Tourism Goes Underground

It is freezing cold, wet, and impenetrably dark. Visibility is zero: you can see nothing at all. You have no sense of direction; you cannot even tell up from down. This is a lifeless place, not even the lowliest insect or the most insignificant lichen. You are alone, underground and underwater, and cold. No one has ever been here before. Progress, such as it is, is by what slight sense of touch is possible through thick gloves, necessary to keep your hands from freezing to disabling numbness. The only way back to safety is by means of a thin lifeline you tied at the entrance and laid out behind you. The way forward is unknown.

This is cave diving, readily acknowledged by the hardiest of mountain climbers and the most fearless bungee jumpers as the world's most dangerous leisure activity.

This was the scene in 1983 when Welshman Martyn Farr entered Crag Cave near Castleisland in County Kerry. He was heavily laden with the very cumbersome paraphernalia essential for cave diving. The cave diver must wear two complete sets of unwieldy life-support equipment, one as an emergency backup. Two reliable torches are the minimum, three is more normal. Wetsuits or drysuits, weight belt, knife, hammer, depth gauge, decompression meter and the indispensable helmet complete the picture. The tenuous lifeline is crucial for a safe exit; it could break, or tear against the jagged rock; you could drop it. If you lose this feeble contact you have little likelihood of negotiating the return journey through an unmapped labyrinth of dark and muddy water-filled passages and chambers.

On that fateful day, Farr, an experienced speleologist (cave explorer), started his journey in a dry cave that was known in the area for generations. A small pool marked the end of previous explorations. It was called the Green Lake. The water was clear, but experience had taught him that his presence would soon stir up the ever-present sediment, instantly reducing visibility to nil. He had no way of knowing what was ahead, how far would he have to go, how deep the water would be.
He followed the underwater passage, the depth a mere two metres, but without the reassurance of a surface overhead.

In the event, his journey was short. After a mere seven metres of line, he broke surface and emerged in the absolute darkness of a cavern. His powerful lights unveiled a scene that had never before been seen by anyone. He was in a huge grotto abounding with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites. He named it Divers Delight.

Exploration of the cavern, eroded from the limestone by rivers that have vanished tens of thousands of years ago, continued over a number of years. Each gallery and tunnel was named from scenes in Tolkien's fantasy, "Lord of the Rings", and it is indeed reminiscent of the enchanting images in the book. It was quickly discovered that there had been another entrance at some distant time in prehistory - huge boulders filled an enormous hole in the ground that had once been a natural opening.

Work soon began on clearing the tons of rock and replacing it with a staircase to the cave sixty feet below ground level. Lights were installed, carefully supervised by Michael Scott of the Irish National Theatre, a former Artistic Director of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Paths were painstakingly laid and barriers erected, discerningly placed to protect the visitor from danger and - perhaps more importantly - to protect the delicate formations from the visitor.
Crag Cave has now been explored for nearly four kilometres. Three hundred and fifty metres of this is open to the public on guided tours. The centre has a restaurant and gift shop.

The temptation to compare the cave to Ailwee in the Burren of County Clare is difficult to resist, but comparisons are not easy; the caves are very different. Ailwee is longer, but Crag has such an affluence of stalactites and stalagmites of all shapes and sizes that the huge caverns assume a fairytale enchantment. The subtle lighting enhances the spell but the staid background music is a mistake, intruding on the intimacy of a visit to this exotic place.

There are numerous caverns and galleries, opening one into another in ever more splendid magnificence. Knowing that this is but a small part of a labyrinth of passages and tunnels, stretching for four kilometres or more, is mesmerising. The temptation to sneak away from the tour party and crawl into one of the tunnels is great, but beyond the ostensible innocence of such an entrance lies a lonely darkness as dead as dinosaurs.

Great pains have been taken to preserve the fragile straw stalactites from acquisitive souvenir hunters, but the planners have thoughtfully declared open season on one large specimen, allowing each visitor to touch and feel this beautiful substance which nature has taken so long to produce. Estimates vary on the rate of growth but it is measured in millimetres per century. When one wonders at those which are several metres in length, the stillness of time in this subterranean realm becomes real.

Crag Cave has fixed Castleisland firmly on the tourist map. More than thousand visitors have come since it opened to the public in It is owned by the Geaney family, who spent more than £500,000 in developing the complex. It the only major tourist attraction in this part of the Kingdom but it has become Kerry's compulsory stopover for tourists and school tours alike. And when the Lakes of Killarney don't look quite their best on extra soft days or Fungie the Dingle dolphin is shielded from his human visitors by Atlantic storms, the cave is just the ticket, the temperature inside being constant throughout the year at about ten degrees.

Admission to the cave is €12 for adults but even this modest sum will be waived, on condition that you use the same entrance Martyn Farr used on that first fateful visit. Most of us will cheerfully part with our cash for the simpler option of paying at the gate.

© Ronan Quinlan 1992

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