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Cataphiles

Some cataphiles go underground only occasionally and stick to well-known routes. The hard core go oftener and farther. I find my next guides, two dark-haired young men in blue coveralls, lounging in sunlight on a park bench in a quiet neighborhood, with a scuba tank and other dive gear beside them. Mothers pushing strollers eye them uneasily.

Dominique is a repairman; Yopie—he'll only give his cataphile nickname—is a computer graphics designer, father of two, and an accomplished cave diver. We gather the gear and head beneath a bridge, where cool air sighs up from their secret entrance. As we approach, a mud-covered man climbs out like a spider. He's just been setting up a bachelor party, he says.

Most of the underground has been mapped. Guillaumot's early, intricate maps have been updated many times by his successors, and cataphiles make their own maps. Some, like Yopie, go to great lengths to fill in the remaining blank spots. We wade past many tunnels before we find the object of his desire today: a black hole.

Pits and old wells dot many of the tunnels. Some are deep and water filled, some open onto hidden rooms. Yopie has dived into dozens, but he says no one has entered this pit. The water is still as ice, but our light doesn't penetrate far before scattering into emerald oblivion. Yopie checks his regulator, mask, and harness. Then he straps on his helmet, flicks on two headlamps, and drops in.

A few minutes later he surfaces in an eruption of bubbles. The pit was only about 16 feet deep, nothing at the bottom. But at least his map can now be improved.

We spend several more hours wandering through crypts full of moldering bones and galleries of immense, bright murals. We pass the spot where, a few days earlier, I'd taken some wrong turns with a pair of cataflics—the cops charged with chasing the Yopies and Dominiques of the underworld. Yopie takes us to a room that isn't on any map. He and friends spent years lugging in cement and rearranging limestone blocks to build benches, a table, a sleeping platform. The room is comfortable and clean. Niches for candles are carved into the walls. The beige stone glows warmly. I ask Yopie what draws him underground.

"No boss, no master," he says. "Many people come down here to party, some people to paint. Some people to destroy or to create or to explore. We do what we want here. We don't have rules. At the surface…"

He waves his hand and smiles. Lights a cigarette. "We say, 'To be happy, stay hidden.'"

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