The Neverending Story
The cover is from Larry Ray and Jeff Matthews
As the years passed, our visits to the grotto continued and continue even today, but I dare say that they have never had any particular rhythm or intent to tackle the grotto with special intensity. Those were the years when Napoli Underground did not yet exist—either as a website or a group—and the make-up of, if you will, our young explorers changed constantly.
Sometimes the groups were small, sometimes larger, but they were all motivated by a sense of playfulness. The villagers, always busy with their animals, started to get to know our faces and by and by started to spend time with us and tell us of life in the valley; then they grew confident and asked us just what was so interesting up here that it drives a herd of city folk into the bowels of the mountain. Their lives revolved exclusively around their daily work of livestock grazing in the pasture. It was inconceivable to them that we should take risks, exhaust ourselves and spend money just for the fun of it. We learned from them that the grotto had been frequented in the past by other groups and that there was a second entrance (either opened artificially or perhaps just enlarged for a film shoot (?) a few years earlier) but also that it had been quite a while since anyone had visited the grotto. We certainly didn't look like a particularly professional team: our gear was make-shift and we were quite a diverse lot, even shabby; we often had our kids along and even dogs on leashes.
Those were the days when the group was made up largely of persons who only occasionally, or maybe never, might have ever undertaken caving on their own. They didn't have appropriate gear though a few of us who practiced urban speleology in Naples did have proper equipment. We had our personal tackle bags containing harness, descender, etc., but the others improvised a lot of their gear (motorcycle or mining helmets, all sorts of different light sources, undefinable clothing). Given that level of organization, just getting down the entrance shaft, which for most of the group meant using steel ladders, was a massive undertaking that took up a lot of time. Combine that with the fact that we took our sweet time getting away from Naples in the morning (classic behavior of the weekend excursionist) and you see why it was already past one o' clock in the afternoon by the time the last of our group set foot on the landing of the first chamber. Then came the head-count to make sure that no one had broken to the front of the herd in a wild frenzy and started off alone. Then we could start.
The second drop, although not as high, took a bit of maneuvering in the given space. And it was another hour to explain to everyone how to lower themselves down safely.
The muddy path with the small chamber at the end was another adventure, but we (those of us who had been here before) had set up a small prank. Almost at the end of the tunnel, before turning right and passing that boulder, there is a low passageway about 30-40 cm wide that leads to the other chamber. That low passageway is awash in mud for about seven or eight meters before suddenly turning to the left and finally exiting into the chamber. It was a sophomoric baptism from us to our neophyte friends! We let them all enter the small tunnel, gave them instructions, and when the last one had gone in, we took the main tunnel for the last few meters, got over the boulder and sat down in the dark right where they would be coming out. You had to hold back your laughter at the sounds coming out of that hole: “This mud is disgusting.” - “Is this ever going to ends?” - “Move it or get out my way. I want to get out of here.” And I won't tell you the laughs as they came out covered in mud like pigs that had just been rooting around, came out at our feet and found us, hogwash peddlers, ourselves (!), smiling down at them.
It was all part of the game, and it was, after all, a game. Our visit ended on the shores of the small underground lake, although on a couple of occasions some of the more daring kept going for a bit up an inclined passageway that led right from the lake toward the top. That passage had attracted our attention earlier when we had found an old rope that marked some earlier and mysterious exploration.
First-timers felt well-rewarded by the adventure, but some, such as myself, who had done this a number of times felt—well, that small little lake, that insurmountable basin of water, was starting to get on my nerves. We had to find a way to go forward, and that passage leading up looked like the way.
All of these excursions, even if they were limited to the first part of the grotto, were providing us little by little with a greater feel for the natural underground environment. Slowly we gained experience.
It was at the end of a torrid summer (September, if I'm not mistaken) that we visited once again and found our “lake of doom” totally dry, not a trickle of water was now there to stop us. We had not come prepared for it but the good lord had granted us this bit of grace, so we couldn't ignore it. That group, too, was quite a mixture, including the 10-year-old son of a friend of ours.
We shot into the gallery and for the first time could admire what had been denied us for years. We walked along a dry river bed for a few hundred meters. The walls were totally covered with accretions—drapes of limestone, stalactites and stalagmites, and we were delighted to find basins that looked like those that contain holy water. After a narrow passage through erosive mud with two clay walls at our side, each a few meters thick, we came out in a large hall where two large masses of rock blocked further passage! We checked our watches. Time to turn back. Some of our companions were on their first caving expedition and there were a few of those “drops” to climb back up; then came the entrance itself, and we wanted to be away before evening. Before turning around, I decided to have a look beyond the blocked section just to see if the grotto continued. I climbed up and then over to a point actually on the other side of the rock masses. There was a large chamber covered with small blocks of rock, indicating an old cave-in. I had a feeling that there was more and that it was nearby, right beneath my feet. Suddenly a hole in the floor appeared and I saw there was a drop but I couldn't tell how high. I dropped a stone in and listened to it roll into the deep distance. The way continued. There was more!
I had to make a super-human effort to force myself to say, “That's enough for today!” We retraced our route and I tried to notice whatever our impetuous rush on the way in might have hidden from me. High up on the side walls there were some ropes (this must be the only way in and out when there is the normal amount of water). On the right-hand wall on the way back, almost where the lake was, there was a tunnel leading off into darkness (years later I learned it was the beginning of the so-called “condotte infinite” [infinite paths]). A long rope dangling in darkness from the distant ceiling made me think erroneously of another entrance. We went up from the shores of the lake and then the trail of mud, up the second drop and up through the entrance. We were out at sunset. It had been a fantastic day. But the new discoveries and knowledge that the grotto carried on, would become an obsession with me in later years.
We went on various occasions but never found ourselves in the same situation. The water had returned to block our path, and if I really wanted to go any further, I'd have to find a more expert group of companions. At least for the moment I had to content myself with what I had seen and with the ripening of experience. These are adventures to be tasted in small doses and to undertake only when you feel ready. That is the only way to minimize the inherent danger that speleology inevitably brings with it.
(to be continued)...
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