I’ll conclude this series of occasional postings about places I’ve visited in Texas with an account of one that’s literally deep in the heart of the Lone Star State.
Natural Bridge Caverns was developed as a tourist attraction after a group of college students discovered some breath-taking underground passages there at the beginning of the 1960s. Today, up top, it features a visitor’s centre, a souvenir shop (‘the Discovery Village Trading Post’), a confectionery and snack shop (‘Big Daddy’s Sweets, Treats and Brew’), a spot where kids can ‘pan for gems’ and a pair of high platforms between which you can zipline across and above the whole site. In spite of the commercialisation it’s an attractive place, landscaped with rustic stone walls, lawns, flowers, ferns and plenty of trees and shade; though I would’ve enjoyed it more if they’d turned down the insipid country-and-western music that was pouring out of the PA system, courtesy of a radio show called Prime Country.
We had time to go on two tours during our visit and firstly we opted for the longest-established one, the Discovery Tour, which takes you 180 feet below ground and through half-a-mile of what is described as “the largest and most spectacular show cavern in Texas”. The entrance to this was through a giant sinkhole behind the visitor’s centre, easily accessible because it involved going down a gently-descending tarmacked path at the hole’s side. We also received a pep-talk beforehand where we were told not to touch the caverns’ rock formations because our skins, like the skins of all mammals, secrete oils that damage the formations and stop them developing in the first place. Later, inside the caverns, the guide shone his torch onto the roof and showed us some large ‘bald’ patches, totally free of stalactites, that centuries earlier had been home to thousands of roosting (and oil-secreting) bats.
One good thing about how the caverns are presented to visitors is the lighting system. The rigs of bulbs and cables are mostly well-hidden. The lights shining on the caverns’ paths are concealed behind rocks. Particularly striking formations on the caverns’ walls are illuminated by unseen spotlights. Our guide would sometimes switch these on and off by remote control so that behind or ahead of us whole sections of the walls, with their fantastically-shaped tableaux, would dramatically leap in and out of view.
One small light illuminated a tiny clump of ferns growing on a rock slope far below ground. Presumably the ferns arrived at this spot thanks to a spore being carried down on the clothes of a human or fur of an animal. Apart from a few streaks of mould here and there, these were the only plant or fungoid life I saw in the caverns.
So – what can I say about the spectacles provided by the caverns’ rock formations? Well, they were amazing. To give an idea of the vast and phantasmagorical range of structures there, I’ll refer to the notebook I brought with me and list all the things that different ones reminded me of. These were: icicles; strings of spaghetti; fangs; molars; needles; turnips; parsnips; carrots; stockings hung up for Santa Claus; candles; Japanese sake bottles; spiralling seashells; dangling entrails; toadstools; cacti; ginseng roots; ice cream cones; rats’ tails; elephants’ trunks; warts; pimples; beehives; broomsticks; Greek columns; church-organ pipes; soda straws; spires; plasticine figures, animals and buildings; giant protoplasm; hanging bats’ wings; stacks of bacon slices; molten toffee; dollops of manure; jellyfish; Portuguese man o’ wars; baleen from a whale’s mouth; Aztec carvings; eroded effigies inside ruined Asian temples; gargoyles; malformed gnomes; foetuses; Gollum from The Lord of the Rings; the face of Cthulhu; hands giving you the middle-finger; hands making a Vulcan salute; totem poles; and, frankly, penises.
Parts of the caverns looked as huge and grand as the interiors of cathedrals. Though with the rock formations confronting us on all sides with bizarre, grotesque and sinister shapes, they didn’t particularly look like Christian cathedrals – more like ones erected in honour of H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods.
The second tour we went on was the Hidden Passages one, which takes visitors through some caverns that were discovered, opened and developed more recently. The entrance to this was beneath a gazebo-like building a little way past the Discovery Tour’s sinkhole and again we were given a pep-talk warning us not to touch anything.
The Hidden Passages’ caverns were found when a vertical shaft, a couple of feet across, was bored down from the surface and had a camera lowered through it. The camera took four photographs, being turned 90 degrees between each shot. One photograph revealed a cave wall. The other three showed only darkness. The three dark photographs told the investigators that they’d located a substantial cavern – there were no walls close by on three sides of the camera for the light of its flash to bounce back from. During the tour, the guide pointed out the bottom end of the shaft, puncturing the cavern roof beside one of its walls. If the shaft had been drilled a few feet away from that position, it would’ve missed the cavern entirely.
Looking up at the shaft-end, I heard a dribble of falling soil and then some dirt-particles and two big beetles dropped out of it and onto the rocks below. The beetles promptly scuttled away. Welcome to your new home, guys.
At the tour’s furthest point were a group of benches where the guide had us sit down. He then turned off all the cavern-lights so that for a minute we could enjoy – if that’s the word – the sensation of sitting in darkness: absolute darkness, a darkness so dense that couldn’t see your hand an inch, or a centimetre, or a millimetre, in front of your face. This, explained the guide in a now eerily-disembodied voice, enabled us to experience how life was for the organisms, such as bugs and spiders, which inhabit the caverns at these depths. They’re wholly blind and, thanks to the absence of light, wholly transparent too. Their other senses are heightened, however, and indeed, after sitting in that darkness for a moment, it seemed that my own hearing had become sharper.
I also have to say that, sitting there, I found myself thinking uncomfortably about a weird short story called The End of a Summer’s Day, by the English writer Ramsey Campbell, which has an insecure woman and her fiancé going on a cave tour and undergoing a similar experience when the guide turns off the lights. However, when the lights come on again, the woman discovers that, somehow, the man now holding her hand isn’t the man who was holding it before. Thankfully, when the lights returned in Natural Bridge Caverns’ Hidden Passages Tour, my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, had undergone no such metamorphosis.
Back on the surface and before we departed, I decided to make a first-ever attempt at ziplining. This went smoothly until I was a few yards short of the destination platform. Then, having whizzed across most of the site, I unexpectedly stopped and was left dangling from the line. The guy on the platform had to throw out a rope and tow me in. I was grateful this hadn’t happened while I was further away from the platform and beyond reach of the rope. Stranded out there, I would’ve resembled former London mayor and general Tory buffoon Boris Johnson during his famous ziplining mishap at the 2012 London Olympics.
Natural Bridge Caverns impressed me not just because of the sights offered by the subterranean tours, but also because of the care and effort that obviously goes into keeping the cave systems pristine and undamaged by human visitors. I have a sad suspicion that in other parts of the world where there are similar caves, local entrepreneurs are less bothered about supervising the tourists traipsing in and out of them; and the delicate formations and ecosystems inside the caves suffer as a result.