Pitch blackness and dirty water. That’s what first comes to mind when I think of the bizarre experience we had back in March of 1989. It’s tough to forget what happened that day: the feel of that disgusting dirty water clinging to your legs, the pungent stench of bat shit everywhere, the cramped, claustrophobic tightness of squeezing through tiny openings between stalactites and stalagmites or the sudden fear that comes over you when bats fly directly at you, their wings even touching your face as they flew by your head. But most of all I remember the utter darkness, the complete lack of light, the feeling of being totally blind. I used to hear people say “It was so dark I couldn’t even see my hand placed right up against my nose.” I never believed it…until I entered that cave.
Spontaneous Bat Exploration
It all came about spontaneously, almost by accident without much planning. It was my first full year of running 4×4 nature excursions for the newly-formed company, Exalt (EXcursion ALTernatives) in Paphos. I had just completed a day trekking excursion to the Avagas Gorge, and on the bus ride home I got into a discussion with some of the German guests that had attended that day. One of them introduced herself as Bärbel Pott from Hannover, Germany. She started asking questions about bats in Cyprus, inquiring if I knew much about the different species on the island, etc. I told her, that I was not a biologist and I didn’t know that much specifically. However, I did know of a certain cave location outside Paphos that I had previously visited briefly with a fellow archaeologist, Paul Croft. A few days earlier, Paul and I had started to go into this cave, but we didn’t get very far because we had no lights with us and we had to turn back because of the darkness. Bärbel, travelling together with her boyfriend, Karsten Dörfer, and another very tall guy, both expressed interest to visit the cave the next day. Two other guests, a French-speaking Belgian couple, were listening in and said they would like to go too. Bärbel explained that her job was to study and rescue bats in the Hannover region and that she was very experienced in dealing with bat habitats. She said she would really relish the chance to visit a true bat cave in Cyprus. So, wtf, why not? The next day we all met and we convinced Paul and his partner Ingela Brylde to come along as well. So that’s how it happened.
Note: Some of the photos included in this story are of poor quality, and very blurry. Other photos are of high quality and sharply focused. The badly out of focus photographs are mine; I was completely inexperienced with photography in pitch black conditions, thus I could only produce photos of crappy quality. The good to excellent photos were taken by Barbel Pott, the German bat expert from Hannover, who was a true professional and knew exactly how to focus in the dark. I wish I had recorded her full name and contact details, but I didn’t, so all I remember is her first name. I doubt she’ll ever see this piece featuring her photos, but in case she does: Vielen Dank, Frau Bärbel!
There are many, many caves in Cyprus. No surprise, given the fact that over half the island’s land mass is composed of limestone. There are also lots of caves inhabited by bats (unfortunately too many are destroyed or impacted by modern development). I’ve even swam into one or two sea caves (with open gaps between the cave roof/mouth and water level) only to observe clustres of bats hanging from the cave ceiling. But I’ve only encountered one cave in Cyprus with true “underground drainage” where a proper running stream flowed out from a strong source deep within the depths of the limestone. I am sure there are more of these –I actually met a Turkish Cypriot in Kyrenia who showed me photos of one located somewhere in the eastern Pentadaktylos Mts. near Famagusta Bay– I just don’t know them myself.
For various reasons (pretty obvious!), it would not be proper to divulge the exact name or location details of this cave. Let’s just say it is somewhere within the low-lying (under 200m above sea level) limestone sections of the Paphos District. It’s a delicate ecological situation, and during/after the experience inside this cave, I had/have strong feelings of guilt that we probably should never have entered. In retrospect, I fear we invaded and disturbed a unique natural environment that was never meant for mankind. I once described the whole experience to Dr Andreas Demetropoulos, a very experienced expert in Cyprus wildlife issues, and he said the time of year we entered (March) might well have coincided with the breeding season for bats. Oooops! Another chapter in human ignorance.
Right at the mouth of the cave stands a make-shift shrine to various Christian Orthodox saints. Local people have deposited a few modern icons on a small wooden stand with other religious paraphernalia hanging around it. This in itself is not unusual. There is a long and strong tradition of cave churches in Cyprus, especially within the Paphos District. One immediately thinks of the the church-cave enclosures associated with Ayios Neophytos, but there are also several examples of caves with sacred sources of water or springs that have taken on religious connotations. (A good example is just off-road on the hairpin turn at the western entry to Akoursos Village, where icons to Ayios Konstantinos and Ayia Eleni show the location of a once active cave church.)
Knowing what I know now, maybe I should have lit a candle or something at the shrine before we penetrated into the darkness of the unknown that lay waiting for us within. The water was cold, pretty stinky (later we learned why: bat shit!), and it came up to our ankles, sometimes up to the calves or even higher. But no matter, we kept going. Something like 20 or 30 metres past the cave entrance, the stream curved sharply to the left, and then two things changed. First, the light completely vanished, like somebody put a blindfold over your eyes. We could see absolutely nothing. The small flashlights we had offered some light, but they were insufficient to illuminate much of the distance in front of us, and soon they became pathetic beams against the curtain of utter blackness all around us. Second, the space we were walking through started to get narrower and narrower until soon we were pushing and muscling our way through extremely narrow gaps. The small flashlight beams allowed us to see the shadowy shapes of stalactites. The walls of the cave were wet and smooth. Sometimes tiny sharp projections would scrape against the top of our heads as we squeezed our bodies though narrow passageways. And then it happened.
We heard it, before we felt it. Suddenly, from somewhere in the pitch blackness in front of us, we perceived the sound of wings flapping. Before we could really process the sound, we felt the wings of bats brushing past our heads. Once or twice, just as I was squeezing through a narrow gap between the cave walls, I felt the wings against the left temple of my forehead. How could a bat fly through such a narrow opening less than the width of my hand? Lucky for me, I was equipped with ski goggles, otherwise my unprotected eyes would been too vulnerable. It was a pretty bizarre situation: here we were in tight, cramped quarters squeezing ourselves through the water and pitch blackness while panic-ridden bats were rushing past our heads. Although I could see absolutely nothing, I somehow managed to raise my camera and snap the following photos, which illustrate the mayhem that erupted around us:
Shaken and stirred, we soldiered on, kept going deeper and deeper through the water and further into the darkness. Soon the space seemed to widen as we entered a small chamber or gallery. Bärbel, the German “Bat Lady.” became our de facto leader. She told us to be very quiet and then she slowly aimed her torch towards cave ceiling. Wow! In the bad light we could make out clustres of dark forms making slight movements as they hug down from the rock above. It was a bit creepy, but strangely beautiful at the same time. These photos tell it all:
At one point, Bärbel, slowly approached a small clustre of bats and managed to coax one of them onto her hand. She turned to show me (as if I could really see), but using the bad light of a flashlight, I was able to snap this (very crappy, out of focus) photo to record the event:
If I remember correctly, the stream continued deeper into the darkness, but we all had had enough and were ready to leave the cave. We retraced our steps back out, squeezing once again through the narrow gaps. Every now and then we would have the creepy feeling of bat wings against our shoulder or head.
When we all emerged, cold and wet with stinking water clinging to our clothes and skin, we all felt two things: exaltation from the experience just behind us, and resignation with the knowledge that none of us would probably venture into that cave again. (Oh, I guess there was a third thing we all felt in common: dire need for a hot shower!) Bärbel was kind enough to take this final photo of the rest of our group just after we exited the cave: