By Suresh Pattali
Been there, done that, I know how bad it could get inside a dark hellish labyrinth a kilometre beneath the earth and four kilometres from the nearest point of sunlight. In the 19 days when the 12 boys and their football coach were trapped inside the flooded Tham Luang cave system in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, not a day had passed without my prayers for their safety. Such was my agony that at times I metamorphosed into one among the boys who survived the ordeal on hopes, prayers, and more importantly the bond that existed between them.
The soccer team, nicknamed Wild Boars, had just finished practice on June 23 and wanted to go exploring. They had been inside the cave before, but this time they wanted to go further deep to write their names on the cave wall. But after they’d entered the cave, rain started to bucket down and the rising water forced them to take shelter on a muddy ledge. Watching the first video filmed by British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton of the boys huddled together on the ledge in a half-flooded chamber, and scrolling through hundreds of news items that poured in, a psychological condition I had overcome a few years back returned to haunt me. Every night, I groped in the dark, down twisting stone tunnels, crawled in the murky water, and squeezed through the narrow gaps in the rocks. I cringed in panic as claustrophobia stifled my psyche.
I must admit, age is catching up with me. I am not sure when claustrophobia and vertigo came to afflict a cadet like me, trained in warfare by India’s fearless Gurkha Regiment. I dread to recollect the snake that had coiled around my leg during a night time jungle training. Those daring moments no more define my persona. Looking back, some of my caving trips in South-east Asia a decade ago now seem like a nightmare. The Dark Cave was an adventure my family and I chanced upon during a pilgrimage to the iconic Hindu temple in Batu Caves in Malaysia’s Selangor state. The adventure tour to the Dark Cave those days was no longer conducted by a government agency. Most of the people who had collected around a lone tour desk manned by a Dane (if my memory is right) were apprehensive about an adventure trip under a private guide.
When everyone backed off, we were the only ones who showed the guts to give it a second thought. My children said, “Let’s go in.” I agreed, “Let’s go in.” My wife said, “Let’s go back.” The hectoring voice of majoritarians prevailed. We filled the insurance and indemnity forms and donned our headgear to follow the guide into an unknowable world. It was dark all through. The lone beam from the guide’s headgear shed light on colonies of bats and other wildlife that isn’t found anywhere else. Among us were spiders, cockroaches, large centipedes, snakes and other creepy crawlies living off bat droppings called guano. Natural limestone formations dating back to millions of years bewildered us. They formed the shapes of curtains, petals and scallops. Breathtaking stalactite and stalagmite formations glimmered in the torch light. Faint beams of sunlight that filtered through rocky ceilings in chambers offered relief from the frightening mass of black around us.
It isn’t easy to describe the density of darkness. At one point, along the two-kilometer route, the guide asked us to turn off all lights and stay silent for a minute, to enjoy the silence and the darkness. I thought this sightless experience is what it must be like for a blind man, and the soundlessness an approximation of what it must feel to be deaf.
“Isn’t it so peaceful and tranquil?” the guide asked. It wasn’t. It was surreal. It was spooky. With no sound and no sight, it was the closest to death a living human could experience. Yes, this is the state of death, I wanted to scream. I wanted to rip the veil of darkness from my eyes.
“Now, sharpen your ears; concentrate hard,” instructed the Dane. “What do you hear?”
“May be a feeble tick…tick at a frequency of 10 seconds,” I said. All agreed.
“That’s the sound of a water drop a kilometre away,” the guide tried to convince us.
As the cave started to wind down little pools of water, my wife asked, “Where are we headed now?”
“Further down, Ma’am, where there’s a pool, a crawl passage and more fun. You can get wet and dirty,” he said.
“No way,” said wifey, bathing in the sweat of paranoia. We had no choice but to give up.
My solo experience inside Puerto Princesa Underground River on the island of Palawan in the Philippines wasn’t any different. The subterranean river flowing under the Saint Paul Mountain Range was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, and voted one of the New7Wonders of Nature in 2012. The island is characterised by vast stretches of virgin forest, and the river is neatly camouflaged under the dramatic mountain ranges. There’s an entrance beneath a stone cliff, which is partly submerged by the Cabayugan river that spills directly into the South China Sea. But this entrance, accessible only by a tour boat from the town of Saban, is the only clue to the existence of the mysterious tunnel that stretches 8.2km through a labyrinth which is a melange of stalactite and stalagmite formations, waterfalls, domes, a maze of narrow river channels and rare marine creatures. The spectacular karst landscape is scaringly low at some point but turns midway into a grand “cathedral” inhabited by thousands of its parishioners — the large bats. Some of the rock formations resemble the images of a horse, a mushroom, a naked figure, the Holy Family.
More than the bewilderment at the myriad mysteries of the nature, what overpowered me when I navigated the dark water channels or strolled through the limestone trails littered with smelly bat droppings in the Dark Cave, was the fear of death. Caves are not for the faint-hearted. Every moment that you endure inside a cave system is loaded with the fears of a calamity. What if there’s an earthquake that causes the mountain to sink into the earth, burying you in a kilometre-deep grave? What if large tsunami waves drown you in the waters that you marvelled at a few seconds ago? It’s a dangerously beautiful game. Like how the sheeting monsoonal rains filled the otherwise dry Tham Luang cave system in Thailand.
I feel groggy thinking about the 19-day ordeal that the kids endured on a muddy ledge, trapped by water gushing in through various trapdoors in the mountains. In the long run, they would have run out of oxygen in the closed chamber, let alone food. Thank God, our prayers were answered. The brave, innocent mortals deserved a second coming. In the meantime, I’m looking for some positivity to tide over my panic attack. HELP! Anybody there?
Suresh is senior editor. His philosophy is heavily influenced by Ulysses