Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Caving in La Piedra

Yesterday I accidentally deleted a post about caving in the Dominican Republic from this blog and here is my first attempt to replace it.

          Throughout all these diary entries over the years we have continued to explore and document caves all over the Dominican Republic looking for petroglyphs and pictographs. Over the past 6 or 7 years Alain Gilbert and I have travelled hundreds of kilometers in my guaguita bouncing down hardscrabble dirt roads, changing tires, adding water to the radiator and stopping at colmados in geologically likely looking limestone-y areas to ask if anyone here knows of any caves.
         Alain is a born caver, more comfortable in darkness than light and a member of the Fédération Française de Spéléologie a prestigious French caving club. He is about 5’6“ tall with short strong arms and legs and a belly the size of a bowling ball. Our common language is imperfect Spanish. He knows how to drill a hole in a cave partition using a hammer and a star drill, and set a small charge in it to blow a hole in the wall big enough to crawl through to explore the other side. We measure every cave we encounter and Alain eventually maps every one, whether we find art in it or not. He has map data for over 500 caves in the DR; together he and I have explored about 150; some the size of a closet and others containing upwards of 6 miles of passageways.
        When we are led to a cave I take a GPS reading while Alain reconnoiters the entrance and gets his notebook and measuring device ready. This device is called a Topofil and consists of a handheld handmade aluminum box that houses a clinometer, a compass and a spool of cotton thread that unreels from an odometer of sorts that measures how much thread has been unspooled. It works underwater; I have seen him use it when he was up to his neck in viscous cave water. Alain selects a starting point, or punto in Spanish, parks me on it with the free end of the thread, flips his helmet lamp on, and walks off into the cave until he stops at his next selected punto, which might be near a stalagmite or boulder or intersection of passages. He sites back along the thread through a hole in the box to measure the elevation and compass points in degrees and he notes the distance in meters that has registered on the odometer. Then he breaks the thread off with his teeth (We usually leave it on the floor, kind of like a linear bread crumb, in case we have trouble finding our way back out) and we measure the next punto starting from the end of the last, and so on through the cave. With these three measurements and some sketches that he draws of notable nearby formations he can later draw a 3 dimensional cave map that is within 2% accuracy. He uses pen and ink and graph paper of different scales and eschews all things digital. He leaves no corner of a cave unmeasured and, despite his build, one of his nicknames is The Worm reflecting the impossibly small tunnels he can squeeze through when needed.
A Topofil device much like Alain's,
although in much better condition.

         One Tuesday morning last year Alain and I set off early for La Piedra near El Toro, near Guerra, about an hour from Santo Domingo. We had been there a few times before but today we were armed with a pencil-drawn map of a new shortcut so that we could try to avoid 5 miles of driving the guaguita over horrendous dirt roads that had been filled in with broken cement blocks (not crushed but only broken in half).
          We had to pass through El Valiente, a sad and broken backwater town which is where many tigueres go to hole up until the police stop looking for them. We bought empanadas, crackers, spam-like salami and bottled water from a colmado and then drove though town and off the back end of the pavement near the big water tower onto the depression era hard-red-mud, asteroid-hard stone studded roads that lead to Rafael and Morena’s house in La Piedra III.

The road to La Piedra
Center of town, La Piedra

          It turned out that no one was home—Morena had had to go to the capital to tend a sick sister and when we walked up to the house we saw that Rafael had left habichuelas simmering on breakfast fire coals outside the locked-up house. But he had shown us some cave entrances the year before that we had never explored and so I fired up the GPS handheld with our cuantiosas puntos saved in it and we eased off toward a cave on our own.
Wasps or avispas
          En route we spotted another cave entrance near the road and so we pulled over, and as we were changing into our grungy cave clothes a small boy rounded the curve on foot, said he knew the cave and shyly offered to guide us. His name was Sauli and he helped us hack through the thorny weeds with my machete and avoid the inconspicuous wasp nests attached to twigs. (The wasps here, as I think I mentioned before, have more potent stings than even the rightly feared White-Assed Hornet of North America. The last time I got stung here it was on the wrist-- I saw colors and my bones hurt up to the shoulder for two days. The local remedy is to obtain a few drops of urine to put on the sting; the ammonia supposedly breaks down the offending enzymes.) After examining the area around the entrance thoroughly for petroglyphs (none found) we measured our way incrementally through the cave, as we do, and surprisingly, at one point, came up against a poured concrete wall 4 meters high and way inside the cave. Sauli said that it was the wall of the cistern.
I am holding the end of the thread and the camera,
Alain is reading the elevation from the clinometer on the topofil
as we take our first punto as we are about to enter the cave.

          We wended our way around through the cave and saw other entrances, some of which were half filled with chicken manure and dead chickens discarded from the Pollo Cibao chicken farm nearby. In one of the sinkholes there was a shaky looking, narrow, concrete staircase slick with dead leaves and other detritus that led up to ground level. It looked a little like it came out of
Big heap of garbage under a skylight.
a jungle in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. We followed Sauli up it and emerged onto a tiled patio surrounding an empty swimming pool painted with regulation blue swimming pool paint. There was a nice gazebo at one end of the patio that led to the chicken ranch, which consisted of rows of low, screened barns full of pullets and chicks both live and dead. Here we could see back down into the cistern whose concrete dam we had run into from below earlier in the day. Alain looked longingly down into it, a dark rancid pool 10 meters below with several floating fowl carcasses in it, because he thought it might lead to more cave passages but I told him that if he wanted to go down there he was going alone. The half dozen or so Pollo Cibao employees who had gathered by now also all refused to rappel down into the fetid water with Alain so we retraced our tracks back down into the cave. As we passed through one of the open sinkholes a woman hollered down from the edge above to Sauli, “Where the hell have you been, your mother is half dead worried about you.”  When we finally emerged out the other end of the cave, Sauli politely refused the $100 peso tip (about $3 U.S.) I offered him and it wasn’t until I suggested that he could buy something nice for his mother that he accepted it and thanked us and went home to get ready for his 1 PM classes.
          The cave that Sauli guided us through we would eventually refer to in our database as La Cueva de Carlito #1, named for the owner of the property where we entered the cave. It had about 250 meters of passageway but had no art that we observed in it. 
          After Sauli left us Alain and I ate our lunch of spalami and crackers and we GPSed our way to La Cueva de Papasito which we had partially mapped on a previous trip guided by Rafael. We traipsed fast through the cave to get to where we had left off measuring and as we passed through the bottom of a deep sinkhole we were surprised to hear our names called out and when we looked up we saw Rafael up on the rim waving and smiling. When we finished measuring for the day the three of us drove back to Rafael’s house to wash up and change out of our muddy (and worse) clothes. Rafael had had to tend the smoldering pile of tree limbs that he was turning into charcoal to sell, but he promised to be ready to lead us to new caves the next day.
Here I am with my GPS device on a stick trying to raise it high enough to get a location.

No comments:

Post a Comment