At one point deep inside the Tu Lan cave system, the members of our tour all pointed our headlamps up at a huge column. The solid sediment looked as liquid as a clock in a Salvador Dali painting. No wonder people are so drawn to touch formations in caves – it’s hard to believe that they are solid. You want to poke it with your finger just to make sure. Luckily for us, the cavern burrowing through the mountain above us and the sharp stalagmites hanging over our heads were very solid. Barring an earthquake, we could have sat in our cave for a thousand years and not notice a single change. With the exception of a bat fluttering by every once in a while, caves are basically controlled laboratories for nature’s geological experiments. While I was at Phong Nha National Park in north-central Vietnam, I spent a fair amount of time deep inside these caves, so I had some time to think about it. Here are my observations about spelunking in the wilds of Vietnam.
|View of Phong Nha and the Dr. Seuss mountains behind it|
You get the same kind of tunnel vision in a cave as underwater. Both worlds require you to observe through a kind of window – either a headlamp in the cave or through a mask underwater. This forces you to process your surroundings piecemeal – it’s difficult to get the wide panoramas that we’re used to with peripheral vision up on the surface. Every once in a while, you have to look up and confirm that there is indeed something above. This tunnel vision helps to maintain some mystery in your surroundings, but it also helps you focus on what’s right in front of you. Sometimes peripheral vision can be a distraction. Up on the surface, our wide field of vision just gives us too many things at once. It’s distracting! Below the surface, the visual field is more suitable to those of us who don’t like to multi-task.
|A drop of water forming a stalactite|
|View of the entrance to Ken cave from our campsite|
|Lush rice fields on the surface|
Imagine a medieval adrenaline junky venturing out of the security of his village to go explore one of these holes in the earth. Maybe he has a torch as a light source. He can’t convince anyone else to leave the village to go on this asinine adventure, so his discoveries can only be translated through the perhaps faulty wiring of his own consciousness. He stumbles his way down sharp, loose rocks, eventually losing the light from the entrance. At the bottom of the cave, darkness is absolute. If it weren’t for his torch, he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face. The weak light from his flame shows bizarre, twisted formations of rocks. Stone daggers thrust up from the floor and hang down from the ceiling, threatening to impale him at any second. Blobs of collected sediment protrude from the cave walls, eerily resembling slimy monsters that he’s heard described by local fishermen who have sailed far out to sea. He hears noises but they are unfamiliar and he cannot determine their source. Going into a cave is to go into a different, unexplainable world that is so physically close to our own but so far removed. The lush colors of abundant life that make up the outside world immediately turn into a deathly grays and browns below the surface. If our explorer can’t find his way back to the mouth of the cave, if his light goes out, surely he’ll die down there.
I can’t imagine anything closer to the physical manifestation of hell than going down into a cave. Naturally, there aren’t devils dancing around with pitchforks, but if you look at some of those formations from the right angles, the stalagmites and stalactites look like pointy incisors attached to gigantic jaws ready to chomp down on anyone foolish enough to get in their way. With the right mixture of fear, imagination and a few hundred years of creative embellishment, those caves become our modern portrayal of hell. But even if Dante and John Milton were fooled, I’m not. I know that caves are really just spooky abandoned coral reefs.
|Nautilus fossil/ghost in the cave wall|