Gadling Goes Underground: More Explorations Of Caves In Spain

caves in Spain
The caves in Spain are famous for their variety and extent. Some delve more than a kilometer into the ground. Others are adorned with prehistoric cave art more than 10,000 years old. Almost all have beautiful rock formations. There’s a whole other world under the one we usually see.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m taking a course on caving. My first experience was in Cañuela cave, an easy cave suitable for beginners. Last weekend we went to Coventosa in a remote valley in the Sierra de Cantabria, a tougher cave system that requires more rope work.

The first challenge is what you see in this photo. Here I am worming my way into a little tunnel that slopes down at a steep angle. As you can see I’m tied in with a pair of carabiners attached by ropes to my harness. Why? Because at the end, the tunnel opens out onto the edge of a cliff. Start sliding uncontrollably down this tunnel and you could fly right off the cliff, fall ten meters and smash into a bunch of jagged rocks.

Coventosa is an active cave with some amazing formations. Water seeping through cracks in the rock leaves mineral deposits that harden into stone. Over vast periods of time, these accumulated deposits create stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other formations. Several walls were full of shellfish fossils, evidence that the area was once underwater. Exploring caves gives you an appreciation for how incredibly old yet constantly changing our planet is.

%Gallery-183046%Normally as the water drips down it will create a stalactite hanging from the ceiling. The water hits the floor below, leaving more deposits to create a stalagmite rising from the ground. Eventually these two features will meet to form a column.

If the water is dripping more slowly, sometimes instead of a stalactite you’ll get a soda straw, which looks exactly like what it’s called. These tend to hang straight down or at a bit of an angle if the water is pushed by an air current. Some soda straws eventually turn into stalactites, while others cling to the side of existing stalactites and grow at crazy angles, with the water seemingly defying gravity. There are various theories as to how this could happen, which means that scientists really don’t know what’s going on. We still have a lot to learn about our world.

Caves are one of the last frontiers left to us for exploration. New caves are being discovered every year, and additional tunnels in existing caves are being explored regularly. Caving is pretty much the only way a regular person can discover a previously unseen part of the world.

While I’m years away from that level of skill, the caves in Spain are already giving me a taste of that feeling. How many people have been to the Beach, a stretch of sand next to an underground lake so large that it defied my attempts to photograph it? Or visited the Ghosts and the Virgin Mary, a cluster of eerie stalagmites in one of the deepest parts of Coventosa Cave?

Then there was my favorite, a low gallery with a forest of columns half submerged in water. Our lights couldn’t penetrate to the far wall. As we crouched there, one of the students asked how far it extended. The instructor said it didn’t go much further than we could see and was sealed off by a rock fall at the end. That made me wonder – what if we took away the rocks? Was there a tunnel on the other side? Where would it lead?

Passing between these sights got tricky at times. On one cliff we had to tie into the rope, get around a difficult outcropping, then secure our protection to a second rope. Going up that same route was even more difficult and a couple of us (myself included) made the rest wait as we fiddled around trying to find the best way to do it.

While caving can be physically demanding, it requires more balance and focus than pure strength. The best student in our class is a young woman who is a foot shorter than I am, who flies up and down the ropes with far more ease, and an obvious natural talent. This is a sport that any reasonably fit person can do.

Even so, by the end of the day we were all worn out. As we emerged from the cave entrance we were greeted by the deep blue sky of evening. We’d been in the cave for nine hours and the day had passed us by. Jupiter and a crescent moon shone high above the peaks. In that other world you lose track of time. Now that I’m back in the regular world with its sky and its clocks, I’m marking time again until next Saturday, when I’ll try an even more challenging cave.

[Photo by Dani]

Caving In Northern Spain

caving, Spain
After living a year in Santander in Cantabria, northern Spain, I had a problem. I was chronically, unutterably, and perhaps terminally bored. Santander is a sleepy regional town, and while weekend hikes and trips for Gadling helped ease my boredom somewhat, I was still not getting my drug of choice – a long-term, low-level adrenaline high.

There’s nothing like it. Do something captivating and somewhat perilous for a period of a few hours to a few weeks and you’ll feel more alive than any amount of booze or drugs can ever make you. My trips to Iraq and Somaliland were two of the biggest benders of my life, but they also came with a bad case of withdrawal. So, at age 43 in a town I didn’t like, I needed to find a regular adrenaline fix.

How about learning an extreme sport in a foreign language with a bunch of people half my age?

Yeah, that should work.

Cantabria is one of the best regions in Europe for caving, and luckily the Federación Cántabra de Espeleología offers annual classes. I already had some experience caving in Missouri and New Mexico, but that was 15 years ago. Plus techniques are somewhat different in Europe and technology has changed over time. So I took a beginners’ class. This is not the sort of sport where you exaggerate your ability. That could land you in serious trouble.

%Gallery-181190%The course started off with a series of lectures that provided me a long list of Spanish words I hadn’t picked up making the rounds in bars. This was followed by a practical class at an abandoned quarry. While most of my fellow students were from the local university, I was glad to see a couple of others who looked like they knew what it was like to have kids instead of just be one.

We spent all day learning to ascend and descend. Unlike rock climbing, the point isn’t to take the most challenging way up a cliff, but rather get up there as easily as possible in order to save energy for exploring the cave. You wear a harness similar to a climbing harness. For ascending, you tie into the rope with a Croll, which has a blocking device that allows you to go up the rope but stops you from moving down. Another device that locks into the rope is called a puño (fist) and has a strap with a loop that goes around your foot. The puño has a blocking device like the Croll and you move up the cliff by doing a series of one-legged deep-knee bends, worming your way up the rope like a caterpillar.

For descending you switch to an locking pulley called a Stop that allows you to safely rappel down. Switching from ascent to descent requires securing yourself with the aid of two carabiners on ropes tied to your harness and making sure you disengage and secure the equipment in the proper order.

Beginners at a sport always expend far more energy than they need to. I was no exception. Once I got to the top of the quarry wall for the first time, I started switching over from my ascending gear and securing my Stop so I could descend. Each step is safe if you do it right, because at least two devices are securing you to the rope or wall protection at any time. Despite this, my mind was still in rock climber mode and I was trying to do it all with one hand as my other hand gripped a ledge. One foot was on a good hold and the other had a halfway decent smear.

This, of course, was entirely pointless since I was properly secured through my gear. Just then one of the instructors popped his head over the cliff top.

“Why are you hanging on?” he asked.

I didn’t have an answer for him.

“Let go,” he told me.

I let go.

“Now hang there for a minute.”

OK, lesson learned. I got back to work.

“It’s easier with two hands, isn’t it?” he said.

We finished the day worn out but successful. The class all made it through the techniques without injury, even that older foreign guy who made everything more difficult for himself.

Now came the real test: Cañuela Cave in the beautiful Sierra de Cantabria. Our instructors were easy on us and picked a cave with little technical work. The entrance is like an airplane hanger, a huge hole in the hillside sloping into darkness. Not far in, the tunnel starts to narrow and the floor gives out. The only way to continue is along a rounded hump that slopes off at a steep angle to the jagged rocks below. A rope is secured along it and by tying in with the carabiners attached by short ropes to our harness we were able to traverse this pretty quickly.

Now all daylight was behind us and we started to see rock formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and more. The route opened up into echoing galleries and then narrowed down into smaller rooms. One room was nearly circular and fringed with stalactites reaching almost to the ground, making it look like a giant petrified birdcage.

A bit beyond, we had to use the Stop to descend a cliff. A second, deeper one came later. I couldn’t see the bottom from my vantage point. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m scared of heights. All through university I went rock climbing in order to conquer my fear. I never did; I only learned to ignore it and get on with what I was doing. Discovering that you can live with the source of your fear without being affected by it was the most important thing I learned in university.

I thought I may have trouble with caving, but it turned out I didn’t. At the quarry I was too busy fiddling with the new equipment to even notice. In the cave, not being able to see the bottom made going over the edge easier somehow. No, that doesn’t make any sense – phobias never do.

More wonders followed: a lone bat clinging upside down to a rock, stalactites formed at an angle because of air currents, fossils stuck into the wall. Check out the gallery for just a small selection, and stay tuned for more underground adrenaline highs. I’ll be going into more detail about the world underneath our feet and the sport that helps you explore it.

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo of yours truly wearing his helmet at a rakish angle taken by Dani “that guy in the caving class whose last name I should have learned.”]

caving, Spain

World’s Oldest Cave Art Found In Spain

Archaeologists analyzing prehistoric paintings in Spain have discovered the earliest example of cave art.

El Castillo Cave in Cantabria on Spain’s northern coast was one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites investigated for the study. The earliest dates were a minimum of 40,800 years ago for a red disk, 37,300 years for a hand stencil, and 35,600 years for a club-shaped symbol. The red disk is at least 4,000 years older than anything previously found in Europe and arguably the oldest cave art anywhere.

These early dates have sparked an interesting debate. The paintings are from the transition period between Neanderthals and the arrival of modern humans. No cave art has been firmly attributed to the Neanderthals and scholars have long debated the level of their intelligence.

Researchers used uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying art in eleven caves to determine the dates. Like radiocarbon dating, this technique measures the change in radioactive isotopes. Unlike the more common radiocarbon dating technique, however, which studies the half-life of carbon 14, this technique studies the rate of decay of uranium 234 into thorium 230, a process that happens at a precise rate. It can date calcite up to 300,000 years old.

Very thin films of calcite were sampled from just above the paintings. Being on top of the paintings, they are younger than the art, thus the paintings could be centuries older than the minimum dates given.

The results have been published in the journal Science. Meanwhile, the team is sampling more cave art in the hope of finding even earlier dates.

How To Put On A Travel Photography Exhibition

travel photography
You got back from an amazing adventure travel vacation a few weeks ago. Your friends and family have heard all your stories and seen all your photos. Now what? Instead of tucking your photos away in an album or hard drive, why not show off your travel photography to a wider audience?

I’ve run two photography exhibitions and been in several more. My first exhibition was on the painted caves of Laas Geel in Somaliland. Right now my wife and I have an exhibition up about Ethiopia. We are by no means experts but we have learned a few things from the experience. The main thing is that putting on a successful photography exhibition isn’t as hard as you might think, although it does take a fair amount of organization. Here are some things to keep in mind.

You don’t need to be a pro
Here’s the secret to getting good photos: take lots of pictures of interesting subjects and some will turn out well. Look through your collection with a critical eye and have someone who hasn’t been to these places look with you. They’ll be looking at the shots with fresh eyes like your audience will. Take your photos at the highest resolution possible, 300dpi minimum, so they will be publication quality. A good photo shop will be able to turn your hi-resolution photos into lovely prints. This won’t cost much and you can get decent frames cheaply too.

Decide on a theme and purpose
It helps to have a coherent theme: wildlife, a certain historic site, etc. We’ve focused on Ethiopia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and children, Ethiopia’s past and future. Our show benefits A Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working on rural education. Having a coherent theme helps people grasp your subject better and a charity benefit tends to attract more attention.

Pick an appropriate venue
Not being superstar photographers, we picked a local bar here in Santander, Spain, that’s a popular hangout for artists, musicians and generally liberal-minded people who would be interested in photography about Africa. Our themes fit in with the general vibe. Bar Rubicón is a Santander institution and word gets around when they host an event. Putting your prize photos up in a bar may not seem very glamorous, but over a month-long exhibition they’ll get seen by lots of people.Think out size and spacing
How many photos do you want to exhibit? What’s the lighting like in your venue? Which are the most visible walls? Think all these things through ahead of time. It helps to bring a print in the size you want to display and take a look at it within the space. In my first exhibition, I made the mistake of printing the photos too small and they looked a bit lonely hanging on a big wall.

Make a snappy poster
I’m lucky that my brother-in-law, Andrès Alonso-Herrero, is an artist. He whipped up this poster in no time. Even if you don’t have access to someone with talent, it’s not too hard to make a poster with Photoshop or PowerPoint that highlights one of your photos and gives all the necessary information.

Send out a press release
Having worked for two small newspapers, I can tell you that editors are starved for interesting local content. The regional paper El Diario Montañés gave us a nice write-up and we made it onto several “What’s On” style websites as well. Be sure to write a clear press release with all the information and attach a couple of high-resolution photos they can publish. Try to write the press release like a newspaper article. Journalists are overworked, underpaid, and many of them are quite lazy. You’ll find that much of their coverage will be simply cut and pasted from your press release. Sad to say, much of the news you read is written this way. If governments and corporations benefit from it, why shouldn’t you?

Tell everyone
Email your friends, hang up posters, do a social media blitz. Get your friends to spread the word too. Don’t be shy; you want people to see your work!

While you have their attention …
You might as well mention any other projects you have going. In the press release I mentioned I had just come out with a novel and that made it into the newspaper coverage.

Host an opening party
On opening night, be there to meet and greet. It helps to have some sort of presentation. Since people will be coming and going it’s best not to have a formal speech at a set time. I’ve found that a slideshow running on a TV hooked to your photo archive works well. It goes on a continuous loop and shows everyone the photos that didn’t make it into the exhibition.
On our opening night, many people gathered around the slideshow and I gave them a running commentary of the places shown in the pictures. It also helps to have some music. There’s no local Ethiopian band that I know of (although there’s a West African band in Santander) so the bartender compensated by putting Ethiopian music on the sound system.

Don’t expect to make much money
Unless you’re a pro showing your photos at a major gallery, you’re not going to make much. If you break even you’re doing well. The point of showing off your photos isn’t the cash but the exposure. You’ll meet plenty of cool people and have the satisfaction of knowing your photos are hanging in people’s homes. Being relative newcomers in northern Spain, our opening night made us lots of new, interesting acquaintances. We’ll take any photos left over at the end of the month and give them away as gifts or hang them in our own apartment.

Most important of all … have fun!!!

The Sex Toy Vending Machines Of Spain

vending machines
You’ve probably heard of the vending machines in Japan that sell used panties supposedly worn by schoolgirls. It appears Japan isn’t alone in having sexual vending machines in public places. Not far from my home in Santander, on Spain’s northern coast, I came across this innocuous-looking little cubbyhole. Its vending machines offer hot food, soda and snacks 24 hours a day.

It’s in between a bar district and the residential neighborhood where I live, so I popped in here one night for some potato chips to absorb some of the wine I’d drunk. It turns out I could buy more than potato chips. Further inside, out of view from the street but still completely open to the public of all ages, was a vending machine selling sex toys.

The picture is on the next page, and no, it’s not work safe (duh!).Vending Machines
Whatever entrepreneur thought this up was a genius. When you’re coming back from the bars late at night you always need something. If you’re a married guy like me, it might be something as mundane as a snack. If you’re getting lucky with someone you met on your fifteenth round of sangría, you might need some flavored condoms. If you didn’t meet the person of your dreams, you can at least cuddle up to a giant black dong for only €16.50 ($21). Just don’t forget the lube for €6.50 ($8.29) or you might wake up the next morning with more than your head hurting.

This isn’t the only dildo vending machine in Spain. A friend of mine came across one in a youth hostel where she was staying with her two little daughters. The girls saw it first because they were attracted by all the shiny colors. They asked what the dildos were and their mother, quite wisely, I thought, answered honestly and with just enough information to satisfy their curiosity. They shook their heads at the weird things adults get up to and soon forgot about it.

Spain isn’t some decadent place full of loners seeking out dirty vending machines. You can also find vending machines selling books. So far I have yet to see a vending machine that sells books and dildos. I’ll be sure to tell you if I do.