Monday 31 August 2015

Armageddon 29 August 2015 by Karin Human

A full moon peeks over the horizon as I step back on the canvas serving as rope protection and covering Armageddon’s edge. Sweat drips from my forehead as clumsy, over-worked hand attempts to clip my safety line. A deep sigh pauses an endless moment of courage, determination and strength. Instinctively I know none of us will stand at this very same spot tonight and claim nothing has changed. Armageddon has seeped into our lungs with every breath, rushed into our veins and nestled itself in our cells. We are transformed.

                A long dusty road snakes through the barren landscape leading to the infamous Armageddon. Winter is still prevalent in this area with rolling yellow brown fields stretching to the horizon. A long, narrow strip of hills follow our progression with anticipation. After a few right and left turns we make our way up a slight rise. A blackened field signifies a raging fire not too long ago and I can’t help to think it quite fitting. The dust settles when the last vehicle finds a parking spot. I watch in my rear view mirror as the edge of Armageddon becomes visible. The sinkhole seems much smaller than I anticipated. Muffled, cheerful chatter from the rest of the group moves me to open my car door. The day has just become significant.

                Slowly gear is being inspected, adjusted and donned. A few of us walked to the edge to find some clarity on depth and an insane idea of how we’re going to attempt this. A contraption reminding me of an oversized calliper stood at the edge with a rope running in the middle of its silver legs, stretching from the Landrover to a Ford Ranger parked on the other side of the gaping hole. Watching with interest, my fuddled mind refused to comprehend what we were about to do. My idea was more along the lines of abseiling down the side, but the truth of this specific cave becomes vivid when it is explained that the sides are too unstable. John works quietly to secure the rigging.

                By now the whole group was standing around to see what was happening. A deafening sound when metal hits metal tears through the quiet morning when John lets go of the rigged pulley and it abruptly stops in the middle of the hole. A few nervous giggles and immediate word mash up allows the more experienced cavers to pull the Mickey out of this situation. A few laughs later it is time to get serious. David is first. He threads the line into his stop, link his safety to the safety loop and lowers himself to the middle slowly by letting go of the rope leading to the Landrover. From there it is fairly easy. A few gear checks and then, after unlinking the safety, he descends and disappears from our view. Quiet, controlled and fairly quickly we get the ‘Rope Free’ call. Next one... And another... Somewhere in this moment I started to lose my nerve. All the what-ifs of a million scenarios simultaneously created a personal hell through which I had to find a way. I decided to jump at the opportunity to go down next.

                Standing at the edge, I took note of my surroundings. The wasteland around me seemed more friendly that this hole. The brown red soil had big holes and crevasses, probably from water in the raining season. It stretched down to what seemed to be a rock face. My eyes darted back a few leafless bushes surrounding the entrance.  A few encouraging words from behind became a soft whisper as the wind brushed past me. I turned to Steven, begging him to come with me. This was totally an impulse thing because I knew and understood it will be my journey into Armageddon and mine alone. I was shaking badly and asked him to lower me to the middle. I did my gear checks, unhooked my safety and slowly started my descent. My eyes stayed fixed on the edge.

                A green glow from below caught my attention. I looked down and Armageddon had me at that very first hello. Ferns were growing abundantly on the sheer cliffs. It seemed like a spirally edge, snaking lazily from the bottom towards the top, became the perfect place for them. I was awestruck. It was like walking into a rainforest with the coolness enveloping me and the fresh, earthy smell that filled my nostrils. The stream-like sound of running water comforted me into a state of tranquillity. Calm and at ease I finally made it to the bottom. The steep slope was not something I prepared for. What made it even worse was the loose gravel. Moving from one place to the next required some planning, but even that failed at some points when footing became bumming. I soon realised that this would be the norm for the rest of the day.

                The slope disappeared into utter darkness further down where a huge gap in the sinkhole wall awaited our somewhat careful entrance.  The very first chamber is impressive to say the least. The slope continues down and with a few intuitive moves and slides you make it down relatively easy. Going down the right side of the entrance has a few hidden obstacles. We came across quite a few off cuts of barbwire which would be easily avoided if the slope was not as slippery and rocky.  A few tyres also found their way down. The slope on the left side is a quick slide down, but I think you have to know it well enough to attempt it. Standing at the bottom and looking back, the slope could easily be 20m to30m high.

                Our first stop is the most amazing stalagmites, formed from magnesium. I’ve never had the privilege of being a witness to something this great. Shiny black and almost like flowstone, covering parts of the boulder. We moved on, climbing over huge boulders, watching every step because of loose rocks. It’s like this cave did everything possible to protect itself from peering eyes. The cave floor is strewn with razor sharp rocks and I have found many looking stable enough to step on, but waving arms and grasping at surrounding (just as loose rocks) to prevent a sure fall. The climbs are high, the slopes just as intimidating.

                At one point Rick triumphantly said something and everybody scrambled over the scattered rocks to get to him. I followed suit. It turned out to be Gerrie’s little lava lamp. The smoky white column of what seems to be a stalactite and the size of a litre bottle, stood upright on a huge boulder. It was found on the floor and placed there. Steven shone his light through it and revealed an amazing jewel. The top part was cobalt blue and bled into green at the lower parts. Irene asked if we could have a moment to eat and refresh before we continued.

                We were nearing the first pit. There was a rope rigged from one side of the gaping hole to the other on the right side, hugging the wall tightly. A small ledge, just big enough for one foot became our way of passing the hole. With a safety clipped onto the rope, one by one we moved past this obstacle. A few metres on and we were standing at the precipice of a 20m gap. Our way over would be via a pulley system and a rope, spanning from one side to the other. Obviously some of us had some self-convincing to do at this point. I for one has never done anything like this, but Rick guided us through this. After being linked up to the pulley you fall off the edge.  The rope slopes down and you climb hand over hand, pulling yourself over to the other side. I was not surprised to find another torturous slope and the ever present loose rocks on the other side. Luckily Steven and a few of the group were already on the other side and a few pulls assisted me up the little slope.

                Thinking that we’ve nailed it that thought evaporated at the sight of a 40m gap we have to cross next. A shiny silver cable dissipated into blackness as it gave safe passage to the other side. Standing on a pile of rocks, just as stable as the rest of this cave, you hook yourself up to the pulley and off you go. It turned out to be fun filled ride, but of short duration. Nearing the other side you have to turn your body and get your feet on the side to prevent a sure collision. A Few metres on you have to turn to the other side and do the same.   

                As we progressed, I could hear the anticipation in Rick’s voice of our next chamber. All he could say was “just wait, you’ll see”. You don’t see this chamber. You experience it. The first impression is something like a void. The size of this chamber nullifies any attempt to take it in all at once. You are brought to your knees and you become one with the darkness that surrounds you. Your light travels eons away and sees nothing. It’s in this moment that you truly experience the raw soul of Armageddon. In this vast chamber you find a way to yourself and realise that life just happened to you.

                We found a spot in the centre where most of the group already gathered. It was decided that this will be the turning point. Steven decided to push a little further. There is always more to see. I decided to follow, but Steven’s light disappeared quite quickly. Even though the floor seemed more walk friendly, I realised it was just another facade when my foot disappeared ankle depth into the soft soil. Your steps become light and with purpose. We pushed forward. We had a time limit we had to stick to and we wanted to get to the deepest part of this cave. Up steep slopes and down the other side. Another big, gaping hole made for easy stepping because if you catch a loose rock you might just end up at the bottom of it. I remember looking up at yet another slope and realised I have to come back this way again. I was at the verge of giving up, but decided to push on. The hard part about these slopes is that you can’t follow anyone. Every person going up changes the route and you have to find your own route up. It’s like an individual thing. Dig your toes in and crawl like a gecko. I’ve learned to use the palm of my hand to climb. Clawing with fingers is much more risky when it comes to the amount of loose rocks.

                This part of the cave is wet and clay covers most of the climbs. Truly inspiring when I think of what I’ve accomplished. We met Steven on our way as he was making his way back. He moves in these caves like a ghost. You see him and then he’s gone. I had a bit of a slip and fell. Rick was standing in a peculiar crack running through and exceptionally thick part of the mud. Might this be the beginning of something great? We were basically at the deepest part of the cave. A whopping 230m and with that thought lingering we had to turn back.

                Crossing the 3 pits weren’t as challenging as the first time. As we progressed towards the entrance the group got away from me and Rick. We stopped to have a look at the site that gave essence to being in the oldest cave in the world.
                The walls are made up of rows and rows of shelves neatly on top of one another.  Pressed between these shelves is the history of earth, written in the strange formations of degenerating dolomite, slowly turning to dust. It’s like an old forgotten library, with mystical secrets and phenomenal revelations. A small section of this cave, easily overlooked because of focussed climbing, is one such place. The walls are covered in a white, bubbly kind of formation. Rick was kind enough to stop here and explain the absolute significance of this particular spot. It is evident that the dolomite layer was heated rapidly and turned to liquid. The cooling process was also fast and left an ancient message cast in stone. Armageddon, millions of years back. It is at this very spot that the dating for this cave was done. We were standing at a holy place of history. A glimpse of a world, crippled and regenerating into a home for us and that fact had me humbled. I could only stare in silence as words were as evasive as the roof of this magnificent place.

                We also found a speleothem dating back to the start of life on earth. Shaped like a broken shell, it holds the truth of life’s intent in the hard, rocky formation. All you can do is staring in wonder of all the wisdom that is locked away in this seemingly uninteresting piece of rock. It is unimaginable to comprehend the time gone by before modern life has touched it.

                We made it into the sinkhole and the final journey up the rope sent a last few shivers down my spine. Steven was almost at the top when we arrived and we patiently awaited our turn. We used the time to refresh and rest. Climbing the rope was tiring, to say the least. Dusk was the call of nature to some bats to come out, joining the comedy of working my way up the rope. Like Gerrie says: “One does not simply SRT up Armageddon’s sinkhole”.    

Karin Human

1 comment:

  1. Colin Redmayne-Smith26 September 2015 at 12:55

    An excellent article, well written.