The Limestone Grottos of Vavulpane

Dimitri Fernando
The Ratnapura district, famous for its ancient tradition of gem-mining and cutting, has now become famous for a geological and natural wonder that is the limestone grotto of Vavulpane. The grotos consist of at least 12 caves of varying sizes.

This is a magnificent cavern lying isolated on the Eastern slope of the Bulutota Rakwana range, northwest of Embilipitiya. The cave is located in the Ratnapura District, in the Kolonne Korale, about 278 m (912 feet) above sea level. The caves are appropriately named; it means Cave of Bats after the 250,000 bats that inhabit it.

We parked our van at the top of the road and had a 2.5 km walk downhill as the route was not negotiable for a light van such as ours. If you wish to avoid this long hike, the only suitable vehicle is a jeep or similar four-wheel drive vehicle.

We came to Vavulpane Vidyalaya, where we met the Principal Michael Pathirana who took us along the 500m footpath to the caves. We first saw the natural spring which flows from the bowels of the earth. This spring, which is hard water, flows constantly at a velocity of 26 liters a second. The water contains the highest percentage of calcium carbonate, found in Sri Lanka, as well as iron hydroxide. This compound gives the rocks submerged in the spring, a rust orange pallor. As a result of these compounds, the water is believed to cure skin ailments and rashes of anyone who bathes in it. The scientific basis for this belief has been acknowledged by scientists who have studied the spring.

The spring flows a distance of about 100 metres, and downwards about 50 metres and falls into a hole wide enough for a man to go through, and falls in a series of three steps, about a distance of 120 feet (40 metres) and creates a spectacular subterranean waterfall within the cave. It is believed that the cave was carved, among other factors, as a result of the activity of the spring.

Pathirana told us that once, he had gone down into the hole using ropes and had seen an exquisite cave, through which one could crawl, within which could be seen, pure white stalactites and stalagmites.

We descended down the steep rock face, along natural steps, slippery and green, overgrown with rock moss, and entered the main cave. The Halwini Oya, a small stream flows into the cave, which is pitch black. You get a feeling of entering into the gates of Hades, with the river Styx flowing in as you walk in.

The main cave is about 457 metres in length, and has two similar entrances. They are 7.8 metres and 5.6 metres in breadth, and 7.5 metres and 4.2 metres in height.

We cautiously felt our way along the rock face, to avoid falling into the stream which flowed several feet below us, in the darkness which the naked eye could not pierce. All around us crawled millions and millions of cockroaches of innumerable varieties. It was fortunate that we did not have any faint-hearted people on this trip, or else things could have become quite interesting...

We had only one torch and a firebrand lit from a coconut husk, and therefore could not fully appreciate the beauty of the cave. It is advisable to take very powerful torches when visiting the caves. Rising in a dome-like shape, the main cave has a hole through which the water falls, in a soft cool curtain. There are awesome stalactites pointing downwards from the roof, these are complemented by stalagmites, which rise splinter like from the floor of the cave to meet them. Both stalactites and stalagmites are of limestone, of hues of white, cream, pink and yellow. Scientists are able to estimate the age of the caverns at 500 million years by studying these natural phenomena. Even now these are constantly in formation by the action of the stream and waterfall. Pillars and columns of precipitated calcareous substances are everywhere while high up at the left of the cave, balconies carved out of the stone, dissappear into the earth. We were told that in the stream dwell unique species of fish that are similar to eels, and can be seen even with the total absence of light. I wondered if they had some source of bioluminescence, or sonar, by which they navigated.

We jumped down a slippery slope about six feet, into the stream and then stood under the waterfall, which was an amazing experience, feeling the spray of the falling water, in the darkness of the cave. All around us we could see, by the light of our feeble torch, thousands of bats flying all around us. Often I felt the leathery wings of a bat make contact with my face, and often wondered RWhere was the radar for which bats were so famous for?S It is most advisable to do this expedition in the oldest clothes you have, not only because of the physical exertion and exposure to the elements that it involves, but also because one is exposed to the bats who do not hesitate to shower one with their waste products. There are six species of bats. Five species are insect eaters while the sixth is a fruit eater. There are no bloodsucking or vampire bats in these caves! Scientists have estimated the number of bats to be close to 250,000. Many of the smaller caves are not suitable for public visitation, not because they have been barricaded in any way, but because many are known to contain snakes. In fact, in one of these caves, a white cobra had been sighted. These snakes enter the caves, usually in the evenings to feed on the bats as they exit for their nocturnal foraging.

The caves are geological wonders not only for their interior beauty, but also by the way they are formed. The main part of the caves consist of Miocene limestone, and has formed by the action of water. This type of cave is uncommon and what is even more remarkable contains fossils of what is believed to be dinosaur like creatures. The main part of the creature's skeleton is buried within the rock, and its unlikely that further excavation will take place, as it would adversely affect the caves.

But the thing which sets apart Vavulpane from any other cave in the world is this. Along with the Miocene limestone caves, are crystallized limestone formations which have been thrust up by primeval geological activity, when the continents separated, and tectonic plates crashed together, thrusting up undersea areas above the surface.

The crystallized limestone formations, similar in composition to the Jaffna limestone, has been formed by sea creatures. This proves the exciting fact the these formations were once part of an ancient seabed. What is even more exciting is that fossils of leaves, corals, sponges and tiny sea creatures can be seen in the rock. We saw areas where the rock has become so compressed that it has metamorphosized into marble, in shades of pink and white. Unfortunately, vandals who care nothing for preserving the sanctity of such a treasure trove as this, have broken off pieces of coral, and marble, defacing what is acknowledged worldwide, as the only formation of its kind in the world. For what is unique about these formations is, not only are these ancient seabed limestone formations many miles from shore, but this is the only place in the world where Miocene and crystallized limestone formations are found in proximity to each other.

Several species of birds indigenous to Sri Lanka can be observed close to the caves.There are several rare species of indigenous lizards, insects and frogs, including one tiny variety which grows upto a maximum length of one centimetre.

Many species of tropical foliage grow in profusion above and around the caves. There is a layer of earth on the roof of the cave, about 40 feet in depth in which grow tall trees, lush vines and other flora similar to those found in the Sinharaja tropical rain forest. About two kilometres from the caves is a forest of 3000 - 4000 giant ferns and other prehistoric flora, the largest of its kind in Sri Lanka and possibly in the world.

I was privileged to experience this wonderful place, even though it involved much dirt and potential danger. This is not an experience for those who desire a cushy or comfortable trip, but for those who are willing to endure a significant amount of hardship to understand the ambience of the caves. How to get there: On reaching Ratnapura town, proceed on the Embilipitiya road upto Pallebadde junction. Turn off there and proceed along the Bulutota road about 10km and you will reach the Vavulpane Sanwardhana Mawatha. It is approximately 2km on foot from there to the Vavulpane school.

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