For most people, the thought of venturing into a remote cave alone would fill them with fear.
But for former teacher Tommy Soames, it was his idea to have fun – until he got lost inside and thought he was going to die alone with no hope of rescue.
That’s exactly what happened when he went to explore the underground network of caverns near picturesque Lake Skadar in Montenegro last year.
Remarkably, he survived the six-hour ordeal by ripping pages from historian Damien Lewis’ SAS book Great Escapes and using them, a la Hansel and Gretel, to mark each dead end until he found the exit.
Mr Lewis then received an email from the adventurer saying: ‘Your book saved my life.’
The couple reunited last week at the launch of the author’s latest book, SAS Great Escapes II, at the Churchill War Rooms in Westminster.
Tommy Soames, 25, thought he was going to die alone in a cave system in Montenegro after getting lost. But he tore the pages from the SAS book Great Escapes, by historian Damien Lewis, and used them to line all the dead ends until there was only one path left with no scraps of paper. Above: Mr Soames with the ruined book
The entrance to the cave in which Mr Soames got lost, near Lake Skadar in southern Montenegro
Mr. Lewis was so inspired by Mr. Lewis’ story of survival that he told it in the preface to his latest volume.
Mr Soames, who traveled to Montenegro in the spring semester last year, was first told about the Obod Caves, near the town of Rijeka Crnojevica, by a fisherman.
He was attracted by a review revealing how they had an underground river and so left. The caves were located in the middle of a beautiful forest, as Mr. Soames’ photos show.
The only thing he carried in his bag was Mr. Lewis’s book, a tin of sardines and a packet of dates.
“There was a huge entrance. So I thought, one way down, one way up. So I walked in,” he said.
And I didn’t think the river would be so far. So I just listened to the water and heard it rush slightly in the distance.
“I think that’s why I got lost so quickly, because all I was listening to was the water and I wasn’t really looking where I was going, I was just following my senses.”
He said it very quickly turned “black” as it began to deepen. The only other noise other than rushing water was the cries of bats.
Arrived at the bottom of the river after about an hour of walking, he filled his water bottle and then tried to get out.
‘I followed a path back, [it was a] dead end. I thought, okay, that’s good. There are obviously two tunnels, not one. So I went back down, took another tunnel.
“And it was also a dead end. And it was after the second tunnel that I thought it was over. I was so sure at that time that I was going to die.
As he attempted to descend back to the river, Mr Soames stumbled and fell about 10ft between two rocks.
Fortunately, he only suffered cuts and bruises, but said the fall “sobered me up” from the panic.
Once back at the river, he examined the contents of his bag and began to think about the fairy tales he knew.
His mind drifted to Theseus and the Minotaur, where the hero escapes the monster’s maze using the ball of breadcrumbs to guide him.
He also thought of Hansel and Gretel in Grimm’s classic fairy tale, which sees the siblings escaping from a forest and the clutches of a witch leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to follow.
Initially, he tried to make a track with the dates he had, but found that their muddy brown appearance blended in with the rocks.
Remarkably, he survived the five-hour ordeal by tearing up the SAS Great Escapes pages and using them, a la Hansel and Gretel, to mark each dead end until he found his way.
The couple reunited last week at the launch of the author’s latest book, SAS Great Escapes II, at the Churchill War Rooms in Westminster. Above: The pair with the ruined book
The Obod caves were located in the middle of a magnificent forest, as shown in the photos by Mr Soames
The caves were near Lake Skadar in southern Montenegro (see above)
“And then I saw my book and started tearing it up,” he said.
“It almost became a kind of clock face of missed paths from all the way down.
“And all this time I just tried to keep my hopes as low as possible.
“I thought there was a chance I wouldn’t make it. But by God, I have to try because no one is coming to find me.
“I thought of my parents, my siblings, imagining the police knocking on their door and telling them, you know, probably weeks later, that my body had been found.
“And that’s what pushed me.
Remarkably, he tore out every page of the book – which documented the remarkable escapes of the SAS elite during World War II – for as long as he read it, up to chapter six.
“It wasn’t just the fact that I had a book on me, it was that I had this book, because these guys stayed calm under pressure and thought through their plan so logically,” said he declared.
Mr Soames became so disoriented as he continued to try to get out for another five hours that when he finally saw the ray of sunshine marking the exit he thought he was looking at a ‘snowdrift’ and almost turned around. .
“But I thought, I’ve tried everywhere else, I’ll just take it and see,” he said. “And then I saw the exit and I collapsed on my knees and cried for who knows how long.”
Luckily Mr Soames, who now carries the mangled SAS book on all his travels, appeared just before sunset, meaning the exit was clearly visible.
Mr Soames was drawn to a review revealing how the caves had an underground river (pictured)
Mr Soames became so disoriented as he continued to try to get out for another five hours that when he finally saw the ray of sunshine marking the exit he thought he was looking at a ‘snowdrift’ and almost turned around.
The next day he was back in the UK and headed for a performance by hit band The Killers, which he said was ‘mildly traumatic’ as they turned off the lights during a song, forcing him to relive his ordeal in the cave.
Speaking at Wednesday’s book launch, Mr Lewis told MailOnline: ‘I was speechless when he sent the email, speechless when I spoke to him and speechless when I said “Tommy, I want to include your story in my book” and he said “please do it”.
“Because he could have said, ‘please don’t do that’.
He added: “I went up to my family as we sat down to dinner and said ‘shut up and listen’.
“I just sat down and read the email and they said ‘Oh my God’.”
Mr Soames, who grew up in London and Norfolk, was a Spanish teacher at St Thomas Primary School in the capital until last summer.
He now hopes to get into travel journalism.