Category — Exploration

Madagascar Cave Diving: The ultimate challenge – Part One

Like so many great stories, it all began with a phone call. “Hey what’s up man, I got some intel on caves in Madagascar we should go! Worst thing that can happen, it’s going to be an epic surf trip!”

After Phillip and I had agreed on taking the risk, a couple of months of planning went into the trip. Tanks had to be organized, tickets had to be bought, and travel arrangements had to be made, all with the help of our local contact in Madagascar, Ryan Dart. We also contacted French geologists that had been working in the area for more than a decade. They supplied us with geological maps and survey data and informed us that they had dye traced two caves that were several kilometers apart from each other, and so our expectations were huge.

The first cultural shock happened in Antananarivo airport as soon as we got off the plane. There were no buses so you have to walk over the field, the arrival hall was complete chaos, no queues were formed, everybody just stormed in towards this one central hub where they take your passport away to get stamped. For a half an hour I didn’t see it again and all that time, given the lack of organization, was spent worrying about whether our luggage had even made it. The customs official just screams your name or the way they think your name sounded and then you have to push through the crowd to retrieve your passport.

We finally arrived at Tulear, the capital of the Atsimo-Andrefana region of Madagascar, located 936 km south-west of Antananarivo. It appeared to be the true third world. The weirdest part about it was that you would walk around on what was effectively a dirt road, there were no streetlights and it almost looked post war. However, despite its external appearance, Tulear was fueled by local French and Italian expats and so you could wander from the street into a restaurant that was beautifully designed on the inside. It was all in all quite a contradictory place. We took refuge in a basic hotel on the main drag for the first night.

The next day after breakfast our trusted driver and translator, Lova Peignot, took us to collect the tanks, all of which were of different size, and then we made our way to the first Karst window, this is an opening to an underground cave system, where the roof of the tunnel has collapsed to expose a water filled hole with access to the surrounding caves. In the local dialect a cave is called “la Ka-toe” and the place was called Sarodano. Upon arriving we were blown away by the beauty of it all. The large round opening with blue water felt extremely promising due to the little river that exited it and flowed into the nearby ocean. Everything there was desert and cactus so to stumble across a pristine water source like that felt somewhat special.

I wanted to get in the water immediately. I have never unloaded a truck so fast in my life! The excitement came to an abrupt halt when analyzing the first tank and I realized it was completely full of Carbon Monoxide (CO) at 45 ppm. Quickly I moved onto the next tank, and realized it was the same. The next one also was the same, and the next, and then next, until I came to the final two that contained what we deemed to be acceptable in terms of CO levels. This of course meant that we couldn’t dive together as a team and only one diver could get in the water. Being the amazing benefactor that Phillip “The Giver” is, he granted me the first dive.

After doing a quick swim around in the opening, our hopes and dreams were quickly shattered, as there was no apparent opening to a cave system. After a thorough half an hour search, I finally found a small hole in the floor at the back of the cavern that was big enough for me to enter. Being only two body lengths in it had already forced me to remove a cylinder, 10 minutes later it had turned into no mount with extremely strong flow due to the size of the opening. For a further 20 minutes I tried to move some rocks out of the way, to make the opening big enough for my body to fit, all the while I was listening to a vastly interesting monologue about how it would be to die here in the middle of nowhere, in the first cave of the expedition. Some 15 minutes after that I gave up and feeling frustrated I made my way back to the surface surveying the line I had just laid on the way out.

There is nothing more difficult for a cave explorer than telling the people on the surface that the cave doesn’t go anywhere Ryan quickly intervened mentioning there was another entrance close by that might be more promising. So without taking my suit off we quickly moved over to the second site called Binabe “Grotte Du Serpent”.

Walking down the depression to the pool of fresh water, my face lit up. It might have been due to the contrast with the ochre brown rock that the water seemed of the bluest blue, it was so crystal clear that it felt as if you could see a 100m of passage under the water surface. The excitement levels picked up once more and so I mounted my tanks while Phillip did the first tie off to a tree branch on the surface, he passed me the reel and I submerged right away.

A big black tunnel dropping down at a 45-degree angle opened up in front of me. I made my way down the slope and realized there were no leads left and right, it was just one downward heading tunnel and the fear that it would close out at the bottom rose. Only seconds later this fear became reality as a huge collapse had closed off the bottom part of the tunnel and so yet again I found myself pushing a tank in front of me in the second no mount restriction of that day, having very similar thoughts as on the previous one. Yet again I returned to the surface surveying the line I had laid on the way out, trying to focus (like most normal people would in my situation) on the accomplishment of being amongst the first cave explorers of the island, but in all honesty all I felt was disappointment.

I had to break the fucking terrible news to the surface crew and as usual Phillip being Mr. Positive just said “Ah for sure there is other Karsts to explore and besides, look how awesome this place is” Just like that he lifted my spirits again.

Our transport was a non-air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruiser with broken suspension. The seats were made out of leather so you can only imagine that in 45C (113F) heat that the backs of your legs were left in a similar state to the seat you were sitting on. The roads were so rough that it was literally like being shaken up in a cocktail mixer. We called it the “Love Mobile”.

We spent the next few days talking to locals and climbing into countless dry holes in the ground. We trekked through jungle that was laced with cobwebs to the point the only way to move forward was to wave a stick in front of you. The Spiders inhabiting the webs ranged between a nickel and the size of your hand. Suffering from mild to moderate arachnophobia, I was forced to lead the way and Phillip took great delight every now and then tickling the back of my neck mimicking a spider and watching me religiously jump every time.

On one of our trips, we stumbled across a river that seemed to originate from somewhere inland, we confirmed with Google Earth and found the spring of the river was only a couple of kilometers from the ocean. The plan was to find fisherman who might help us to get to the spring of the river. To our luck the locals were unbelievably friendly and helpful so it didn’t take long for us to find a crew that was willing to paddle us up stream.

The boats were extremely narrow, long, canoe like structures that could impressively hold five people, all the tanks and equipment. Slightly concerned about the desert heat, but assured by the locals it would only take one hour, we started our journey upstream. Some three hours later we made it to the head of the river. Unable to see a clear opening we decided to snorkel around to determine where the water was coming from. In complete exasperation we squeezed into even the tiniest of holes, hoping it would hint at a lead into some vast cave tunnel. Soon enough we had to accept that there was no such tunnel around. Supported by the flow, our trip back to the truck was swift and painless. We hung out the rest of the day with the locals in the fishing village trying to get more intel on any near by water sources.

Arriving back at the hotel and feeling slightly discouraged we made the call to abandon Tulear and make our way by boat down to Anakao, where Ryan’s dive centre and hotel was. To recover from the hard days in Tulear, we decided to take a pause from exploring and go surfing instead. The incredible wave forecast may have played a large role in that.

Surfing the Mozambique Channel had been a long held dream for Phillip and for me being a total novice, the prospect was both terrifying and exciting at the same time. Feeling tired, exhausted and defeated nothing could have lifted me up more than surfing “Jelly Babies” on a perfect glassy day on “The Mad Dog” which was the most insane surf board ever, that Ryan gifted to me at the end of the trip.

The next days we also decided to explore the ocean and took out Ryan’s rib. One morning, Ryan and I were pushing the boat out and Phillip was sitting in the front of it filming us. I look up to see a huge wave pummeling towards us, I was stupid enough to shout to Phillip to “watch out!” At which point he turned as the wave struck, sending him flying into the air, he landed so hard on his butt that he couldn’t sit properly on his surfboard for several days. I will never forget the face that he made with his silly hat and towel wrapped around his head and Ryan and I were close to tears laughing.

The profoundest memory of that time was arriving by boat at an outer reef just in front of a river mouth. The swell that came in was huge and would build up to a way over head long right peeling wave that we instantly named “Ryan’s Right” to honor our host. I never admitted it to the boys, but as we jumped in the water I literally had my life flash in front of my eyes and drowning seemed a real possibility. As I arrived next to Phillip, his words were not very comforting “Fuck, I have no idea where to sit here.” Then off he went paddling further out. I finally caught up with him and he said “Wait for the biggest wave you can see, and then just paddle for it and don’t think about, it will either be the best wave of your life, or your worst wipeout.”

All stars must have aligned in the moment I finally was in the right spot, at the right time and I found myself at the peak ready to pop up. I will never forget the feeling when I landed on my feet and looked down the face of the wave. For a beginner, it literally felt like I was dropping into the Grand Canyon. The speed on the way down and the fear of falling were so exhilarating that it makes me smile every time I think about that moment. I did a huge bottom turn and looked up, it was only then that I realized the full size of the wave and couldn’t believe that I was riding it.

The following day we made our way to the Tsimanampesotse national park to dive Aven, a sink hole that Ryan had previously explored. He had made a video of his dive there and put it on You Tube. It was because of that video Phillip contacted Ryan about the potential of Madagascar and so it then brought about the expedition.

Ryan had only been diving the open water portion, as he wasn’t cave trained at the time. The plan was for me to see if there was any horizontal cave while Ryan showed Phillip the extreme amount of fossil remains in the vicinity. It was this site that was later featured as “The Fossil Graveyard of The Century” by a total of 64 news outlets around the world.

The cave was very different from the places around Tulear due to it’s vast decorations and general Mexican cave feel. I managed to lay a couple 100ft of line upstream before the tunnel closed out. I returned to the open water section surveying the guideline I had just laid. Swimming around the edges of the sinkhole I marveled at the huge crocodile skulls. I found another small opening on the opposite side and managed to lay another couple 100ft of line down stream to a maximum depth of 142ft. On meeting Ryan and Phillip at the surface, it was hard to ignore Phillips excitement about the fossils, which helped me to deal with the disappointment that yet again the cave didn’t go.

Finally we arrive back at base camp after nightfall. Two of the strongest memories I have is the crazy feeling of proximity to the night sky, it felt like you could stretch out your hand and touch the stars! Then there was also the thousands and thousands of insects that would crash into your hair, face and phone screen while trying to answer your emails with the world’s slowest internet.

We did continuous dives at Aven and Mitohu, a second cave entrance at about 10 minutes walking distance from Aven. Phillip found a short but beautifully decorated tunnel that ended in a dry cave that was full of bats. Ryan, a female medical student and myself hiked to the dry cave. We climbed down into it and it opened up into a big chamber with a 1m-diameter hole with a little bit of water at the far end of it connecting to a second chamber. As we approached the water we heard Phillip surfacing on the other side of the dry cave in the second chamber. This scared the bats, and so now 1000’s of bats came flying out of that tiny 1m hole towards us. Within minutes the room was full of bats, they kept on hitting us as there was now no room to evade. The female medical student didn’t find that attractive at all and so we made a swift exit of the dry cave, despite us shouting and flashing our torches Phillip wasn’t aware we were on the other side of the dry cave and turned back the way he had come.

The next days were spent surfing and formulating a plan for a trip to the Deep South, where finding the decomposed body of a local villager in the cave was but only one of our adventures!

To be continued…

December 9, 2015   2 Comments

The importance of progressive cave diving experience!!!

It was in January this year that my cave diving skills were put to the test for real. As an up and coming instructor, I explain and drive home all of the skills when I teach every part of the cave course. We ensure the students are taught the very best, the very latest techniques to keep them safe. But do they really listen? Do they really understand that what we are trying to teach them could save their lives if they ever make a mistake?
One such skill is the ‘lost line’ skill.

Every time I teach it, I always ask the question at the end of the lesson – “Do you think you will ever lose the line?” “No” is always the response I get back. Then after the lesson and dive, while we are packing up the truck and have a few minutes to spare, I tell them my story. As a caveat to this, I also tell them I too told my cave instructor “I will never lose the line, I’m too scared to” – it’s not always that simple I can tell you.

So, let me take you back to January this year. I had been diving in Tulum for some time and was lucky enough to be asked to dive a new cave that was being explored by a couple of guests from ProTec I was asked to look for some possible leads so they could come back and continue the search for virgin passages.
At the dive site I found a low, dry cave filled with mud, bat droppings, water and of course the obligatory million mosquitoes that decided they wanted my English blood! Still, it was pretty cool to be asked to look for them, so in I went. It’s a fairly low cave, around 6m deep mostly. Pretty white cave, I reported back to Kim and the primary explorers that I had had a fairly uneventful dive and made a note of a few possible leads! I also said that I’d go back to have another look as a couple of them were through one or two major restrictions.

The next day, I went to see Kim from ProTec Tulum and asked to borrow an exploration reel. I must add that this was my first ever ‘real’ exploration. Fairly easy I thought… I’m an instructor, I’m a sidemount cave diver who regularly dives some pretty big dives. I will be ok. I always follow protocol; never do anything that could be deemed dangerous.

Well, there was my first mistake!

I arrived at the new cenote, met with the land owner, said my greetings, smiled and started to unpack my truck. Everything was great, the sun was shining, all my equipment was working, my suit was on and I was walking into the overhead dry cave. Even crawling on my hands and knees in the bat droppings, mud and stinky water and being bitten to death by the flesh eating mosquitoes wasn’t too bad as I was excited to be exploring.
In the water I checked and rechecked my tank pressures, lights, everything and made my plan. I knew the route to the restriction I wanted to pass to enter the chamber on the other side. I was ready, so I started off. I made my way to the first T, placed my Marker to identify my exit and off I went, min 2 into the dive. I swam to the jump I wanted, again marking my direction, attaching my spool and making the continuous guideline to the surface where I was now at min 4.

I’m now a few mins from the restriction and start to enter the low bedding plane. ‘Finger pulling’ along as it’s super low and I’m outstretched like superman at this point. I see the hole. Now I formulate my plan of attack to enter and exit the restriction safely. Now please as were all cave divers, please keep the laughing to a low roar, as I tell you my plan:

The plan was to enter the restriction, exit it and then turn around, tie into the EOL and continue into the virgin waters beyond. I can hear you all now saying, “But Rob, you don’t have a continuous guideline to the surface if you do that.” And you would be correct. But in my mind my plan was simple – crawl though and tie in from the other side as there was more room.

THIS WAS THE BIGGEST MISTAKE OF MY LIFE!!!

Yep, you guessed it. Now, this restriction is small and I mean small. It’s about 1m in length, as wide as a sidemount tank and diver and as high as me – it was scraping the hell out of the stealth wing I can tell you. I have to grab the other side and literally pull myself through it, it’s that tight. See where this is heading now…?
It is milk and I mean zero viz. I get half way through, past the committed stage and my mind, my body and every ounce of my being is screaming to me “grab the line, grab the line”. I can’t go back as the tanks are passed so I’d never get back. I have no choice but to try to exit the restriction, turn around and try to grab the line. I exited the restriction, turned and… BOOM, not found the line; in fact I found nothing but cave wall – cave wall with zero viz and no line. This is min 9 now.

I was literally shouting at myself for being so stupid. Having spent nearly two decades in or around the military, and lose the line, stupid. I scrambled to the wall desperately searching for the tiny hole I crawled through – I know it’s the only hole in the wall, so I’m searching for the needle in the haystack right about now.

With each attempt I try to find the hole or the thin white line – try to find the only things that will keep me alive. In a cloud of zero viz I thought to myself, “crap I’m going to die in this cave”. So, exactly like I ask my students every day during the practice land drills, I ask myself… “Rob, tell me what you know and don’t know about this situation”. Ok, so firstly I know I was only one body length away from the restriction. Secondly, I have only turned 180 degrees, so I know the exit is somewhere in front of me, not just anywhere.

Ok, I now know what I need to do.

Out comes my safety spool. I dump all my gas, drop to the floor and I make a primary tie off, I don’t move, I look for a secondary tie off. Ok, I tell myself now turn and start your search pattern. I move along the wall trying to poke my head into anything that I feel is the restriction but each time no luck. However, with each attack down comes more silt not making the situation any better.

As I write this, I clearly remember thinking that I was never going to be able to tell my son I love him one more time. I started to panic, my breathing rate increased so I decided to move away from the tie off points and wait to see if the viz would clear. I made myself neutral and held the cave wall for what seemed like an eternity – in reality it was less than 10 seconds, ha ha ha but no laughing matter then I can tell you.

We are now at min 20 of lost line drills for real. I bring my arm up to my mask and press my shearwater to the lenses, I can make out 6m in depth and time was starting to creep up. I kept my breathing to a rhythmic pattern; all that time in the gym is starting to pay off about now I can tell you.
I moved back to the tie off point and started to attack the cave wall again. 20mins turned into 30mins. Again my mind starts to wander and imagine I’m going to die. After everything I’ve done in my life, it’s here in Tulum that it’s going to end!

30mins turns into 40mins and by now I’m starting to worry about being OOG. Only this time there is no-one to donate, so I start to conserve my air by slowing down my breathing. It is still zero viz, I can’t see anything except percolation coming down from the ceiling, ‘milk’ in the water, creating this white zero viz mess. 45mins now and I’m really trying to suppress that morbid voice in the back of my mind and concentrate on the task at hand. I tell myself, this is it, and I WILL find that line. Min 46, I move against the wall on my knees and I starfish both arms outright trying to find the opening in the wall, no luck. I hold my breath as I’m working with the reel and as I start to rise, as I lie flat on the ceiling and I can see a glorious dark colour slowly starting to appear. It was silt settling near one side of the wall. As I move towards the darkness, I barely make out the thin white line.
I grasp this line with both hands and I let out a huge sigh of relief.

I crawl as fast as I can out of the restriction, down the lines to the jump, to the T and out into open water. I breathe fresh air, pee myself and kneel down in the open for 5mins. I look at my computer and work out that for 49 minutes I was well and truly ‘lost’.

I head to the truck, pack away my gear, sit in the driver’s seat, pull out my phone and call my son in the UK. Typically, he is playing with his friends so doesn’t want to speak to his dad. So I just tell him I love him, he gets embarrassed and we say goodbye, ha ha.

I drive home, all my gear still muddy in my truck. On arrival, I go straight upstairs, make a brew (English for cup of tea) and sit on my sofa for 3 hours not doing anything.
I then make up my mind that I have to ‘get back in the saddle’ as it were. I drive to the same cave, park in the same spot, get kitted-up and formulate my plan and go below water. I head to the restriction, tie in to the EOL and crawl through the restriction once more. I remain neutral for a few minutes, calm my nerves and start to reel in my line in the still milky clouds looming in the cave.

Once conquered, I surface, pack up all my kit and head to ProTec to unpack and drop off my gear. It is then, at a ProTec BBQ I decide to tell Kim and the rest of the guys about my stupid mistake. We all feel very strongly about sharing not only our positive but also our negative experiences with each other and our students so we can all learn from them and become better divers.

So what is the lesson learnt from this? That I can tell my students to ensure they do not make the same mistake I did. I tell them to take their time with progressive penetration, progressive cave diving and for them to adhere to the cave diving protocols. Be mentally prepared to handle stressful situations … plan for the worst and hope for the best.
This experience has humbled me and I feel has made me a much better instructor and diver.

November 6, 2014   5 Comments