It was Christmas Eve at the Zephyr Lodge Lanquin. As usual, Dan and I were up at dawn, That morning there was a particularly beautiful sunrise, however time was of the essence. We had booked a day-trip. Sometimes there is just no escape, it was mandatory to have a guide for the caves at Semuc Champey. We had a bunch of twenty-something American college kids for company, and they were for the most part, jolly good fun.
At 8am we were herded onto the back of the pick-up for the 9km (that’s just over 5 miles) ride along the dirt track. A slow and bumpy half hour later, thankfully with my teeth and toes intact, though exhausted from swaying and hanging on to the bars at mouth level, we arrived.
“We are the first group so let’s get going! “Can everybody swim? Does anyone have heart problem?” Said one of the guides.
That was the safety brief over.
I’d barely caught my breath, when I saw the Kids from America, yank off their shorts and tee-shirts ready to go. I skulked around looking for somewhere to get changed into my swimsuit and returned as quickly as I could. Guide No 1, who I’ll call Paulo, though I have no idea what his name was, led the way. Guide No 2, who shall be named Mr Rear Ender brought up the rear as we were frog-marched inside.
Wearing swimsuits and shoes, I accepted the white candle and stepped into the water. Bats roosted silently in the outer cave and I took a deep breath…
Mr Rear Ender shouted “Move faster!”
With every step, the cool water rose up my body. I gasped and did my best to make myself tall. A futile exercise.
The candles glowed and cast spooky shadows. Inside a fabulous chamber, I saw stalactites, columns and stalagmites’. I touched them, stroked them and even though I knew the damage it could cause, I couldn’t stop myself. I’ve been to many caves, but this was the business, no silly eerie piped music or strategically placed lights, a proper cave that ran for 14km, though our visit would only last two hours.
“Swim now! Stay in the middle. Keep left. Keep right” Yelled Paulo and Mr Rear Ender in unison.
So there we were swimming one-handed endeavouring to keep the candle from snuffing out. A low overhanging rock knocked the candle from my hands. I caught it and Dan relit it. Perilously sharp rocks lurked below the surface. The water became shallow and we could stand. I wiped my face and the alkaline water blurred my contact lenses. I could not see too well, and that was a good thing. Standing at the bottom of a waterfall, the only way was up. There was a choice; climb a rope up the waterfall, or climb a rickety ladder affair, held together with twine and electrical tape. Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider) style, I climbed the 5m rope up the waterfall. I lost my contact lenses. Dan followed suit (he does not wear contact lenses).
We slithered through gaps, slid along watery rock slides, waded and swam some more.
“Who wants to jump into the pool?” Paulo asked.
Dan volunteered, climbing the few metres to the top of the cave and then jumping into the abyss. I declined even though Dan survived unscathed. As the tears in my eyes washed out the lime, I began to see clearly again and realised I had not in fact lost my lenses at all.
It was time to go back. The candles were shrinking and everyone was getting used to the rekindling technique by now. We followed a different route and came to a place where the river gushed through a small gap. All candles were extinguished. The only light was from the few with waterproof head torches. Adam and Tracey, the Irish / English honeymooners were crouching beside the hole. With a look of horror, Tracey looked at Adam in disbelief as she lowered herself into the darkness. She screamed as the guide hollered “Don’t let go, don’t let go”.
“Where’d she go?” I asked in bewilderment.
My heart raced as I watched Adam disappear after her. It was my turn. I knew why Tracey screamed. A small stalagmite served as a handhold, to prevent you from being washed away by the river. Holding on for dear life with one hand, the river buffeted my body to the side where I dropped into a pool. This was more Indiana Jones style than I could ever have imagined. Scrambling out to join the others I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Meraid, turn around.” Dan had his camera ready.
As I turned around, I whacked my shin on one nasty rock. I swore. The photograph of that moment is censored.
We made our way towards the warmth of the daylight and handed the candle stumps to our guides. I took a slug of water from a bottle and sat down.
“Let’s go to the swing!” Mr Rear Ender said.
Like a lamb to the slaughter, I followed, bleating quietly as I went.