The Neverending Story
The cover is from Larry Ray and Jeff Matthews
The years come and go, groups form and break up, and she is still there.
The last time we had seen each other (the Campo Braca Grotto and I) was when I set out by myself to find the secondary entrances. That was worthwhile. Besides learning a few more secrets of the karst origins of the grotto, I opened up some new caving possibilities by freeing myself from the “Sparafunno” entrance. At this point you're asking yourselves why—after all these years—I had to use the 'service entrance' to the underworld instead of the 'Grand Stairway' as I had always done. Quite simple: lately I had been running short of 'adventure buddies' (...sometimes in the spring the groups dissolve like snow in the sun) and I was looking for some raw recruit to raise up in the insane ways of climbing around the earth below.
For some time, a new friend had joined us on our trips, a friend come to us, as usual, through the good offices of Napoli Underground: Marbet, a young paramedic who right from the start was eager for the world below, but who first had to undergo some tough training along the trails and ridges in the mountains up above.
Then one day, as is just, the time came to see if all this thirst for mud, dark and damp was a sincere desire for new adventure. Campo Braca was to be the scene of this new chapter, but this time I wanted to avoid the complications with the gear we would need to get around “Sparafunno” on a rope line. Not that he couldn't do it—by now, he was well versed in the fine art of sliding along the rope, but I just felt that the thrill of a first descent into Mother Earth would be enough and...well, better to take these things one step at a time.
And so, a fine late winter's morning found us once again in our dark off-road rattletrap bouncing around that last curve and onto the karst plain of Campo Braca. She was certainly happy to see us and renew old friendships; our visits had been less frequent, but we were still faithful. We still came. Just like an old master, I led Marbet along the trail that winds through the valley and introduced him to my old friends, Fontanile, Sparafunno, Inghiottitoio and, saving the best for last, Buco degli Stregoni, which was to be the entrance we would use for the descent.
I must say that this entrance, too, has its own particular charm. It is totally different from its famous big brothers, Sparafunno and Inghiottitoio, in that right at the start, at that magical tiny hole, it gives you a foretaste of adventure. It's as if you had just come into the “Shire” and Bilbo Baggins' house was hiding right behind that small bit of moveable stone. Indeed, it is.
We moved the stone, got our first whiff of damp air, and saw that this was some tight squeeze coming up! You start asking yourself if this is where you finally get stuck. It's an illusion. Get your feet in, wiggle when your hips touch the sides and you slide right in.
I knew what was right below the entrance; I had checked it the last time (chapter 8 and ½), so just to get Marbet's adrenaline flowing a bit (!) I let him go first, telling him to wait for me. He didn't have to be asked twice; he was through and down in the twinkling of an eye. I was right behind him, taking care to pull the stone back in place to close the entrance. As always, darkness enveloped me. We were now underway. We dropped to all fours and quickly crossed the small, low chamber; in a few meters we were into a space that sloped downward and opened up a bit, giving us room to stand and move more freely. I led the way and, for the first time, myself, wound along this path among drops between fallen rock and small muddy slides. We were quickly at the level where the Rifreddo river runs down to feed Campo Braca's first lake, which I have mentioned a number of times in earlier chapters.
I knew where we were supposed to come out, but for a second I didn't seem to recognize anything. It took a few minutes to get used to it all again and then it started to get familiar—as in a vision I recognized the old stalactites and stalagmites, the flows and drapes on the walls, among which was the “Elephant Herd”. I was back.
That evening when I got back home, I described in these words what I had felt:
"In the caves, time stops. It flows only for those few seconds that are illuminated by your passing. Then, right around the corner, everything stops again, awaiting a new Diogenes with his shadows. That is what I feel when, after years, I set foot again in these spaces and on these winding paths that I have visited before. Nothing has changed—it's just as I left it: the same stones, the same accretions, the usual muddy ropes frayed by time.
Reality is different, I know, but I like to imagine that the darkness, once it has closed behind me, has sealed these spaces once again to save them for unknown explorers of the future.”
(to be continued)...
P.S. Some photos from that day: Marbet and the Wizards' Hole
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