Explorations of the Underground: a research expedition of the Sibun Caves

By Nick Foster
Edited by Naturalight Productions

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A gathering of large black clouds was flanking the western horizon ready to attack our troop with bullets of rain as we began our hike. And attack they did, continuing an onslaught of saturation for nearly 24 hours until we retreated from the bush. Even as we fled, we were nearly captured by streams gushing at full-force with water levels that had risen more than a foot from the day before. Our company had sustained minor injuries, but we would evade the flash flood's imprisonment.

Our mission was to document a group of remote, little-known caves south of Churchyard Village in the central Cayo District near the Sibun River. We would be the first from the Institute of Archaeology (IOA) to explore, photograph, and map the caves with a global positioning system. (The mapping, however, was partially foiled by the assailing rain.) Our group included IOA Director Dr. Jaime Awe, archaeologist Myka Schwanke, research technicians Antonio Beardall and Rafael Guerra, and me, not to mention a few friends, including our guides.

The caves housed immense natural beauty, a few artifacts and, well, us from the constant downpour. In one cave, a set of manmade rock steps had been built to descend into its water-filled lower chamber. Dr. Awe reasoned that the steps must have been built by ancient Maya people who wanted easier access to the underground cave so they could make offerings to the Underworld. He said modern man had no reason to make such elaborate steps other than simply taking a closer look, and a construction project was probably not worth the effort.

Pottery shards, no larger than four square inches, were also found in two caves. Other than that, evidence of human activity in the caves was apparent in the form of garbage--empty cans of food, grungy clothing, toilet paper, plastic bottles, and a plastic bag containing what appeared to be moldy marijuana.

On the first day of the trek, we passed by each of the caves, planning to go to the farthest cave, set up camp, and work our way back the following day. As we passed by, trampling decomposing plant matter on the jungle floor, the upper canopy of the dense rainforest collected pools of rain droplets that eventually weighed down the leaves, dumping bucket loads of water on us.

When we reached the outermost cave, a fast flowing current of clear stream water was rushing in, turning right 90 degrees and disappearing into mysterious black darkness. Without knowing the depth of the cave or the stream, and without rope, floatation devices or water-specific safety gear, we opted not to wade far inside. Instead, we pitched our tents on the outskirts of the grotto and eagerly awaited the exploration of the other, more accessible caves in the morning.

That night, the thunderous black clouds continued their assault, unleashing a monsoon of rain on the jungle. Massive drops plummeted to the ground and through the leaky rain fly on the tent. All of us were saturated.

After a breakfast of eggs and leftover chili from the night before, we set out for the caves. Like a man searching for cellular service, extending his phone high at arm's length, Rafael raised his hand-held GPS navigation device in an effort to record the coordinates of our location. The signal from the corresponding satellite, however, could barely penetrate the thick mass of black clouds, which was still holding steadfast to its post in the sky.

Even though we were unable to determine the latitude and longitude of most of the caves, thus failing to complete an objective of our mission, we were still successful because we learned a lot about the specific area and about caves in general.

I have explored caves in the mountain and desert wilderness of the United States, but this was my first time to do so in Belize. I learned that Belizean caves are beautiful and unique. Even if they look small at the entrance, their caverns can extend deep and far into the earth. Some have rivers, streams and underground lakes; some are dry. I learned, unfortunately, that no matter how remote some places seem to be, humans will find a way to get there and leave their mark, which is sometimes by looting and almost always by polluting.

There is no doubt that we all had fun and, at some point, wondered how we landed jobs that allow us to have so much fun. As for the rain, it challenged us, made us feel tough, like we had overcome a great obstacle--and rising above a challenge always feels good.

Images Courtesy of:

  • Tony Rath Photography
  • Nick Foster
  • Naturalight Productions Ltd


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