There has certainly been a lot of excitement surrounding the young soccer team and their coach being trapped in a cave. The news reveals a tale full of mystery, adventure, bravery, danger and possibly disaster, but with a hopeful ending now that some of the boys have been rescued.
The story has an added piquancy for me, in that I used to go ‘caving’ as a youngster. I’m well aware of the difficulties that can be met once you’re underground too. In fact, my first caving trip — idiotically simple compared to what these Thai boys have been suffering — does highlight just how different the world is ‘down there’.
Have you ever been caving, or spelunking as it is more correctly called? I don’t mean paying $5 at the gate to go down one of those commercial places, with concrete pathways to walk on, railings to hold on to, about 15 feet of headroom above you, and a lot of stalagmites and stalactites, often brought in from other caves and glued to the ceilings of the one you’re in. I mean real caves, often accessed by a hole not much bigger than one dug by a rabbit, which opens up inside to something akin to a small drain that you can just about crawl through, to get to what you hope are further wonders, waiting to be discovered!
(As an aside here, I’d like to mention, for the few who aren’t sure, that ‘stalagmites’ are the ones rising from the floor of the cave, while ‘stalactites’ are the one’s hanging from the ceiling — an easy way to remember is that stalagmites grow up with all their ‘might’, while stalactites hang down because they’re ‘tight’, as in drunk! A silly little method but it certainly makes certain I don’t forget!)
Anyway, I first went caving with a couple of friends when I was about 14. I lived in England with my parents in those days, and the two friends I was with were English too; one of them, David, had been caving before and so was our ‘expert’, while Michael was as new to the sport as I was and even David had only been a couple of times previously! We set out on our bikes from Bristol one nice sunny day, and headed for Burrington Combe a gorge about 15 miles (24 kilometres) south-west of the city, and famous for its caves and for the rock cleft known as the ‘Rock of Ages’ where Augustus Toplady was inspired to write the famous hymn, while sheltering there from a storm.
Burrington is and was always a popular place to go caving and was especially suitable for beginners like us because, although the caves there possessed a certain amount of difficulty they were still classed as ‘safe’. We had accumulated a wealth of gear before we left home, in order to look as if we knew what we were doing — rope, helmets, hammers and tough clothing, etc., and we headed straight for one of the more popular caves in the valley, called ‘Goatchurch’.
Goatchurch is a cave of about 1,500m length, though most visitors stop at the 750m mark, for reasons I’ll mention shortly. The entrance is a rather unprepossessing hole about 2m wide, which opens into several smallish caverns, some spoiled by graffiti on the walls, put there by previous explorers wishing to record their visits; it was little more than a pleasant stroll, incorporating an amount of crawling, until we came to that fateful 750m point. Here we came upon a solid wall of rock stretching right across the cavern and up to the roof, with one small hole in it, down near the base, and this is where it all got quite a bit scarier! The hole in the wall is called ‘The Drainpipe’ and that is pretty well exactly what it is like! It’s a tube, about 9m long by 50cm diameter, perfectly circular and very frightening! Once you make up your mind to enter the tube there is no going back, you have to decide before you begin whether you want your arms in front of you or down your side, there’s no changing once you’re in there. Then you have to wriggle the whole 9m praying you won’t meet someone coming the other way! You feel very much alone in that tube of rock.
The Drainpipe eventually opens up into another small cavern, and then you come up against your next frightening problem, the ‘Tie-press’. This barrier comprises of two mighty slabs of rock, one above the other, with a gap of about 25cm between them. It’s necessary to take your helmet off to squeeze through this gap, and no one with an ounce of fat around their middle could possibly get through it. I was a very skinny lad in those days and even I found it to be extremely difficult to squeeze through, and I was scared, but I tried not to show it or I’d lose face with my mates, though I wouldn’t mind betting they were just as scared as me, had we admitted it. I remember clearly that all the while I was negotiating the Tie-press I was thinking, “What the hell happens if I get stuck!”
Anyway, we eventually got to the end of the cave then had to make our way back, through those two hazards and thankfully reached the surface of the earth again, excited but chastened. I went on several caving trips after that, but no others scared me quite like my baptism at Goatchurch, and a year or two later I gave the sport up and took up gliding instead!