Oct 14, 2010 5:01:35 AM
Top 10 underground experiences
With the 33 Chilean miners – and their rescuers – now all safely rescued from two months trapped underground, chances are they’ll be wanting to stay on higher ground for a bit. But if you really want to get below the surface of a place, here are some great spots around the world that are worth heading underground for.
1. Cappadocian Underground Cities, Turkey
You can taste the true troglodyte lifestyle in the mysterious underground cities of Cappadocia. The best known are Kaymaklı, Derinkuyu and Özlüce, though there are many more still unexcavated. Dated to 7th century BC or earlier, the cities were forts where the people could escape invaders and live for up to six months at a time. You’ll find yourself in a vast, complex labyrinth of rooms and tunnels over several levels. Signs of life are everywhere: storage jars, communal kitchens blackened by smoke, stables – and holes in the ceilings through which hot oil could be poured on the enemy.
2. Sagada Burial Caves, Philippines
Sumaging Cave is an exhilarating adventure guaranteed to bring out the Indiana Jones in you. The route takes you crawling through narrow crevices, wading through water and scaling the sides of deep ravines, and in some sections the smooth limestone is so slippery you have to go barefoot. Guides light the way (and the stunning calcium formations) with gas lanterns. The connected Lumiang Burial Cave is fascinating for its eerie collection of centuries-old wooden coffins. Other, slowly decomposing, coffins can be seen hanging from the cliff-face.
3. Grotte De Font De Gaume, France
France’s Vézère Valley is crammed with prehistoric rock art, but this cave is arguably the best of them, containing one of the most astounding collections of paintings still open to the public. You can get close to about two dozen of its 230 figures of mammoths, bison, horses, fish, reindeer and bears, and wonder at the meaning they held for their cave-dwelling Cro-Magnon creators 14,000 years ago. Many of the animals, carved into the rock or delicately shaded with red and black pigments, are caught in remarkably lifelike movement.
4. Blackwater rafting in Waitomo, New Zealand
Imagine jumping backwards off a waterfall into darkness, feeling the shock as you hit the cold water, and then shooting through tunnels and caverns, bumping gently against rock walls until suddenly the velvety blackness above you is filled with sparkling pinpoints of blueish light – the glow-worms of Waitomo caves. Riding the underground river in a wetsuit and inner-tube raft is the magical (but oh so cold) experience of blackwater rafting. For the really adventurous, there are underground climbing and abseiling too.
5. Pathet Lao Caves, Laos
Caves make brilliant wartime hideouts. In 1964 the Pathet Lao, a leading communist organisation in Laos, moved its headquarters to a series of caves near Vieng Xai. Situated inside an impressively narrow and precipitous valley, it was virtually unassailable. Six of these caves can be visited: inside are former meeting rooms, government offices, markets, temples, printing presses, hospitals, army barracks and more. Wooden walls, as well as natural formations, divide the caverns into various rooms, still decorated with images of Lenin and Che Guevara, and incongruous house facades and gardens are built onto the front of the caves.
6. Crown mines Shaft 14, South Africa
South Africa proudly lays claim to the world’s deepest pub, 226m down a Johannesburg gold mine known as Shaft 14. This is also one of the deepest mine tours you can take, and despite being located in a kitsch theme park, it gives an authentic glimpse of gruelling mining life. When the mine opened in 1897, there was only candlelight to work by, up to 40°C heat, ear-shattering drills and dangerous gases – along with miserable wages. Migrant miners of many languages learned to send messages by slapping their boots in rhythms, the origin of the isicathulo or gumboot dance.
7. Canoeing Barton Creek Cave, Belize
Some say the intricate cave systems of Belize offer the best spelunking in the world. For the ancient Maya, the caves were the entrance to the underworld, where the gods lived and accepted sacrifices. One of the most exciting caves to explore is Barton Creek Cave, which you traverse by canoe. You’ll paddle and swim past fragments of pots and human skulls, evidence of at least 28 people who lie interred here. As your headlamp lights up spooky limestone formations and bats flit around your head you’ll see why the ancients called this Xibalbá, the Place of Fear.
8. Sleep in a ‘dugout’ in Coober Pedy, South Australia
Coober Pedy’s raison d’être is opal mining. The town’s Aboriginal name, meaning ‘white man’s hole in the ground’, describes it pretty well. As well as the mines, many of the houses, hotels, the church, shops and museums are underground ‘dugouts’, sheltering from outback Australia’s extreme climate: daytime summer temperatures can soar to over 50°C and the winter nights are freezing. With the dry, dusty lunar landscape, you’d never describe the town as attractive, but it’s worth sticking around a while to hear the outrageous yarns of mining fortunes made and lost, intrigues, vendettas and crazy old-timers.
9. The Paris Catacombs, France
In order to solve the problem of Paris’s overflowing cemeteries, in 1785 the bones of the buried were exhumed and relocated to the tunnels of disused quarries, 20m beneath the city streets. This continued for around a hundred years, and 300km of tunnels are lined with almost artistically arranged stacks of skulls, tibias and femurs. In the 2km open to the public, it’s estimated that six million individuals are represented. During WWII the tunnels were used as a headquarters by the Resistance. Today they make a macabre attraction; urban spelunkers are often caught illegally roaming the unstable closed-off section.
10. Sidi Driss Hotel, Tunisia
If you’ve ever wished to set foot on the planet of Tatooine, the village of Matmata in the Tunisian Sahara might be as close as you can get. The Berber underground dwellings here are built around a deep sunken courtyard with cave-like rooms coming off the sides, which means they remain at a comfortable temperature year round. But Hotel Sidi Driss has an added attraction for movie buffs: the hotel was used as the set for Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s house in the Star Wars movies, making it a rather surreal place to stay.