The Secrets of the Oehani Underwater Cave
Text and photos by Chris Simanjuntak
The trees surrounding the cave mouth resembled the Ents from The Lord of the Rings. Massive branches reaching skyward, they looked as if they were guarding the place. The constant breeze tickled the leaves, as if whispering, “This ground is sacred!” Their oversized roots crept down the contoured overhang below, spreading like arterial veins. Thinner trees gripped feebly to the edge, as if they’d only been flimsily glued on.
Enormous rocks piled underneath the overhang showed evidence of a series of landslides from hundreds of years ago. The hole was about 50 metres wide, with the upper lip towering to a height of about 15 metres. The area had been receiving plentiful rain over the past two weeks, and we were surrounded by lush greenery covering the ground and enveloping the edge of the cave mouth. I started to follow the steep path down to the pond.
Clutching my underwater camera gear, I carefully placed each foot as I made my way over the sharp rocks and slippery slag. As we went deeper and the ambient light dimmed, torches took over to light the way. After around 20 metres, I reached a small pond, three or four metres wide and a metre and a half deep, filled with clear, silt-free turquoise water. We jumped in to cool ourselves, rinsing off the sweat from preparing and carrying our gear under the midday sun.
This is Gua Oehani, a freshwater cave situated about 30 minutes’ drive from the city of Kupang, the largest town in West Timor, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. It was first explored 15 years ago by a small group of cave divers who mapped the tunnel and installed guiding lines, or the “gold line”, as cave divers call it. Since it was first discovered, only nine divers have dived Oehani, which placed me at number 10. The total penetration in the first exploration went as far as 500 metres, but the tunnel keeps on going. Water depths vary up to 15 metres, with two individual air chambers along the way before a massive water chamber at the 500-metre mark.
We donned our diving gear, tested all our lights and slowly floated at the surface into the narrowing tunnel. I was amazed by the pile of clothes at the tunnel’s mouth. Apparently, the villagers do their laundry here, which explained all the used plastic sachets of washing powder around the pond.
Daylight immediately disappeared, shifting to darkness with the first tunnel descent. Relying only on my torches, I exhaled and worked my way down, penetrating a tight crack. With strobe arms folded as compactly as possible, I pushed my camera forward, until I got to a horizontal tunnel at a depth of nine metres.
The light from my torches illuminated the passage in front of me. A guide line, fallen rocks, earthly colours, very clear water, and no signs of life. Haloclines at various depths blurred the scene, like peeking through an out-of-focus lens. The different layers created the illusion of surface ripples. Very gently, I frog-kicked deeper, taking care not to stir the fine sediment on the bottom. As soon as I paused and kept still, debris started falling as my exhalation bubbles struck the ceiling above. Occasionally, I used my index finger to cling to a rock or crack and pull my body forward.
Some moments later, the tunnel widened. As I pointed my torch up, I could see my bubbles creating surface ripples a few metres above me. We had arrived in the first air chamber. I took my dive gear off, carrying my lights, and started to climb a massive rock pile, leaving one light on and submerged, illuminating the pond behind us to mark our return path.
The plateau after the climb was amazing, with glittering materials embedded in the rocks, and impressive stalactites and stalagmites. Strange-looking serrated flaps lined the walls, like fossilised gill rakers of a giant prehistoric fish. The ground under my feet had originally been attached to the ceiling above until it collapsed many years ago, and it was certainly not a good feeling realising this fact as I stood there. Our logistical preparations didn’t allow us to continue to the next pond on the other side of the rock fall, where the tunnels would take us to the 500-metre mark. So I decided to keep my shoot to this pond only.
The 25th anniversary of the largest and longest running dive show, Asia Dive Expo (ADEX) is set to occur on the 11-14th April 2019. Centred on the theme – Plastic free Future, ADEX is more than just a dive show with its commitment to the environment. Among an exciting lineup of programs, attendees can look forward to a Future Forward Series of Panel Discussion on the Single-Use Plastic Conundrum in Asia, on 13th April.
So join us at the event, get inspired and for all you know, you might just liberate the inner diver in you! More details of the event here.