28 June 2010

Caving the Welsh way

Tourists marvelled at the life-size dinosaurs, families posed for a picture in front of the rumbling mammoth, small children enjoyed ice cream in the burning sun. Three nutters in wetsuits and caving overalls and helmets manoeuvred through this scene. Is there something wrong with this picture? No, not at all, as long as it describes Dan-yr-Ogof.

Dan-yr-Ogof is the name of a cave in South Wales that was discovered in 1912. Its beauty was recognised, and already in 1939, after destructively creating an easier entrance, it opened as a show cave. Nowadays the tourist is also treated to a restaurant, a gift shop, a dinosaur park, an Iron Age village, and whatnot. But the cave remains the focal point. It’s an extensive specimen, and one can walk in fairly deep into the concrete-floored, lit tunnels. And at some point there is a side tunnel that is fenced off, and equipped with a danger sign. And that was where we were headed.

Who were we? Our own PCG’s Ali, who is a certified leader for this cave, and the only two head cases he had found willing and available to join, which were some James I had never met before, and me. Originally, Lionel would join us, but unfortunately he had changed his mind. On a Friday after work I had picked up both gentlemen and driven us through the burning heat to the headquarters of the South Wales Caving Club, where we had recovered from the trip with a beer, and the hospitality of the present SWCC members. The next morning we enjoyed a proper English breakfast in the sun, drove to the site, kitted up (which included wetsuits: a first timer for me!), and embarked on that quite strange walk amidst the flip-flopped tourists. And we had failed to get the paperwork in order beforehand, so we had to do the walk twice.

Our accomodation for the weekend: SWCC HQ

How Brits and assimilated foreigners start the Saturday

We were glad to enter the cool, shady cave, and walked to where tourists cannot venture. All authorised we climbed the fence, and walked on, over unlit concrete. Soon we found another railing we ignored, and stepped into a pond. Here caver’s territory began.

We scurried through the chambers and passages, and after a while we reached the point where one could say modern caver’s territory began; a passage known as “the long crawl”, that had first been conquered in 1964. This was a long crawl for a woman, and a big leap for Dan-yr-Ogof exploration. So far, about 18 km of cave has been explored, but there still is so much more to be discovered and surveyed.

I had heard this was a half hour crawl, which is quite a lot. I was therefore surprised to fairly soon reach the drop at the end of it. Perhaps the crawl had taken longer in earlier days; the narrow tunnel was almost devoid of sediment, and that may not always have been the case. Anyway; we came out at a fixed ladder. Next to the ladder water came down; this was quite welcome, as even crawling for less than half an hour can inspire thirst. And this cave would provide plenty of drinking water. From this spring we would take a route known as “the round trip”.

We came more for caving than for photography, so what we saw there will mainly keep for ourselves. But we saw ceilings adorned with countless many, very long straws, and natural tunnels so regular one expected the tube to roll past anytime, and lakes with actively crystallising edges, and much more. And I’d never caved with James before, but he was a pleasure; technically strong, appreciative, and cheerful.

At one point Ali pointed out a tunnel that was not included in the round trip, but could be used as bonus; we decided to add this, and that was a wise decision. Soon the passage became a traverse; a narrow, but very high and deep tunnel, that wedges out in both vertical directions. Walking on the bottom is therefore an impossibility; one must walk somewhere halfway up. If it’s an easy traverse there is a ledge on both sides, and you can just walk, be it with a wide-legged gait; if it’s a more difficult one, you have to wedge yourself in at an arbitrary level and just shove yourself through. This was an easy one, but I’m not very comfortable with these features; I’m afraid my shoe will slip and I’ll fall down, into an undoubtedly nasty-injury-inflicting position lower down.

I moved very slowly, but I got there, and was rewarded with some nice chambers and shafts (and avens! A shaft seen from below seems to be an aven). On the way back I was waiting for the uncomfortable stretch to come, and was surprised to instead find the end of the traverse; that is how steep a learning curve can be! And I was lucky with the company; both Ali and James are something along the line of outdoor activity teachers, so they talk scared clumsy people through outdoorish challenges nine to five, and they had no difficulty doing the same with me.

We pushed on. More crawling, more beauty, more impressively gaping holes and rock polished to slides. And then we came to what was known as “the camel’s humps”. Ali pointed out skinny people could go through, but the fun way was over. I of course intended to find out if I was skinny enough, but Ali disapproved. So I informed the men of the fact I was shitting my pants, and climbed up. It was a horrible traverse! No ridges, nothing, just smooth rock. And the first bit was so narrow one could not fall deep, but soon after that changed. Scary! I moaned and complained and cursed myself and Ali’s evident wish to see me dead, but I did it. On the way down Ali had to do a lot of talking, and some more cavers on the same route had to exercise some patience, but I came down without any damage.

Onwards! The road would reward us with more beauty, and even some swimming pool fun. Part of the tunnels is too deep to walk through, and all must swim. To make that easier there’s buoyancy aids and inflated tyres lying on both ends of the water, so we had a second (or later) youth, getting ourselves into a tube and happily bobbing to the other side. And without further cold sweat incidents we came back to the fixed ladder, and back we went, through the long crawl. James asked Ali if that really is the only known way to enter the rest of the cave system; no, there is another way, aptly called “the longer crawl”. We stuck with the long one, and were soon back at the shallower ponds near the show cave.

James and Ali enjoying the start of the swim
The hut we stayed in had issues with the water supply, and showers had not been possible, so I made sure I swam around as much as possible before emerging from the last pond. The only bath I might get that day! And you get very sweaty in such a cave. So dripping and very clean I walked back to the exit. A good trip!

We had a well-deserved cup of tea with lemon cake and shortbread (I was adapting to English ways) in the sun, and told the SWCC-ers of our exploits. And then changed back into our caving gear. There was another trip on the agenda! A SWCC-er saw we would go underground again, and asked if we were perhaps mad. I confirmed that. “Good”, he said.

We simply walked into the quarry next to SWCC HQ, where there was an entrance to Ogof-Fynnon-Ddu; another famous cave around there. This one had the very anthropogenic look the quarriable limestone provided; it had very convenient cleavage in perpendicular directions, which made it look like buildings. Ali took us to some point, and then gave me the survey; he proposed some trip and wanted me to navigate it. And so we did! Map reading underground had the extra challenge not all is in one plane, and it is impossible to see how things vertically relate to each other. But it worked out well. Then Ali wanted us to find the way back to the entrance, which had to be done by memory, as the survey there was way too confusing. This worked out slightly less well. We had not been paying particular attention in the beginning. Furthermore, we did not at all recognise the bits near the entrance; it had taken a while to adjust to the dark after the blazing sunshine outside, and we had had stumbled through the first passages almost blind.

Helictites in Ogof-Fynnon-Ddu

We came out anyway, having seen some bonus bits of the cave. And now we were hungry! It already was half past eight, so that was to be expected. So we hurried back to the hut, had tea, had a shower (they worked again!), cooked chilli, and then watched a slide show of one of the local cavers. This guy, Jules, had ventured on an amazing adventure skiing for a day to a cave entrance, dragging in enormous amounts of cave diving equipment, and thus helping push further the survey of this cave. Someone else did the actual diving, but the dragging all the kit there, camping in the Canadian winter with several of the expedition members suffering from a violent stomach bug, while the cave was in a national park where one is not allowed to leave one’s bodily waste behind, crawling the kit to the water, and at the end dragging everything back was an epic feat. And after another beer and some more chatting with the locals it was bedtime again.

The hut as it lies decoratively in the Welsh scenery

The next day was going to be a short one, I had decided. I wanted to be home fairly early, and it’s quite a drive. But there was some room for improvisation, and we settled for a short walk along surface features Ali wanted to photograph. So after some car maintenance (one of my tyres was deflating so rapidly I preferred the spare tyre to it) and yet another industrial-sized fried breakfast we set out into the heat. Wales is very beautiful, and the views were great, and Ali even got some desired pictures of cave entrances hidden by concrete, and anonymous holes in the ground leading nowhere. Then we had, of course, another cup of tea, and left.

The drive back was hot and sweaty, but at 17.15 I could unpack my bags, and look back on a well spent weekend. I escaped the Saturday heat underground, I visited two renowned caves, practiced my traversing, had overcome some fear, and had my first underground swim (a sump doesn’t count). Furthermore I had felt very welcome at the SWCC, been thoroughly English, flirted with the self-possessed wiener Dog scurrying around, and found out I master the art of Ladylike Caving. Normally you come out of such a cave all black and blue, but this time I had equipped myself with knee pads, elbow pads, and shin guards, and I had come out unscathed! This time I would not be looking like a victim of domestic violence, but like the responsible scientist I evidently am. Let’s try to keep it up!

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