By ADM staff and team member Rusty Farst
Photography by Curt Bowen
Explorer Eric Osking illuminates ancient Maya human remains discovered in the Chamber of Sacred Waters
Mayan mountains are what the local villagers call the enormous undis- turbed piles of stone. In reality, they are ruined cities, forgotten in time, overtaken by a thousand years of jungle growth. A Maya culture thrived in this location a thousand years ago, with raised roads, market places, houses, and religious temples. The fall of the ancient Maya brought abandoned cities left forgotten by man and reclaimed by nature.

Traveling deeper into the Yucatan’s inner jungles, a hundred miles from the tourist cities located on the eastern Riviera coast are where our team of eager cave explorers ventured. Far from the easy tourist caves of Quintana Roo, we seek new unexplored territories containing centuries old ruins, adventure, and submerged caverns no man has ever explored before.

Organizing a team of eight divers, vehicles, climbing equipment, food, an acceptable base camp along with proper government permits for exploration in the Yucatan can become a logistical nightmare. But having traveled and explored in the Yucatan since the beginning of this decade, team coordinator and leader Curt Bowen seemed to make it look as simple as booking a weekend at Disney.

Our team was based in the small Mayan village of Homun. Curt struck gold when the local priest, Padre Tibel Aaron May invited us to make our base camp in a section of his church. Ten foot thick walls and 30 foot arched cathedral ceilings all constructed of cut stone and laid by hand over 350 years ago, a construction marvel of its own.

Our team had several objectives during the ten-day expedition. Explore and document with video and photography as many new cenotes and caves as possible. Documentation included, recording GPS locations, maximum depths, size and shape, going passages, biology, pollution, and archeological discoveries. All of this data is then compiled and turned over to the Yucatan Ecology Department who adds it to their ever-growing list of cenotes.
It has been 18 months since I accompanied the last expedition to this area. My memories of the discoveries we made then, fueled my enthusiasm. I felt sure there were many more discoveries to be made to the east and southeast of Homun. Each morning at 0530 hours, before the sun even cracked the horizon, our Gestapo leader, Adolf Bowen in his gruff voice and right eyebrow raised would begin the daily barking of orders. “Get your butts out of bed, daylights wasting” or “You can sleep when you’re dead,” echoed throughout the church halls. I think even the lonely church mouse, which could be easily seen nibbling at our food supplies stood to attention, ready to explore.

Packing the vehicles with the days food supplies of breakfast bars, fruit, a jar of peanut butter and bread along with each persons dive equipment, climbing ropes, and ten scuba cylinders filled with the only mixed gas available, EAN21 or air as it used to be known.

Our guide Elmer, a man in his middle to late 60’s has lived in the area of Homun his entire life, and it was his job to build and fix all of the local farmers’ water pumps. Since these pumps were placed at the openings of cenotes, Elmer was justifiably the local cenote expert by trade.
Below: Professor Thomas Iliffe poses within newly discovered crystal clear aqua caverns
Right: The Chamber of Sacred Waters reveals three-foot tall Mayan pottery laying undisturbed for over a millennium

As the days of exploration accumulated, so did the list of newly explored cenotes, but not without a price to the health of the team members. The Yucatan holds many unique animals and plants that I am sure are placed on earth to irritate and cause pain to visiting white “gringo” explorers. In past expeditions, we have been plagued by swarming mosquitoes, biting horse flies, poisonous burning plants called Pica Pica, thorny trees, and the ever burning heat of the sun. Picking the cooler month of January and the Yucatan’s dry season, we assumed we would miss these past plagues. What we didn’t know about were the swarms of freckle-sized ticks that thrive during the cool dry season. By day three, each explorer proudly showed off their hundreds of tick bites during the evening scrub down. All respect is lost for yourself when you agree to pick ticks off and wash your buddies back if he agrees to do the same for you. On day four, we were able to locate a bar of dog flea and tick soap at a local pharmacy. The church might have smelled like a dog grooming boutique, but the tick problem was solved.

Our team consisted of eight explorers, each with their own special talents and personal idiosyncrasies. Curt Bowen, team coordinator and owner of this magazine was kept busy making sure all activities ran smoothly along with being extremely anal about rope safety, knots, and anchor configurations. Any stupid question was quickly answered with no words, just by how high his right eyebrow would raise as he peered over his glasses in your direction. Brett Hemphill, veteran explorer was noted as the teams “Go Man.” Any little hole that looked uninviting because of its small size or possibility of being infested with some type of undesirable critter, Brett was quickly called upon. “Brett you’re up!” could be heard on many occasions echoing throughout the thick jungle. Within minutes, the appearance of the long, bushy haired, always smiling face of Brett Hemphill would dart by and seem to slip effortlessly into whatever insane hole that the rest of the team was to chicken to crawl into. Minutes later he would magically appear with news of massive tunnel, always bigger then he has ever seen before.

Eric Osking, new to this type of exploration cautiously watched and questioned most of Curt’s knots, anchors, and rope techniques. Of course, Curt fueled his concerns by his typical softly spoken comments such as, “I think that small tree I tied to will hold? or “I’m not really comfortable with that knot, but it’s OK because you’re on the rope.”
Above Left: Triple well shafts are the only entrance into the deep caves of Cenote San Mogel
Left: Explorer James Kelderman rappels into the enormous cavern of Cenote San Mogel
The climax for the Yucatan 2005 expedition was the discovery of the Chamber of Sacred Waters. An extraordinary cenote of beauty, fascination, and archeological significance exposed its secrets of human tragedy, Mayan history, and mid 1800’s military revolution.

Left: Explorer Eric Osking examines a flintlock long rifle used during the Mexican revolutionary war. Uninterrupted for over 150 years, this flintlock rifle still appears to be in decent shape.

Thaddius Bedford ascends out of a farmers well shaft that connects to an underground chamber
Texas A&M professor Thomas Iliffe descends down a well shaft and into a large subterranean chamber.
Rusty Farst prepares for an exploration dive with his video equipment.
One of the most magnificently decorated cenotes ever discovered in the state of the Yucatan (see left illustration) revealed itself for the first time to Explorer Brett Hemphill. Squeezing through a small hole he dropped through the roof of an immense crystal clear chamber filled with enormous stalactites and the Yucatan’s largest standing stalagmite measuring over 15 feet in diameter and standing over 40 feet tall. After exploring the depths of the Cenote, we discovered that we were not the first human to dive into its depths. A misfortunate Mayan, probably attempting to raise water from the small entrance must have slipped and fallen to their death. His/her complete skeleton was discovered laying half buried in white calcite at a depth of 120 feet. (see above photo)

Professor Thomas Iliffe, one of the worlds leading cave biologists and 25-year veteran explorer provided the team with enormous credentials. Tom could be seen darting around in the darkness of the newly discovered caves either pulling around his miniature minnow net or hand-capturing pinhead sized critters in small white-capped bottles. He seemed overly excited after several dives as he hunched over his newly captured monsters. A few times I swore I could hear him mumbling the words, “my precious.”

Thaddius Bedford, a Great Lakes wreck explorer, photographer, and videographer joined the team with his sidekick, Eric Hubschnieder. Thad, as we called him, kept his eyes pealed for new video angles and photography ideas.
His camera lens was always in someone’s face as they prepared their gear, rappelled down well shafts, or relieved themselves on the closest thorn bush. Eric Hubschnieder, photographer assistant for Thaddius and expert rock climber quickly became the, “I don’t think that hole goes anyplace but lets send down Eric just to make sure.” He was given the most bee stings (36) of the expedition award when he stuck his foot into a hornet’s nest. If only you could have seen Curt, Eric Osking, and James yank his butt out of that hole; good thing he only weighs about 135 pounds.

James Kelderman, explorer returned on his second Yucatan expedition. Obviously the torture he endured on the last trip was not enough. Thin and agile, James quickly became a master on rope making the heavier guys look somewhat pathetic.
During the ten-day expedition, the team was able to explore and document 32 new cave systems. We were chased away from several still unexplored systems by swarms of killer bees; seems they like to build their VW bug sized nests in the cenote walls. Several of the cenotes explored contained archeological discoveries of importance from broken pottery shards, full pottery, stone walls, ancient Mayan human remains, and Mexican revolutionary war weapons. All of these sites have been noted, closed to further exploration, and reported to the appropriate authorities. Landowner relationships must be respected along with written approval from each municipal president for exploration in his/her county.

Preparations for Yucatan Fall 2005 are underway for another 10 days of discovery. A few slots will remain open for new, qualified explorers to join the team. Virgin cave, along with pain and suffering are guaranteed.

Note: The disturbance of any archeological artifact, no matter its significance or size is strictly forbidden by the Mexican government and punishable by imprisonment. Proper permits are required for exploration in the state of the Yucatan.
Right: Wadding through half water-filled cave passage, our team discovers a chamber of colorful limestone and a pool of cobalt water
Above: Explorer Brett Hemphill squeezes through a tight restriction entrance and drops 50 feet into an immense dome covered chamber (see left illustration)
Above: Explorer Curt Bowen drops into a dry cenote with his photography equipment.
Below: Yucatan 2005 Team Photograph

Dr. Thomas Iliffe • Thaddius Bedford, • Enrique Soberanes
Eric Osking • Rusty Farst • Brett Hemphill • Curt Bowen • Eric Hubschnieder • James Kelderman