Text by Walter Pickel
Photography by Jon Bojar, Walter Pickel, and Curt Bowen
Video by Josh Bernstein
As a team that is always looking for unknown places to discover and new caves to explore, the ADM Exploration Team is constantly researching and poring over previous expedition reports. In November 2010, Eric Deister decided the team should plan a scouting trip to Belize – a place he had visited a few years earlier and where he had seen some impressive caves. However, there is little documented information regarding cave diving in Belize, so a trip would be a complete gamble. Our Team Coordinator (TC), Curt Bowen, decided we should still look into it and gave this trip to Eric to be a TC “in-training”. Call it a mentorship between Curt and Eric. As everyone knows, planning trips and being the TC is a tough job and it always ends up costing the TC more time and money than everyone else. But Eric still took the bait!
While part of the ADM Exploration Team was exploring new caves in the Yucatan jungle of Mexico, Eric was in Iraq dutifully planning the 2011 ADM Exploration Team Belize Scouting Trip. He reserved accommodations, tanks, guides and food. With the intention of using them in the jungle, he acquired topographic maps and printed them on paper. He did everything imaginable - crossed every “t” and dotted every “i”. Eric followed the rule of “prior proper planning prevents piss-poor performance”. Everything was set; it was to be a perfectly planned trip. Perfect, until we arrived in Belize.
Above: Team coordinator Eric Deister packs into the Belize National Forest in search of monster cave.
Below: Cave explorer, Curt Bowen traverses some boulders outside a large Belize cave.
Those expensive and badly needed maps? They were left in the Tampa airport. That’s OK, we can wing it; we can read the landscape and read karst. One more thing though, he also forgot tanks, weights and cattle dip (we use cattle dip to repel ticks). As Curt and the rest of us chuckled at the minor issues, Eric felt incredibly stressed. This was just part of it and I don’t think being on a perfectly planned expedition would be that fun, anyway. A quick trip to a local hardware store for a few pounds of steel chain easily mitigated the lack of tank weights issue. However, not having cattle dip is a crime worthy of capitol punishment. Although not being as angry as the jungles of the Dominican or Yucatan, the jungles of Belize have other ways of working the explorer over. In these jungles, we encountered some of the toughest ticks any of us had have ever run across. A day wasn’t complete without tweezing ticks out of someone’s back or arm or leg. We all should have known what to expect since, in Mayan, the name of our hotel means “place of the ticks”!
Our team composed of Josh Bernstein, Curt Bowen, Jon Bojar, Eric Diester, and myself; all veteran explorers and all eager to explore a new country. We started the trip by visiting a tourist cave known as ATM Cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal). Visiting a tourist cave gave us the ability to read the topography and karst during our 1-hour drive from our base of Cahal Pech Village Resort in San Ignacio, Cayo District. After a 1-mile walk, with 3 river crossings, we arrived at the gorgeous ravine entrance to the cave. Upon seeing this entrance, and after what we had already seen driving and hiking, we were all already impressed; this trip would be productive. ATM Cave is a ravine system replete with beautiful formations, Mayan pottery and skeletons and set the stage for what we would find and explore in Belize–MONSTER CAVES!
Above: Human remains located several hundred yards back into a cave. A calcite material has covered the bones over the centuries.
Below: Cave explorer, Walter Pickel stands on a rock ledge above a massive river cave entrance.
A few points of caving and cave diving in Belize are worth noting: you will be required to have a guide or you will get black-balled by all guides and you need a permit from the Belizean government to do exploration. Again, both are critical to a successful caving or cave diving trip to Belize.
We made quick friends in a country where English is the primary spoken language. A geographical oddity, but a welcome relief to those of us for whose Spanish is about on par with a newborn. That being said, quite a bit of Creole, Chinese and Mayan were heard as well. Since English is spoken by most, or at least everyone we encountered, traveling in Belize is less challenging when needing to explain what a rack is to a customs official or trying to describe what types of cave entrances and karst features we look to find. Another oddity was the sizeable population of Mennonites. Imagine the team’s disbelief in seeing horse-drawn buggies in the jungle. It didn’t take too long to realize that Belize is a unique amalgamation of people, languages and cultures, all living happily side-by-side in a land of beautiful caves.
Above: Large ceramic pottery pieces found inside the cave along with the human remains.
Below: Cave explorer Eric Deister poses in one of the dozen giant cave systems we explored during our expedition. (click to enlarge)
Caves uniquely intertwine into the history and culture of Belize, as the Mayan people and their religion considered them fundamental. Caves were the portal to the world of the Gods–Xibalba. Every cave we visited showed remains of the Maya. In some caves, the floors of were littered with potsherds (the remains of broken pottery) from vessels used during religious ceremonies. In other caves, we found evidence of habitation with protective walls and doors that someone had built.
It was easy to see how the caves of Belize awed the Mayan people. The team visited Barton Creek Cave in one cave. The ceiling is a mere 500 feet from the river inside the cave that has carved over 3.5 miles of passage. That passage ends in a sump that begs to be pushed! In other lesser-known or previously unknown caves that we visited, the formations were bone white and staggering in proportion. The rooms in some caves rise 150 yards from the cave floor and have diameters in the several hundred-yard range.
Above: Explorer Josh Bernstein drinks water from a cut jungle vine.
Below: Over 300 feet wide and 100 feet high, this massive river cave entrance dwarfs our team member standing on the right. (click to enlarge)
Knowing that we required permits to do exploration, we spent most of our time ridge walking in the jungle and simply beating the bush. Even without trying, we would find ourselves at a small opening with a small repel of 10-15 yards. Once inside the cave, we were faced with what would be the norm–massive caves with wide rooms, tall ceilings and jaw-dropping formations!
In certain areas in the Cayo District (Caves Branch), those of you from south central Florida would feel right at home. At 1,500 feet of elevation, you would find yourself in an oak tree and pine tree sandhill area that strikingly resembles much of a Florida area that is full of caves: Withlacoochee State Forest.
At the end of a week, we had tallied 15 new caves and pits, 4,382 ticks discovered and an uncountable number of “normal” bug bites. Organized dry cave exploration in Belize has been taking place for over a half a century and many caves in Belize have been painstaking explored and mapped. However, as our scouting trip proved, there are still plenty of caves to be explored and miles and miles of line to be laid!
Below: The illusive Cockman suddenly appeared out of the blackness of the cave, crowed three times and quickly disappeared back into the shadows.