“Where are you going, Alex?”
Alex stops to catch his breath.
“They call it the Soplao.”
Astraes, deeply impressed opens his eyes wide. Hesitating at first, he eventually declares, “I wanna go with you.”
“Only pirates can go.”
“I wanna be a pirate. I can be a pirate, I’s Cap’n Khal.”
“Cap’n Khal’s a girl,” Alex says in disgust. “‘Sides, I’m the captain. You can be my first mate.”
Astraes has a goat-like appearance. He is hairy up to his waist, with hoofed feet. Two tiny horns are barely visible within the black mop of hair that frames his face. He’s nimble like a goat, and squeezes into places Alex has more trouble getting into. An orphaned child, he struggles to explain even what he is. Some believe him to be a fawn, others a satyr, due to his new-found fondness for mead. There’s such an innocence about him, he inspires others to care for his welfare. Alex likes the power he has over his younger friend, but he’s also very protective. He’ll take the blame for the trouble they get themselves into and while he leads Astraes into all manner of worrying incidents, he will do everything to ensure he is not harmed by anyone or anything.
Astraes wears only a green woollen cape which he now gathers dramatically around him, hiding the lower part of his face.
“First Mate, at yer service!” he asserts.
Alex thrusts a wooden stick, his sword, into the air, “To the Soplao!”
Astraes looks around for a sword of his own. With a deep respect for nature, he’s unwilling to break off a branch from any of the surrounding trees. He looks instead for windfall. Finally finding a suitable stick, he brandishes it into the air. He runs after Alex, shouting, ‘To the Soplao!”
The Soplao is a series of caves located at the top of a limestone mountain. The story of the caves is a centuries old history of water and wind carving their whispers upon the barren landscape toward which the boys are marching. It is a place rarely visited, if at all. The caves hold another story, one that is told in hushed tones, so as to ensure that children do not dare to undertake the journey the pirates are now making. The hill is steep and although the rain has stopped, it leaves behind a heavy mist. Water droplets float on the fabric of their coats, until finally swallowed by the threads. Their journey is less enthusiastic, their steps slowing until they are walk uneasily side-by-side.
“Cap’n Alex, I’s heard stories about the Soplao.”
“Stories are for children,” replies the child captain sternly.
“But…. not even the growned-uppers go to the Soplao. What.. what if the stories be true?”
“Pirates ain’ afeared o’ no stories.”
“Pirates ain’ afeared o’ nuffin’,” mimics the first mate.
Their courageous words feed their stride for a short while. Astraes leaves the path from time-to-time, preferring the cover of trees. Alex plods on, paying him no mind, knowing he’ll find his way back to the path when he’s worried about losing sight of his friend.
The rain paints this silent world with a vivid palette of saturated colour. Even the cowpats look unnaturally fluorescent.
“The rain paints this silent world with a vivid palette of saturated colour.”
“I got us some pirate treasure!” calls out Astraes when his travels bring him back to the path again.
They find a rock to sit on so they can enjoy this newly found stash. It’s a variety of edible mushrooms; they both eagerly tuck in.
Alex points over the valley. The mist has cleared to highlight a stone building with a terracotta roof surrounded by a ring of silver-leafed trees.
“That be Bally Black’s house there on the top of that hillock. He has a stash of treasure too. See all them leaves on those trees, there? They’s made of silver.”
Astraes opens his eyes wide. “Woah!” he exclaims, impressed by the hoard he sees before him. “Maybes there’s silver in Soplao?”
“Silver, gold, rubies, ‘n’ diamonds, ‘n’ sapphires, ‘n’ emeralds, ‘n’…..”
“I dun fink we shud go to the Soplao.”
“We’s pirates, we does what we wants.”
“But.. but…. the forest.. it speaks.” He hesitates, “We cud wake HER if we goes there.”
Alex looks a little less brave than he did before and fails to reply as boldly. He spends time peering into the mist, he knows that Astraes has ways he doesn’t understand, and sometimes he knows it’s as well to listen.
“You are very strange boy.” He says for want of a better answer. He chews on his last mushroom carefully. Then gets up, having made a decision.
“Come on, we’re going to the top. We don’t have to go in.”
The path is less steep now. They proceed, each with his own thoughts. The vegetation is more sparse, replaced by rocky outcrops that tower over them. The mist turns to fog, adding to their foreboding. Astraes is increasingly nervous without the comfort of the forest. His fingers find his friend’s. They walk hand-in-hand as they near the top of the path.
Before them a path opens onto a wide expanse of rock, but they can’t see so well now the fog is so thick.
“I don’t see no caves.” Alex declares, looking for an excuse to return to the safety of the camp they call home.
Astraes digs deep to find courage. “Let me look, Cap’n. I got feet for the rocks.”
He disappears into the fog, leaving Alex alone with the silence of the landscape. Without a friend to give bold words too, time forgets to move. Every second lingers in the fog and each shifting movement brings new fears. He calls out, but his voice finds no more distance than his eyes.
Alex starts. So terrified does the prank make him, tears threaten to invade his eyes. He wipes them away angrily.
“Pirates dun’ cry” he mutters to himself.
Astraes feels ashamed of scaring his friend, but he knows how proud Alex is. He pretends not to notice. He stands to attention, saluting. “First Mate reporting, sir!”
Alex turns around, forcing a smile.
“Speak!” he commands.
“There be steps, Cap’n. Steps to buried treasure!”
“Then why do we wait? Lead the way!”
The Soplao is a cave system with an impressive treasure of stalactite and stalagmite formations. It is a large tourist attraction about 7 km from where I live. Like the boys, I’ve not gone into its depths to see the treasure, but the story was inspired by following a path from home (in a rain cloud), not knowing where I was going, to the top of a hill, which happened to be the site for the visitor centre. It wasn’t the easiest of climbs and it took me a couple of hours to make it to the top. I also learned (after reaching the top) the walk is considered dangerous because of the wild boar in the area. It’s a protected hunting zone. Thankfully none crossed my path.
By the time I got there, the weather worsened and the cloud got thicker, hence no photography at the summit. It was a beautiful walk despite the weather.
I intend to go up there again when the weather improves, but it is like living in a cloud forest at the moment. We’ve had one day break in the rain for well over a week now.
We also plan to go to the caves when we have visitors, so it’ll be a novelty for us all.