The Neverending Story
The cover is from Larry Ray and Jeff Matthews
The Times They Are A Changin'
[author's note:] As I take up this story after a few years have passed I see that a few of my thoughts have evolved (thank God for that). A few things I may have said are no longer what I might say today...time passes and our thoughts change.
The times they are a-changin'—yes, but perhaps not in the way that Bob Dylan envisaged in 1964. We now live in a world where everything is ordered and nothing is destined to chance. And thus it is with speleology, always considered the quintessential act of adventure. It, too, is following the same path. To call yourself a speliologist—a caver—today you have to attend the “basic courses” and three or four of those advanced specialist courses; then, if you follow the rules and stay on the time-honored paths and get in step, you can call yourself a 'speleologist'. Short of that you will always be a 'grottarolo' [trans. note: roughly, 'a cave man'] a negative term coined by modern scholars to describe those who act on their own. Maybe I've always been a rebel, maybe I'm like the 'clan bear'—without even being aware of it—imagine that (!), I find myself proudly among the paraiahs of the underground world—the 'cave men'.
I've lost a few friends along the way—those who preferred the official speleology piece of paper. With age I've felt some of my original aches and pains. I was at the crossroads again; I could “feather my oars” and write my memoirs, basking in the past, or look around again to infect some “lost kids” with the seeds of rebellion and keep alive the glorious tribe of the 'cave men'.
The first one I found was InGeo (young environmental engineer) who took his first steps as a cave dweller with us in the subsoil of Naples. He acquired the skills necessary to use ropes and other caving equipment in the tunnels and shafts of Clemente Esposito's Museum of the Subsoil when Clemente was still running it. It was there that you could hone your skills with activities that were in keeping with the true history of those spaces. So after a few outings into the neighborhood hills to test InGeo's willingness for sacrifice in a natural setting, he was ready for “baptism” in a karst cave. Where should this rite of passage take place? It's obvious! Camp Braca had always been there, but it was not that simple... we had to go twice.
The first time, on a cold winter's day, was a total flop. We were in the car and should have noticed the tell-tale signs on the way up the tight switch-backs of the road to the top. The scene was surreal. The Campo Braca valley was gone and in its place, like milk in a giant cup, was a dense fog covering the plateau, the fountain and the surrounding hills that opened down into the grotto. I then recalled an earlier episode during one of our underground explorations when we had come up and out the grotto and found ourselves in such a dense fog that we could barely find the road back. I figured that this was not the time to risk getting lost again. We called it off. Campo Braca would hold on to its mystery and fascination for a time longer and InGeo would have to content himself with my tales of adventure. Clearly we did not want to let a lot of time pass, so some time later (this time on a sunny, splendid spring day), my disciple and I were once again in the presence of “Our Lady of the Grottoes – Campo Braca.
This was, indeed, the right day for it. We quickly rigged the “Sparafunno” opening with spits and double lines so we could go down together, parallel. (It's not that I lacked confidence in InGeo; he had always shown himself attentive and serious. I just felt better being right with him on his first descent into a natural grotto..you never know.) It went smoothly. In a heartbeat we were on the debris slope of the first chamber. We fixed the ropes. (Maybe that was not necessary, but I have always lived in terror of Sunday happy hikers. One of them might stroll by the opening and see the ropes disappearing into the darkness and decide to take them and clean up the area!—leaving us, of course, marooned below. At that time, I was still not sure of the location of the secondary entrances.) We slid quickly along the winding, rocky path towards the depths below.
We quickly rigged the second shaft and descended to the level of the water course that cross-crossed our descent a number of times on its way down to feed the small lake at the last siphon. We went along the second narrow and humid passage and came out, first, at the “hall of mud” and, right after that, on the shores of that famous little lake that in the first years had been our very personal and very insurmountable obstacle.
I went first on the way back up to the shaft that led to the sloped surface and from there to the lovely “hunter's hall” where the stalactites, stalagmites and drapes gave us a first taste of the beauties that from here on out characterize the entire grotto. InGeo was outstanding and never wavered in the face of the intrinsic difficulties of the path. For today we had done enough.
Before retracing our steps I wanted to try to answer a question I had asked myself during ealier visits: where did that shaft at the top of the “sloped surface” and at the side of the “hunter's hall” lead? Surely, we couldn't have been staring at the solution to our problems all these times without having noticed it. I said to myself: Now is the time! We've made good time and I can grant myself this small detour! I took a 20 meter rope from my gear-bag (I didn't know how deep the drop was), fixed it to a rocky spur, tied a safety knot at the end I would throw down, and after I hooked on the descender, I stepped off into the unkown. I saw the puzzled look on InGeo's face as he disappeared above me (he was pobably wondering what would happen if I never came back.)
My descent was ten – fifteen meters, not more. Once again I was at the same level as the water. A quick look around in search of a way forward (that I did not find) told me clealy that I had landed once again at “lake of doom”—my nemesis. I was just on the opposite side of it. The beam from lamp shone across and lit up the small beach that for years had clipped our wings. I was in a dead end. No passage to further adventure. Just me, the dark and the lake.
I went back up quickly. We collected out gear and headed first down along the sloped surface and then up towards the light.
This adventure, too, had finished with the “weaning” of a new “cave man”. The trip back home was one question after another on how the grotto might be expected to continue and what she was still hiding from us. The germs of curiosity had infected another victim... but that is another story.
(to be continued)...
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