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Cumaca, before the rains

Exploring the caves...

By Heather-Dawn Herrera

You can feel the transition in the atmosphere by the high humidity around you. Some areas such as the north eastern mountains have received some rain but the rest of the country has been sweltering.
Our tiny, hard-working insect friends are collecting and transporting their food supplies home before the heavy rains arrive. On our way into the hills of Cumaca we observed the systemic conveyance of leaf chippings gathered by orderly lines of ant workers. Some deposited their load on to a stockpile en route to their home and returned to the source for more, while others left home only to reach the stockpile, collect their load and transport it home. These lines of ants moved along unbroken except when disturbed by passing human feet.
Our destination lay in the hills of Cumaca where the Oropouche channelled its way through the mountains before surfacing at the mouth of the Oropouche Oilbird Cavern. Our continuing exploration of this remarkable channel cannot be done during the rainy season because of the sudden rise in the level of waters that pose a threat to the safety of those caught within such confines.
Though there has been some rain during the past few days in these hills it was not enough to pose a threat to our activity just yet. We were determined to continue our exploration past the point we had attained on our last expedition.
We set out short of one person this time around because he had opted out of the exercise in the early stages complaining of claustrophobia. The other man who usually keeps time outside the cave had flatly refused to take his place saying that we were crazy people.
Memories returned to us of another occasion when one of our cavers showed signs of fear as we were about to climb down into a narrow sinkhole. He tried his best to follow through saying that if a woman could do it he as a man could more than do it. Halfway down into the cave he announced ‘Nah, I aint doing this. All yuh go ahead.’ The others jested with him, ‘Boy, you letting a woman shame you.’ Our comrade just could not continue and climbed back to the outside.
This time there were only two of us making our way into the interior of the mountain. Ronald and I left one man on the outside with instructions and a two-hour time frame to work with. We descended into the steep chute using a length of rope that just enabled us to get near to the base where we could hear the sounds of the river making its way in the darkness just around a bend. A few precarious scrambles along the slippery rubble of the steep floor and we reached the deep water.
Fish swam near to the surface perhaps attracted by our lighting. There were a few bats hanging from the low roof of the passage. We began a careful tread up the course of the river using the soft mound of its bank. This section was familiar to us as we had explored here before. We crouched below confining parts where the roof hung low and the bank sloped steeply into the water. We soon reached the wrap-up point of our last trip without much discomfort and now prepared to swim up the length of the cold water from here onwards.
This section was half-filled with water from wall to wall. There was no bank here and the stalactites hung from the roof as if trying to make contact with the river. The blackness of this section of the passage hung heavily upon us when we conserved our lighting.
There were no bats to be seen this far into the tunnel and the usual insects and fish colonising the lighter area at the base of the chute were non-existent here. This distance upriver was clothed in perpetual blackness.
Using one bright headlight to illumine our way forward, we swam against a mild current. It is always our hope on these types of expeditions to encounter signs of unique life, anything, within the interior of these long subterranean passages. So far, we discovered nothing out of the ordinary. However, the beauty of fringe stalactites was not to be ignored. These decorated the length of the roof throughout our entire progress upstream.
After spending a considerable amount of time exploring low ceilings and close curving walls above the water, it was time to return downstream. The coldness of the water was beginning to affect us somewhat as there was no immediate rest spot here. We familiarised ourselves with our new cut-off point and left further exploration to a date perhaps later this year when the weather so permits.
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