Saturday, April 07, 2007

Bored? Go Spelunking!

This cave was nothing like the caves of my imagination. My idea of a cave was pretty straightforward and straight out of children's books - it had an enormous mouth for an entrance into which once would walk upright, bright at the entrance, becoming darker and darker as one walked farther and farther back into its recesses.

After driving about an hour and a half west of Washington, D.C. to the Virginia/West Virginia border to do some spelunking, we parked the car in a wide expanse of pavement just above an embankment that fell away from the Interstate. We got out, slung our backpacks on our shoulders and gingerly walked down the embankment a few meters. We made a sharp right and S, our guide - who was my collegemate and also ran an adventure company - said, "Here we are."

This "cave" we came to was a rather slim, elongated, hole in the wall.

D, another collegemate and my adventurer-in-arms for the day, and I looked at each other, "Where?" There was no big mouth, no rounded arch, nothing that looked like it might be the entrance to the cave. "I'll show you how to get it and you follow me, ok?" S plonked his backpack on the ground, removed three miner's lamps, gave one to each of us and strapped his own around his forehead. He slung his backpack back on, walked two steps to the hold, turned to face us and got down on his haunches. He stuck is lower legs into the hole, felt his way around with his feet and slowly lowered himself down with the help of the tiny ledges on the rock wall. Soon his entire body disappeared and all we saw was his face. "Come on in," he called out.

It had seemed like a great idea when I first heard about it. Now I was not so sure. I had all sorts of doubts about being able to get out of there, about snakes crawling in the bowels of the earth, about being able to breathe in there, about even fitting inside the cave. What if it was too small and there was no place to turn. Would I get claustrophobic?

Of course, I kept all of this to myself. Having driven this far, I didn't want to chicken out. I mentally ran through the contents of my backpack just trying to reassure myself that I wouldn't be stuck rotting in a cave where no one would find me (this was the age of no cell phones, to boot) - there were snacks, water, a packet of mint rolls (S had asked us to pack some, we had no idea for what) and a flashlight. Not too reassuring.

But I turned around anyway, getting ready to wiggle myself down the hole. I handed my backpack to S down the hole and inched my way down. It was a tight fit - with my sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes bulking up my frame - but finally I was standing on my feet. I took a quick look around. It was spacious to say the least. There was enough headroom, enough space to dance around in even and the cave streched very far back into the distance and trailed off into darkness.

D make her way down as well and we headed off into the inside of the cave. The floor was damp in places; in others puddles had formed on the floor. As we walked in S pointed to the ceiling silently - bats were hanging upside down, fast asleep. The walls were pockmarked with tiny fossils of fish and other sea life. Two hours west of Washington, D.C. was apparently where the Atlantic Ocean lapped at the shores of America many, many years ago.

It was amazing just how huge the cave was, right underneath an Interstate. I must have driven on that road at least five or six times, on the way to the Shenandoah Mountains, but I would have never guessed that there were these huge caves right underneath. The main cave, where we entered, branched off into separate chambers. S had a specific route in mind and eventually we came to a very narrow slit above our heads. By this time, our clothes were muddied as were our hands and shoes.

There was no way to climb up through the slit other than to wriggle up on our tummies. S went up first as did our backpacks. With the uneven serrations on the wall for toe holds and the ledge about the slit for leverage, I struggled up the narrow opening. As my head came out the other side, I saw that there was nothing but a narrow tunnel. No more standing spaces. We would be on our tummies on damp floor from then on, crawling forward on hands and knees.

Inching forward like a three bogie train, we suddenly came to a small room of sorts with enough space for three of us to comfortably sit but not stand. And here we understood what "pitch black" was. If I thought I had any idea was pitch black was, I was sadly mistaken. Here, in this tiny space deep inside one of the caves of Virginia, I could not see my own hand even if I held it up one centimeter in front of my face. There was absolutely no source of light for this part of the cave.

S asked us to take out our mint rolls and told us to pop one in our mouth and chew. We did, and surprise of surprises, sparks flew out of our mouths and very briefly, we could make out each other's shapes. D and I were mighty tickled.

Our little rest came to an end and we made our way back down the same tunnel and down the narrow opening to the wider part of the cave. There were no museums to see, no fancy buildings, metro systems or monuments, no fountains or sculptures down in that cave. But it was nothing short of amazing and satisfying, just to see a part of nature I had never seen before.

P.S. In India, I hear there's very good spelunking to be had in the caves at Edakkal in Kerala. If you go, do share your experiences.


Anonymous said...

i have wanted to explore a cave for ages, since i first read tom sawyer, but am yet to. i confess that i am chicken - have not forgotten what befell injun joe! btw, have you ever been to luray caverns on i-81 between roanoke and dc?

[off topic]: are you in india or usa right now? i thought you are (were?) in bangalore.

as an editor (elsewhere in blogdom), i am sure you have noticed one quirk of american newspapers - news items typically contain neither the location nor date. without them, there is no need for the article (or news item) to have any recent relevance. unfortunately, nowadays, indian newspapers appear to be picking this idiosyncrasy.

bottom line, it would be nice if you could preface your posts (of this genre) with some sense of time and space :-).

- s.b.

Anonymous said...

Nice. I am in Delhi, so wonder how long it will be before I get such a chance. I am also built a bit more solidly, so will need to be more careful.

Sujatha Bagal said...

s.b., yes, I've been to Luray Caverns. Love that place! Was very excited to see stalagcites (sp?) and stalagmites after reading about them in the Enid Blyton books.

This cave was underneath I-81 actually.

Now, about time and space and other such weighty matters. My next post about Mysore must have confused you even more, eh?

I just never looked at my posts from that point of view. All these issues are roiling in my head - my grandparents (b/c I'm seeing my parents and in-laws with my kids right now), the stuff that I want to do with my kids, the stuff that I did not get to do all these years that I'm getting to do now, etc. And of course, quotidian matters.

Usually, however, there is something in the post to indicate time (such as "collegemate" in this post which would mean it was when I was in college a while ago).

About space, hmmm, does it really matter where I am to what I write about? I guess I did not do a good enough job of transporting you to where I was. :(

BTW, you should go cave exploring if you can and you're up for it. It's cool.

Deepti, you should explore your options in North India. I'm sure UP, Himachal Pradesh, etc. will have something. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

re: luray caverns, i'll try ...

typically, when someone writes a biographical piece, it has to do with his/her current events. on the other hand, if you were to preface it with "a couple of years ago", or "when i was in xyz", it helps the reader understand that you are not really writing about the "right now, right here."

but this issue is much more confusing from the newspaper standpoint because it (the newspaper) should ideally provide the reader with the previous day's news, plus the reader would like to know where the story happened.

- s.b.

p.s.: it is spelt stalagtite i believe (or maybe stalactite); enid blyton's explanation was that one sticks (stalag)tight to the roof, and the other (stalag)might grow up to meet it.

Sam said...

Where is this place? Name? Address?


Sujatha Bagal said...

Sam, this website ( might give you some information though not sure how good they are. Please investigate and make sure you are comfortable before you decide to go with them. Good luck.