It’s a tight squeeze

Cav­ing is not for the faint- hearted nor the claus­tro­pho­bic, writes Stephen Lacey

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - CAVES ROCKHAMPTON -

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

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