“I don’t like Brisbane,” Nug confided as we scooted south after 2 hectic days of buying our van and getting sorted when we first arrived in Australia in December. In the 3 months since arriving we had seen no reason to return. Our plans to pick up Ted compelled us to take a long weekend and give the city another chance. At the Lenny Kravitz/Cranberries concert the 1st night we caught up with a few guys that we had met several years ago in Laos. We ended up hanging with Rhys and his roomie Mick for a couple days and were treated to a fresh perspective of the city. Inevitably, discussions of our initial introductions several years ago were revisited.
We met Rhys at the airport in Vientiane, Laos. We had shared a van ride to Vang Vieng to meet up with “some of his mates”. We were all at JD’s Bar overlooking the Nam Song River and watching the full moon while enjoying some of the local specialties when we hatched a plot to “hire” motorbikes the next morning and proceed to some rumored limestone caves in the mountains. A dodgy looking local guy drew a crude map on a napkin and assured us it was worthwhile. The next morning the 4 of us left town on 3 sputtering bikes (Nug was riding behind me and holding on for dear life). We streaked down narrow paths through vast emerald colored rice fields and over streams and mud bogs. We discovered several interesting caves but the sheer darkness kept us from venturing too deeply.
We were at least 20km out of town and trailed a river down a side road towards the base of another mountain range when I whacked a massive pothole and our back tire went promptly flat. “Shit! Now what?!” There was a hut on the river and several Laotian guys who were hanging out there assured us in broken English that they could fix the tire. We settled in and after 15 minutes of talk we were told about an entrance to a “river cave” near the hut.
They pointed out one fellow as the professional spelunker. His English began and ended with, “Yes, come,” which was punctuated with a swing of his arm in a let’s go gesture. The 4 of us proceeded to the water’s edge where there were some inner tubes. We were outfitted with headlamps that were rigged to a car battery which we sported around our necks like heavy chains (I use the term headlamp liberally. They were essentially Indiglo watches attached to our foreheads.). He pointed to a tiny hole in the base of the sheer limestone cliffs and we saw that the river vanished into the crevice. A rope was fastened to a tree on the bank and disappeared into the void. The enthusiastic guide hopped on a float and motioned for us to join. We took turns squeezing through the minuscule opening and waited for our eyes to adjust. Stalagmites were everywhere and phosphorescent creatures lit up the water.
The small gap gave way to a massive chamber with a sandy beach 50 yards away on the far end where we disembarked. My light flickered and the exposed wires on the battery gave me a buzz. It was remarkable and we were the only ones there. Our guide waved his hand, “Yes, come” before squeezing into a tiny crack. The 4 of us looked at each other in dumb astonishment but obediently followed. After 45 minutes and numerous stunning chambers, I was clueless to where we were or how deep in the earth we had gone. We had squeezed underneath rock crannies that offered 12 inches of space at a maximum and wriggled like snakes for 20 yards in utter darkness. I had to draw in my gut repeatedly to squirm through some cracks. We had traversed underground rivers that were chest deep with a limestone ceiling inches above our heads. To avoid getting shocked we had to hold the batteries above the waterline. My light had flickered off several times and the darkness was entirely complete and silent.
I asked our escort with a hint of anxiety, “How much further?” The response, “Yes, come” was barely audible and he was off again. Rhys and Steve let on that they were getting nervous at this point. Claustrophobia gripped my psyche and I began getting dizzy. I wheezed, “Nug, can you breathe okay? I’m having a tough time getting oxygen.” The darkness rushed in on me from all angles and the silence was deafening. No one has any idea that we are here! I was panicking. Nug slapped my face hard. “Get it together! Take deep breaths and come on!” As we pushed on the battery shocked me yet again. 20 minutes later and we slithered beneath a gap and found ourselves back in the original chamber. It was more beautiful than I remembered. The 4 of us burst into the sunshine covered in blood, sweat, and in my case tears. Back at JD’s Bar that night we all agreed…that was one of the most stupid and amazing things we had ever done.
3 years later the 4 of us are still in agreement on this assessment as we reminisced over beers and looked out at the Brisbane River. After 4 days of catching up with the boys and getting the local low down we bid farewell and headed to the airport to get Ted. On the way Nug looked over and said, “I really like Brisbane!”