cavers

It’s not surprising it was British cavers who found the trapped Thai boys – they lead the world in the sport

Surely it was a miracle? Twelve Thai boys found alive in a pitch-black underground cave complex. Perhaps it is surprising that they were discovered after nine days, but the nationality of the men who found them is not: they were British. It may take a South African like me to point this out, but the Brits lead the world in caving.

Let’s start with the facts. Brits have helped discover some of the world’s most impressive caves – the Dragon’s Breath in Namibia, for example, was found in 1986 and contains the world’s largest subterranean, non-glacial lake. Even when a cave is first sighted by another nationality, Brits are often first on the scene. In Uzbekistan, the Dark Star cave (widely considered to be the world’s underground Everest) was discovered by Russians but first reached by Brits, who started exploring there in 1990.

Having emerged first as a scientific pursuit, caving as a sport started in Britain in the late 1800s, with the first caving clubs forming in the 1920s and 30s. The Cave Rescue Organisation in Yorkshire, formed in 1935, was the first of its kind in the world – since then, the development of specialist equipment and techniques have allowed cavers to explore deeper into more difficult cave systems. This has in turn enabled more advanced and sophisticated rescue operations to take place – such as the one in Thailand.

The UK has some excellent caves of its own: from the non-adventure ones such as the tourist caverns of Cheddar Gorge in Somerset to breathtaking wonders like Alum Pot in Yorkshire, with its sky-lit waterfalls, incredible plant life and wreathing mist. One underground passage in Yorkshire has been known since the late 1970s as Dead Man’s Handshake after one cave diver left his companion for dead, trapped on the other side of a rock crevice, after shaking his hand through a gap in the rock. Luckily both cavers survived, and it is now customary practice when caving there to shake your dive partner’s hand through the same hole.

This tradition sums up another reason why Brits excel at spelunking: it takes an odd mix of heroism, eccentricity and a taste for adventure to put yourself through it all.

Possibly one of the most heart-stopping moments of my life was being invited on a cave dig in the Yorkshire Moors. It involved crawling, head to toe, through a rabbit-sized hole on a snowy hill. We lay, squeezed on all sides by muddy earth, waiting for the next excavated rock to be passed down our bodies in a wriggling motion, until our feet could push it along to the next person.

When the cave leader finally broke through the rock obstruction to an undiscovered underground stream, the sound of his voice echoing in the larger chamber ahead, and that of the rushing water, was as extraordinary as the view from the top of any mountain that I have climbed. It was a complete voyage of discovery into an unknown: a very dangerous world set right beneath the sheep grazing on the Yorkshire Moors.

On another expedition I was on, someone fell three metres through a hole and ripped their leg open. It took eight hours of slow-moving rescue tactics led by a competent and very calm British caver to evacuate the injured person.

British cavers may be eccentric, but they have nerves of steel. Those 12 Thai boys are luckier than they know.