It’s a tight squeeze
Caving is not for the faint- hearted nor the claustrophobic, writes Stephen Lacey
CLAUSTROPHOBIA is a horrible affliction. I remember my first bout of it clearly. The year was 1972, I was nine, and my folks had taken me to one of those dodgy adventure lands that would spring up on the outskirts of Sydney.
One of the most popular attractions was a huge chicken wire and concrete ‘‘ mountain’’ punctuated with narrow tunnels, through which children would crawl. I happened to find myself in one of these tunnels, unable to move backwards or forwards in the stygian darkness, because of the other kids in front and behind. I felt as if I was suffocating. All I could do was lie there and scream.
Thankfully I resist the urge to scream when, more than 30 years later, I find myself in a similar situation. I’m, quite literally, stuck between a rock and a hard place, in the Capricorn Caves, near Rockhampton.
This particular section is called The Nutcracker, and it’s painfully obvious how it earned its name.
I’ve already fathered one child, but more are looking doubtful, as a large fist of limestone has me speaking three octaves higher.
My guide, Karen Wilkin, is trying her best to urge me through, but I feel the panic surging through my body as the walls seem to close around me.
‘‘ You’ve got to relax,’’ she says, in a voice as soothing as camomile.
‘‘ Relax? You’ve got to be kidding.’’
Relax is something you do in a hammock with a gin and tonic. You don’t relax when it feels as if you’re caught in the lower intestine of one of those fat people from You Are What You Eat.
‘‘ If you don’t relax, you won’t be able to move,’’ she says.
‘‘ I think I figured that one out for myself,’’ I reply, dislocating a few joints and inching forward.
‘‘ There you go,’’ she says, encouragingly.
Several eons later I emerge, into the deliciously blinding light. I’m sweaty and I have a large bump on my noggin.
‘‘ That was bloody horrible,’’ I tell her. She can only shrug. Luckily, most of the Capricorn Caves are a lot more forgiving, with a labyrinth of big wide passageways that even an American tourist would have no trouble waddling through.
Indeed, the main chamber – The Cathedral Cave – is so huge, it’s become a popular venue for subterranean weddings.
Most sensible folks opt for the beautiful Cathedral Tour.
During the school holidays, many tag along on a Family Adventure Tour.
But, being an idiot, I put my hand up for the Wild Caving Adventure, which promised lots of crawling, squeezing and climbing. They got that right.
We donned overalls, grabbed a head-torch and headed off into the black.
En route, Karen gives us a brief rundown of the geology of the area and tells us a little about the local flora and fauna and the history of the caves.
The caves themselves are limestone and were formed a couple of hundred million years ago.
Apparently the local Darumbal tribe knew about the caves for thousands of years, but weren’t silly enough to venture into them.
A Norwegian pioneer, John Olsen, happened upon the entrance to the caves in the early 1880s. He was granted freehold title on the land around the caves in 1891 and charged punters half a crown to look through them.
The caves remained in the Olsen family until 1988, when they were sold to a Brisbane couple, who continue to run them as an awardwinning attraction.
It isn’t long into our adventure before we realise that cavers ( or speleologists as they are correctly known) must be a skinny bunch. Skinny and ridiculously flexible. Of which I am neither. So no surprises that I’m not particularly suited to narrow tunnels with aptly descriptive monikers like Rebirth, Guillotine and Laundry Chute. In some you have to take your helmet off to have any hope of fitting through.
‘‘ It helps to keep in mind that most of the tunnels aren’t too long and you can usually see a light at the end,’’ Karen assures us. Hmm. After an hour or so of moving beneath the ground like worms, we finally surface near the top of the rugged hills in which the caves are situated. We walk the rest of the way to the summit and look out over the plains below. It’s a breathtaking view and a good chance to rest our bruised and battered bods.
On the way back down, Karen asks me why I would agree to go caving, when I suffer from claustrophobia? I tell her it was for the same reason I did mountaineering, although I’m afraid of heights. To face my fears. The upshot was, I spent 10 days traipsing around New Zealand’s Southern Alps, in abject terror.
‘‘ Maybe it’s better you don’t face you fears?’’ she says sagely.
And you know what? She has a good point. So from now on rather than face my fears, I’m going to keep the hell away from them.
DON’T PANIC: Stephen Lacey navigates his way through the Capricorn Caves. Picture: Marianne Lacey