4 of the most spectacular underground experiences

One of the main benefits of luxury travel, I have long believed, is that it affords us the opportunity to explore the most unusual, fascinating and unique aspects of our own planet. I love to discover new places and new perspectives, unearth forgotten worlds and embrace the unfamiliar. Although realistically there are few frontiers left in the world the most valuable possession we return with from our travels is our memories and to step out of our comfort zones and away from the norm can often lead us to our most outstanding and treasured reminiscences.

A part of the world often overlooked by tourists, quite literally, is that which exists beneath our feet. Although we as people spend a lot of time gazing at the stars the earth below us is very much the key to not only understanding our own history but that of our planet. The tunnels and caves, caverns and labyrinths that riddle and meander underneath us offer some of the most spectacular scenery and fascinating historical and cultural insights, a rival in my opinion to any lofty view or grand panorama.

An increasingly popular underground tourist destination is the Waitomo Caves in the North Island of New Zealand. Located on the western coast, only two and a half hours away from Auckland these limestone caves formed over 30 million years ago are today a major draw for international travellers and locals alike. A particularly unique feature of the cave system is how they are actually navigated, with an underground stream running extensively throughout the network tourists are invited on a ‘black water rafting tour’ in which you sit aloft an inflatable inner tube and are gently pitched along by the current of the water. Lay back as a bizarre starry sky unfurls before you, an ethereal green/yellow light producing one of the most striking displays you will ever see. This phenomenon simply comes down to biology as the roof and walls of the cave are covered in thousands of glow worms, (actually beetles) that naturally generate this spectacular light show.

For thousands of years caves have functioned as that most primal sanctuary for humans, a shelter from the storm or a refuge in times of war. Two such fascinating examples of man embracing and expanding upon this ancient tradition can be seen in the neighbouring South East Asian nations of Vietnam and Laos. The Pathet Lao Caves and the Cu Chi tunnels both functioned in their own right has hideouts and bases of operations during the Vietnamese and Laotian Wars. These extensive tunnels featured a host of ingenious compartments vaults and rooms that allowed soldiers to live for months at a time including kitchens, dormitories and first aid rooms powered kinetically by bicycle. Although their formation may have been born out of brutal circumstances they leave behind them today a mesmerizing insight into a time that seems so far away but in fact still lives in the memories of so many.

A world away from the lush forests of Vietnam and Laos, Coober Pedy is a small mining town in the Outback of Australia almost equidistant between Adelaide and Alice Springs. This is a community more famous for what is taken away from it than what remains; as one of the world’s largest opal mining areas, it has been awarded the nickname of ‘opal capital of the world’. The Outback can be a harsh and unforgiving landscape though and with summer temperatures that can consistently reach over 45°c the people here have come up with an ingenious way of staying cool. More and more residents of the town are giving up their ordinary ‘overland’ homes for specially designed cave domiciles hewn straight into the rock. Spending the night in an underground hotel is certainly a unique experience and you can walk around the underground church or pick up a few essentials at the underground convenience store. The more energetic traveller could enjoy a round of golf, of course played in the middle of the night to avoid high temperatures; the ball glows in the dark and there is no grass on the Coober Pedy course so a small strip of turf is carried around by players from which to tee-off.

From one underground population very much alive to another very much dead; in eighteenth Century Paris a solution to the crisis over burial practices was proposed with the use of the abandoned tunnels of one of the city’s disused minds. Within a few decades of its consecration ceremony the catacombs had become more than just a repository of bones but a sepulture rivaling any mausoleum in the world. Over 300km of tunnels are adorned with the bones of Parisian residents of which around 2km are open to the public. Today the catacombs are a popular if rather morbid tourist attraction but certainly an image that you will remember long after you leave the city.

James Bell is a Director of Turquoise Holidays.

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Comments (1)

  1. ChiTraveler says:

    You should check out ATM – Achtun Tunich Muchnal in Belize!

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