The Cave

There are two of me. The first, an adult, aware that any risk I take may leave my wife a widow and my children orphans.

The second version of me is childlike, impulsive and a little reckless. For example, yesterday I decided to get some exercise by riding my mountain bike. A reasonable way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon if not for my extreme behaviour. I was noncommittal to my wife as to which direction I’d ride in. Once mounted on the bike though, I went north-west and kept riding, and riding… and riding, as far as I could. Through bushland, across a steep ridge and down remote country roads, on the outskirts of Sydney. When the sun began its leisurely dip towards the horizon, I turned down the next road I found to complete a loop back to my house.

The sun had well and truly retired before I arrived home. I was riding in the dark with no lights on my bike and no street lamps to illuminate the road. Just a faint impression of a white line on the edge of the bitumen. Not the safest situation to be in. By the time I pulled into my driveway, I was drenched in sweat, and my sore arse confirmed I’d covered 53 kilometres (33 miles) on my mountain bike seat. My wife was not home. I shamefully knew she’d be out looking for me in our car and I hadn’t taken my phone, or water, or any form of identification for that matter. I parked my bike and retrieved my phone from the house and called her, letting her know I was home safe. She was relieved but suggested I tell her what direction and for how far I planned to ride next time. A reasonable request. I had left in daylight and thought to myself I’d only be gone an hour to an hour-and-a-half. I had returned at night, after four hours.

My spur of the moment, Sunday afternoon bike ride. No, I’m not an athlete, just confused.

This experience is illustrative of the intermittent tug-of-war between my two sides. Sometimes the adult prevails, sometimes the reckless child. Credit for my bike odyssey fell to the latter. However, much to the child’s resentment, the adult can win too. My sober-minded side was victorious when I swam in the bottom of a watery hole. The watery hole was To Sua Ocean Trench in Samoa. Gollum from The Lord of the Rings would not have looked out of place there. An appropriate backdrop to my struggle, as Gollum would often war with his other personality, Sméagol.

This experience is illustrative of the intermittent tug-of-war between my two sides.

My wife, two children, and myself, gingerly descended the steep wooden ladder into To Sua (literally, big hole with water coming out of it). The deep hole sits within a lava field near Lotafaga Village, atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, on Samoa’s main island of Upolu. At the bottom of the narrow ladder, we arrived at a small viewing platform, the entry point into the emerald waters of the pool. I craned my neck to gaze at the 30 metres (100 feet) wide opening above our heads. The lush, tropical vegetation spilt over the lip of the hole and fell down the sheer rock walls. This truly was a wonder of the ancient world. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, transplanted to Polynesia.

To Sua Trench, the spectacular remains of a lava tube. Photo by Anita Horan.

After our pause on the landing, we carried our masks and fins with us down through an opening in the platform and into the inviting water. A question captured the attention of my impulsive side – where do To Sua’s waters come from? This hole was formed during an ancient lava eruption and is connected to the ocean by an underwater cave. A rope was secured to either end of the hole and just above the water’s surface. When the ocean beyond the cliff surged, the rope provided a way to avoid being sucked towards the hidden cave.

I was done for! I had to find that cave! While my wife and children splashed around in the shallow waters of the northern side of the hole, I swam to the southern rock face. This was the side closest to the hidden ocean. My hand touched the slick, wet rock as my masked face gazed down into the water. The visibility here was obscured because the water had a cloudy quality to it. I took a breath and dived down. Pressure on my ears signalled that this part of the hole was deeper than the northern side. A sandy bottom came into view and I winced as the water temperature shifted. I had passed through a warm layer, straight into a cool one. There was no gradual change, thus my surprise. Particles of sand were forming tendrils, travelling towards the unseen rock face. I felt my body in the grip of a giant, powerful hand. An unseen current was pulling me. I needed to breathe, so I kicked my long, propulsive freediving fins and returned to the surface.

I was done for! I had to find that cave!

As I recovered my breath at the pool surface, I formulated a strategy. I figured the cloudy quality of the water was due to the ocean current stirring up the sand and forming bubbles within the hidden cave. If I dived down again and slowly crawled along the bottom towards the submerged part of the rock face, I thought I had a good chance of finding the cave. Down I went again. When my palms met the sand, I slowly crept through the milky water until I came to a wide mound of sand flecked with shells and grit. The current felt even stronger here. Slowly I kicked and passed over the mound and down a slope strewn with more shells and large rocks. I looked straight ahead and had to stifle the urge to gasp.

Several yards in front of me was a yawning cave mouth, about to swallow my slight, mortal form. Beyond the huge, rocky orifice was a terrible shade of blue. As intimidating as the sky, the vast might of the Pacific Ocean was waiting to digest me. Conservative Tim urgently counselled me to return to the pool. Reckless Tim urged me to continue through the cave and embrace the expanse of the blue wilderness.

The ocean current in conjunction with the spectacular blue opening pulled me towards it. A giant, unblinking eye, calling to my reckless self. My sober-minded side presented its closing remarks. Your wife and children are above you in the pool, they don’t know where you are. What if the current turns into a rip and you get smashed against the cave wall? What if you drown? How will they find your body? Why are you being selfish? Sanity prevailed, and I turned around, exited the cave, and swam back to the surface.

A selfie, taken at the base of the rock face above the hidden ocean cave.

As I inhaled life-giving air, I cast a glance to the other side of the pool. My family were still playing in the shallows, soaking up the otherworldly ambience of To Sua. Off to my right, two men had swam up to me, both wearing snorkelling masks. They were younger than me. Late teens or early twenties. “Hey mate, did you find the cave?” The blonde-haired man enquired. He had a stereotypical ‘surfie’ look. This told me he was likely comfortable in the ocean. His friend, or brother, looked a little more hesitant. “Yep, I’ll show you if you like,” I responded.

Surfer man nodded, and he and his companion followed me down to the sandy floor and across to the cave. Its hypnotic power hit me like an electric current. All three of us gazed at the fantastic vista before returning to the pool. “Would you swim through it?” Surfer bloke to me. “Maybe. Looks a bity risky though,” I weakly responded. To my surprise, surfer man laughed, not in derision, but a good-natured laugh, full of joy. I chuckled too. Three men sharing the intense moment that precedes something potentially dangerous. Laughter might seem out of place, but it felt right.

The blond-haired young man looked over to his companion. “Come on!” With that, they both duck-dived to the bottom. I followed them down and across to the cave. I stopped part way through the cave and watched the two men swim on. First, their bodies were swallowed by the blue gaze of the ocean, followed by their snorkelling fins. Just like that, they were gone, and I was alone. I could feel my reckless persona taunt me as I returned to the pool. Was I shown up by two much younger men?

I swam over to my family and I pushed the question from my mind as we frolicked in the waters for several hours. When we were thoroughly soaked, we climbed the long ladder and exited To Sua Trench. We dried ourselves on the grassy area atop the cliff overlooking the ocean. I looked down at the pounding surf, far below us, and tried to pinpoint where I thought the young men would have emerged. It was clear to me that the conditions below were far from favourable. Waves were constantly rolling over where I thought they may have surfaced. It also wasn’t obvious where they could have exited the water to make the unassisted climb back up the cliff face. The swim through the cave looked suicidal from my new perspective. I hoped the two men survived. A selfless wish coupled with a twinge of self-righteousness. I assured myself I was wiser by not following them. The reckless part of myself was sullenly unconvinced.

Even now, before I drift off to sleep, I sometimes think of that cave, patiently waiting beneath the lava flow.

Over the course of the following week, my family crossed the island of Upolu and boarded a ferry to Samoa’s other big land mass – Savai’i. At the end of our first day on Savai’i, we sat down to the evening meal at our lodgings, the Vaimoana Seaside Lodge. This resort was almost the furthest point in Samoa from the To Sua Trench. After ordering drinks, I looked across at the family sitting at the table next to ours. An older couple was enjoying the local fare with what I presumed were their sons. Two young men, the same two I last saw disappearing into the Pacific Ocean while I remained in the cave.

Opposing feelings surged within me, like the push and pull of the ocean current at the bottom of To Sua Trench. Relief mixed with regret. Glad to have discovered they survived, sorry I had not made the journey with them.

Even now, before I drift off to sleep, I sometimes think of that cave, patiently waiting beneath the lava flow. My two sides contend with each other as the cave continues to make its insistent, seductive case.

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