On the Water & In the Earth

(Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela, Galapagos)

This morning Greg had a man date and his excitement could barely be contained. He was up before the sun to make sure everything was just right; topping up the dinghy fuel, slathering on the sunscreen, and adding a new coat of wax to his board. For this was a surf date, and it wasn’t to the amateur, accessible beach break either.

At yesterday’s lunch much of the talk was directed to waves as Greg and Western Australia’s Kalbarri native Matt got on the subject of surf. Jake’s Point, one of Greg’s favourite surf breaks in Australia, is in Matt’s backyard. Needless to say, they had loads to talk about and no one’s arm had to be twisted to set up today’s date.

As the sun divulged its first signs of light, Gregory and Matt took off across the bay to the point break Barrahona. I wasn’t there so I can’t attest to the experience, but I can say Greg came home on top of the world. There was lusty retellings of double overhead set waves and bliss-fuelled accounts of “sick, absolutely sick” long righthand rides. The whole when you’re happy, I’m happy platitude could really work here until he told me why they finally got out of the water. There was a shark. And not one of the little white tip reef sharks we see swimming around the boat in droves, it was a ten foot tiger shark. One which they spotted and continued to surf in its presence. It wasn’t until they chatted about sharks awhile and sufficiently spooked themselves did they deem it was probably a good idea to get out of the water. Western Australia is littered with sharks, and working as a crayfisherman for years Matt is more comfortable around them than your average bloke. Greg, on the other hand, I don’t know what his excuse is. I think he’s got a screw loose – or five.

I had a date of my own today. I joined Roger and Sasha, and new friends Max and Sandy on a fabulous inland excursion. We were going underground.

When Greg and I visited Los Gemelos in the Santa Cruz highlands I stared at the sheer rock face of the inside of the massive sinkholes and thought how cool it would be to climb them. (Not that I’m a rockclimber of any degree or skill, but I’m sure someone who was would thoroughly enjoy it.) Now here I was with our Spanish-speaking guide, on his family land, stepping into a climbing harness. What we were exactly going to do was slightly uncertain, though it was clear, we’d be going down.

We followed our guide through trails of wonderfully lush landscape – clearly concluding what kept it so lush, as we were being soaked through with a warm tropical rain – and were soon walking a breathtaking ridge with sweeping vistas of land and sea over one side and a string of bottomless sinkholes on the other. As we neared the edge of one of the sinkholes we saw an assortment of ropes and cables disappearing into its depths. We made our way down the crudely formed stairs and once we passed through a short, fern covered tunnel an involuntary “Wow!” escaped my lips before I could process what I was seeing. We were in one of the most remarkable surroundings I’d ever seen. Overhead the sun was shining through the slowing rain creating a golden crown around edge of the sinkhole that was now our roof. Down, from what used to be ground level, the walls were laden with glistening ferns of every green. It was breathtaking. Okay, not actually breathtaking, because I spent a lot of time “wowing” obviously using my breath and never seeming to quite convey my awe.

Before long our guide had taken my two leader lines from my harness, tied them off to one of the many ropes leading down, and after a quick run-through of our expected form, clipped me in and sent me on my way. Moving backwards down a series of steep wooden-slat rope ladders, sliding my safety lines with each step, I didn’t exactly make killer time. I was too busy gawking around at my sublime backdrop attempting to capture it in a photograph. Which I couldn’t. Another reason why I maybe didn’t go so quickly, was that I was at the front of the line and had no idea what was at the bottom of the rope.

Eventually the ferns and light ended, and the rope and ladders did not. I stepped off the final rope ladder onto a rigid one going straight-vertical down into the black. 60 feet down (or more, I’m a terrible estimator) I hit the bottom. Once my eyes adjusted I scanned the edges of the circle of light entering from above. With everyone accounted for our guide handed out flashlights and we made our way around the back side of the rubble mound accumulated from ages of debris falling from above. Further through the field of rocks and boulders we came to the edge of yet another opening dropping ever further into the heart of the earth.

We stopped here and our guide, through Sasha’s English interpretation, explained to us that we were sitting in an old magma chamber. At one time this dark cavern was filled with molten rock heated to an incredible degree.  Shining our lights around we could see alternative routes the gas took to escape, forming tunnelling chimneys off into unknown directions. From here it was back out the way we came. A route that enchanted me just as much the second time around.

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The sweeping view from the top of our trail through the rain.

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Our happy and helpful leader.

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Roger, as always, striking a pose.

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Sasha and I ready to take the plunge.

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Down we go!

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This is where we strapped on our leader lines. This picture does no justice to the depth of these surroundings.

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Ladders dropping down into the black hole.

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Roger coming down the final ladder. 

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On my way back up.

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Steady shifting those knots as I go.

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Sasha emerging from the depths.

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Roger getting ready to unclip.

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A fracture line in the earth. Evidence of volcanic activity in the area.

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