I hadn’t suspected the otherworldly limestone Karst country we’d crossed en route from the Visitor Centre to the Cutta Cutta Caves entrance to be a portal to a parallel universe.
But had we inadvertently stumbled into a casting call for a bad B-grade movie?
For now, waiting for our guide at the stairs leading down to the locked entry gate were an older couple (not us!!!) hung about with a ballast of camera equipment; a bickering honeymoon couple resplendent in ‘resort’ gear; two tanned and muscular young men travelling together in some ambiguous capacity; a young family with two hyperactive sons; and us.
Or was this demographically diverse group tailor made for the kind of film where an unknown threat would pick us off one by one??
I could imagine the story-board now. ‘What terrors await this eclectic ensemble of offbeat characters as they’re led into the bowels of an unlit cave by a guide who holds the only key …’
Maybe I was just being paranoid. Or ‘going troppo’ as they say in northern Australia’s Top End!
But then we met our guide.
Materialising through the shimmering heat waves of the limestone formations between the Visitor Centre and the cave entrance, Nathan* – complete with an increasingly macabre dry wit – was a gift from B-grade schlock-horror central casting.
Brandishing an oversized key, he unlocked the gate and led us through. Then, with a clang, it slammed shut behind us and he padlocked the steel mesh frame securely, gesturing us down into the gloom below.
Padlocked? What could we possibly need protection from down there??
As we descended into the depths, ducking to avoid being knocked out on the sometimes low roof, Nathan entertained us by pointing out potential catastrophes along the narrow track that wound between the sometimes spectacular limestone formations, stalactites and stalagmites.
‘It’s only two metres to the surface at this point,’ he stated, pointing up to the rocky cave ceiling. ‘So the roof could cave in on top of us,’ he continued, pausing for effect. ‘But not today!’
How did he know?!
But the plot was starting to sound horribly familiar. I think I knew how this story ended – and it didn’t end well for me.
The Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park, a popular Katherine attraction and billed as the Northern Territory’s ONLY publicly accessible tropical limestone cave, is a mere 27 km out of town. However, it generally takes second billing to the far better known Nitmiluk National Park, aka Katherine Gorge.
During the Australian winter when it’s peak tourist season in the Northern Territory, Park rangers conduct regular tours through the caves. Arriving without a booking, we’d lucked out – or so we thought – by being assigned to Nathan’s tour.
He was certainly holding our interest with his ghoulish wisecracks. So much so I’d forgotten to watch for the rare ghost and horseshoe bats found in the caves. I hadn’t forgotten about the brown tree snakes, however, despite their ‘harmless’ status. But so far they hadn’t shown themselves. Result!
A little further along Nathan told us how early in the 1990’s the non-indigenous stockman who found the caves while searching for missing stock named them ‘Smith’s Caves’ – after … wait for it … himself! Who would have thought?
A death-trap for wandering creatures who fell through the roof to become trapped in the caverns below, the cave now held a different kind of prey captive.
‘Who knows what might fall through next?’ Nathan wondered aloud, exaggeratedly glancing above to the cracked roof followed by anxious glances from the group. If nothing else, his macabre machinations was proving a fairly effective cure for hyperactivity as the children fell silent at last.
We admired the glittering limestone before nearing the end of the accessible part of the caves. How trustingly we’d let Nathan lure guide us into the cave! Now he had total control of the light switch. AND the only torch!
‘I’m going to turn out the lights to let you experience total darkness,’ Nathan said as he flipped the switch, plunging us into an all-enveloping blackness so deep and intense my skin seemed to be absorbing it.
‘Did you know that people can go mad after half an hour in complete darkness to which your eyes will NEVER adjust?’ Nathan’s voice spoke helpfully into the void. I felt a restless stirring in the group.
‘Because you start thinking about falling into a deeper hole.’ He paused to let the idea take hold.
‘Or about the snakes, spiders and bats.’ Pause. Was that something touching my foot?? My eyes tried again – and again failed – to adapt to the all-consuming blackness.
‘Or that perhaps you’ll never get out.’ Longer pause. That B-grade film plot now on endless replay through my mind was starting to seem a bit more realistic. And not just to me! Around me, the complete darkness filled with total silence.
I smacked down the ‘what if’ thoughts I was starting to have. How embarrassing would it be to be the first to go completely mad in the darkness? After only a few minutes??
Although aware of them, the caves apparently had no cultural significance for the local Indigenous people, the Jarwoyn and played no part in their rituals. But maybe that’s because this ghoulish grotto had gotten old real quick. It can’t have been any fun underground in pitch blackness with no electricity.
I now knew exactly what that felt like. But I wasn’t going to be the first to call out for the lights. The lights that may never come …
More time passed.
Then, without warning Nathan switched the lights back on, leaving a startled group exchanging sheepish glances with each other. He directed us back along the path towards the entrance, bringing up the rear as I stopped to take photos.
‘Has anyone ever freaked out in the total darkness?’ I asked.
‘No, but the lights failed once and I couldn’t switch them back on,’ he laughed – perhaps a little TOO readily. ‘And another time a lady got the giggles.’
Yes, all too sadly, I could appreciate that fine line between laughter and hysterics …
‘I think she appreciated my sense of humour,’ said Nathan.
But as my (of course) unwarranted fears vanished in the cold, hard, natural light of day, I too was left with an abiding appreciation of Nathan’s dark arts. His unique and refreshing departure from the usual – and sometimes dreary – delivery of facts and information made a memorable experience that only extreme age and/or an attack of amnesia could make me forget!
And as we returned along the path to the Visitor Centre, I enjoyed a cruel laugh as the next victims tour group picked its way through the Karst to keep their date with the Ghoulish Guide of Cutta Cutta Caves!
* Nathan – not his real name