Where No One Should Go In the desert of northern South Africa, you come across a puddle; at the bottom, there's a slot. This is the entrance to the third-largest fresh-water cave in the world... where the adventure begins.

Where No One Should Go

Where No One Should Go

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In the desert of northern South Africa, you come across a puddle; at the bottom, there's a slot. This is the entrance to the third-largest fresh-water cave in the world... where the adventure begins.


There was absolutely no reason for me to be there on Fisher Avenue one night in Detroit just a few months ago. No reason at all. My grandmother had passed away years ago, and any neighbors I had known had long since fled. The neighborhood looked completely different. Half the working-class houses were missing - missing in that they weren't there anymore. They're just empty lots, like a pretty girl with big gaps where her teeth used to be. And searching the map of my memory, it took me a moment to be certain.

But then I was sure. There it was - leaning in on itself, tired at everything it had seen - my grandmother's house, ground central for my childhood, the place where everything went down - the forks, the candy, the dancing, the gunshots, the food, the slide in the back, the scary basement, my grandfather's cigarettes - the ruins of everything. And I stood there staring, staring at it like it meant something because it did mean something. We like to think that we've tamed our animal mind. But we, too, have instincts, things we do, things we feel compelled to do, even when we're not sure why, like a homing device. There is an urge that makes us want to go back to revisit, to remember, to recollect. Today, on SNAP JUDGMENT, from PRX and NPR, we proudly present "The Return." Amazing stories about going back. Get ready. Get ready for this one. You're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT.


WASHINGTON: We're going to start today's episode in one of the most remote places it is possible to be and still remain on the planet Earth. SNAP JUDGMENT's Julia DeWitt has the story.

JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: Out in the desert scrub lands of northern South Africa, in a place called the Karoo, there is nothing - no trees, no water for as far as you can see.

DON SHIRLEY: You're in a primeval landscape.

DEWITT: This is Don Shirley. Why he knows this place so well will become clear in a minute.

SHIRLEY: See a little rise? When he gets to the little hill, there is actually a big hollow there where the ground's collapsed. On the bottom of a very steep slope, you actually have a sheer face in front of you. And at the bottom of this sheer face is a puddle. So you think, oh, this is just a little puddle that doesn't go anywhere. But when you take the duckweed off the top, it's actually clear water.

DEWITT: Which means that this isn't just standing water. This water is filtering down to somewhere.

SHIRLEY: Maybe go into this puddle, there's a small slot that goes through which is just wide enough for a man's body to go through. After 20 foot, you're now starting to enter the cave. And gradually, the cave gets wider.

DEWITT: Down below you is 900 feet of water. This is Bushman's Cave.

SHIRLEY: It's a huge cave. Now, if you take the Eiffel Tower and stand it on the floor of the Bushman's Cave, the top of the tower would be just about coming out the water.

DEWITT: The cave is almost 1,000 feet deep and about two-and-a-half football fields wide. The only thing that lives in the pitch darkness are these strange, little, blind, white cave shrimp. Otherwise, the cave is dark, deep and dead. This cave is a dangerous place for humans. And it's basically totally inaccessible to almost all of us. But for deep water divers, this is heaven.

There are only a very few divers on the planet that have ever been anywhere near the bottom of this cave. And only about a dozen divers in the world ever dive to these kinds of depths, period. Don is one of these extreme divers. He met another one of these deep water divers, a guy named Dave Shaw, back in 2002. They were immediately friends, and a couple of years later, Don took Dave to dive Bushman's. On dive day, they got to the puddle and Dave went in first. Dave swam down to the slot and the cave opened up below him. While he was going down, he was doing something called laying a shot line. Basically, he was just leaving a trail of rope in the total darkness. This is the only way he knew how to get out of the cave.

SHIRLEY: You are in pitch black, absolute pitch black. So if you shine the light any direction, it will disappear. The darkness will eat the light. Basically, being 900 foot in a cave, you might as well be on the moon. In fact, I think more people have walked on the moon than have actually been those sort of depths in caves.

DEWITT: This sounds kind of unbelievable, but it's actually true. More people have walked on the moon than have been to the depth that Dave was diving at when he touched down on the floor of the cavern. Now, Dave was exploring on the bare floor of the cavern. There was nothing to see but his light in the black and the white rope that he dragged with him. Then, suddenly...

SHIRLEY: This torch caught the remains of Deon Dreyer.

DEWITT: No one knows exactly what happened to Deon Dreyer. But a decade earlier, Deon was diving with a team in Bushman's. When they stopped to take a headcount, Deon was gone. People had been looking for his body ever since.

SHIRLEY: He was still in his wetsuit, still wearing his cylinders - collection of bones inside a wetsuit. And at the time, he tried to move the body. But the body was stuck in the silt. He was panting, and he said, I shouldn't work hard at this depth. It wasn't in the plan. So I needed to leave the body there.

DEWITT: Deon was 19 when he was lost in Bushman's. And dying while diving is kind of like dying in the line of duty for guys like Dave and Don.

SHIRLEY: He thought of it more of a mission to actually - his task to bring this body back.

DEWITT: So when Dave came up, he told Don; he was going to come back and get Deon's body.

SHIRLEY: We phoned up Deon's parents and said, I'm going to retrieve your son's body.

DEWITT: The thing is that a dive like this is a major operation. So it took them almost a year to plan it.

SHIRLEY: You are 900 foot under the water. There's a lot of risk involved in that. Every 33 foot you go down effectively doubles the risk. You know, when you're down at those depths, anything that goes wrong is an issue.

DEWITT: Combining extreme depths with the hard work that Dave had to do to get Deon's body into a body bag came with a lot of risks. At depth, too much nitrogen is kind of like a narcotic - basically, it feels suddenly like you drank five martinis in a row. Too much helium can give you twitching fits. If you breathe too heavily - like Dave might have to while he's moving around Deon's body - you pass out. And of course, there's the bends.

SHIRLEY: If you come up too quickly, it's like opening a Coke bottle once you shook it up. It fizzes. And then you would have problems with bubbles in your blood.

DEWITT: To prevent the bends, they would take several hours to come up to the surface. So they recruited a team of support divers that would go into the water in intervals to check on Dave at various depths while he came up.

SHIRLEY: And the rule was - no one will go deeper than the depths where we actually planned for them to be.

DEWITT: Don would go the deepest.

SHIRLEY: Now, as far Dave and I were concerned, basically what we said is if Dave has a problem, he would signal me. And in caving, when you flash a light - you wave a light around - that's a distress signal. We got to the day that we're actually planning to do the main dive. And we went down early in the morning. It was still dark. The sun was not quite up yet. And at 6:15, Dave went under the water. I followed 14 minutes later.

DEWITT: Don followed the shot line down through the slot and into the cave.

SHIRLEY: So as I was going down, falling through this black space, I was expecting to see some rising bubbles as I was going down. Also, I would see Dave's light where he was coming back. When I was going down, I didn't actually see any bubbles coming back. What I did see in the area where I thought he would actually be, I did see a light. It was one light - a solid light just shining.

DEWITT: But the light wasn't moving.

SHIRLEY: Something's not quite right, and he's spending longer doing something. And then I knew that I would probably be going down to the bottom.

DEWITT: Don dove past 800 feet, deeper than he had ever been before.

SHIRLEY: Now, I went past my target depth. But the problem was as I got to 833 foot, I actually had my own personal problems go on then.

DEWITT: He heard a sharp crack.

SHIRLEY: My rebreather controller actually imploded.

DEWITT: This just means a piece of his breathing apparatus broke, which actually wasn't a huge deal at this point. Don trained constantly for moments like this. So he knew exactly what to do. He would just add oxygen to his gas mixture manually.

SHIRLEY: But at that sort of depth, any oxygen you add makes a hell of a difference. I pushed my oxygen pressure much too high inadvertently. Now, that's very unhealthy at that depth, very unhealthy. Soon, I was liable to actually pass out very quickly.

DEWITT: Don knew then that this was it. It was the end of the line. He had to turn around and go back.

SHIRLEY: The surface is not somewhere that you can actually go to solve a problem. When you have a problem, you have to solve that problem there where you are. And if you don't solve that problem, you don't come back. You know, I had to put the brakes on. Was it worth it at that point? And I was thinking, OK, Dave might come back. He's either dead or he's working his way back. But all I could deal with was what was in front of me.

DEWITT: Don knew that he now had over 10 hours in the water ahead of him. Don slowly ascended up to the roof of the cave. At this point, he started to pass out. And then he got a helium bubble in his ear.

SHIRLEY: And that made me lose balance completely. I'm over this extreme depth of water. You, then, have no - absolutely no - sense of up, down, sideways or anything. And I didn't really have any sense of really where I was.

DEWITT: Don lost grip on the shot line. And as he was passing out, reviving again and passing out, he started swimming in these little circles, spinning around looking for the line. Remember, this line is the only way Don knows how to get out of the cave.

SHIRLEY: And I'm in this void - the black. I had an extremely bright light in my hand. And where the light was going into the black, I was seeing black. And where the light was hitting the roof, I was seeing light - white. And then I keep spinning around like that. So I was seeing black, white, black, white, black, white. And then I caught the line - the white line in my torch. And the next time I spun round, I grabbed hold of the light. The trouble was now I had vertigo, and that makes you vomit. So now I was vomiting underwater as well - vomiting in between breaths effectively. As time went on, I couldn't breathe anymore.

DEWITT: Don eventually stabilized himself, and he started his ascent again towards the surface. He met a support diver, and using a waterproof pencil and one of these slates the divers used to communicate underwater, Don wrote him a message.

SHIRLEY: I said, I'm OK. And Dave's not coming back. But still in my mind, I had hoped that he would. From that point on, the guys had one task, which was to support me.

DEWITT: For hours, the team up above waited to see if he would make it out alive. His only job was to breathe. Dave's light down below had disappeared.

SHIRLEY: If you see the videos of me coming up, you would think, this guy's half dead. You know, it had been just over 12 hours in the water. I couldn't actually really do much for myself other than breathe. My head was like a marshmallow.

DEWITT: Don was put into a decompression chamber and then taken in the morning for more treatment at a hospital in Johannesburg. Dave did not come up that night. Dave was dead. And then a week later, Don got some news.

SHIRLEY: I actually was told that Dave's body had come up. Then it was a closure in the fact that Dave's dead. But I knew he was dead before that. But that really started to put everything in its place as it were. During that week, there had been lots of speculation as to what had happened. Dave was carrying a camera on his head and retrieving the camera, then we could piece together really what happened.

DEWITT: As the camera rolls, you see Dave trying to get Deon's body into a body bag.

SHIRLEY: One of his lights had actually got tangled up in the line and smashed. So now - bearing in mind, you're in the pitch black - his main light had actually been broken. So he couldn't really see so well.

DEWITT: Then, Dave also gets tangled. He pulls away, but now he's tied to Deon's body.

SHIRLEY: And you could see that he was working, trying to get himself out of this line. He was cutting with the scissors. But his scissors weren't even getting anywhere near the line.

DEWITT: Listening to the video, you can hear Dave's breathing start to get shallower and shallower as he starts working harder and harder.

SHIRLEY: Dave passed out from too much carbon dioxide. He worked right up, right up to the very last breath that he ever took trying to get out. And then the camera just carries on recording until the battery's running out. It was like some sort of snuff tape. You know, it's actually as Dave reaches his last breaths, you know, it really is gut wrenching, very sad. And, you know, it's not something you want to really listen to.

There's barely a day goes by where I don't think of Dave, and really, there are a lot of times I turn around, I do a fantastic dive and I just want to say, did you see that? And Dave very much did die nobly doing what he did. He did everything that he should do, and he died, as they say in the military, with his boots on.

When Dave's body had come up, hanging underneath Dave's body cocooned in the line that Dave originally had laid was Deon Dreyer's body. So Dave actually achieved what he wanted to do.

WASHINGTON: Tremendous thanks to Don Shirley for sharing his world with the SNAP. That piece was produced by Julia DeWitt. When SNAP comes back, someone chases their mother to the end of the world, for real, when SNAP JUDGMENT "The Return" continues. Stay tuned.

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