I floated uneasily amidst a tangle of roots in murky water at the bottom of a sinkhole. An audience formed above me, around the lip of the sinkhole, from elderly to children. Word had spread like wildfire in the tiny jungle village about the crazy American who was looking for underwater caves. I suspect they hoped I would either be eaten by a python or drowned after getting tangled in the root system. Minutes earlier, I had tried to climb out using roots and rocks stuck in the mud of the sinkhole wall, but the root to which I clung had unzipped from the wall, spitting me downward under a barrage of mud clumps. I was almost as good as a public hanging. Mercifully my driver, Nelson, had brought a rope, which he now lowered to me.
The Philippine island of Bohol, which means “cave” in the local Visayan dialect, is named for the thousands of caves that riddle its surface. Many of them are unexplored, particularly the ones that are full of water: the objects of my desire. Exploring underwater caves, while hard and dangerous work, is also really fun. Because Southeast Asia is largely unexplored in terms of caves and human prehistory, underwater caves provide the potential for undisturbed archaeological remains. While the environment is hostile to both artifacts and divers, caves that possess conditions for preservation are vital sources of information about ancient lifeways and environmental conditions. Yet regardless of a particular cave’s potential to hold artifacts, I was happy just to explore where no human had ever been before, at least not within the last 10,000 years. This is why I was now bobbing in a murky, root-choked sinkhole in a remote village.
I tied my snorkel gear to the end and hauled myself up to a solid root, then climbed up the wall on tenuous rocks and root clumps. The villagers chattered among themselves as I pulled over the final lip, covered in mud and detritus. Crazy.
I cleaned up a bit and proceeded on my search for suitable cave dives. Our next stop was the hut of an elder in another village. Nelson stopped in front of his hut where he sat in the shadow of a thatched overhang smoking a cigarette. Nelson spoke Visayan with him for a few moments, and then he invited us onto his tiny veranda. He had the quiet poise of one who has seen many years in remote country. I spoke no Visayan, and his English was sparse, but something passed between us as we sat in unhurried peace. His world was almost inconceivable to many of my colleagues in America. Indeed, it was difficult for me to grasp the gestalt of these people. They lived off the land to a great extent, the jungle providing much of their food and clothing at the cost of their time and energy to gather and process it. They desired western affluence and fame as much as the average American desired a hammock strung between two palm trees on a deserted beach. The irony could kill.
“There are pythons,” he said in broken English as a final warning. “And spiders.” His final test to be certain I knew what I was getting into or, at least, that I would be willing to see it through once I realized what I had gotten myself into.
“I would still like to go,” I answered with the calmness of the convicted.
He chatted with Nelson and then gathered his things: a machete, a long stick to shoo the snakes away, and a cigarette. He led us through thickening jungle to a gaping maw in the earth. Stalactites clung to one side of the hole like dripping fangs. Opposite them, a collapsing slope led sharply down to a black entrance into the ground. Deep mud waited at the bottom, so I took off my shoes. Letting myself down by branches and vines, I picked my way over loose boulders and stepped into the silky-soft clay.
Up to my knees.
Assuring myself that there was no quicksand in the Philippines, I waded over to the entrance. A steep slope dropped away, leading towards the sound of burbling water. Digging my hands into the soft, saturated clay bank, I kicked my feet in and gingerly climbed down into the darkness, my headlamp swallowed in the close, humid air and black rock overhead. At the bottom, I felt comparatively firm gravel. A stream swirled and disappeared at my feet. I waded in slowly and felt around with my foot, bracing my hands against the wall to resist the pull of the spinning siphon. The water pushed through a narrow entrance which opened up beyond. I lowered myself until my chin was in water and felt around with one leg while I braced with the other. Beyond the narrow restriction the passage seemed to open. I couldn’t tell how wide the opening was. It would be hard for me to fit through, but I suspected I could. It would be an extremely serious dive, though. Upstream, the passage slowly narrowed, but seemed to offer lengthy potential for exploration. Satisfied, I turned back. Mercifully the climb out was easier than the descent and before long I was out of the pit. I pulled out my notebook and added it to my list of potentials, sketching a skull and crossbones next to the entry to mark the severity of the attempt.
Content to explore a dry cave, I planned on returning to town to get survey equipment and cave gear. However, by the time we returned to the elder’s hut, several villagers had gathered. They offered to take us to several other caves in the area. Deciding that it was more important to listen to what they had to say and build rapport, I graciously accepted.
Back into the jungle we went.
Over the next few hours I saw several “caves.” The first ones were just gnarly mudholes, but I smiled and thanked them for showing me. However, the last one was remarkable. One passage led back into a cave, and then disappeared in a black pool. The water was murky, but the opening in the back of the cave where the water slowly burbled to the surface was enormous. I did some breath-hold dives to check it out. My dive light disappeared in the blackness. Though visibility was poor, the passage was easily diveable.
I put a star next to it in my book.
With that, night was upon us. I returned to town and slept like the dead. My plane left the following afternoon, but other folks in the village had more to show me.
Morning found Nelson and me bouncing over a rough trail through the forest on his trike, pushing it through some rough spots until we came to a small pool. A few families were washing clothes and bathing in the clear water. A small stream disappeared into a welcoming cave, and I headed in with a contingent of children on my heels. The passage led down to a clay channel. Once again, I took off my shoes and waded through the mud, turning the stream black with silt. Before long the water disappeared under a ledge. Another siphon. I marked it in my book and splashed back to the children, who were waiting patiently for me around a small light that I had left with them. Their eyes gleamed with laughter as the beam danced wildly through the air. They were playfully wrestling each other to hold it and wave it around like a light saber. In those moments, waves of contentedness washed over me. Here, in a remote and forgotten corner of the world, people were still human. They took care of each other, laughed, played, and lived in relative peace. Sure, there were personality conflicts and local politics and government corruption, but out here the politics du jour of the cities were a world away. Clean running water, trees laden with coconuts, and a jungle bursting with fruits and life provided for most of their needs. Watching six children laugh and tussle over a small light in a small cave on a small island gave me a moment of satori.
Back at the pool, I searched around for the source of the water. Eventually I found a small black hole under a ledge. Doing another breath hold dive, I wedged myself into the opening, water surging against me as I thrust my light forward. Like Indiana Jones looking into a lost temple, I gazed into a beautiful chamber of rock. At the far end, another black hole led on. Clear water flowed steadily through the passage. A diver’s dream. Popping back to the surface, I grinned at Nelson. This was perfect, by far the best cave I had found.
I placed a few stars next to this one.
Though the villagers wanted to show me more caves, I had to catch my plane. I thanked them profusely for their generosity, then Nelson raced me to the airport. On the curb at the airport I said goodbye to Nelson. After a chance meeting on the roadside, he had become a trusted friend after a few intense days. His quiet demeanor, foresight, and surprising strength made the trip a great success.
As the plane lofted skyward, I considered what I had done. Though my desire to do some cave dives went unfulfilled, my notebook was fat with potential leads and notes for future trips. Such is the nature of exploration. Things rarely go as planned, but some flexibility allows good things happen.
Many people (especially those who don’t cave dive) have asked me why I cave dive. The answer lies somewhere in the region of, “Why do humans try new things?” Why did we leave Africa? Why did we start playing with fire? Who picked up the first stone? Why did we go to the Moon? To Everest? It is perhaps different for each person. Some want fame or glory. Some go for scientific research. Some go for the sheer joy of it. Some people are wired for it. Some are not. If you think it worthwhile to boldly go where no one has gone before, then it will make sense. If not, then it will appear crazy. I am not interested in sports, I’m not interested in raising a family, in having hobbies. I’m not an artist, I’m not a craftsman, I’m not a statesman. But I am an explorer. I have curled my toes over the gleaming edge of the known and dipped my finger in the quicksilver pool that lies beyond. This I can tell you: It is strong drink.