Thursday, 7 July 2016

Ogbaukwu Cave: When Nature goes to Play with Herself

The steady hum of waterfall welcomes us. We are in a small clearing that looks like an anteroom carved out of a wall of rock. You feel as though you are in and outdoors at the same time. Overhead, sunrays pierce through a floral roof and splash a thousand splintered sparkles on the floor before us. All around us, trees wave a surreal welcome with leafy palms. Ferns and luminous rocks glint around us with muted gazes. Before us, the waterfall sprinkles down like hailstones from heaven in ceaseless splendour; spraying silvery driblets on leaves and shrubs and on us. Under the spell of the enchanting scenery, I find use of my tongue, painting the moments in verses –

“I am he whose coming was foretold/The Prince of the wild/the naked eye of an angry god/I have come to the forest of flowers/this green canopy and floral ambience/draw me closer to the ears of the gods/here in the caves of Ogbaukwu/the waterfall welcomes me with liquid fingers/and we are inching close to the beginning of time/close to the ages/the elements enfold me like the clouds embracing the sky/this is where we are/the famous Ogbaukwu Cave in Orumba South Local Government Area/the sun is up in the sky/and everywhere/the winds/the liquid clap of the water behind me/signal the beginning of a new age in Anambra State/you are welcome/you are welcome to a new and old world/where the elements are in agreement with Time and its portents/you are welcome!”

The words had come unbidden; trampling over each other to announce what my eyes are seeing. There was no practice, no prior contemplation. I just felt like one in a new stratosphere; levitating on the wings of words. It must have been the ethereal beauty of the surrounding. It is so exotic! No camera can capture its beauty. And Ifeanyi had done just what I wanted, capturing my little rhapsody with his phone. Beside him, there is James, Chuka, Osibe, Kayode, Ogo, and Kayode’s friend from Lagos. I feel better after my little rhapsody; a spontaneous homage to the other-worldly beauty that is unfurling before us. The voice of our tour guide cuts into my momentary reverie as he tells us the legend of the caves and waterfall. Ogbankpiaka, the founder of Owerre Ezukala, the host community of the cave had gone hunting one day and found himself in this ante-room of the cave where we are standing, he recalls. While he was still marvelling at the spell of the waterfall, a young lion pounced on him from the shadows. Renowned for his bravery, the lion was no match for Ogbankpiaka who slew it with his bare hands in the anteroom. I laugh inside me at what must have been a striking local equivalence of the biblical Samson. He then wended his way to the pool of water at the base of the waterfall and drank its precious drops to slake his roaring thirst. He could have rested there by the sparkling pool but Ogbankpiaka was not easily satisfied. His courage egged him beyond the pool and its soporific fall, to nature’s own amphitheatre that towers beyond the reach of many trees. Its stone wall curves in a perfect arc to form a semi-roof that can shelter over three hundred people. Within its darkening walls, silence clings to our bodies like rain-soaked clothes. Not even the tranquilizing slush of the waterfall could disrupt the silence. You marvel at the extravagance of the art on display here; the slanting stone walls, the floral roof and the intricate interplay of light through the leaves and you smile at nature’s whimsical decision to humour herself in Ogbaukwu Cave.

The voice of the tour guide slashes through the silence as he tells us that right inside the amphitheatre, Ogbankpiaka met yet another lion. A bigger one this time. He slew it with his bare hands as usual and to this day, the amphitheatre is known as Obi agu nnukwu; den of the big lion. As it were, his battle with the big lion was his final rite of passage, the final cleansing before his triumphant entry into the palace of the gods; a royal chamber of stone with a very narrow entrance. The tour guide’s voice drips with pride at this point in the narrative. “If you look around you, you will see tunnels. There are two sealed tunnels. They are blocked with stones. We have no idea who sealed them. No one has explored those tunnels in known history. May be you will help us explore them. Perhaps there is gold there, who knows,” he says with a shrug. With a smirk of impatience, he dismisses the question on whether the mythical Ogbankpiaka had slain the lions with the aid of charms and amulets. “We were not told that he had charms or black magic. I think that if he did, the signs would have been here today. For instance, you would have made some offerings to a statue or a rock before you came in here. There would have been a relic of his aura here. As you can see, this place is natural. We eat any edible thing we see here without fear,” he answers convincingly.

We continue our journey, lining up behind the guide. The woods open up to receive us as we step out of the amphitheatre, stepping over brambles and creeping branches until we arrive before a narrow slit in the rock with jagged edges. All along, we are taking selfies and group photographs on sublime locations. Everywhere we turn, we see exquisite backdrops for exotic photographs; everything is in place with perfect lighting streaming through the floral canopy above to illuminate the subject of photography with the right shade. The entire scenery looks far beyond other-worldly, far beyond magic. It is all like an exquisite piece of surrealistic painting frozen in time!

“Bend down, please. You may hit your head on the stone above,” the guide warns as we all bow, as if in ironic submission, to enter the narrow passage into the cave. It is pitch dark inside but for a narrow strip of light filtering through what looks like a crack on the rocky wall on the far side. The light is so faint that it only succeeds in heightening the eerier feel of the cave. Our torchlights become instantly useful as the guide tells us the story of the pre-historic royal chamber. As the beam from our torches lights up the chamber, we see rock formations showing a seating arrangement with one large rock at the top and two rocks on either side, placed slightly lower, to indicate an order of seating that shows hierarchy. Then, directly opposite are other rocks laid out in a formation that suggests a general assembly. The guide explains that Ogbankpiaka presided over the assembly from the elevated rock. I shrug in wonder.

Soon, we pick up the sound of a tender splash of water from the roof of the cave down to a corner of the rocky floor. We trace the sound to a spot where the water drops make contact with the floor. “We call it the healing water,” the guide explains cupping his palms upwards for the chilly drops and drinking the sparkling liquid. He smacks his lips and exhales. I also cup my hands and drink the cool drops. I am reminded of the taste of water preserved in an earthenware pot. The team joins, everyone lapping up the water more out of curiosity than any hopes of its fabled healing.

In a striking moment that hints on epiphany, as the precious drops of Ogbaukwu water dribble down my throat, I remember the bible story of the living water that Jesus promised the Samaritan woman. I chuckle as I realise that the mythical Ogbankpiaka and his eerie assembly also drank of this ‘healing’ water and I shrug at the irony of gods that need a healing.

Credit : James Eze

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