Limestone caves are like McDonalds—they’re pretty much all the same and they’re pretty much everywhere.
The overbearing similitude of karst caves dissuades me from prioritizing them as tourist attractions—when you’re underground and it’s dark, you could be in France, Vietnam, Mexico, or the Luray Caverns of Virginia—all places where what’s happening on the surface is much more interesting and colorful.
In South Africa’s Klein Karoo, I was far more interested in watching baby ostriches hatch from their mammoth eggs than trudging single-file through a dark hole underground, being told things like, “Ladies and Gentleman, doesn’t this stalactite look like a big bag of golf clubs—can you see it?” And then we all strain our necks imagining golf clubs in the rock formations.
Driving the winding mountain road to Cango Caves, I almost turned around. This was much farther than I wanted to go, and the slow line of tour buses in my lane revealed what I had expected—I was heading into the gaping jaws of a Grade A tourist trap.
Some caves can be cool, yes, but most are really cheesy, with colored lights and tatty gift shops and corny tour guide narrative.
“Scientists have done studies and found that people exhaling in the cave damages the fragile rock surface, so I’d like to kindly ask you to all stop breathing,” began our tour guide, at the entrance. Muffled laughter echoed through the chamber, and then we began to be separated like cattle, by language.
There were enough Germans to form their own German-speaking regiment, and then we, the English speakers, got shuffled into a corner, where we stood in a circle around our guide, in the dark, and listened patiently to his comedic attempts while not seeing the cave.
Occasionally, a light would be turned on, and everyone would gasp, “OOOOH! Aaaaah. Wow!” at the dripping stalactites and crazy caramel-colored formations oozing down the cave walls. But then, before I had time to switch down the ISO on my camera, our guide would flip off the lights, plunging us back into darkness and returning to his rehearsed sketch.
“You know, in 1929, a group of explorers got lost in this cave. One of them fell down this hole, and if you look carefully, you can still see his bones!” Our guide shone a flashlight into the abyss, and every single person in our group craned their necks into the blackness.
“Just kidding!” gasped our guide, who then let out a peal of laughter that left me concerned for my personal safety.
Very quickly, I decided this tour was too slow. In 30 minutes, we had moved from one end of the chamber to the middle of the chamber. All I wanted was to take photographs, and instead, we were standing in a circle, in the dark, listening to a one-man fringe festival.
The path was marked with glowing exit signs, and our guide was not counting the people in our group, and so I did what you should never do in a cave (or a mine)—I ditched my group and began walking ahead. The tour was too insufferable, and all I wanted was to be back on the surface, in the sunshine.
Instead, I ran into the group in front of me—we had been staggered, like dominos, and there was no way I was moving past this bunch. Numbering about thirty, this was the more elderly, mobility-challenged Afrikaans-speaking group. They walked slowly, one foot up a step, then another. They breathed heavier, too, filling the cave with their panting echo.
Bizarrely, the guide only spoke to his group in English, encouraging them up the slippery steps and back down into the chamber I had just walked out of. Suddenly I understood why they switched off the lights—so that nobody would realize that they had just spent an hour walking in a circle.
“Now, Ladies & Gentleman, this is the chamber, where we used to hold concerts in the cave, from 1960 to 1995.”
Already, this guide was better—presenting me with facts about the cave’s history, and explaining how due to an increase in vandalism after 1995, they had to stop holding concerts.
“But, today, we can show you how it sounded. Do we have any singers among us?” asked the guide, scanning all of our faces in the darkness. “No—Anyone want to sing? How about the ladies—would one of you like to sing a verse and show us the fine acoustics of this chamber?”
But none of the ladies responded—perhaps because they were all whispering to one another in Afrikaans.
“Any of the men?”
None of the men answered, either, and so I thought that perhaps I should do the group a favor and volunteer to sing. Perhaps this was all meant to be—that I was made to join this group and grace them with my song. I had been a member of my 7th Grade show choir, I knew my sharps and flats, and so I scanned my mind’s iPod for an appropriate song to share.
But thanks to days of the car radio, the only song in my head was “Wrecking Ball”, which is in D Minor (I perform best in C Major). For a second, I considered belting out “All I wanted was to break your walls!”—into the inky darkness, but Miley is a contralto and I’m a bass—it would never work.
“Well then, Ladies & Gentleman, in that case, I shall sing for you,” offered our guide. Oh gosh, it was all a set-up—my last guide had been a comedian, and now this one was a singer, gifting us with his song.
Like a silver blade, his clear tenor pierced the black, sending a long reverb through the chamber, and silencing all the other voices. It was a very old song—with a slow and deliberate musical progression, up and down the scale.
The lyrics were French, the tone clerical—I guessed it was something from the late renaissance—and just like an old French cathedral, the vast stone chamber of the cave transformed one man’s voice into a glowing aura of sound. It was beautiful.
When our guide finished his song, a few clapped, but most of us stayed quiet, suddenly aware of our own mundane noises—shoes shuffling, our common whispering. Together, we climbed out of the cave, hushed and reverenced. In the new light of the surface, my adopted group seemed shocked to see me—as if I was some wandering ghost who had followed them back into the terrestrial realm.
A wandering ghost who skipped the gift shop and café and got back in his mud-stained car to drive back down the mountain from whence he came.