In at the deep end

Tiana Tem­ple­man sam­ples snorkelling in the clear, emer­ald wa­ters of Thai­land’s Koh Lanta

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

EMER­ALD Cave, this way,’’ shouts our guide as he jumps into the An­daman Sea. None of us knows much about Tham Mo­rakot, or Emer­ald Cave, other than it has a se­cret beach and is con­sid­ered a must-see on our half-day snorkelling tour around Koh Lanta’s Na­tional Marine Park.

I still can’t see any cave: just lime­stone cliffs soar­ing into the clear blue sky above our speed­boat, which holds 20 be­mused tourists who, like me, won­der what is go­ing on. Then the crew springs into action. Life­jack­ets are thrust to­wards us and we are gen­tly but firmly hus­tled into the wa­ter. I am one of three Aus­tralians who dis­miss the bat­tered buoy­ancy vests with an airy wave and dive non­cha­lantly into the sea, paus­ing only to read­just our ill-fit­ting flip­pers be­fore we swim to­wards the guide.

As we float to­wards a sheer cliff face, a jagged hole above the wa­ter line is slowly re­vealed. Be­hind me I hear low mur­murs and ner­vous laugh­ter from the rest of the group.

‘‘ Come now,’’ says the guide ur­gently, wav­ing his bat­tered torch. ‘‘ The tide here is quick.’’

I duck my head in­vol­un­tar­ily as we en­ter a cav­ern filled with sta­lac­tites sil­hou­et­ted in the flick­er­ing torch beam. Their rocky fin­gers push to­wards tiny waves cre­ated by the swell as if they too want to im­merse them­selves in the clear, cool wa­ter. The three of us without life­jack­ets swim quickly and for a mo­ment we are alone in Emer­ald Cave as the guide re­turns to fetch the oth­ers who are still out­side.

Wa­ter slaps gen­tly against the an­cient lime­stone and our breath­ing echoes off the cav­ern walls. We turn back to­wards the tiny open­ing where the sea re­sem­bles an irides­cent emer­ald car­pet lit from be­low, and gasp in uni­son just be­fore the mo­ment is lost.

The sun re­treats be­hind a cloud and we are soon sur­rounded by ex­cited chat­ter and swept up with the rest of the group.

Luck is on our side as con­di­tions must be per­fect in or­der to en­ter Emer­ald Cave; an­other passenger says she has done this same tour three times without suc­cess be­fore to­day. She is swim­ming be­side us up front with the guide, which we dis­cover is the only place to be. His

Cave dwellers: Snorkellers in the shadow of pre­cip­i­tous lime­stone cliffs af­ter ex­it­ing the Emer­ald Cave torch is hope­lessly in­ad­e­quate for such a large group and the sun­light at the cave en­trance has long since been left be­hind.

Pitch black en­velops us and it seems the long, wind­ing un­der­ground cav­ern has no end. Be­hind me there are shouts and splashes and a woman keeps say­ing, ‘‘ I want to go back, I want to go back’’, not un­like Dorothy lost in Oz. Like a child in a dark­ened room, my imagination runs wild and thoughts of hideous sea beast­ies fill my head along with the in­creas­ingly anx­ious shouts echo­ing off the cave walls. When some­thing brushes against my hand I let out a shout.

‘‘ I can see day­light,’’ yells my hus­band, who is up ahead. ‘‘ Not far now, keep go­ing.’’

We swim quickly to­wards the dis­tant glow and splash through clear waist-deep wa­ter to sit on a tiny cres­centshaped beach. Lime­stone cliffs tow­er­ing 100m high are cov­ered with jun­gle veg­e­ta­tion and en­close this se­cret place which pi­rates sup­pos­edly used to store trea­sure. As we revel in all this beauty, we hear an­other group mak­ing its way through the cav­ern. The muf­fled sound of their splash­ing chaos echoes to­wards the beach and a few of us grin know­ingly at each other.

But the tide is turn­ing and we can’t stay long. It seems our 80m swim back to the boat takes no time at all and soon we are bob­bing in the wa­ter where our ad­ven­ture be­gan. I am glad our guide made us leave when he did, as the cave open­ing now seems no­tice­ably lower. As he climbs back on board I re­alise he has the same en­cour­ag­ing smile as the per­son who fi­nally coaxed me to jump into the deep end of a pool. Some­times it is best to push fear aside and just do it.

Check­list

Krabi In­ter­na­tional Air­port is the clos­est gate­way to Koh Lanta; there are sev­eral flights a day be­tween Bangkok and Krabi. From Krabi to Koh Lanta takes about two hours, in­clud­ing two car ferry cross­ings. Emer­ald Cave can be vis­ited as part of a Four Is­lands snorkel trip op­er­ated by Opal Travel, which in­cludes snorkelling at Ngai Is­land, Haa Is­land, Maa Is­land and Muk Is­land (Emer­ald Cave), and a Thai buf­fet lunch; $95 a per­son. More: +66 89 469 9262. www.thai­land.net.au www.golanta.info

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