Na na na na na na na na – Bat Caves!!!!
The first steps into the dark, gaping mouth of the cavern were very tentative. Our lanterns were simple candles in glass cases and did not give off much light. It took a few moments until our eyes adjusted enough to walk with a semblance of confidence into the dark.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a small national park in the South East corner of New Mexico. The caves are extensive, in fact they keep discovering more through small holes or even up in the roof!
Phil had visited the caverns with dad several years ago and was keen that I see them too. We were only there for an afternoon, but it was very well spent. Our timing was such that we arrived in time for a guided tour of the caverns by candlelight. After the rangers close the natural entrance to the caves to the public, and turn off the lighting, they allow up to 15 people to walk down in the dark.
In our case there were only five of us brave souls. Our guide was Ranger Ellen from Ohio.
The tour descended more than 80 stories underground, a series of switchbacks along a nicely paved path. Quite a difference from Jim White, the local cowboy who first started exploring the caverns in 1898. He would use his cowboy ropes to lower himself down into the caves, with just a lantern for light. As he got further and further into the caves he would name and memorise the formations he came across so that he could be sure to find his way out again.
Apparently Jim led tours of the caverns right up until the National Parks service installed electric lighting. He wasn’t happy about that at all and we were told he retired at that point sayingÂ the caves were becoming “too modern for an old cowboy”.
I have to admit, I can see where old Jim was coming from. Seeing the caves by lantern was a very special experience. Of course you couldn’t see all the details of the pools,Â stalactitesÂ andÂ stalagmites, but it didn’t matter.
My favourite moment was when we all blew out our candles. I have never been anywhere so dark. Ellen told us that the only other natural place on earth as dark is the bottom of the ocean. I felt a calm and peace descend on us, the only sounds being our breathing and a few drops of water falling. We could not see our own hands in front of our faces, but learnt that the human brain will make you think you can see a shadow, because it knows your hand is there. Brain self-preservation at work. Our time in the dark was over all too fast, Ranger Ellen lit our candles again and we continued down into the caves.
We ended the tour in the Big Room, the main cavern that can be accessed by elevator (which we took back up). It was still open to the public, and therefore still lit.
The other main Â attraction of the Carlsbad Caverns is the bats. There are more than 300,000 bats who live in the caverns.
After our tour we rode down to the local campsite and set up our tent, then came back up to the cavern to watch the bats. Every night just before sunset they leave in a dark swirling cloud of wings. They have built an ampitheatre outside the entrance to the caves that visitors can sit in and watch the exodus.
The ranger who was leading the programme was young and got quite flustered when the bats started leaving earlier than he expected. Before they arrived he gave us all just three rules.
1. Be quiet
2. No cameras or electronic devices of any kind
3. Don’t move if at all possible
Phil has never been very good with rules, and managed to get himself kicked out for blatantly filming the bats. Luckily they didn’t make me leave, and so I was able to witness the thousands of flying creatures wind their way out of the mouth of the cave and disappear into the twilit sky.
I found out afterwards that Phil didn’t have to go far and in fact managed to watch the bats from a different viewpoint.
There was only one more experience we wanted to have at the caverns, which was to come back before sunrise and watch the bats return home after their night out.
Unfortunately that wasn’t to be, as that evening a great wind blew into the area. It was so strong that Phil had to get out of the tent in the middle of the night to peg it down more firmly, and neither of us got much sleep. We decided that the bats were probably all hiding in trees for the night, as it would have been quite impossible for them to have flown in that gale.
In the morning we packed ourselves up and headed for Texas.