We gingerly climb up the muddy rampart into the mouth of Khao Sok's wararam cave, and turn around. We are now inside looking out; the cave frames the jungle and creates a startling view. The horizon is dominated by jagged karst peaks wreathed in clouds. The jungle unfolds before us. And all around us is the cave.
We reach for our headlamps (torches) and move in. The entrance is tight, lots of foot over hand maneuvering. Almost immediately, we encounter calcite formations coating the rocks. The path is defined by rock that is more evocative of chocolate ice cream than it is of crystallized minerals; in fact, you must use the melted ice cream as hand holds to haul yourself up. And then, just beyond the reach of your hands, a sugary crystalline aspect sparkles and enchants.
We have learned an important lesson about the vulnerability of carbonate cave systems. The melted chocolate ice cream formation is in fact the same as the crystalline formation. Human touch, specifically the oils in our hands, tarnishes and dulls the brilliant crystalline expression of calcite, the mineral responsible for the flashy sugary texture.
We continue to maneuver through narrow passageways with the help of our thoughtful guides in addition to broken down rickety stick ladders. We are not really in wararam cave just yet; our eyes still remember sunlight, our ears still hear birds, our noses still sense jungle air. And look! A cave toad! Or is it just a normal toad, happily chilling out in the cave, looking for food or protection? The toad has normal coloring, it lacks any bizarre appendages, it has eyes that are looking at us. We are not in cave world just yet.
We push further in, through another tight squeeze. As we wait for the person ahead of us to crawl through the constriction, we hear gasps of amazement. The gasps are repeated with every person’s entrance. Directly ahead of us is a waterfall in stasis, a crystalline waterfall of sugary gypsum crystals cascading from the shadowy recesses into the center of the room. It is adorned on either side with long pleated columns known as draperies, which look like the folds of a flowing dress. We are in a wonderland.
The wonderland has its own unique denizens. A cave cricket hops away from the headlamp beam. It has absurdly long front appendages, perhaps three times as long as the body of the cricket, which are used to sense its light-less world. We do not spot its primary predator, the cave centipede, but we do come across a Whip Spider, which also preys upon the cricket, calmly perched upside down on the ceiling. Evidently it is not hunting for gravity-bound crickets.
Calcite flow formations abound, some dazzling with shiny reflections, others stained red from iron oxidation, and others tarnished by mud. The obligatory stalagmites and stalactites are seen as well, but they are not the show-stoppers here. Rather, unusual formations found on the ceiling are revealed as we walk underneath a low roof that allows our eyes to be just inches from the overhead surface. Tiny white worms of carbonate twist and writhe in all directions from the ceiling. These are known as helictites. They do not follow the normal vertical logic of water droplets migrating to the tip of a formation and falling to the ground. It is as if the white arms are growing by their own curiosity, probing into the cave’s darkness.
We round a corner and come face to face with a solid limestone wall, lacking any flow formation adornments. Yet the flat surface has its own treasures as well. Our lights illuminate strange circular white shapes embedded in the dark grey limestone. Fossils! Truly spectacular examples – complete conical shells six inches long, perfectly sliced through in cross-section, defined by their calcareous sections alternating with limestone.
Further into the cave we press, and eventually we emerge into an enormous room, where our headlamps barely penetrate the darkness of the ceiling. However, the beams are just bright enough to expose the room’s inhabitants: bats! But there are only a dozen of them, hanging from an overhanging rock perhaps 20 feet above us. Our headlamps startle them, and they fly off into the recesses of the cave. As we walk underneath their former roosts, we note drops of guano on the ground. There is something strange; bats roost by the thousands, and have guano piles many feet deep. Are these bats new colonists? Or are they all that remain of a former colony?
We turn around, and head back for the entrance. We walk silently. We have exhausted our “Oooohs” and “Aaaaahs.” We are contemplative. The sounds of our feet echoing against the floor dominate. Strangely, some steps resonate more than others. We walk past a sinkhole in the floor, perhaps five feet deep and a couple feet across. Our steps sound as if we are walking across the skin of a drum. It is only a matter of time till another sinkhole opens up. Best to tread lightly in this cave.
Perhaps the best part of any cave exploration is the reemergence into the outside world. The air is fresh and warm and wet with rain, the light is invigorating, and the sounds of the jungle birds are new once again. We happily descend towards the river, but quickly realize that the rain has given our path a treacherous aspect. The ascent was steep and hard on the muscles. The descent is downright dangerous; every step is either a muddy slide or a slick rock. The rope, so unnecessary on the way up, is absolutely critical. We cautiously descend, with everyone taking their turn to slip and fall in the mud.
If you enjoy speleothems (the weird rock structures that grow in caves), check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speleothem for more information.
Disclaimer: I am a geologist, or at least I aspire to be. This cave is particularly interesting due to its unusual variety, and quality, of speleothems. A speleothem is scientifically defined as “a weird rock formation that grows in a cave”. This is the first cave I have ever seen helictites in. They boggled my mind, defying any ability to imagine how they might have formed.