For millennia, our ancestors lived in dark, fire-blackened caves, providing shelter and a safe refuge. Maybe that's why tourists are still attracted to caves, usually large underground caverns with damp wooden boardwalks, coloured spotlights and limestone formations with cute nicknames. More adventurous travellers, spelunkers, use specialized ropes and harnesses to seek out cave systems that run for dozens of kilometres. Caving often requires contortionist techniques, rock-climbing skill and the instincts of a navigator. At Caves Branch in central Belize, I discover it's possible to hoist yourself somewhere in the middle - a true cave adventure for the leisurely tourist.
Canadian Ian Anderson opened his Caves Branch Jungle Lodge to create an alternative to the sanitized resorts on Belize's Caribbean coast. Sitting on an incredible 58,000 acres of property, it's a jungle heaven for birdwatchers, nature lovers and anyone who prefers a subterranean flavour to their adventures. Caves Branch rests on a foundation of soft limestone; regular tropical rainfall creates perfect conditions for the formation of hundreds of kilometres of caves and underground river systems. Archeologists have discovered early Mayan pottery, carvings and relics deep within the caverns, suggesting that man has used this system for thousands of years.
From its luxurious suites and modern tree-house accommodation, Caves Branch offers multiple caving excursions, tailored to different levels of physical skill, confidence and fitness. Guests can cave-tube, sitting in the middle of doughnut-shaped rubber tubes and float down underground rivers. Or there's the Black Hole, a jungle hike that concludes with a 61-metre abseil deep into a sinkhole, where you can camp overnight not far from the bones of Mayan sacrifices. The resort's activity list is a menu of fun, and my eyes are hungry. I settle for the Waterfall Cave Expedition, combining the thrills of caving and swimming, a combo that seems as natural as hamburgers and fries.
Torrential rain has swelled the river that runs alongside the lodge, so a heavy-duty farm tractor is needed to transport us to the mouth of the cave. All the Caves Branch guides are members of the Belize Search and Rescue Team, and with their decade of experience in the caves below, guests are in safe hands. Two guides accompany every group, and we are all provided with a waterproof headlamp, hard hat and life-vest. We drive through a beautiful orange grove, offering wonderful views of the surrounding jungle and limestone ridges. Vultures fly above, their shadows sweeping the ground in circles. Twenty minutes later, we head along a thin path that disappears into the dense jungle. Our guide, Pablo, points out a large camouflaged peanut bug and some aggressive fire ants. No wonder people took refuge in caves.
Trappers and hunters discovered the Waterfall Cave in the 1950s. Further exploration in the 1970s revealed the Mayan use, and now, although Caves Branch owns the land above and outside, the government owns all subterranean rights within the country. You won't find any tour buses pulling up here.
After a quick picnic at the large cave mouth, we gear up and descend into darkness. Immediately, I am acquainted with some of the extraordinary creatures that inhabit this world of dark. Harmless fruit bats dash above my head, their sonar avoiding collisions with rock and human at the last possible moment. Pablo picks up a giant scorpion spider, possibly the most frightening insect I have ever encountered. Although harmless, it is 20 centimetres long, with two sharp pinchers, resembling a scorpion with hairy long legs.
It is a one-hour hike to reach the waterfalls. We pass narrow, slippery channels, careful to avoid touching or breaking the thousands of impressive stalactites dripping from the ceiling, formed at the glacial pace of just one millimetre every year. At one point, I crawl on my hands and knees, my hard hat scraping the low muddy ceiling. Layered, white limestone rock forms stunning natural formations, with water flowing from layer to layer like champagne over a glass pyramid. There are no cute names for these landmarks, no red lights painting a cavern as the "Devil's Kitchen." Here we are, deep in the planet, our headlamps providing the only comfort from the void.
After an hour, we arrive at a series of seven waterfalls. I put on my life vest, leave my bag behind and dive headfirst into the cold pool below. Water gushes hard from the schism above, and it takes some effort to heave myself up, using holds in the rock to conquer this first challenge. The second will not be so easy.
Pablo climbs up ahead to secure the rope. In the ravines outside, a fast-flowing six-metre waterfall may not sound like much, but in the confined space of a cave, the noise is deafening. It soaks up my strength just to swim against the current, the water crashing alongside me, as I harness my carabiner hook to the rope as a precaution. This is canyoneering, the art of rock climbing up waterfalls. My hands struggle and slip to find grips, my feet clumsily seek out footholds as the gush of water pounds my thigh. I finally hoist myself up to the top, scream in triumph, drenched and utterly elated. The remaining waterfalls are not as high nor as scary, but just as fun. At the final pool, it is time to turn around. While this spectacular cave system does have another mouth, the waterfall path is a one-way street.
An hour later, I emerge once again into the dark jungle. It takes some time to realize that night has fallen and that dense thicket has replaced limestone rock. The sounds of the jungle tickle my ears awake. As the tractor returns to Caves Branch Lodge, I gaze up at a clear night sky, pinpricks of brilliant stars brushed together in a stroke called the Milky Way. The warm air tastes sweet, as firebugs dance among the oranges. As fun as the experience was, the real pleasure of caving comes from re-emerging into the world in which I belong.