What lies beneath… Explorations of the deep, dark and damp.

The rusty 50 m long ladder sways back and forth under my weight. I gaze back at the cobalt blue water more 100 m below where a beam of sunlight dances across the surface. We are returning from a sneak peak into the bowels of mother earth and it was spectacular. I again strain to get a last glimpse of the water below and feel utterly at peace, suspended in space. Jolted back to reality by the creaks and groans of the ladder, I wonder if this old ramshackle piece of iron will hold my weight all the way to the top. Luckily I am also fastened to a jumar which easily slides up the safety rope, but still I feel uneasy. How many people have come this way to stare down at Harasib Lake, one of numerous underground lakes in northern Namibia? Those daring first explorers, who gazed down into the black depths, silently excited of what lay below. I try to imagine myself in their position, a terrifying but at the same time inspiring thought. I am ripped back to reality once more by water dripping from above. I look up through the darkness wavering under a thin sliver of sunlight from above. Water continues to drip on my hands, and I get frustrated, try to swing to the left and the right, but the dripping continues. I look up and realize that it is my own perspiration dripping down from my forehead. I am drenched in sweat.

Riana exiting Harasib Cave in Namibia.

Cave. A hiding place. Fearful and mysterious. Difficult to enter. Filled with darkness and bats, comprising deep, unending holes ending in pools of water where anything can lurk in the inky depths below. And then you still need to get out… Maybe this is what scares visitors away, as most of it is very near to the truth. But sometimes these heart racing facts are why we visit these demon holes.

From doing research in Crystal Cave in South Africa, to abseiling down the depths of Dragons Breath in Namibia, caves have intrigued Riana and I over the last 10 years. Its hard to say exactly what we find fascinating about caves, maybe its the beautiful crystals in Crystal Cave, or the cobalt blue water that stretches on forever in Harasib, or the breath of the Dragon that engulfs you before you step over the edge at Dragons. Caves are a constant reminder for me that no matter how scary the situation (I have a deep inhumane fear of bats) staying calm usually resolves most issues.

Entering Harasib Cave in Namibia.

Crystal Cave was the first technical entry we had about 10 years ago. But even though I visited this cave numerous time before I convinced Riana to join me, our first visit to this magical cave was one of mixed emotions. She was convinced that her MSc in Entomology had to be done within the next couple of weeks, while I was certain that she needed a break – something to take her mind off the writing. Eventually we were off to Crystal Cave in central South Africa. Our overnight spot was a hunters cabin near the cave, which the owner unlocked for us and just before he left, very nonchalantly said that the gas stove leaks a bit, just open a window or two before you light it…

We were dead tired that night and went to bed early, I work up the next morning and went to the kitchen to brew up our daily wake up coffee. I remember lighting a match, opening the gas on the stove and as the stove lit up, there was a moment of stillness, as if the stove wanted to give me time to escape, but not speaking stove (and being half asleep) I felt the brunt of the force as the room exploded. The explosion blew the kitchen door behind me off its hinges. Unbeknownst to me, there was gas on the floor (its heavier than air) which lit up and burnt both my feet, one 2nd degree and the other 3rd degree burns. The 2nd degree was not painful at all (as all my nerves were burnt off) but my left foot hurt like hell! I was okay and told Riana that we should still go into the cave… Yep, with 2nd degree burns into a bat infested hole where we may need to wade through guano like shallow water. “That’s not going to happen” she sternly said. Long story short, after telling the farmer what she thought of him, we went to the nearest hospital and they confirmed its serious and that I need to get a skin transplant. That all happened three weeks before our planned (and paid for) trip to Europe where I was presenting at a uranium conference in Germany. Sparing you the details, may I just say that yes we went, yes I presented (and it was very cool) but the foot did get infected in Heidelberg (before the presentation) and I went around Germany wearing one left shoe and a blue arm warmer on the burnt right foot…

Us in Germany.

But we could not let a burnt foot and a smallish gas leak deter us from visiting the demon hole proper. So a couple of months passed and we were back at Crystal (and slept at he same hut). This time Riana as newly appointed head of Entomology at the National Museum in Bloemfontein, wanted to collect some of the cave dwelling insect life and naturally I had to make sure she entered the cave safely without sustaining any burns.

The entrance to Crystal is fairly straightforward comprising a 30m abseiling into the abyss. No sunlight enters the cave whatsoever and you generally try to focus your thoughts on the lightpatch created by your headtorch (I focus on the bats…). Going down into that cave requires lots of emotional strength, even for seasoned cavers. You trust your life on a 1 cm thick nylon rope and then you let go lowering yourself into the darkness that wants to engulf your every thought. We placed traps, collected some specimens and turned our thoughts to the exit. No walking out, no pathway leading you back to sanity. Just the dangling rope from above. Ascending that line in Crystal has always been tiring, maybe its the bats, maybe the darkness or maybe just the bats (did I mention the bats?).

Riana and Wolfgang in Crystal Cave.
Crystal Cave chamber.

After moving to Namibia from South Africa in 2007, we heard about really big water rich caves in the north and naturally had to visit. Caves with names such as Pofadder Hole, Dragons Breath and Harisib were (and still are) sinister names beckoning me to the profound silence of the underworld.

Riana crawling within lonely bat looking on in Pofadder Hole.

Harasib Lake, which as the name implies, hosts a beautiful subsurface lake, was to be our baptism of fire for Namibian caving. Although Harasib is not a cave in the actual sense of the word but more of a sinkhole, most of the lower reaches are not negotiable without a headtorche. Prior to reaching the principal drop and entrance into the lake chamber, the approach is a hair-raisingly steep scramble, aided in places with decades old steel cables and swing ladders alongside the gaping and ominous entrance hole.

Riana enroute to Harasib’s entry point.

But standing at the entrance to this magical hole, the sun sometimes shines in through the canopy to light up the cobalt blue water below.

Harasib Lake.

A visit to Harasib is always one of fairy tale wonder. The deep sinkhole stretches on forever with sides covered in thick shrub. The sound of pigeons ricochets off the walls and I always wonder (read fear) what lurks below in the murky depths of this vast grotto.

On our first visit we silently, so as not to disturb whatever may lurk in the transparent depths, took the plunge into the strange blue waters. Drifting from one end of the chamber to the other, we laid on our tummies staring down the endlessness of the remarkably still and clear water. We imagined the sounds of silence reaching from far below and creeping upwards, ever curious to what lay beyond the realms of its own inner-earth universe. We were careful not to overstay our welcome and soon found ourselves back at the foot of the 50 m high ascending ladder to the entrance hole in the roof. One by one we climbed up and out of what was, and will continue to be an indescribably beautiful memory.

Swimming in Harasib lake.

Of course no caving expedition to northern Namibia would be complete without a visit to Dragons Breath Cave, the largest subsurface lake in the world. The cave is lovingly, but deceitfully, referred to as ‘Draggies’ by her previous investigators, but this is no cave to be approached lightly. The entry to the cave can easily be overlooked as it lies hidden in a small crack amidst a pile of dolomite boulders. Scrambling across these razor-sharp rocks with their grey, leathery look of an elephant’s skin while carrying heavy packs of ropes and caving gear is awkward. I have only entered Draggies once, but this mysterious cave felt darker, deeper and more ominous than any other I have visited before.

As I inched over the entry chock stone for a peak of what lay beyond, an unexpected gush of humid air rose from the depths below; the dragon was awake. After assessing the anchor points and rigging up the first abseil, I edged over the chock stone and lowered myself into the clammy throat of the beast. With each meter of descend I had to urge myself onwards. Alone and faced with what appeared to be steam rising from below, I got the uncanny feeling that I was dangling in a gush of smoke that was the dragons breath. At the bottom of the first abseil, balancing on a narrow ledge, I found myself hovering above a silence filled with bats and mist (did I mention the bats?). Edging downwards I dangled above a 4 hectare sized lake filling the pitch dark chamber below. With the reverberating sounds of a stone dropped into the water mass, I clipped on my jumars and commenced with the ascend rather hurriedly. The warm air from below stroked my spine and I could feel the pounding in my chest slowing with the growing distance between myself and the darkness below . A supernatural visit to this inspiring cave, stopped short to be fulfilled on some other day.

John Irish ascending Dragons Breath in 1987 on the discovery expedition.

Of the cave systems in northern Namibia, the one that stand out for me above all is Pofadder Cave. Its fairly easy access, mazes of tunnels and fantastic formations creates a fantasy world which is hard to describe in words. The name derived from roots dangling from the roof, looking like Pufadder snakes, only increases its allure (or maybe its fear factor).

John Irish on a recent visit to Pofadder Hole.

The chandelier filled entrance chamber has a cathedral-like feel with fragile organ pipe structures stretching to the roof and beyond. I have been lucky to have visited this cave numerous times and every time it is different. The first visit we had to turn around due to low water levels making a traverse impossible (and super scary), another time we went in with a South African film crew and although water levels were high, we could not enter the deepest realms due to time constraints (see below):

· https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgEFxema2_4 and,

· https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E88LwbS8BAw for the TV programs).

Moving around in Pofadder from one chamber to the next.

Pofadder remains an ever changing, heart throbbing entrance to the subterranean world, a place where fantasy meets reality. The entrance (and exit) is fairly straight forward (although still technical) and although one of the easiest entry points, I always forget about the two barn owls living in the entrance chamber that always seems to wait just as I enter the cave to make their appearance…

Exiting Pofadder cave.

The world beneath our feet intrigues me, its dark corners, lack of light and deep ominous pools creates a world where thoughts are intermingled with roots, rock and rusty ladders. A place where fears are summoned at entry and exhaled when exiting these surreal, subterranean refuges.