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  • Writer's pictureChris Dresser

Down the Rabbit Hole!

When Alice in Wonderland immortalised the expression “Down the rabbit hole!” it has led to mean exploring a fantastic new world of surprises and mysterious happenings.

In the early 1980's I was commissioned to make a documentary film on Speleologists – Caving to the uninitiated. The area around Johannesburg, South Africa and for some hundreds of miles north of that city, has an abundance of caves due to the huge limestone formations in the region.

My first visit to a cave took place much earlier in the 1960’s. I spent a week on a farm in the tiny nation of Swaziland between South Africa and Mozambique. The owner, Tommy Spencer, was a good friend of my parents who spent the last 30 years of their lives in Swaziland. When Tommy heard I was in the film and television industry he asked me if I knew who had previously lived on that farm. I had no idea.

“It was the writer Rider Haggard” he replied. “He wrote the novel King Solomon’s mines here. Furthermore, the underground river that is featured in the story runs under this farm.”

The following day Tommy took me caving. The entrance to the cave lay a few hundred yards from the farmhouse. Armed with strong battery powered lamps and a length of rope, we descended into the cave, which took us steadily downwards some hundreds of feet until we finally came across the underground river which ran strongly down into the valley below the farm. This was clearly part of the inspiration for Rider Haggard’s novel. Tommy also told me that it was rumoured that the cave continued for another twenty-five miles, finally emerging at the Royal Swazi burial ground. He admitted that he had never tried to make the journey, adding that the burial ground was fiercely guarded on the surface and no non-Swazis were allowed to visit it.

When I was later asked to write and produce the film on caving, I felt I had at least some idea of what lay ahead. However, the caving team we were filming were serious students of Speleology. Strangely enough, all of these cavers worked in the IT industry!

My first experience was almost my last. I was the biggest person in the team and on our first practice cave I got wedged between some rocks on my way down. I wriggled and pulled and finally broke free, heading further downwards not upwards towards the open spaces above me. Trying to hide my nervousness I continued the journey as our guides talked about caves and caving techniques. However, when it was time to return, I asked if there was perhaps another way out? Their leader looked doubtful but agreed we could go another way. He warned me that there was a narrow piece we would have to get through. Yikes, had I known!!!

The cave became smaller and smaller and finally I was crawling on my belly up to a rocky archway which forced me to put my head sideways and expel all the air from my chest in order to force my way through. And that was only the first cave!

After that it was a piece of cake, relatively speaking. It was also a magical experience with extraordinarily beautiful stalactites and stalagmites glistening in our lights. Strange spiders and other insects lived down there, as well as thousands of bats. In one cave we even swam under water into an underground stream to emerge in a stunningly beautiful cavern inaccessible any other way.

All in all, it was an incredible experience. A whole new and wondrous world unknown to most people. So that was my first rabbit hole.

Now I feel I’m heading down another and even more exciting rabbit hole. Having achieved success with writing, directing and producing short films, plus writing television drama series and theatrical feature movies, I am now launching into the tunnel that will take me along the exciting but precarious route towards seeing my novels finally reach the bookshops and on into the hands of readers. I am optimistic that the tunnel will widen out into a huge cavern where the Willjohn Trilogy can contribute towards the flow of exciting tales that abound in the vast lands of Africa.

World renowned writers like Wilbur Smith have opened reader's minds to the glorious vistas and adventure of Africa. Ironically Wilbur and I attended the same school, Michaelhouse, in KwaZulu Natal about 100 miles inland from Durban. We were even briefly at school at the same time. In 1950 he was in his final year and I was in my first. I cannot say I ever spoke to him. He was in the godlike realm of sixth formers who were preparing for university, and I was a humble "Cack" (The term for new boys at Michaelhouse and is derived from the middle English word for shit).

As you can imagine new boys were treated with the contempt that the word implied. Our duties included fagging for Prefects, mostly sixth formers as well. I was assigned to Hillary Currey, who was both Head of School and Captain of rugby. Amongst other duties like making tea and toast for the House Prefects, I would have to polish Currey's rugby boots until they shone and then he would bring them back after a match with mud and grass attached, for me to repeat the cleaning miracle ready for the next game. There were a number of advantages attached to attending South Africa's equivalent of Eton or Harrow but it's sad that they also retained a number of the vicious and demeaning traditions of a 19th century British Public School.

I finally met Wilbur Smith at a Waterstones London book signing in about 2015. It was attended by well over a hundred enthusiastic fans. He spoke amusingly about his life and work and his plans for the years ahead. Bear in mind that in 2015 Wilbur was already 83 years old and he was planning to write at least four more novels!

It certainly encouraged me to put aside any concerns about my age. Having now completed the Willjohn Trilogy I'm currently writing a biography and planning a futuristic novel around the creation of the next major paradigm shift in computing. It is a very positive story and offers hope for the dwindling spiral that our world seems to have embarked upon in recent years.

My head's emerging from the rabbit hole. I can only hope that the rest of me will appear before long!

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1 Comment

Jan 16, 2022

One thing that is missing from the blog is how did Scientology come into your life, and did it influence your career?

A great blog, and fascinating reading!

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