|In the heart of darkness|
If you have never been in a cave before then you have no idea what absolute darkness is like. On mountains, in the openair anywhere, and even in enclosed spaces, a little light always finds its way in somehow, so that after a while you begin to pick out some of the objects around you. Even if this process takes as long as ten minutes, in the end your eyes adapt to the low light level. But in a cave, however long you stay you can see nothing; distinguish not a single detail of your surroundings.
Dupnisa cave was my first experience of caving. It lies the near the village of Sarpdere in the Demirköy district of Kırklareli in northwest Turkey. The cave is ten kilometres from the village along an earth road leading in a northwesterly direction. At one point the road passes through a stream, so in wet weather it can be impassable for vehicles. The cave is only 5 kilometres from the Bulgarian border.
After proceeding about 25 or 30 m into the Dupnisa cave, I turned to look back at the cave mouth and was surprised to see that the outside now seemed a strange blue colour, although it had been a perfectly normal day. The yellow light of our carbide lamps had already begun to distort our sense of colour. After looking at the last faint crumbs of daylight reflected on the wet floor of the cave, I set off again down the gallery. We had maps of this large cave system whose total extent is 3200 metres. The water which had at first just splashed beneath our feet as we walked, now turned into a stream. At first it was entertaining walking through the cold water, as if I was once again a young child who had disobeyed parental injunctions not to go near the water. But soon I began to feel cold, and forgetting about heroics and devilry I moved towards the parts that were shallowest. In some places I even managed to avoid the water altogether by climbing onto the rocks at the edge of the gallery.
Technically the cave presented no problems. There was no need for special equipment for descending or climbing, so we would not be suspended like spiders from our ropes. All we had to do was walk at a rhythmic pace along a wet and cold surface. But for an amateur speleologist like myself that was exciting enough. At the end of the first hour we climbed up some fallen rocks which bore no resemblance to the rock from which the gallery was carved and stopped at the edge of a huge blackness. Our lamps lit up nothing but our immediate surroundings, helpless against the darkness which loomed ahead of us. It turned out that we were now in Turkeys second largest underground cavern, 200 metres long and approximately 100 metres wide. Evidently the height, unspecified as it was, must be just as considerable, but since we could not see anything, it hardly signified.
My friend Ali Yamaç told us to stay where we were and began to climb the clay slope ahead of us. We watched the lamp on his helmet and the circle of light it threw recede and becomes smaller and smaller. That was when I began to appreciate the enormous size of the invisible cavern. Then we followed Ali up the slope and sat beside him. As an experiment we all turned off our lights and were lost in the absolute darkness I have spoken of. We had got as far as we had planned for that day, and after resting were to retrace our steps. Comparing caving with mountain climbing, I concluded that this was our summit. But instead of the reward of a panoramic view in all directions that you get at the top of a mountain, we were sitting in total darkness surrounded by black nothingness. I tried to console myself that it had been good exercise.
We turned on our helmet lamps and set off back. As we approached the mouth of the cave the cold blue light of the outside world welcomed us back. But again this was deceptive, because in fact darkness was falling outside, and we had exchanged the absolute darkness of the cave for the uncertain darkness of the outside world. As a person from a sunny country, I must admit that this timing disappointed me.
The following day we set out to explore another branch of the same cave system, this time using another entrance some distance away, although the galleries all join up inside. We climbed up to the ridge and found that the cave mouth was like a small swallow hole. Our visions of healthy exertion to come were spoilt by the sight of a wooden ladder leading conveniently downwards. Inside we found ourselves in a dry cave whose galleries were much shorter than those of the previous day, but widened out in places. The plays of colour on the stalactites, stalagmites and travertines were enchanting and I began to change my mind about caves. Yesterday had been more like a race against time and an endurance test against the cold, but here we could just enjoy the strange formations whose shapes and even colours were like nothing I had seen before.
Leaving the others to go on, I settled in one of the galleries. It was an entertaining game to stay alone in a cave like this. From the fairytales and adventure stories of our childhood we learn to fear the depths of caves, and to my own astonishment some surviving traces of that fear surfaced when I found myself alone. I set up my camera tripod and began to plan my pictures. In caves like this it is no good just snapping away, patience and long preparation are essential. Leaving my camera behind I slowly advanced, letting off the flash whenever I saw anything interesting. Not long afterwards yellow lights appeared in the depths of the gallery and I heard the faint voices of my returning companions. The exhilaration of being alone was over, and I had to finish my work before their lights moved into the frame.
When we got outside it was still only midday, and although the sun was hidden the clouds were bright. This time our timing was fine. We return to the cars and set off for the city. Caving was not so bad after all.