We spent the days in Torotoro hiking, caving, exploring. Mountains, canyons, caverns, cliff tops, valley bottoms. It was impressive. And full of surprises, which we were about to discover.
“Y aqui hay los huellas de un dinosaurio.”
“What was that? What did he just say? Did he just say something about a dinosaur?”
“Ok, holy shit.”
And there, at our feet, were the imprints of a dinosaur, going up a slight rise. From a short distance it looked as though someone had simply walked through mud on the trail. And that’s probably exactly what happened, except it was some-thing walking millions of years ago.
“Y un poco mas adelante, tenemos el talon. Creemos que es de un velociraptor.”
“What was that now? Did he just say velociraptor? As in Jurassic Park?”
“I think so.”
And there, in the bedrock, was the very clear, and damn easy to miss if I was just a-hiking along, hooked talon of a dinosaur. It was beautiful. It was fully embedded in the surrounding rock, and eroding at the same pace.
“That. Is. Amazing.”
“Yeah,” I said, “it really is.”
If you’ve ever been caving, proper caving, not one of those cushy walks with handrails and lanterns, then you know the special type of heavy quiet and lurking dark that exists deep in the earth. Only Gustavo, a handful of locals, and maybe another few dozen visitors have ever explored the cave system outside of Torotoro. I surely haven’t. What we did was go far enough in so that if we panicked we could be dragged out without much hassle. “Gustavo, how far have you gone in?”
“How far? I don’t know. I’ve been four days in.”
“Wait four days in and then another four out?”
“Whoa. What was that like?”
This man blew my mind. Eight days. How did he find his way through?
“Why did you stop?”
“Four was enough. But the cave kept going. I could hear it. Way in the distance. The drip drip of water. And when we dared to speak aloud, our voices traveled a long time before they came back to us.” That was another thing about being in the black, we never wanted to speak louder than a whisper. You know this story, someone drops a careless exclamation and the noise of it rumbles through the earth and something awakens that was best left dreaming. So, we whispered.
And how the hell did he find his way back?
“Here,” he said, “let me light your candle.”
Our candles were perched atop our helmets in a semicircle of aluminum for maximum reflectivity. He reached up and lit the candle with a cigarette lighter. I eyed that candle with a seriousness that is difficult to convey in words. “Don’t fall behind and let that go out.”
“Right. No. Yeah no way. Shit.”
We hiked, crawled, slid, shuffled, and wormed our way through the black for the next few hours. Ask me how big the place was? I have not a clue. It was immense. Or it was a hallway. I don’t know. At one point there was a section we had to sort of slide through. Imagine trying to cross a room with walls only 10 inches apart. And angled at 45 degrees. And sloping upwards. It was perhaps the most awkward and difficult 15 feet I've ever traveled. It was all incredibly fun in a terrifying way. We clung to our light like it was the last wee bit of hope left on earth. We did snuff out our flames once though. When we were all together. Sitting very close, like Shanghai rush hour subway close. The lights went out one by one. And the dark rushed in. And incredibly, after a moment of holy shit, the space got a lot bigger. A whole lot bigger. For sighted humans, eyes will always dominate the other sense organs if we let them. But take that away completely and the others have a chance to show their stuff. My ears were telling me distance and height. My nose hairs were telling me about air currents. And once the smoke drifted up, I could smell the very distinct earthiness of being inside the earth. And there was something else there that our candles had been keeping at bay. Something about the idea of millions of tons of rock and dirt above me and all around me. I don’t know. It made me uneasy. And the dark was a thing. Even though I know that the dark is an absence, it certainly had a presence.
“How’s it going with that lighter Gus?”