Cave Branch River
Tuesday, December 30 2014
location: Orchid Garden Resort Ecolodge, Hattieville, Belize
For those who want them (everyone except the kids and their mother), breakfasts tend to be small, fat corn tortillas with bean paste and sauce, along with orange juice and fruit as well as endless coffee from a drip machine. This coffee has been the only caffeine I've been drinking, and yesterday morning's two cups (following only a single cup on the plane that had tasted like toilet bowl cleaner) had made me feel almost euphoric. By this morning, though, the morning coffee was merely maintaining my caffeine addiction. But it was all I needed.
Today's activities were to take place in cave country to the southwest of Orchid Garden, and again Gretchen and I would be opting out of one of them. Instead of ziplining with the family, Gretchen and I would maybe swim in a river. But when our driver Alvero showed us down to the river bank, it was swollen by flooding and not especially inviting. Also, conditions were overcast and cool. After Alvero left us to ourselves (something it initially seemed like he might not do; perhaps some Americans, particularly millennials raised by helicopters, never feel safe unless a guide is within sight), it began to rain, so I made a makeshift shelter for Gretchen and me comprised of her rain coat, sapling and bamboo trunks, and large hand-shaped leaves snapped from nearby trees. Unfortunately, some idiot had decided to leave the bundled burrito of a used disposable diaper in the grove from which I obtained my building materials. There had been another such biohazardous burrito in a small creek we'd had to ford to get here.
Somehow the time passed quickly despite the faintly miserable way we spent it in our leaking shelter. When we next saw the rest of our contingent, the kids had clearly just had their minds blown. My little niece definitively declared that ziplining was the funnest thing she had ever done in her eight years of life, and everyone was congratulating my nephew over his having overcome his anxieties.
Alvero took up the dusty pothole-filled road to an open-air café that specialized in serving meals to large groups of tourists before and after ziplining and cave tubing (our afternoon activity). There was no menu: the only option was a glop of rice and beans, a small salad based on iceberg lettuce, and chicken. For us, of course, there was no chicken. Initially I was skeptical of the rice and beans, since it was nearly 95% rice and very dry. But it was actually rather good, especially once I'd added habañero sauce (which is available with every meal and was quickly becoming my favorite thing about Belizian culture). The only problem with the rice and beans was that there wasn't enough of it, but Alvero got one of the waitresses to fetch me seconds, which appeared to have had a lump of saucy chicken snatched from atop it (indeed, it was probably a glob of rice & beans that one of the many American tourists had ignored so as to concentrate entirely on the meat).
The cave tubing place operated with an almost Teutonic efficiency (which always seems a bit out of place in the tropics). A group of young employees glanced at each of us and then handed us helmets with small LED headlamps, life vests, and inner tubes (most of which had both backs and waterproof webbing over the hole). From the bustling headquarters of the cave tubing operation, we forded the Cave Branch River at the place we would later be tubing down to (17.205715N, 88.647786W), then walked a forested (and sometimes briefly cave-traversing) trail gradually upstream to where the Cave Branch River entered the yawning mouth of a cave. Along the way, our guide pointed out vegetation and iguanas, and told us of how his father had been killed by a Fer-de-Lance viper when he was an infant. He also repeatedly warned us about places where we had to take care not to slip and fall, step into an armadillo hole, or topple off the bank into Cave Branch. (These warnings were by now so familiar, having heard them monotonously given by the guides at the other attractions) that I had begun to give them myself in mock concern for people evidently too incautious or uncoordinated to pass Darwin's basic test.
Unfortunately, we'd been scheduled to go cave tubing on a day when many others had arrived for the same activity from cruise ships docking in Belize City. So there was a bit of a backlog at the mouth of the cave as the guides for other groups lashed their tubes together and set out into the world beneath the ground. But eventually we got going, with our guide following behind on a small tube, braking our momentum via leash as we threatened to crash into the sides of the cave.
Later, as the water spread out into wide caverns, he came around to the front and towed us along.
The Cave Branch River is about the size of the Esopus, and it boggled the mind to think that it could have somehow come to flow underground. What had been the sequence of events that had allowed it to carve out a tunnel without causing the rock overhead to fall in on it?
Aside from such practical geological questions, the caverns themselves dazzled us with their size, whimsy, and occasional beauty. There were plenty of crazily-shaped formations of accreted limestone hanging down from the ceiling, some supplied with water from overhead springs and acting like showerheads. There were also occasional bore holes upward made, our guide said, by generations of bats gripping the rock with their feet and burning it with their acidic excrement. In some places the ceiling hung so low that the scouring of floodwaters kept them scraped clean of stalagtites. We didn't see any evidence of Maya, though our guide told us about other caves that they'd used for their most sacred rituals. In one vast chamber, a small section of the ceiling had collapsed, letting in light (and a small brook) from the surface, and we could see people in the distance looking down at us through the Henri Rousseauesque vegetation from a set of wooden steps that had been installed.
Eventually we emerged from the cave and our guide took care to keep us from crashing into a bank festooned with a kind of native bamboo featuring long treacherous spikes. There aren't many large vertebrates that can live in such vegetation except the vegetarian Green Iguana, which the locals call the "Bamboo Chicken." ("Chicken" because it is a creature that people like to eat.) At this time of year the males are often a patchy orange color, which evidently makes them attractive to lady iguanas. (I imagine that this trait will eventually be lost, since it makes them much easier for humans to spot, and iguana hunting is a difficult thing to regulate.)
As we approached the rope across the river that marked the end of our cave tubing, a number of boys on the shore were taking turns jumping off a large rock into the water (and not always being careful about people floating by underneath). That looked like fun to Gretchen, so after getting out of her tube, she climbed up there and jumped off too (against the better judgment of her parents, who, she relates, were not especially helicoptery when she was little).
Me in my makeshift hut on the bank of the Cave Branch River.
(Click to enlarge.)
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