I was feeling nostalgic about Italy this weekend. Although, let’s be real, when am I not? So, I posted a photo of the Zinzulusa Caves in Puglia to my Instagram. One of my fellow travelgrammers commented that while it was a pretty pic, they’d be too scared to do any cave exploring.
That got me thinking.
I’m sure a lot of people feel that way about cave exploring. It’s unfortunate, because there’s nothing quite like descending into the Earth. It’s a whole other world down there and I, despite being desperately afraid of the dark, love it.
To be fair, I do make it a rule not to watch horror flicks. But, if you’ve already watched something like The Caves or The Descent, that might pose a problem. Maybe like me you’ve never watched those films, but your brain conjures up images of pale, cringing creatures that whisper “My precioussss” as they creep after you in the dark. Or giant spiders. Or hordes of orcs and goblins. (Gee, thanks Tolkien…)
Let’s do some damage control.
1. There’s Nothing Down There
I know that our primal instincts scream that dark, damp places are bad, bad, bad. But really, there’s nothing down there. Cave exploring is interesting because we’re going where most life forms cannot. There’s no sunlight, not much food, and very little incentive for anything larger than a cave cricket to live down there.
Alright, maybe there are some bats hanging out in some caves. But bats aren’t scary! They’re just flying mice who would really rather be left alone. They’re not going to fly at your face or into your hair or do anything except hang upside down and chill out. I promise.
They are a bit smelly though…
As far as giant bugs or monsters, it’s just not scientifically possible. With food in scarce supply and most of it smaller than your pinkie toe, no mole men are living down in those caves. And neither is Gollum or a Balrog. The scariest thing you’ll see is probably yourself in your spelunking gear.
2. You Won’t Get Lost While Cave Exploring
Maybe part of your fear stems from getting lost in the caves. That’s reasonable – if you’re wandering around alone in an unexplored cave system. Which I definitely don’t recommend.
But if you are on a cave tour, the caves have been mapped, you’ll be with a guide the whole time, and should you be separated from the group, there are safety measures in place. Most caves have a colored rope running alongside the route. If you follow that rope, it will lead you back out of the caves.
So, relax. You’re not going to die wandering aimlessly through the belly of the Earth. Just follow the safety protocol, stick with your group, and take deep breaths of that clean, cave air.
3. It’s Not Pitch Black
Well, that’s not strictly true. Caves themselves are, in fact, pitch black. But cave exploring is always done with the light of a headlamp or lights set up throughout the tour. Otherwise how would you see anything, silly? Take it from me, a serial nyctophobe: you won’t be spending much time, if any, in utter darkness. The one time I have experienced a cave as nature intended, it was actually a serene and deeply spiritual moment.
During an excursion into Rio Secreto, an underground fluvian system in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, our guide asked us all to turn off our headlamps. Down in the caves, we had entered what the Ancient Mayans referred to as Xibalba, the Spirit World, also called the Womb of the Earth. I floated, suspended in cold water, deep underground with no light. There was no difference between opening my eyes and closing them. And I was unafraid.
My guide was nearby and we’d been wandering through the caverns for hours without seeing anything bigger than a two-inch long blind fish. There were no monsters lurking to scare me. And more than anything, I felt the benevolent presence of the Earth. She is our mother and I was safe in her womb.
So if fear is keeping you from cave exploring, don’t let it. Get to know Mother Earth in a new way. And besides, your tour group will probably make enough noise to dissuade the monsters from following you.
Just kidding. (Mostly…)