Claustrophobia in the Cango Caves


I’m claustrophobic. It’s not that I just get uncomfortable in tight spaces – my breathing gets heavy, the mind turns foggy and I start to panic. The world quickly blends out and all that is left is a dark abyss of fear. If you ever had a panic attack I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

Cango Caves
Cango Caves
Cango Caves
Cango Caves

It’s a condition I inherited from my mom, and I entirely blame her for it (sorry mom). Recently they found out that your lifestyle can affect the gene activity of your future children – it’s called epigenetics. One of the things that gets passed on the most are phobias. So I guess that my grand-grand-grand-grandfather was once trapped under a pile of rubble while trying to escape a pack of wolves, and because of that I now can’t sleep in a bunk bed. It also means that I am probably going to pass on this spiral of irrational fear to my unfortunate offspring. If that is not a good reason to get rid your phobias, I don’t know what is.

Nikki at Cango Caves
Cango Caves
Cango Caves
Cango Caves
Cango Caves
Nikki at Cango Caves

So we decided to do some “adventure” caving in the Cango caves in Africa. It was only slightly more expensive than the non-adventure version and it seemed like a good opportunity for me to face some of those demons. We started off in a huge and very impressive limestone chamber – high ceilings, relatively fresh air – all good! From there on the chambers got progressively smaller, but I was still doing fine. Maybe a bit uncomfortable, but very manageable. And then we reached the “Lovers tunnel” - an approximately 10 meters long passageway that you have to squeeze through sideways. That’s when I had my first moment. Heavy breathing, confusion. Nikki was right behind me and she noticed what was happening. But the exit was not too far and I managed to get into the next chamber before the wave of fear became really threatening.

Cango Caves
Nikki Cango Caves
Nikki Cango Caves

From here on out the space was getting progressively tighter and the ceiling was usually not higher than a meter. It was not a place I wanted to be, but I was still confident that I can ride it out. And then came the “Devil’s chimney” – a vertical chimney of approximately 5 meters height that you have to twist around in order to fit through. I believe the most narrow spot was 27cm. The tour leader picked me to go first, I must had struck him as the outdoorsy confident type. What a lack of judgment. I crawled up and had look at the way ahead – I couldn’t see where it was going, just unbelievably tight and dark space deep under the earth. I was terrified. I started to crawl but didn’t get far. Panic. I couldn’t bend my knees, couldn’t breathe, total lockdown. The guide thought I was just stuck so he was trying to tell me where to search for hand and foot holds but I wasn’t listening. I started my routine again – close your mouth, breathe through your nose, concentrate on the next step, keep the mind busy. It probably didn’t take me more than a couple of minutes to get out but I was drenched in sweat. Irrational or not, I’m not doing that again.

Sorry future kids, I’ll leave some money aside for counselling.