On Saturday morning, at 7:00am, my brother and I left Katoomba for the Jenolan Caves. After being given a helmet with a flashlight, blue overalls, knee pads and a belt, we joined up with another six explorers and three terrific guides to explore a small section of the largest underground cave network at Jenolan and the oldest in the world: the Mammoth.
After a twenty minute walk from the guidehouse, through a dense forest of eucalypt and pine, meandering along a dried-out riverbed of stone and ivy, and in the permanent shadow of a looming cliff, we reached the steps that took us up to a small grate that was then unlocked. Turning on our torches, we crouched through in single-file…
Our first stop, after clambering down, down, down into the belly of the mountain, was the Rock Pile: a mass of fallen boulders, held in place around each other by their own stubborn weight. We clambered over, crawled under and slithered sideways through this labyrinth, feeling the icy touch of age-old stone so far away from distant sunlight.
At every turning in the passage, past every narrow entranceway, it was too easy to forget which way we came. In silence, and with nothing save our bobbing torches to light the inside of the mountain, we followed our guides down to a burbling river. There, greedily, we drank the clearest water I have ever tasted, and washed the dirt of a million years from every hand and face.
Our next stop was the Oolites Cavern: a short, but not so tricky climb to a high, expansive cave whose every wall glittered with crystal, where stalactites and straws hung dripping from an ancient roof. We marvelled at the priceless wonder of it all, the breathtaking acoustics and the short and shiny stalagmites that took an age to grow. Finally, this part of our adventure over, we turned back and retraced our steps… but we were far from being finished.
Climbing and winding our way back to the Rock Pile, we were each of us clipped onto a karabiner for the purpose of scaling a rigged-up ladder that swayed listlessly through a chimney of stone. This was the most challenging part of the day: hauling myself up, two rungs at a time, contorting my body to get onto the ledge, adjusting my position to remove the karabiner and then finding the strength to clamber up and over a boulder not much smaller than myself. There, after another short and fairly easy climb, we turned off our torches and marvelled at the dense and utter blackness, so thick that it seemed to crawl behind the eyes and stupefy the brain.
There is no time within the bowels of this green earth, no way to mark the slow aging of rock and stone. I could not help but imagine being trapped down here: unable to differentiate between day and night, unable to tell the difference between dreams and waking, unable to take a step for fear of falling an immeasurable distance…
Our lunch was had in a tiny, dirt-floored chamber, where we were careful not to leave a single crumb, the smallest morsel flowering rapidly into an eager mould. A dark line near the ceiling showed us how high the water gets in the rainy season, and bits of decaying stick and leaf served as evidence of the most recent flood.
Packed and ready to keep exploring, we trudged onwards over rocks that were coated in slippery goo, and into a dark world of clay and slime. Crawling on our bellies beneath the overhanging stone, through cracks no higher than a human head, we emerged after a series of tunnels, caked in clay and soaked with water, at an undulating field of mud.
Careful to place our feet in the deep, watery footprints left by others, and mindful of the smallest misstep sending us sliding towards the edge of a rocky pit to our right that breathed upon us as we marched, we walked carefully and in single-file towards an abyss so deep that our guide’s thrown stone continued sending back echoing report as faint vibration even after we could no longer hear its distant chime. Crudely, the wall was marked with an arrow facing away from the precipice, whose base lay out of hope and memory, along with an image of a skull and crossbones: a dire warning, scrawled by 19th century explorers, one of whom may have learnt too late what lay beyond its lip.
Our final stage was optional, but it was an option that we all took. The Hellhole. A slimy, mudpacked tunnel through which we ducked and squeezed and crawled, which flattened out into a winding chimney the size of a human torso. Watching the man in front of me squeeze his way through, his two arms pressed flat alongside his body, boosting himself upwards with his legs, his fingers working the roof above his back, I wondered whether I might need to give up here.
Once his feet had disappeared beyond the bend, I embraced the slimy walls. Sliding my arms before me, and attempting to dig my elbows into the tightly-packed clay, I wedged my head and upper body into the crack. So tight that I could not change the direction in which I was facing, there being insufficient room to turn my head, I gasped and grunted, squeezed and pushed until I came plopping through into a slightly larger cavity, from which I could pull myself safely up. “It’s a boy!”, shouted someone from above.
Finally, defeated by the Mammoth Cave and breathing loudly, we embarked upon the most dangerous part: a journey along the face of a stone wall, guided by a hand-held cord, our feet and knees pressed firmly against the slippery surface opposite us, and a crevice beneath us that tapered away into a crack just wide enough for a person’s ankles, and maybe half their legs. No legs were broken and no ankles sprained, but the trek over this drop was tortuous and slow, made easier by the guides’ advice on where to lean and where to push, and safer by their physical presence towards the end.
Finally – finally! – we retraced our steps, through mud and slime and over rock and stone, under, over and through each narrow cleft made smaller by my own physical and psychic exhaustion. The final push, a long flight upwards, so easily traversed when coming down it at the very start of our journey, absolutely broke me. I was utterly spent, and almost wept with joy when I got a face full of cobweb. A sign of life; a sign that we are approaching the summit.
All told, we had spent a total of seven hours in the Mammoth Cave. Seven hours climbing and sliding and squeezing and crawling through the age-old intransigence of stone. Seven hours deep within the heart of the mountain, with silence our companion and with darkness our friend. Seven hours where the walls leer and the shadows dance around the dim reach of the torchlight. Where the only other living creatures are infant bats and featureless white flatworms. Seven hours, and we had finally made it through, blinking and teary in the dying sunlight, into a gently-raining forest, bathed in sound.