The Neverending Story
The cover is from Larry Ray and Jeff Matthews
I was inside. It was my first real and true natural grotto, a descent done without being accompanied by someone who might have explained the mysteries to me! I don't know if I have words to explain this: if I have to make a comparison, and the memories are by no means neat and tidy—maybe I don't even remember the facts as they happened—but the situation has to be somewhat like a child standing up for the first time to take those first steps and is conscious (unconsciously) that a new world has just opened up.
I looked around more carefully, helped by my eyes now getting used to the darkness of the surroundings. I saw a passage that looked as if it went somewhere. I had to restrain myself; it was better to wait for someone else to come down. Things would be getting more and more mysterious and...you never know.
I shouted up to those above that the grotto continued and that they should lower the tackle-bags with the other ropes, ladders and bolts. In ten minutes the gear was all down at the base of the first chamber; then came Nando, first, followed by Enrico, the two brothers who had given me this opportunity.
Their dress was not quite up to the standards of hardened speleology!—this was day one, and a more raggle-taggle band of brothers you are not likely to meet anywhere. One was wearing sandals and Bermuda shorts. (At the end of day one he looked like Lazarus risen, so covered with bruises and scratches that he looked as if he had just lost a battle to an enraged cat.)
The three of us picked up our bags and lowered ourselves onto the crumbly trail that wended its way ever lower. In no more than five minutes—between a knock on the head and a well-directed curse (my companions had no helmets, either!)—we were at a small terrace that was a seven or eight meter drop away from a second chamber where you could see water coming down from above, water that then ran slowly down into a fissure.
We looked around for a secure anchoring point; a natural ring that had formed on the wall at the edge of the drop came to our aid. A length of cord, a snap-link to secure it and we we could unroll a ladder. In a few moments we had reached what for years to come would define our awareness of the grotto. At the base, right next to the cleft that had received the water from above, a muddy tunnel beckoned us to continue.
The tunnel was low but wide at first, then becoming higher and so narrow as to force us into some feats of contortionism as we tried to man-handle our bags behind us. Yet, in the end it was do-able and after a tight curve to the right and climbing over a boulder, we found ourselves in a chamber the floor of which was slippery and covered with mud. It wasn't that roomy, but it was high; the floor then started to slope downward and after a further passage on that gentle slope we were on the shores of a small but deep underground lake.
Our adventure was over for the day. We were not equipped to go any further and, at least for the moment, we felt well-rewarded for our adventure. We should note that right from the start of the grotto we had found clear signs that we were not the first ones: broken ropes, names written in mud on the walls, heaps of spent carbide all told us that we weren't the first, but we didn't care. With no information to go on, it had been like exploring a virgin cave.
We retraced our steps, retrieved our gear, and an hour later we saw the light of day again. It had been exhilarating. Perhaps—no, quite certainly—we hadn't been examples of caution, but adventure is adventure and we took it and lived it to the hilt. Homeward bound in the car that evening I tried to put order in my thoughts about what I had seen and about how to go beyond the point where we had stopped. I was already organizing the next trip.
From that day to this, Campo Braca has been a part of my life. I've now seen other grottoes but “she” has always been dear to me, and over the years has slowly revealed to me her thousand secrets.
For the moment, I'll stop here, but, as you will have already guessed, this is but part of a long story that will drag me down to the depths but at the same time open new horizons.
(to be continued)...
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