Lisa and I had been hiking for three days when found ourselves at our destination. Our “destination” was a 150 meter drop straight down into the blackness. The locals called it “the mouth of the dragon” and I could see why. It was the type of cave that inspired local myths and legends. But we had to do it, one more item to check off of our bucket list.
We camped overnight and studied the guides one last time. The little guide pamphlets seemed to have been translated into English by a madman and it was hard to make heads or tails of some sections, but we were able to understand all of the technical parts. Some things don’t change from country to country. The night passed quick, with just a few of the typical “day before the adventure” nerves. In the morning we quickly got everything ready.
Lisa and I descended into the cave. I consider myself an experienced spelunker and thought I had seen just about everything, so I wasn’t too concerned about the “old-world hazards” that the guidebook mentioned. I mean, what could there be I haven’t seen in the Americas?
After reaching the bottom of the first major drop, we set out exploring the main cave, which dove deep down beneath the hills. The guide had recommended a smaller passage, but it didn’t dig as deep as the main passage and seemed boring. From all vantage points, ours was the better choice, being huge and filled with many different sub-sections. And it was bigger and delved deeper.
Besides being much larger than the other passages, it was well worn while the other was raw and jagged. In my mind’s eye I could picture tens of thousands of people following this path over the millennia that the cave’s entrance was known. To make the wear marks, though, they must all have been dragging a rug. Everything was as smooth as glass. I did have to admit that this was a bit different. Typically I am one of the first in a cave and have never seen wear marks like this. In fact, it almost looked like someone had driven a bulldozer through the place about a hundred times, and yet it was too smooth, not rough as a bulldozer would have left it.
Though smooth and worn, it was full of the types of wonders that made us seek out such places and burrow deep into the ground.
“Hey, did you see that?”
Lisa’s headlamp was pointed at a pit of sand in the bottom of a depression. I looked closer. There was a huge footprint, or I guess I should say “clawprint”.
“What do you think,” I asked, “perhaps a lion was down here back in the day when some still roamed this far north?”
She shook her head, causing her light to flash across the gem-like cave.
“No, this is far too large to be a lion. It doesn’t really look feline. It’s more reptilian.”
“I know this cave is pretty old, but there is no way that a dinosaur print would stay in the sand this long,” I said. “In fact, I can’t even think that an ice age print would still look this fresh.”
“I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Why?” I asked. “I mean, this is an easy, well-marked cave. That first drop was the hardest thing we’ll find and I don’t want to have to make that climb yet, I want to explore. Come on, let’s go on.”
“Sure. Let’s go.”
We went through a few tighter passages, all well-worn, and passed into a few larger chambers, each one filled with new crystalline wonders. After a while we reached a point where a bright red warning was painted on the stone. The guide said that we must turn back at this point.
Lisa looked ahead. “It looks fine to me,” she said. “Did the guide say anything more than the vague ‘old-world hazards’?”
“No. That’s it. It still looks very well worn, so I don’t think anybody listens and everyone else goes on. What do you say? Go on? Head in deeper?”
“Sure. Why not? Let’s go!”
We continued on. Nothing seemed out of place. After about a half of an hour of geologic spender, we stopped.
“These Europeans must be wimps,” I said.
“Really,” she said. “We haven’t reached anything technical at all. Super easy. I mean, that drop in was a thousand times harder than anything we’ve seen so far. And it would be impossible to get lost in this place, it’s like a grand boulevard.”
“That’s odd,” I said. “Do you notice the warm breeze? It seems to be coming from in front of us.”
I looked back at Lisa, my lamp illuminating her face. Her eyes were scrunched and she was sniffing.
“Yeah,” she said. “And it stinks, like strong sulfur.” She laughed. “Sulfur and brimestone, maybe we’re nearing hell. I mean we’ve gone pretty deep.”
I shushed her and listened closely.
“Did you hear that?” I asked.
She nodded, her headlamp causing crazy flashes around the passage.
I reached over and turned off her headset. I then switched mine off. Instead of being darker than anything humans see on a daily basis, the cave was glowing red. The glow grew brighter and the warm breeze increased. There was a roar. I could see Lisa’s eyes grow, even though it should have been pitch black. We turned and ran. In a minute I saw a tiny side passage. I pushed Lisa towards it. She struggled to slide in.
I turned towards the light and saw a flame.
She disappeared. I backed down the small passage, wiggling into the tight space, more like putting on an overall than going into a cave. My head was just out of the main passage when I saw the dragon pass by.
The idea slowly filtered through my mind. The. Dragon. Pass. By. Dragon? Dragon!
I crawled out and helped Lisa back out of the tunnel. We had to switch on our lights again as the tunnel grew dark shortly after the beast’s passage. As we neared the entrance, we could tell it was coming again and hid in another side passage. I got a better look this second time, and Lisa saw it too. It was huge. At least now we knew why the cave was so well worn, almost polished.
After it was gone and the light of its fire faded, we emerged back into the main passage and climbed out way back out.
To say our reception on reaching the surface was chilly would be the understatement of the century. Much to our relief, the military quickly took us into custody. We had to answer questions for five days with little sleep or food, but they finally released us at the border and told us to never return. My guess is that if hadn’t been arrested, we never would have reached the border. I saw the burnt out village as we passed through.
A few months later, while traveling through Asia, we heard about a cave that was supposed to be the best in the region.
After searching on the Internet I found the following – “Warning! This cave presents hazards only found in China. Please be advised!” There was nothing else, nothing to say what the hazards might be.
I looked at Lisa. She shook her head. I totally agreed. We’d skip this one. We’d gone deep enough into “the mouth of the dragon”. No more non-American hazards for us!
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