Do you samba? I don’t. I think I came pretty close to a Samba no pé this week though. According to Wikipedia (the source of all condensed common knowledge), “Samba no pé is a solo dance that is most often danced impromptu when samba music is played. The basic movement involves a straight body and a bending of one knee at a time. The feet move very slightly — only a few inches at a time.”
Call me crazy, but doesn’t that sound like speed walking? Or belly crawling? But you know, to music?
I went on my first Samba Days adventure at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park on Vancouver Island this week and did my own version of the Samba no pé (or what I like to call “the caterpillar crawl”) in the underbelly of the area’s most popular underground caverns. This is technically the third cave tour I’ve been on (first in Queensland Australia and then in Oregon USA) but while the caves at this park aren’t the biggest or the most stunning, this tour definitely beat the other two hands down!
O quê, you ask? Sim! It’s unfair competition really, because how can you compete with a tour that includes five underground rope stations, rappelling 70ft down into a damp cave with mutant larvae swimming around, and belly crawling through four crevices? Though it’s technically a tourist-friendly adventure, it’s not your typical stand-behind-the-ropes-while-I-educate-you type tour. And for that, it’s a hundred times better!
Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park is located about an hour north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. To get there from Vancouver, take the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo ($63.15 each way for one passenger in one car). You could take the ferry from Tsawwassen to Nanaimo instead, but it’s a longer journey and the price is the same.
Once you get on the island, toss your GPS because it’s pretty much useless when it comes to finding the park. Mine for example decided that it was in the middle of the Georgia Straight, and most others want to take you to the other side of the lake. To get there, follow the directions on the park’s website.
I had my concerns when I first arrived at the little portable office to check in for the morning Rappel Clinic (mandatory if you haven’t gone outdoor rappelling). This was my guide’s first season on the job and I had to sign a form releasing the staff from any liabilities due to negligence on their part if something happened to me (gulp). My worries were completely unfounded though, because my guide Chris is awesome! Not only is he trained to be uber-safe, but he’s also well versed in all those names for creepy crawlies and weird cave formations that you would only ever find in textbooks, and he’s eager to share the knowledge!
My next concern was about the equipment — in particular, the hygiene of the equipment. The helmets looked like they could use a few scrub downs and the staff admitted that they’re not disinfected after each use (Eew!). But safety comes first right? At the end of the day, I got so dirty in the caves that the darkened straps of the unwashed helmet was the last thing on my mind.
Once the forms were signed and the helmets and harnesses were on, the four other participants for the morning Rappel Clinic and I followed Chris up the road by car (about 1km), up a mountain trail by foot, and down a ladder onto the rappelling platform. We saw a small garden snake trying unsuccessfully to avoid our stares as he slithered next to the ladder we were descending.
As I stood clipped to the safety rope watching Chris demonstrate what we would be doing during the Rappel Clinic, I started to get nervous. I had seen the cliff we would be descending from below, and it really isn’t that high. But it’s been a few years since I went rock climbing so that initial fear began to creep back up. I volunteered to go first and looked spectacularly daft inching backwards towards the edge like a fawn that was trying to balance on her legs for the first time. Once I let go though, it was easier than riding a bike. Step. Waddle. Step. Step. Step. Wheeee! And land. The rope (and Chris) did most of the work.
5-hour Underground Extreme Tour (aka Extreme Rappel Cave Tour)
After lunch, I gathered in the portable office again to meet with the other two tour participants (Sean and his son Julian) and we headed off on a 20 minute hike to the cave entrance. When we arrived, I began to doubt my physical fitness since I was already very warm from the short hike up. The receptionist hadn’t asked for my weight or athletic abilities when I signed up for the trip. I had asked whether there’s a weight restriction since the tour involves a fair amount of rappelling; there isn’t. As we began our first crawl through the caves though, I began to think there should be because if I were triple the size I am right now I would definitely not feel comfortable crawling through those spaces! Chris said that larger participants are able to dig a path for themselves to get through. But as you can see from the video below, it would be a big blow to the ego for larger tummies to try and squeeze through there.
Between each crawl, Chris would explain how the different calcite structures were formed over the years. The names for most of the deposits are pretty self-explanatory: bacon strips, straws, chili peppers. We tried our best not to touch any of the calcite deposits because as Chris explained, the oils and dirt on our skin stain them and they look a lot nicer when they’re pearly white and nearly transparent.
Our first rappel was down 17ft into what’s known as the Wonderbread Room for its dough-like calcite deposits. The other side of the room is covered in man-made rock art that makes for some pretty nifty decoration. The room was dripping everywhere so it was like being in cheap hotel shower (the kind that drips and drips but never has a steady flow). We then took a detour to view Achilles Pot (a very steep drop) and navigated on our rope line to get back onto the main route.
We took a circus ladder down the path, winding through uneven walls of rock and calcite, and arrived at our final rappel. The big 70ft drop into the China Shop. In comparison to the rooms at Oregon Caves, the China Shop isn’t as impressive as I had expected. Granted, the only light we had was on our helmets so there was probably a lot more that we couldn’t see.
Once we were all on solid ground again, we continued just a little further to a small pond and the end of our passage. Chris looked around for a while to see if there was any creatures in the water that he could show us, but there was nothing there that day. We ended up seeing an albino mutant larvae on our way back out though which was pretty cool. Before we headed back out, we turned out our headlamps and sat in the dark to listen to the caves. All we could hear was the water dripping down. It was cool and calm down there. Surprisingly fresh actually! After a while, we started our journey back out.
I had wondered after our first rappel how we were going to get back up. I thought there would be some kind of pulley-system but Chris told us that we were meant to climb back up (while clipped to the rope of course). For those that experience some sort of melt-down while in the caves (it happens), the only way out is to go the way you came so the guides are able to pull people up using the ropes if necessary. The climbs up the rock walls turned out to be my favourite part of the tour (go figure!).
When we got to the first crawl, Chris asked if we would be interested in crawling through the dark. The vote was unanimous: YEAH! We turned off the lamps and started crawling. At one point I couldn’t figure out how anyone could fit through because I was digging and squirming but was just too big for the small crack. It took me about two whole seconds before I realized that the route had an s-curve and I had been digging below a rock wall!
Once we were out into the open we joined in a Family Tour (the other tours go into the same cave but don’t go as far) for an interpretation of the different formations on the wall, and then made our exit.
I normally think of summer forest air as reasonably fresh and airy, but after being in the caves the outside world felt humid and suffocating. Could it be that the caves have fresher air? Haha
I had a fabulous time at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park and would definitely recommend the 5-hour Underground Extreme Tour (also known as the Extreme Rappel Cave Tour). You can purchase the tour online or in store with Samba Days, but you must call ahead to make your reservation(s). There is a maximum of five participants on each 5-hour Underground Extreme Tour and the tours only run from June through October.
Getting to the island isn’t cheap so unless money isn’t an issue, this is more of an add-on adventure to your stay on the island. Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park has campground spaces available for rent, but check with the staff before you dive into the lake (people are getting Swimmer’s Itch from the lake right now).
Tips for Travellers
- If you want to view the Rappel Clinic or explore the self-guided caves, you *must* rent a helmet ($8.50 for the day).
- Make sure you go to the bathroom before heading out on a cave tour! The dripping and streaming water will drive you mad if you don’t.
- If you go on the 5-hour Underground Extreme Tour, bring knee pads. My knees are literally covered in bruises right now because I didn’t.
- Don’t wear anything you wouldn’t want to get dirty and / or torn up on the 5-hour Underground Extreme Tour. There’s lots of belly crawling and jagged edges involved.
- Bring gloves on the 5-hour Underground Extreme Tour. It’s not too cold down there (about 8° C) but without them your fingers will freeze while climbing the aluminum ladders.
- Bring a bottle of water with you so you can have something to drink during the hike up to the cave entrance. You can leave the bottle at the start of the first rappel and pick it up when you make your way back out.
- If you have long hair, try to keep it tied in a bun or braid it below your helmet. Pigtails and ponytails have a tendency to get caught in the ropes.
- There are no food stands at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, so bring a lunch with you if you decide to spend the day there.
- There is no running water at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, so bring hand wipes with you (there are porta-potties).
- Bring bug repellent because there are mosquitoes.