I recently had the opportunity to explore the natural world beneath the ground, with my first foray into cave exploration. It's one thing to visit a cave attraction with tour guides, lighting, little signs pointing out items of interest and perhaps even a lift. It's quite another for everyone in your party to extinguish their head lamps and sit silently, breathing in the absolute dark all around you. In the pitch black, the other senses had plenty to keep them occupied. In this particular cave, there was the sound of water in many places: running streams, spluttering springs, light showers, steady drips and a cascading waterfall. The air was cool and steady, though at times a gentle breeze betrayed an opening to the air somewhere far above. Handling the formations is strictly forbidden for the sake of cave preservation, but even on the well-trodden paths different textures can be easily observed: hard, compacted sand and mud underfoot, loose rocks and rough boulders in break down areas, tiny fossilized sea creatures embedded in the cave walls, smooth and shiny surfaces where water has fallen for millenia. And the wide array of remarkable formations, from delicate and feathery soda straw stalactites to ancient flows of molten material, seemingly frozen in place.
Places like this put human life into perspective - each person a miniscule dot in the vast expanse of time.
There was animal life in the cave too. We saw several cave crickets, their legs and antennae so long that they looked like spiders. I had hoped to see bats, but didn't notice any. The most welcome sight however was a red, spotted cave salamander. These only live close to cave entrances, which for us meant only one thing... after six hours underground and a few wrong turns, there was light at the end of the tunnel!