Mystery Ancient Thousands Caves in Nepal

Hidden within the Himalayas, 155ft from the ground, these man-made caves are one of the World's greatest archaeological mysteries.

Thousands of holes are carved into the fragile, sandy-coloured cliff in a gorge so large it dwarfs the Grand Canyon.

The astonishing number of caves, some dug into the cliffside, others tunnelled from above are thousands of years old but who built them and why remains a mystery.

Mystery: Thousands of man-made caves 155ft from the ground lie hidden within the Himilayas in a gorge so large it dwarfs the Grand Canyon

Bizarre: With dozens of holes carved into the fragile, sandy-coloured cliff face this unusual 'neighbourhood in the sky' looks like a giant sandcastle

Dangerous: Climber Cedar Wright explores the series of caves near the village of Tsele

It is also not known how people climbed into the caves which are dug into a cliff 155-foot above the valley floor.

An estimated 10,000 of these mysterious human-built caves have been found in the former Kingdom of Mustang in North, Central Nepal. Those who have seen the mysterious caves say the effect of them on the cliff face makes it look like a giant sandcastle.

Adventure photographer, Cory Richards joined climber Pete Athans, archaeologist Mark Aldenderfer and a team of explorers to unearth the hidden relics of the ancient and remote caves.

astonishing number of caves, some dug into the cliffside, others tunnelled from above, are thousands of years old but who built them and why remains a mystery. A scientist scales a fragile rock face to reach the 800-year-old caves, right, while the team hike below some of the entrances, left

Adventure: Climbers and scientists follow a trail above the Kali Gandaki River

High up: Climber Pete Athans looks inside a cave found near Chuksang. It is not known how people climbed into the caves which are dug into a cliff 155foot above the valley floor

'He started telling me about this place where we were going. The words he was using conjured these images of a place I couldn't really imagine.

'Quite honestly when I got there it was even bigger and more grand than anything I ever could ever have imagined.

'We're talking about somewhere that reminds us of the Grand Canyon, the desert south west but then has this incredible history to it. You see these caves carved into the rock and now they're completely inaccessible.

'As we started getting deeper into it, I started to see the magic of what we were approaching, the culture in practice, a 12th century village underneath the caves they used to live in, caves that are now forgotten.

'We started asking questions about how did people get into them?

Impressive: This image shows eroded murals on the walls of the Ritseling Cave in Upper Mustang. The astonishing number of caves are thousands of years old

Exploration: Members of the team do a preliminary survey of a cave

'I started wondering how do I light up people's imagination to make them think what it would have looked like thousands of years ago, that was my final challenge, how do I give people that imagination.

'One of the ways we did that was lighting up the caves, going them into them a night, spending the night in caves, using lights to light them up and strobes.

'Trying to give people the feeling this is a very ancient place, this is a place that has so many stories to tell us so much more than we can even really imagine in our lifetime.'

Climbing into the sky caves was no easy feat, the rock was unstable and posed a real danger to the team of explorers.

In fact climbing into the caves was so dangerous, Mr Richards lost his footing, fell and broke his back. On another assignment to Mustang the following year, videographer Lincoln Else was hit by a falling rock, fracturing his skull.

He said: 'This was real exploration. It's dangerous it's loose rock it's scary. Everything is loose, everything around you feels like it's crumbling. You feel like when you're climbing everything is going to collapse.'

'One of the things I think we forget when we're talking about adventure, science and exploration is it gets dangerous at times one of the reasons its so exciting is because there are consequences and big consequences.

'On my first trip there I was trying to climb in and a foothold broke and I fell about 12-20 feet, I landed on my butt and I broke my back.

'It was an eye-opener because yes it this was really exciting, really engaging, I want to tell this big story but I just broke my back, maybe this isn't as important as I thought.

'The next year we came back to try again. I took this shot and my friend Lincoln Else was filming right next to me.

'Next thing I heard was Pete's wife scream, she said "oh my god, oh my god" Lincoln was lying on the ground with blood pouring from his head and convulsing.

'A rock had fallen from above, hit him and given him a 21cm skull fracture, it completely depressed his skull.

'Again it was a point of realisation that yes what you are doing is very important but it's also very dangerous and when you talk about adventure there are sides to it that are unpleasant.

'Lincoln made a full recovery, I thought for certain I think we all thought at the point that Lincoln was going to die.

'Essentially at the end of the experience, what was illuminated to me the marriage of science and exploration and culture is the ultimate in how we bring the world to everyone.

'We have to make it exciting, digestible but we also have to give the knowledge of what's out there to everyone else.'


Bird Suicide Phenomenon of Jatinga

Jatinga is a small village located in Assam, a state in northeastern India. The village is lush green and scenic, surrounded by serene mountains. But that’s not what it’s famous for. In fact, Jatinga is well-known for an entirely different reason – its Bird Mystery.

The Bird Mystery is a unique phenomenon that occurs at Jatinga between September and November each year. During these late monsoon months, several migratory and local birds commit mass suicide at the village. Just after sunset, between 7 and 10 pm, hundreds of birds descend from the sky, plummeting to their deaths by crashing into buildings and trees. Since birds aren’t known to be suicidal, the phenomenon has baffled villagers, visitors and scientists alike. For many years, locals believed that evil spirits living in the skies were responsible for bringing down the birds .

Of course, this isn’t true. After several scientific studies and experiments, it has been concluded that the birds are generally disoriented by the monsoon fog. So they are attracted by the village lights and fly towards them, sometimes hitting walls and trees during the descent. Some of the birds die, while others are grievously injured, becoming easy prey for the villagers to capture. These birds are often dazed and disheveled, and do not put up any resistance when villagers attack them with catapults or bamboo sticks.

Studies also show that the birds come in only from the North and land only on a well-defined strip in the village – that’s 1.5 km long and 200 meters wide. Lights placed along the southern side of the village have failed to attract any birds.

The victim birds aren’t long-distance migrators. 44 species have been identified as ‘suicidal’ and most of them come from nearby valleys and hill slopes. These include Kingfishers, Black Bitterns, Tiger Bitterns and Pond Herons, among others.

A few more interesting discoveries were made by scientists and bird watchers. It seems most of the suicidal birds lose their natural habitats due to flooding during the monsoon season. So they appear to be migrating to other places, and Jatinga is in their migratory path. But it isn’t clear why the birds fly at night, or why they get voluntarily trapped at the same place every year.

“It is not suicide, to be precise,” said Anwaruddin Choudhury, a well-known ornithologist in Assam. “But the fact remains that birds are attracted by light and fly towards any object with a light source. This phenomenon still puzzles bird specialists.”

India’s most celebrated ornithologist, the late Salim Ali, was also baffled. “The most puzzling thing to me about this phenomenon is that so many species of diurnal resident birds should be on the move when, by definition, they should be fast asleep. The problem deserves a deeper scientific study from various angles,” he wrote.

The phenomenon of ‘avian harakiri’, as the locals call it, was first observed by the Zeme Nagas, the inhabitant tribe of the region in the early 1900s. It frightened them so badly that they sold their land to Jaintias and left the place in 1905. The new inhabitants also observed the phenomenon, but interpreted it as a gift from God.

The Jaintias aren’t entirely wrong. After all, the phenomenon has captured the interest of wildlife circles and tourists, making the village of Jatinga world famous. The birds alone are responsible for a boost in tourism during the monsoon months. And they’re quite delicious; locals relish these exotic delicacies. The villagers deliberately switch on lights and lanterns to attract the birds and capture them every year.

To promote tourism, district authorities have created a festival around the bird suicide, called the Jatinga Festival. The first edition was held in 2010. If you’re interested in viewing the rare phenomenon in person, the nearest airport at the city of Guwahati is 350km away from the village. You will have to wait until next year, though!


Gympie-Gympie - The Worst Stinging Plant

‘Gympie-Gympie’ is hardly the name you’d expect for a stinging-tree. It looks quite harmless too, but in reality, the Gympie-Gympie is one of the most venomous plants in the world. Commonly found in the rainforest areas of north-eastern Australia, the Moluccas and Indonesia, it is known to grow up to one to two meters in height.

In fact, the Gympie-Gympie sting is so dangerous that it has been known to kill dogs, horses and humans alike. If you’re lucky enough to survive, you only feel excruciating pain that can last several months and reoccur for years. Even a dry specimen can inflict pain, almost a hundred years after being picked!

With the exception of its roots, every single part of the deadly tree – its heart shaped leaves, its stem and its pink/purple fruit – is covered with tiny stinging hairs shaped like hypodermic needles. You only need to lightly touch the plant to get stung, after which the hair penetrates the body and releases a painful toxin called moroidin. Sometimes, merely being in the presence of the plant and breathing the hair that it sheds into the air can cause itching, rashes, sneezing and terrible nosebleeds.

According to virologist Dr. Mike Leahy, “The first thing you’ll feel is a really intense burning sensation and this grows over the next half hour, becoming more and more painful.”

“Shortly after this, your joints may ache, and you might get swelling under your armpits, which can be almost as painful as the original sting. In severe cases, this can lead to shock, and even death. And if you don’t remove all the hair (from your skin), they can keep releasing the torturous toxins for up to a year.”

The Gympie-Gympie serves as an unexpected hazard in rainforest clearings for foresters, surveyors and timber workers. Even scientists who are aware of the plant’s notoriety can sometimes become unsuspecting victims. That’s why most professionals do not venture out into such areas without respirators, thick gloves and anti-histamine tablets.

“Being stung is the worst kind of pain you can imagine – like being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time,” said entomologist and ecologist Marina Hurley, who was stung during the three years she spent in Queensland’s Atherton Tableland. She was a postgraduate student at James Cook University at the time, investigating the herbivores that eat stinging trees.

“The allergic reaction developed over time, causing extreme itching and huge hives that eventually required steroid treatment. At that point my doctor advised that I should have no further contact with the plant and I didn’t object.”

One of the first people to document the adverse effects of the Gympie-Gympie sting was North Queensland road surveyor A.C. Macmillan, who reported to his boss in 1866 that his packhorse was ‘stung, got mad, and died within two hours’. Local folklore is also filled with similar tales of horses in agony jumping off cliffs and forestry workers drinking copiously in order to dull the pain.

In 1994, Australian ex-serviceman Cyril Bromley described how he happened to fall into the tree during military training. He was subsequently strapped to a hospital bed for three weeks and administered all sorts of treatments that proved unsuccessful. He described it as the worst period of his life, when the pain made him ‘as mad as a cut snake’. He also told the story of an officer who shot himself after using a leaf for ‘toilet purposes’.

Most of the known cures for a Gympie-Gympie sting are rather rudimentary. Analgesics are usually prescribed for minor exposures to the plant. An innovative local remedy involves sticking a plaster or a hair waxing strip in order to rip all the toxic hairs away from the skin!

Interestingly, the British Army is believed to have displayed unusual interest in the properties of the Gympie-Gympie and its sinister applications in the late 1960s. The Chemical Defense Establishment at Porton Down (a top-secret laboratory that developed chemical weapons) contracted Alan Seawright in 1968, asking him to provide specimens of the stinging tree. Alan, who was then a Professor of Pathology at the University of Queensland, said: “Chemical warfare is their work, so I could only assume that they were investigating its potential as a biological weapon.”

“I never heard anything more, so I guess we’ll never know,” he added.