National Geographic : 2014 Jul
136 national geographic • july 2014 river, hooting as they floated by stalactites in low-hanging caverns. Ten hours to the north, Ziyun Getu He Chuandong National Park is al- ready attracting rock climbers. When we arrive from Leye and Hong Meigui, workers are drill- ing a tourist footpath into the tall walls of Yanzi Cave, named for the swallows that nest in those same walls. It leads to a new elevator. In Getu we scan what is considered to be the planet’s second largest cave chamber by area, the Miao Room, as big as 22 football fields. One day I walk with Eavis and Pani to see an entire village housed in a 600-foot-wide cave nearby. Twenty-one families inhabit roof- less bamboo homes, and they have a basketball court, a shuttered primary school—and a small but growing stream of visitors. Enough tourists every week, we are told, that officials now pay the cave dwellers to stay put rather than move to modern homes outside it. Before the drive south from Getu to our final scanning objective, Titan Chamber, American expedition member Michael Warner tries to make sense of what it is we are doing here. Ev- ery chamber we visit has been visited before, he notes, if not by cavers then by farmers—so this is not discovery. “Exploration is just documenting something for the first time,” Warner decides. “And laser scanning is the best way yet devised to document a cave.” If there is a perfect cave for the fledgling art of subterranean laser scanning, Titan is it. At the center of its massive chamber, slopes covered with rubble and pockmarked with pools creep relentlessly up to twin, 50-foot stalagmites that sit on the very peak of an underground moun- tain. Place the scanner atop the big one on the right, and you can take in almost all of Titan— about 13 acres, an area slightly larger than Hong Meigui—in a single 360-degree sweep. Past the high point there are more stalagmites, a for- mation that looks uncannily like the head of a crocodile, teeth included, and an underground lake that dries into a bed of cracked mud while we’re there. When all return to the surface, dirt-streaked and weary, a provincial official is waiting. “Is it the biggest chamber in the world?” he asks. A “yes” would change everything for the local economy. But it is not the biggest in the world. Perhaps it is in the top ten. The list by volume is still being made. The official is disappointed. “But it is one of the most beautiful cave cham- bers I have ever seen,” says Eavis. We think the expedition is done, but Eavis has a surprise for us the day before we fly home: a cruise through the karst down the Li River, Guilin’s top tourist attraction, with a stopover at a cave his team was the first to survey in 1985. He did the cruise in 1982, back when there were a few dozen riverboats. Now there can be a couple hundred a day, each of them carrying a hundred tourists, and thousands of people flood Crown Cave. The Li River is still beautiful, but Crown Cave, after Titan, is jarring. We are herded into the entrance in groups of 20, each following a guide with a microphone and cheap portable speaker who yells to make her voice heard over the cacophony of other guides. Inside, the sta- lagmites and pools are lit with gaudy green, red, and purple lights. There are paths and handrails and, in some of the chambers, trinket stands. Partway through the cave is a glass elevator. Our guide hurries us to get in line for the under- ground train, which will take us to the line for the underground boat trip, which will take us past the underground roller coaster and across the bridges over the underground river. Eavis hangs back, snapping photos of ev- erything. He was once alone in Crown Cave, mapping it, an explorer discovering hidden pas- sages. Now this. We start jogging up the steps of the path to catch up with our group. “Is this disorienting?” I ask him. “Nah,” he says, and he keeps jogging. The tourists are now pulling out cameras of their own, documenting every last corner of Crown Cave that’s visible in the artifi- cial light—an exploration of a sort. To Eavis it’s the most natural thing in the world. j For more on the ups and downs of climbers Wright, Harrington, and Segal in China, visit ngadventure.com.