Labyrinth

When I was in my early twenties, I was introduced to Honeycomb Cave, near Mole Creek in Tasmania.  My sister and her then-husband discovered it when they went out for a trial run with the local caving association.  One weekend they took the rest of us (my parents and I) out for a look.

The entry we used was at roughly ground level where a little creek ran out of an adjacent cave system (called Wet Cave) and into Honeycomb.  This entry brought us into the top of roughly three levels.  The whole cave occupied an area probably the size of a football field beneath a moderate sized hill.  But from inside, the scale seemed enormous.  The passages were often low, all narrow, and all winding and the short sight-lines made everything mysterious.  There were branching passageways leading off in all directions, sometimes just holes in the wall through which you could shine your torch and catch sight of an adjacent chamber.  Here and there were holes in the floor showing some glimpse of the next level down.  There were so many options and turns we were only able to see a small portion of the cave in the space of the afternoon.  It was tantalising, captivating… and I was besotted!

I went back whenever any of the family invited me.  I invited other friends to go with me and showed them around.  And when neither of those things were possible, I went by myself!  I couldn’t get the place out of my mine.  It seemed like every time I went there was some previously unseen passageway or connection I hadn’t tried before.  Going one way down a passage revealed turns and branches that I hadn’t seen when going the other way.

Inside the cave I felt like I was inside some breathtaking adventure story.  In The Lord of the Rings there’s a scene where the companions have just made their way inside the mines of Moria.  Gandalf risks a light so they can get their bearings.  The scene is realised quite well in the movie, but in the book it’s a transcendent moment.  Being in Honeycomb Cave felt like that except it was real!

Each level was different.  The top was dry and dusty.  The cave formations – stalactites, flowstone, and so on – were long dead and dulled with age and wear.  But this was the level where you came and went.  There were entrances all around the hill above.  From pretty well anywhere in the top level you could switch off your torch and be able to see a glimmer of light from one direction or another.  That was kind of comforting because the narrow, winding passages meant it was easy to lose all sense of direction.  Actually for me, with my amazingly poor visual memory, losing all sense of direction was completely unavoidable.  Often when I’d finished at the cave I’d have to pop out through some random entryway and walk around the base of the hill until I found the car.  The upside of caving with bad visual memory is that I could experience that shiver of fresh discovery in places I’d been several times before!  I guess you could say I got three times the excitement out of it than a normal person.

Even though it was dry the top level still had its moments of delight.  In one place you could walk out into what looked from the inside as if you were walking out of the cave.  But you would find that you were standing in the bottom of a deep pit, hung with leafy vegetation all around, still, quiet, warm in the sunshine, and completely inaccessible from outside.  Here and there were tempting chimneys or steeply inclined passageways leading up to the sunlight, probably somewhere high on the side of the hill.

The next level down was quite easy to reach; the openings in the floor of the top level were large and plentiful.  In other places there were ramps or creek beds that allowed easy access.  This level was much more like a typical limestone cave.  The formations were still moist and active; stalactites looking like dripping wax, glittering flow-stones, and stalagmites.  This was my favourite level; beautiful and captivating, like some enchanted realm completely removed from everyday life.  From the top level you could still hear the wind in the trees, the song of birds, even the occasional passing car.  But down here it was still, quiet, cool and secret.

The third level down was harder to get to.  There were few holes in the floor, and they were narrow.  This level was suffused with a sense of danger and threat.  The creek ran through this level.  There were deep pools where the passageway sank below the level of the water, which was icy cold.  The beam of the torch would reach down in to the misty, bluish water and peter out in glaring reflection before reaching the bottom.  Turning out the torch would leave you enveloped in a darkness so complete it was almost tangible, like being shrouded in black velvet.  Waving your hand in front of your face and being unable to detect even the slightest hint of visible movement was eerie, almost like being invisible or paralysed.  Your eyes begin to invent lights after a little of such complete darkness.  In some places there were the greenish-blue lights of glow worms.

Most of the time the creek was a small trickle, but the evidence was everywhere of what a torrent it could become after a rain.  Everything was scrubbed clean and smooth.  The rock was channelled and eroded with the turbulent flow.  There were no cave formations down here, the creek would scrub them away as they began to form.  Here and there were clumps of branches and other debris wedged in to crevices in the ceiling where the winter floods had jammed them.

I went there once with the family when the creek was in flood; a raging, bellowing monster pouring out through a passageway, cascading down a sloping cavern floor before thundering into another passageway draining into the blackness below.  I went back there in the dry and I could see the violence that the surging water had done to the rocks.

It took long and longer for me to get to explore Honeycomb.  So many afternoons spent underground for hours, to emerge tired, chilled, muddy, cramped from crouching, and ravenously hungry, into the bright, warm, golden, eye-blinking sunshine of a late Tasmanian summer afternoon.

I still like caves, and love to visit a new place to marvel at the formations.  But there’s always some part of me that wants to slip quietly over the railing that keeps the public safe, and go flitting away from everyone and everything into that darkness filled with secret wonders.

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