Tag Archives: cave

Civilized Spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns

I’ve been in many caves before, but none quite as grand or civilized as Carlsbad Caverns.  There was no desperate clinging to dusty ledges above a river plunging into a dark abyss, no riding an inner tube with only a stick to protect me from the rapidly approaching walls that I couldn’t see despite the penlight held in my teeth, no being bitten by cave shrimp and I crawl on my belly through a subterranean river, and no bat guano squishing between my toes.  There were none of the gaudy coloured lights popular in the caves open for visitors in China, and very little of the damage that I’ve found in unprotected caves like in Vietnam.  Very civilized.

Patrick and Diane seated on a stone wall with the large, dark cave mouth behind us

At the entrance

We chose to hike into the caverns via the natural entrance rather than take the elevator.  It’s a walk of over a mile down a paved but continuously steep switch-backed trail that can be hard on the knees, but hiking down provides a much better appreciation of the caverns’ size and depth.

Diane and Beth standing on a paved path with many swtichbacked paths visible extending into the darkness below them

Diane and our friend Beth at the start of the many switchbacks

The first non-native person known to have explored the caverns is Jim White, a local cowboy.  In 1901 he saw a dark moving column in the sky, investigated, and found a giant stream of bats issuing from the cave mouth.  An estimated 800,000 bats of 17 species live in the caverns, the majority being Mexican Free-Tailed bats.  Evening programs are held at the cave entrance to watch the departure of the bats between Memorial Day (end of May) and mid-October.

Many bats against the sunset

Carlsbad Caverns, located in the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico, is protected as a National Park.  Despite its remote location, it receives 500,000 visitors annually.

The caves were formed when a large, underground limestone deposit, once the floor of an ancient sea bed, was dissolved when hydrogen sulfide (H2S, a colourless gas with the foul odour of rotten eggs) from deeper petroleum reserves mixed with oxygen (02, from water) to form sulfuric acid (H2SO4) The entrance to the caverns was caused by natural erosion from the surface afterwards, within the last million years.

The self-guided tour goes through several large chambers displaying lots of different and hard-to-photograph speleothems (the structures found in caves caused by the deposit of water-borne minerals) like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, soda straws, draperies, helectites, and popcorn.

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The biggest room in the caverns, uninspiringly called ‘The Big Room’ but also known as ‘The Hall of the Giants’, is almost 4,000 feet (1,220 m) long, 625 feet (191 m) wide, and 255 feet (78 m) high at the highest point. It has a floor area of 357,469 square feet (33,210 m2) and is the third largest cave chamber in North America and the seventh largest in the world.

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The caves are cool but comfortable.  The self-guided tour travels a paved path, most of which is wheelchair accessible.  If you’re seeking a civilized spelunking expedition, Carlsbad Caverns is a great place to visit.

Posing Underground

Posing Underground

Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument

The drive to this national monument in the Gila Wilderness Area is scenic, steep, narrow, twisting and beautiful.  Diane was stressed and her arm rest suffered.  The mountain highway approaching the monument has steep sections of 10-12% grade for several miles, and large drop-offs with no guard rails. A lower gear is necessary in sections to avoid burning out one’s brakes.  Larger vehicles, including bigger RVs, need to take an alternate route, which is still challenging.

At an elevation of 6,700 feet (2,040 meters), it was cool but sunny when we arrived in the late morning.  Snow was visible nearby, but had finally relinquished the trails a few days prior.  The cliff dwellings are accessible by a short but steep hike up Cliff Dweller Canyon, which was apparently a challenge for some prairie dwellers who were departing and complaining when we parked in the almost empty lot.  The south-facing cliffs, sun kissed even in winter, quickly became visible as we climbed among the ponderosa pines.

Large alcoves like caves in a brown cliff from a distance

Cliff Alcoves

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were built and occupied by the Mogollon people during a short 25 year period about 700 years ago (1275 – 1300 CE).  The Mogollon normally built pit houses or surface pueblos but, breaking with tradition, the Tularosa Mogollon built inside the 5 cave alcoves of this canyon.  It is not known why the dwellings were abandoned after such a short period.

Cave mouth closed mostly by white bricks whie tourists looking up

The Second of Five caves

Of the 46 total rooms, most of the walls are still standing.  There were believed to have been occupied by 10 to 15 families.

A large cave half filled with a hite brick wall

Cave Three

The dwellings were a practical place to live.  They were protected from the weather, and their exposure allowed the low sun of winter to enter while keeping out the higher, hotter sun of summer.

The interior of a large cave with brick walls and structure visible

Inside Cave 4 and 5

Cliff Dweller Creek, at the bottom of the canyon, provided a convenient source of water, and the nearby Gila River valley was a good place for hunting, gathering, and growing food.  Of the 32 species of plant remains found in the caves, 24 were native (e.g. grapes, berries, acorns, nuts) while the other 8 including corn, beans, and squash were cultivated.

Very small corn cobs in a basket

700 Year Old Corn Cobs!

Visitors are welcome to enter and explore the caves.

Diane's upper body wearning puple fleece visible over wall in a cave

Diane exploring

Patrick in red shirt and jeans standing on a walkway in Cave 4 & 5

Patrick in Cave 4 & 5

Ladders and walkways are provided to move about the caves.  Scrambling around the cliffs reminded me of our visit to Petra, though this was on a much smaller and more primitive scale.

Patrick seated on a large wooden ladder made of poles that is exiting from a cave

Patrick descending

The first European contact with the Gila Cliff Dwellings was by Henry B. Ailman who was living in Silver City at the time, about 45 miles away.  Legend has it that in the summer of 1878, Ailman and some friends were on a jury list. To avoid serving, they organized a prospecting trip to the Gila River where this site was discovered.

Diane in purple tshirt and beige pants with Gila Cave 4 & 5 in the background

Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument is an interesting place to visit.  The beautiful drive, the remote location, the natural splendour, and the hands-on exploring of a historical site made for an really enjoyable day.

The Blue Grotto

One of the items on my Dreams List is to swim in the Blue Grotto.  I saw this on a television show years ago, and it looked incredible, so I added it to my ‘bucket list’ without knowing how I might achieve it, or even where it was.  So it was with great delight that I learned it was on the island of Capri, just off the western coast of Italy, a place that I could visit on this trip.

After arriving by ferry in Bari, Diane and I drove across Italy in just a few hours to the famous Amalfi Coast.  This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy, with beautiful seaside villages set into a chain of steep rocky cliffs looking out over the Mediterranean.  The incredible drive from Salerno to Sorrento hugs the spectacular coastline and is a testament to Italian civil engineering.  It was fifty kilometers of the most challenging driving I’ve experienced on this trip, with narrow roads, tight corners, and hazards on both sides of the route.  More than once Diane had to fold in the passenger door mirror to squeeze through between a rock (the cliff) and a hard place (an oncoming bus).  When we arrived at a campground in the village of Seiano, I told the manager with a mixture of relief and pride that I’d done this drive, and only then learned from him that motorhomes are prohibited on this road, though we didn’t see any signs to this effect.  I recalled passing several police officers, but he said that they don’t enforce this rule as they should.  Lucky for us.

The next morning, with little idea of what to expect, we caught the expensive ferry to Capri.  It stopped first in the seaside town of Sorrento to board additional passengers, many of whom appeared to come from a cruise ship docked offshore.  The high speed ferry made the crossing to Capri quickly and disembarked hundreds of people into the island’s main port of Marina Grande.  We got a map at the indifferent tourist office, and decided to take the local buses across the island rather than attempt to negotiate with the taxi drivers requesting outrageous amounts, and rather than join one of the many boat tours offering passage to the Blue Grotto either directly or as a stop during a circumnavigation of the island.

On the first bus we met a beautiful blond named Courtney, the wife of an American military officer stationed in Naples, and her nephew visiting from Georgia.  They were here on a day trip from Naples.  On the steep and winding road up to Anacapri, a village above the island’s main town of Capri, the talkative Courtney shared her recommendations for Naples with us while Diane did her best to write them down on the swaying bus.  We all changed to another bus for the short ride down to the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto).  I still had no idea what to expect, but we lined up with the others who appeared to be waiting for the same thing.

The queue wound down some steep steps to a small, wet platform at water level.  From the stairs we could see a lot of boats jostling about in a small cove.  Some were tour boats bringing visitors from the main harbour while others seemed privately owned.

6 large white boats in close quarters surrounded by small rowboats on blue water

The Cove directly in front of The Blue Grotto

Skirting between them were many small wooden boats carrying tourists, each piloted by a standing boatman with 2 oars.  It became apparent to me that this would not be the mystical cave swimming experience that I had imagined.

Diane in pink shirt and white visor waiting on steps with others below, and a white boat floating near the platform at the bottom

Diane waiting on the steps

We soon began to see a pattern emerge from the insanity.  The small boats collected tourists from either the landing at the foot of our stairs or from one of the larger boats and then jockeyed for a place to gain access to the Grotto.  The fee was per person, so they crammed the boats as full as possible, with a minimum of 4 adults or up to 6 East Asians in each.

A small white row boat with standing pilot and 6 Asian people crammed in to it

A full row boat

Entry was gained through a small opening in the cliff, just over 1 meter wide and with a height that varied from a maximum of less than a meter to almost nothing, depending on the rise and fall of the waves.  Courtney commented that the boatmen weren’t typically Italian but instead had some muscles, which they used to manhandle their boats into position and then to propel them through the gap in the cliff.

8 small white row boats pushing for entry into the Blue Grotto

Jostling to gain entry

We finally reached the foot of the line and got our chance to board.  We shared a boat with Courtney and her nephew, and were arranged with them and Diane in the stern facing forward, me in the front facing backwards, and our captain standing in between, his tanned feet slotted in between our tangled legs. We did the compulsory circuit past the cashier boat (yes, a floating cashier), paid our fees, received our change, and noticed that our boatman immediately got his cut for this journey.

Two men in white shirts, one smoking, handling cash, on a small boat covered by a white awning

The cashier’s boat

We then battled our way into position to gain access into the Grotto.  In addition to thwarting the other boats seeking entry, we needed to wait for those that periodically burst forth from the fissure in the cliff.  Entrance and egress to the grotto are via the same hole in the rocks.

Patrick in red shirt visible under the oar and beside the jean pant leg of our boatman

Me in the bow

I made conversation by asking whether it was always this busy.  Our pilot said, “Yes”, then added that today was very dangerous because of the high seas.  I relayed this to Diane, who started to stress out further, but was generally enjoying the crazy tourist frenzy of the whole experience.

Diane holding on and looking worried in the stern of the row boat

Diane realizing what she’s gotten herself in to

Our pilot told us to lay down in the bottom of the boat — not just to duck down, but literally to get our heads below the gunnels.  This required a fully prone position, and created a soggy mosh pit in the bottom of our row boat.  He grabbed a chain secured to the cliff and carefully studied the swells.  It is essential that he time his pull just prior to a wave trough, allowing us to shoot through the opening without being crushed into the roof by a rising swell.  As our boat surged forward, he lowered himself backwards to lay on the bodies of his passengers, squishing them further.  Diane still smiles when she talks about it (something about his beautifully tanned legs).  He did all of this admirably, and we arrived suddenly into the dark grotto.

Diane and others laying prone in the bow of our roatbat with other boats in the background

Getting to know our new friends

The cave itself was relatively small, perhaps 15 x 25 meters.  The ceiling and walls were dark and difficult to make out.  The air inside smelled clean and fresh and lacked the typical cave odour of bat guano.  From the water came a bright blue glow, the ‘Blue’ of the Blue Grotto.  The glow is caused by the sunlight from outside shining through an underwater opening and reflecting off the white sandy bottom of the grotto.  It causes the water to glow a surreal blue, like viewing a blue-bottomed swimming pool with underwater lights at night.  The blue fades the farther one gets from the entrance, but casts sufficient light to see the outline of the many other boats milling about in the darkness.  This effect is interrupted periodically by the strobes of camera flashes.

A blue glow in a black space

Not the best picture, but you get the idea

Each boatman made what appeared to be a couple of laps of the cave, deftly avoiding collisions with walls or other vessels.  Between the waves lapping, oars splashing, and tourists talking, it was noisy in the close quarters of the cave.  Like Venetian gondoliers, many boatmen sang a few phrases of Italian classics like ‘O Sole Mio’, apparently a requisite part of the job in an attempt to secure tips, but which only added to the cacophony.  After about 5 minutes, we headed once again towards the cleft in the cliff to queue for our departure from the cave.

In the boat beside us a young woman pulled off her clothes and jumped into the water wearing a bikini.  It was a dangerous place to do this, in between boats rising and falling on the swells near the gap that provided the only entrance and exit.  Apparently she shared my dream of swimming in the Blue Grotto.

In synch with the waves, we burst forth into the bright Capri sunlight, once again barely avoiding grazing the roof of the opening.  We gave our pilot a small tip, something he was sure to remind us of, and climbed back onto the tiny platform.

The Blue Grotto was not what I had expected, although I must admit that I had few preconceived notions.  It was far more chaotic and touristy that I had anticipated, but in a unique way that added to the excitement and charm of the place.  I had hoped to swim inside, but a quick dip in that craziness wasn’t the dream I had in mind, so I decided against it.  Apparently it is possible to swim there in the evening, something that requires an overnight stay on the beautiful but touristy island, so perhaps I’ll go back some day.

Diane in pink shirt and Patrick in red shirt with arm around her, with sea cliff, water, and boats in the background