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Waaay outside the comfort zone

THAILAND | Friday, 21 November 2014 | Views [476]

Bamboo ladder leading down into Christmas Cave. Dina throws in the towel here. Aaron goes on ahead.

Bamboo ladder leading down into Christmas Cave. Dina throws in the towel here. Aaron goes on ahead.

If travel is supposed to bring you into experiences you would never normally have, then today I have truly travelled. We signed up for a tour of three local caves today. There were eight of us, plus our guide, Ahn. The first thing they say to me is, "You probably want some long pants and closed-toed shoes."  Umm, I don't have either of those things. I'm wearing shorts (as are several of the guys, Aaron included) and I figure I'm signing up for some knee scrapes. We each are to bring two liters of water and a knapsack, and we are further supplied with a bag lunch of rice, meat/herbs, and a banana muffin. We are then given headlamps, a bamboo staff, and helmets. I am immediately a little nervous. We load up into the back of a pickup truck and are taken to our drop off point.

 First thing, we start to walk on the trail to our first cave: Fossil Cave. It rained yesterday, so what might have been mercifully firm soil was now slick-as-snot red clay. I'm wearing Chaco river sandals. The trail is steeply up and down and up and down into rice and bean fields, jungles, and hillsides. I am sliding all over the place, mostly just falling down. I lose count of how many falls I have had, and with little pride left and a growing fear level, I just sit down. I "hiked" for about 1.5 km, on my butt. In the mud. Yes, I did. I tried to "ski" in a squatting position much of the time, to avoid falling too far behind, though several times I caught up due to others also having difficulty with poor traction. I'm covered in mud, and complete the picture by swiping mud marks across my cheeks, Rambo-style. 
We get to the cave, and put on our helmets and headlamps. I am instructed in how to point the light down, rather than ahead, so as to see my footing, rather than the view. Now, as many of you may know, I am afraid of heights a bit, and also of falling. Of course, I've fallen already probably over 40 times today. 
Going into the cave is like nothing I've ever attempted before.  It's dark, but there are nine of us looking around with our headlamps so things are illuminated somewhat. The rocks we are climbing around on on slippery and muddy, and at odd angles. I needed some help navigating my footing several times, but Aaron was very supportive and the others were very helpful too. We saw a cave snake, and a bat flew really close to my face at one point. There are stalagmites and stalactites all over, and crystally patches here and there. Beautiful formations and tall cathedral ceilings. Spectacular!!  I was very grateful for the helmet on several occasions, when I stood straight up into stalactites. 
Then we hiked to the second cave, Waterfall Cave. We were told that this one would mentally challenge us, and to be prepared. My god! I mentally challenged myself plenty getting through that last cave. So we hike again through fields and hillsides and mud. Beautiful countryside, with amazing limestone karsts, rice paddies, and even a couple local people harvesting rice by hand. Our guide stopped to help them cut sheathes of rice for a few minutes on our way past, I assumed to thank them for letting us pass through. 
We arrive at Waterfall Cave, and are told to leave our bags, cameras, (basically anything we have with us) behind at the entrance. Some of the men take off their shirts, as we are informed that we are going to have to do some swimming!! I'm not taking off my shirt, so I'm all set. We go into the entrance and right away we are wading in a calf deep running stream. Now I'm happy for my river shoes!  Soon we get to an area where the ceiling of the cave is lower, and now we have to crawl for a short distance, through the water, until we can stand once again. Thankfully, the water is not glacier run-off, like it would be back home. The water temperature is cool, not shocking, and actually a bit refreshing considering our hiking in the sun earlier. 
Then we get to an area where the ceiling is only about two feet from the cave floor. We have to shimmy, lying  down, like trainees in army boot camp. Through the water. It was pretty amazing, and the bottom was often kind of sandy here rather than rocky, so it wasn't too painful. I found it exhilarating!! At the end of the crouching, crawling, shimmying area, we start to hear loud rushing water: the waterfall!! We look, one at a time, down into a dark abyss where the water rushes straight down about 30 feet. Amazing. 
Then, the return trip. It seemed quite a bit more difficult coming back out. I realized that it was because we were now shimmying against the current. My legs felt like they weighed a hundred pounds each, as I tried to keep my pace.  I knew there were others behind me trying to make their way too, and didn't want to trap them while I rested. At one point, coming up against the current, I had to tip my head sideways to get under a rock; which put the side of my face in the water. At least I didn't have to hold my breath during any of this, which I was worried we'd have to do at some point. After getting out of this cave, we had a much-deserved break, and ate our lunches. Our guide picked some tiny chili peppers from a 6-foot bush growing nearby to add to the meat mixture. I tried to bite a bit of my pepper, but even from just breaking the skin of the pepper, I could tell it was way too hot. Enough challenges already for one day!!
We hike another 1.5-2 hours to our final cave. We are all mostly in at least wet pants/underwear, and it is a warm day. We take several brief breaks to rest and take photos, and to wait for me while I do more butt-walking. I am starting to feel a lot of muscle fatigue, and I'm concerned about having enough strength left to power through this last cave. It's still muddy and I keep falling, and there are places where even the butt-walking doesn't make it less scary, as it looks like I could slide quite a ways in certain places. I get frustrated at my general inability to walk like a normal person, and there are a few secret tears. 
We finally arrive at Christmas Cave, our final challenge for today. First we climb down and up some more slippery rocks into a beautiful little grotto where I see the entrance to the cave, and it involves a bamboo ladder off a ledge. Frustrated and tired, I feel panic rising.  On top of everything else, I really hate ladders. I promised myself I would rally and rise to all challenges presented today, but I break down here and just can't do it. I stay behind in the grotto for about 30 minutes while the group goes on ahead. I am extremely disappointed and somewhat embarrassed, but relieved at the same time. I listen to the voices of the group echoing in the depths of the cave for quite a while until they finally fade and I am left in quiet reflection by myself. 
When I hear them again, I get out my camera to get a video of a tired and muddied Aaron climbing out of the cave. He said the formations in this cave were definitely the most impressive of the day. I am very proud of him for getting into all the caves!  He is a rock star, at 63!!  We break a moment, and then start the one-hour final hike back to Cave Lodge. Again the mud and slipping thwart me, and I am frustrated. Aaron stays with me and we discuss how far from my comfort zone I journeyed today. I feel ridiculous as I traverse the slopes on my butt again, but my shoes are just not up to these conditions. I refuse to beat myself up too much, since these are wild caves and not easy going. Never having done anything like this before, I did two of them. I find out later that often people back out of Waterfall Cave part-way in due to the difficulty of crawling through the water. I felt good that I actually thought that one was fun!!  
On the final walk back to the lodge, we passed a local woman who laughed at how muddy I was. It was pretty remarkable. It took a lot of showering before the mud would come off of my legs and feet. I'm stiff and sore already. Not planning any big adventures for tomorrow. No injuries, amazingly, after more falls than I can count!!  Very tired!!

Tags: cave lodge, caving, pang mapha, thailand

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