the sunshine and open air we couldn’t miss the unmistakable, pungent odor of bat guano.
While searching for a way down the sheer walls, Pepe again spearheaded our attack, opening up a steep path through the underbrush that soon brought us into a thick grove of bamboo on the bottom. There was bamboo on the left of us, and on the right of us, and in every other directions, including underfoot. In the technical jargon of tropical cave hunters, “we was just plumb bamboozled! Slowly we made our way upstream over, under and between a tumble of giant boulders. On reaching the waterfall we soon found the source of the guano smell: a tall and narrow cave entrance which was, unfortunately completely flooded with deep water of a very murky color.
A week later, we were back with our rubber boots, prepared to wade chest-deep in what turned out to be surpassingly cold water. At the far en of this flooded “foyer” reached a water-filled fissure about 75 cm (30 inches) wide. A pole indicated the water was over two meters deep, but the sight of more cave beyond encouraged us to try chimneying our way inside, by now we (Jesús Moreno and I) were shivering and, cursing the evils of wet blue jeans, but we finally made it to a large rock, where we discovered we were at a T-shaped junction.
One way looked very, very wet and the other practically dry so it didn’t take long to make a choice. Our dry passage obviously carries vast quantities of water during the rainy season.
The undulating walls of the narrow passage were worn smooth and glossy. The roof of the fissure was 2O-25 meters above us. From the beginning we could hear a strange sound coming from somewhere ahead. But it was only after some 75 meters that we saw the cause of what had now become a sort of soft roar. Shining our lights on the ceilings, we gaped at what appeared to be a living wall of bats, a mass that was slowly dissolving as thousands of the creatures took wing to investigate what may have been the first such disturbance of that passage in all time.
Hunched over, we had to move slowly and keep stopping frequently in order to avoid collisions with those bats which still hadn’t turned on their radar, unaware that a change had taken place in this territory they normally knew by heart. After 150 meters, the passage ended in a room lit by a shaft of daylight falling through a slot 16mt above us. We were delighted to have found an “easy” entrance to this cave, but it wasn’t going to do us much good this time around. Grimacing at the thought of taking another cold bath, we retraced our steps, by the time we reached the main entrance, we knew we were to numb to try the other leg of the T, and we exited back into the much-appreciated Mexican Winter (80ºF) outside.
The next morning, the rancher showed us what he thought was another entrance to the same cave. As this one appeared dry. Susy joined us. Curiously, after only a few meters we again found ourselves at a T, but this time there was a narrow stream in both directions. We decided to head downriver.
After only a few meters, we spotted a perpendicular side passage and then another and another, but we bypassed them and kept following the stream passage which would occasionally open up into rooms. The ceiling was low; with only a few places where one could stand up, one of the rooms proved we were not the first explorers of this part of the cave. Three large, nearly round lumps of obsidian were lying on the floor, one of them displaying a smooth, shiny surface where it had been neatly cleft. A few inches away lay an obsidian “knife” or scraping tool, obviously fashioned to fit in the hand. Numerous chips along its sharp edge proved beyond a doubt it was man-made.
What might lie beneath the sandy floor remains to be investigated, we pushed on. We found a few tricky spots where one hand to maneuver with care to avoid a dunking and, about 100 meters further on, came to an interesting room about 20 meters in diameter.
The low ceiling appeared to be held up by thick round columns resembling tree trunks. Passages led off to at least four directions. One of them, the stream channel, featured several channel drops and some possibly unavoidable pools of cold water. We decided we ought to have woolen socks and other cold-water cave; gear before tackling that passage, so we turned back to investigate the other arm of the T.
Moving upstream, we followed a very narrow and deep, but easy-to-negotiate water channel for about 50 meters to yet another entrance. This was filled whit breakdown surrounded by thick brush and is probably unknown to the ranch owner.
THE TURKEYS’ TROT
On our next visit, we headed straight for the Tree Trunk Room. Though some of us were now wearing various combinations of synthetic and woolen clothing, we decided to start with a dry passage that went off in a wholly new direction. Our promising lead took us a few more meters and then appeared to end, but Jesús shined his light through a small hole and discovered there were vast spaces awaiting us beyond.
One by one, we squeezed through the tight crawlway ... and found ourselves in another large river channel! We marked our almost unnoticeable crawlway with great care and then charged ahead ecstatically, for we were now in a long tunnel with no end in sight. We crawled around huge boulders or splashed through the water following under the, until at a certain spot, Jesús remarked, “Gee, this looks sort of familiar.”
At that precise moment, we become distracted by a soft glow that was coming therefore yet another entrance! We plunged ahead, turned right at a T-shaped junction and started at a tangle of tree roots bathed in the light of ... the very spot where we’d entered the cave only a half-hour earlier! Are you leaving already?” shouted Pepe from outside.
Whit sheepish grins we retraced our steps to the tree trunk room, amazed at the power of the mind to transform a well-known passage into a “new frontier” obviously by stressing only those aspects of reality that we had wanted or expected to see.
A Few meters beyond the Tree Trunk Room, the main river channel narrows and pitches downward. Suddenly we found ourselves walking on ridges two or three meters above the water level, whit the ceiling now 10-15 meters above us. Jesus, our Spiderman, began working his way upward while Susy, Mano and I rigged the cable ladder down into one of the “wells” of stagnant black water below us.
A stout tree branch was sticking up from this pool and I used it to test the water’s depth ... easily two meters depth smelling none too pleasant! Climbing down to the ladder, I managed to use the branch as a bridge to reach a ridge on the other side of the “well, without plunging into the water, in which I could now see a large rat floating... long dead.
From his perch up above, Jesús lowered a webbing hand-line, I moved up, he moved down and soon we were advancing along the bottom of a half-meter-wide fissure.
Twenty meters above us, there was a suddent flurry of activity. The air began to hum, and we could actually feel a breeze generated by hundreds of bats on the move. We took a few more steps... “Yeow!” shouted Jesús as his foot sank into a noxious-smelling substance with the consistency of well-aged chocolate pudding gone bad. Bat urine, guano and stagnant water had combined to form the most disgusting muck we had ever encountered.
Since I was wearing neoprene booties under tennis shoes. I got the privilege of chimneying just above this “soup” until, a few meters on. I could see what waited us: yet another “well” of black water-whatever, just waiting t swallow us up. Having spent so many hours only to advance a mere 30 meters, we finally retreated, derigged our ropes, which had now acquired an entirely new color, and headed outside. Where we peeled off our wet clothes, thickly coated with suck, and decided to call it a day.
It seems that the last incident has set the stage for all our subsequent visits to this cave: numerous “cold (and often disgusting) dunks” after falling off the slippery walls and, despite three attempts, no advance past “The Big Muck” nor any success in connecting what may ultimately turn out to be two separate caves. Meanwhile, we are surveying away and planning a new attack once the rains flush out the cave.