Hunting albino cockroaches in the caves of Chiang Rai with Fred Stone

I am digging deep into my memory to write up a few things in preparation for the memorial of my dad, Dr. Fred Stone. This will be a continuing series.

It was 1984, and the late afternoon rain poured around us. We were sitting in a guest house in Chiang Rai because my dad, Fred Stone (not yet Dr. Stone), had heard rumor of a possible fertile population of albino cave cockroaches deep in the limestone backbone of the northern Thai mountains.

But the rain (which, in 2018, has proved to be a dangerous hazard to the caves in this region) had stymied us on the first day of our trip. Until the rain stopped, however, there was something important dad had to do: teach me how to swallow my malaria pill.

The people sitting around the packed-earth ground floor of the stilted guest house were friendly, and gave us advice. “Give her sugarcane juice to help it go down,” a woman suggested. She poured a glass of pale juice and put it in front of me, and I remember that the sweetness of the warm drink (we refused ice because of potential dysentery) turned my stomach even as the bitterness of the malaria pill rasped my throat.

“Don’t even think it’s there. Just take a big gulp of the drink and wash it down,” dad urged.

I did, and the pill stuck in my throat. Again, and the bitterness began to make my eyes tear up as it dissolved against my tongue. One more time, and it finally burned a streak down my throat. Great, I thought, one pill down, thirteen days to go.

“Good. It’s important that you take the pill, or you couldn’t go into the cave with us!”

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We spent a long afternoon in the simple wooden room of the guest house, on our beds with the mosquito netting pulled tight. I drew and read CS Lewis (dad bought me the boxed set before the trip), and listened to the loud susurrus of the rain and insects beyond the unshuttered windows. Dad wrote his field notes, and spent time sketching insects carefully on the gridded pages. At night, we went into the town of Chiang Rai for dinner. At an outside cafe, for a handful of baht, I had a bowl of guay tiew with peanuts and sugar and pepper, but said a polite no to the sugarcane juice.

By the next day the rain stopped, and we took the rented Land Rover up into the hills, through narrow roads to the base of the cave. It was a temple: the exterior had been furnished with a set of steps that wound up into the hill, and a seated Buddha sat beside the entrance.

We got ready on a bench outside the entrance as tourists passed us curiously, a theme that would repeat often in my journeys with dad.

He filled my lamp with carbide, and pressed his palm against the flint to strike the flame.

So many years later, the smell still remains in my memory — the wet loam of the Thai forests, the jasmine of the incense, and the earthy sharpness of the carbide after the lamp was slid into place on my small helmet.

“Here’s your extra flashlight,” dad said. “Have batteries?”

“Yep, in my pocket.”

“Strap on your knee pads.”

“Okay.”

“Hang this aspirator around your neck.”

“Okay.”

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And with that, we walked past the tourist entrance and eased around a hidden corner to enter the rest of the cave.

There was always a moment of adjustment for my eyes, watching my dad’s back recede into the distance, shadowed by the flame of his lamp. It cast the phosphorescent minerals of the limestone into a pale green light, and I watched dad’s back carefully to see where I had to bend, duck, and avoid the downward thrust of the delicate stalactites.

Dad had already taught me to respect the ecology of the caves. “It took millions of years for this to form — pay attention so that you don’t break anything,” he warned me. “And take out everything you bring in.”

And so I did, using the caving walk that was already second nature by age 11: glancing down at my feet, up at the ceiling, to either side, and at my dad, cautiously reaching forward toe-first.

When the cave narrowed down to a sump, he crouched down to get to his knees. “If I fit, you’ll fit,” he said, and got on his belly to commence the crawl.

There was a length of passage that was a belly crawl to get to where the cavern opened up again, to where the insects thrived in the poorly oxygenated inner room. Belly crawling was all about going carefully, making sure I didn’t scratch up my back, elbows, or knees while creeping forward through the close-pressing rock on all sides of me.

Toward the end of the crawl, watching dad scramble to his knees, I began to hear noise in the distance. It was a soft patter and flap and thump, the sound of invisible wings. The sump opened up enough that we crawled, and then stood to enter the large inner chamber. There was a pile of rocks in the center of it, but dad headed to the walls.

The smell was ripe in there, and when I turned my gaze to the ceiling, a shape slid into the darkness at the edge of my sight — bats. The floor was an inch deep in guano, and the smell affirmed it. I began to feel a bit lightheaded.

“Make sure you sit if you feel dizzy,” dad said. “The oxygen is low in here.”

He headed to the wall, looking carefully in the guano for his prizes. I went and sat on the rock, and watched the bats flap in and out of the edges of the soft light of the lamps.

Then, dad paused and ducked swiftly, aspirator between his teeth, one end of the tube downward — a second later he said, “Got one, a female. Looks entirely pale with antennae three times longer than the body. Mature.”

By then, I’d learned the difference between male, female, and immature cave cockroaches (and crickets, too) — from their size, and the absence or presence of an ovapositor.

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On that trip, my dad collected fifteen samples, all noted carefully in his spidery block print in field notebooks. After my dizziness passed, I went to the wall to try to help him catch insects too — but I never quite had the reflexes, and the heavy thump of my heels warned them to run away.

How long did we spend in that cave, in that room? Hours, probably. Long enough that I got sleepy and a little bored in the thin air.

As soon as we got back to the guest house that afternoon, I headed to the bathroom to wash off the scent of bat guano from my feet, and the mud from the rest of me. The bathroom was a simple tiled place with a drain in the floor, and an enormous vat of rain water for washing. The top of it had the larvae of mosquitos swimming in it, so I skimmed those off with the bowl, and then used the bowl to pour the water over myself.

The water felt cool and clean in the heat of the rainy season, and I remember thinking with satisfaction, “We had a good day! We caught fifteen bugs!”

With thanks to the people whose photos I borrowed from the internet. 

4 thoughts on “Hunting albino cockroaches in the caves of Chiang Rai with Fred Stone”

  1. This was really lovely. I look forward to reading more of these entries and learning more about your time with your Dad. ❤

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