sign in a cave in Laos

26 April 2011

Modern-Day Cavewoman Explores Spectacular Caves
Modern-Day Cavewoman Explores Spectacular Caves
Liz Price, a woman unfazed by roaches or darkness, pictured in a cave in Laos. Credit: Liz Price.
Sometimes what starts off as a hobby can become an all-consuming passion – one that changes a person's life forever. Such is the case for Liz Price, an English-born former pharmacy researcher.
As a university student in her native England, Price fell in love with caving. She says it was the vast, tropical caves of Southeast Asia that truly won the top spot in her heart. Now, Price calls Malaysia home, where she explores the many caves of the region, volunteering as a guide and writing about her adventures and research for books and articles.
The caves in Southeast Asia are cathedral-sized showcases of spectacular geological architecture, but Price isn't just interested in rocks. The caverns are home to a host of creatures that might send the more faint-hearted screaming in the other direction.
For Price, the giant cockroaches, huge snakes and massive centipedes that lurk in the pitch-black are part of the allure of the caves. They are creatures deserving of respect instead of revulsion, she says. [See the cave creatures Price has met.]
We asked Price to explain what it takes to be a modern-day cavewoman, and what it is that draws her, again and again, into the darkness of the caves.
OAP: So how did you get into caving in the first place?
Liz Price: When I went to university, I was persuaded by some people from the caving club to join them for a caving weekend. I didn't enjoy the first two caves. I found them small and muddy and I came out covered in bruises. However I was persuaded to do another weekend trip, and that was when I became hooked.
It was quite a difficult trip in a river cave, but I really enjoyed the challenge, and to this day, that cave is one of my favorite English caves. River caves are always more special than dry caves, probably because they seem more alive. The sound of the water is exhilarating -- you can never be sure what is around the next corner. Even a mere cascade of water can sound like a large waterfall from a distance.
From then on, I got the caving bug. I can't define anything in particular that caused this, it is something that probably only cavers will understand! Every cave is different, and even if you go into the same cave many times, it never gets boring.

Inside a cave in Laos, the hardened rock takes on the look of gently flowing marshmallow. Credit: Liz Price.
OAP: I understand you've explored caves all over the world. Over the years, have you had any experiences that were particularly frightening?
Price: My worst experience was in England. I was doing an extreme trip which involved a very long, wet small section of a cave, where we had to crawl flat out for a long distance, with body touching both floor and ceiling. I was sent into this confined section first, as I was the smallest in the group and the others wanted to know if it was the correct way.
It was, and I got through, but whilst waiting for the larger members of the party to negotiate the tiny passage, I got extremely cold. By the time the last member had forced his way through, I was starting to get hypothermia. I got colder and colder, and by the time we had established the correct route, I just wanted to sit there forever, which is a symptom of hypothermia.
OAP: What is the strangest creature you've encountered in a cave?
Price: Because of my love of caves and also cave fauna, I don't really consider any beasties as strange! I must have considered some of the cave invertebrates to be strange when I first encountered them. But now I like them all. Even the cockroaches!
One of my most memorable encounters was meeting a porcupine head on in a passage. I was going one way and he was coming towards me, but there was a large boulder separating us and it was only as we rounded the boulder from opposite sides that we met face to face, and both retreated backwards due to the surprise!
Centipedes and cockroaches hang overhead inside a cave. Credit: Liz Price.
OAP: What is it about these creatures that intrigues you? Why do you think you're drawn to them?
Price: I've no idea why I am drawn to them. Maybe it's the fact that they live in caves, and I like caves so much! However, I admire cave fauna for its ability to survive in a pitch black environment. Bats are absolutely fascinating creatures, especially the fact that they navigate through dark caves. They are extremely useful to humans -- the fruit-eating bats help pollinate our crops, and the insect eaters feed on many insect pests. All the 'creepy crawlies' in a cave play a role in the food chain and help support the cave environment.
OAP: Has anything ever crawled on you?!
Price: Many times I've had cockroaches falling on me, running down my hair and neck, or climbing up my legs. But I just brush them off and carry on. I don't mind cave cockroaches as I consider them to be quite clean, unlike the urban ones in houses and restaurants, which crawl through dirty places. I've frequently had bat pee and poo landing on me, which isn't too pleasant.
OAP: What keeps you going back to caves?
Price: It's like asking a golfer why he keeps going back for more, or why rock climbers keep climbing cliffs. I guess it's just in my blood.
There are also many cave areas of the world which have not yet been explored. So it's quite easy to find a new cave -- a place where you are the very first person ever to tread. It is always nice know that you are the first people to enter. It's one of the few places left on the planet where you can enter virgin, unexplored territory.

Reach Andrea Mustain at . Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain.
Slide show :
The entrance to Saddan Cave, a temple cave in Myanmar.
The caves of Southeast Asia are among the largest and most spectacular in the world. From Laos to Myanmar to Vietnam, the caves entice explorers with their promise of adventure -- and plenty of surprises in the darkness.
Liz Price, an adventurer, researcher and writer based in Southeast Asia has made caving her life's work, and has spent countless hours exploring every last corner of the region's subterranean labyrinths. See some of the incredible creatures she has encountered in her explorations, from the expected (bats) to the unsettling (amazingly large insects).
These hardy creatures pass their lives in near-darkness. Survival means finding food wherever you can, and in these wild caves, the predator can become the preyed upon in the blink of a well-adapted eye.

Credit: Liz Price.
Cockroaches crawling the walls of Gomantong Cave in Malaysia.
Living up to their reputation for surviving just about anywhere, cockroaches crowd the caves in Southeast Asia. The roaches thrive with plenty of bat guano around to feed on. In turn, the roaches are preyed upon by many of their fellow cave-dwellers.
Price says she's not bothered by the many-legged critters, even when they crawl on her. "I just brush them off and carry on," she said.
A very large centipede hangs out on a cave wall. These impressive insects can feed on the swarms of cockroaches that fill the caves. But even a creature this fierce-looking isn't safe from predators. 
Dinner. A huge cave spider feasts on a centipede. It's an insect-eat-insect world in the caves, where the hunter can become the hunted.

Sleepytime. Hundreds of bats hang from the ceiling of a cave. These furry, flying mammals are fairly high up on the food chain inside the caves.
Flying in the dark. For bats, not a problem. The tiny mammals use a kind of sonar to help them navigate, sending out high-frequency sounds that bounce off their surroundings, and help the bats avoid any impediments to their flight path.
Although bats are high up the food chain in caves, they, too, fall victim to hungry neighbors. They provide a tasty treat to creatures -- big and small -- that manage to get hold of them.

A cave racer, a kind of snake, secures a meal. Price said the racer, found in many tropical caves, is one of her favorite cave dwellers.
"It's non-venomous, and a very placid snake. Only on two occasions have I seen an angry cave racer, and I am sure there was a reason for that -- maybe it was guarding eggs or young, or it was simply hungry!"
The snakes are constrictors and swallow their prey whole.

The circle of life. Cockroaches can make a meal out of almost anything, including any unlucky bats that fall to the cave floor. These roaches are feeding on a dead bat in Gomantong Cave in Malaysia.

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