Local Services

Search Our Site

Article Index


The Voyage of "The Calypso" The Dordogne. France

So set sail the good van "Calypso", a monstrous vessel packed with a full hold of cargo - 12 * 80 cu.ft. 10 litre bottles, buoyancy jackets, line, grotts, compressors, lights and other bits and pieces.  She was on course for the Dordogne with a motley crew of two, Trebor McDonald and Nick Geh (S.W.C.C.)  The other scallywags, Pat Cronin (B.E.C.) and John Adams (S.W.C.C.), wisely went by separate means.

THE AIM:  To confirm the obviously erroneous and previously held view that French sumps were long. deep, and crystal clear.  We all know British sumps are the best in the world, with their tight and murky countenance.  We just had to find out about these pretentious French things.

The secondary aim was to increase our knowledge of these sumps and the diving potential generally, following good work by John Cordingly, Russell Carter, et al.

THE AREA:  The limestone plateau centred around the Padirac system, roughly between the Dordogne River and the Cele and Lot rivers further south.  Many of the dive sites and prospects involve the very influential Padirac system and its numerous resurgences.  The local base was Gramat.

Full marks to John for obtaining some good and useful sponsorship from Remar Diving in South Wales, in the form of bottles, valves, lights, jackets, compressors and decompression computers.  Also batteries, courtesy of Ever Ready.  The length and depth of the diving precluded usual British diving equipment, requiring bottles than the ubiquitous 45's and buoyancy jackets to maintain any one position in the huge passages.  Decompression computers allowed instant and trouble free indications of the stop times and decompression information rather than having to work out the dive profiles laboriously beforehand.  The use of back-mounted gear also became most viable, again due to the size of passageway.  Plenty of air could thus be carried if required, a maximum of 30 litres of air.

LE MANS.  Well worth a visit on the race south.  We got the fully laden Calypso up to 60 mph on the Mulsanne Straight, slightly less than the 220 mph some other vehicles reach at certain times of the year.  The pits, grandstands and motor museum can all be visited.

Assorted members of the team rumbled into Gramat over a two day period, Pat having a trip fraught with stops, courtesy of "le filth".  He couldn't face erecting his tent that night so booked into a local hostelry.  A leisurely fettle of all the gear and we were ready for a splash.

The first dive was to FONTAINE SAINT GEORGE, a very impressive, sun-soaked Wookey-like resurgence pool in the side of a hill below Montvalent.  It's one of the Padirac resurgences and most scenic.  After initial buoyancy problems and mis-understandings as to which flashgun was to go where, all four set off on a photographic excursion into the deep first sump to some -23m.  Although initially clear, the place soon silted up with all the thrashing around and it became reminiscent of Wookey, something we had come here to avoid. At a mud bank at -29m., photography was getting silly so three exited while Nick Geh proceeded to look around and on to rise to -8m. and still going.  All retired gracefully after this initial dive with Trebor nipping back to lay line as a parting shot for a possible repeat on the morrow.

Next day, Nick Geh and Trebor returned to go a little further and to get into the bigger, clearer passage we knew was further in.  Some way in Nick had an attack of the "Why the hell am I here's?" and beetled out, leaving Trebor rather lonely to continue for a bit. Line left in the entrance 200ft. or so, to connect up with the French line encountered just beyond the first elbow.

FONTAINE SAINT GEORGE, MONTVALENT, DORDOGNE.  IGN Blue Series map, 2136 East.  Grid Ref. 3910-3288.  Follow N.140 from Gramat northwards towards Martel and the Dordogne River itself.  Pass through Montvalent and after about 1 km downhill a track cuts back on the left, signed "Fne. St.  George" (the sign later nicked by 3 scallywags).  About 200m. down this track there's a barn on the left and the sump pool is obviously located set back in on the left just past the barn at the head of a small stream.  No permission required of which we are aware.  A dive at mid-day allows the sun to penetrate deep into Sump 1.

Upon exit after the first days dive in St. George, we met a young lady who approached us at the dive site introducing herself as Veronique Le Guin.  She and husband Francis were diving Fontaine du Finou just down the track a ways.  After pumping the bottles we went along to say hello. A quite remarkable duo who have done some incredible diving over the years, most recently reaching vast distances in Cocklebiddy in Australia and also in Finou.  More of them later.

The following day it was to FONT DEL TRUFFE, down near Lacave.  Another resurgence system spewing out into the Ouysse with entry via a most unlikely conical depression in the woods usually full of water but after the drought only partly full of rancid stuff.  "Truffe" means truffle, which abound in the woods apparently. In French, a truffle hunter is a "caveur".  Quite poignant I thought.  Whilst we were kitting down, an old chappie in a battered van came along.  Expecting a rollicking for trespass, he went round and opened up his van doors and, instead of the double barrelled shotgun, produced dirt cheap figs, grapes, peaches, doughnuts and other goodies - a big bagful for a £1.  He turned out to be the owner of the area.  With a "bon grotte" from us, he departed smiling and happy.

The entrance wriggle into Truffe, over a boulder and under a gravel squeeze, was quite hilarious under-weighted, with thrashing fins in thin air trying to propel the body downwards. However, once through, it was the proverbial 'wallop' - mega crystal clear passage some 5m x 5m at least in places. Further in, in Sump II, we met white limestone which made us feel like flying through marble halls.  Quite magnificent.  A load of photos were taken for the sponsors, with Pat the Page 3 model, Trebor as assistant deputy flash wallah, John Adams as Lichfield and Nick Geh as forward deputy back-lighting flasher.

No problems encountered on the way of any significance, although the rancid entrance pool obviously affected Trebor's deco computer which failed to work in Sump 1 and one or two high pressure leaks to Nick Geh had to be DIY'd.  We had a good look at getting out at the end of Sump II to do III and beyond, but the low water conditions and the awkward spot made exiting fully kitted a nightmare.

Now back to the Le Guen's. A most pleasant couple we met while we were down St.George and they were pushing Fontaine du Finou, more specifically Sump 5 which they finally passed during our stay by a further 200m. dive to make Sump 5 about 600m., very deep diving for sustained lengths with some constrictions and cold conditions.  They were diving with vast amounts of gear and were usually unable to kit up out of water due to the weight.  Mostly two back mounted 20 litre bottles with one or two bottles of tri-mix and a few tackle sax.

Francis has developed his own techniques for eating underwater, pumping in the nourishment to keep out the cold, keep the muscles going and to raise morale.  He said he eats peanuts by letting them go beneath him so they float up and at the propitious moment he whips out his gag and inhales deeply!  We still don't know whether he was joking.

Sump 5 in Finou was passed to a dry passage with a huge mud cone in it which he climbed to descend to another sump not entered.  On the return he slipped down the cone, tore his dry suit, injured a leg and lost his watch. Veronique lost a fin.  They had a long, slow, cold swim out!  Just as well he didn't injure himself more seriously as at that depth and length not many people would have been capable of rescuing him.

Veronique has also just spent 4 months underground doing Siffre-inspired experiments on deprivation, bio-rhythms and other such silly things, mainly to try and counter jet-leg. Francis is a professional film-maker and photographer, so we got some good tips on the subject.

FONT DEL TRUFFE, LAC AVE , DORDOGNE.   Leave Gramat on the Montvalent, Martel and Dordogne River road and head for Rocamadour.  There, follow the signs to Lacave.  Descend into Lacave with an impressive chateau on a rock bluff opposite.  Turn left at the junction in the valley floor and travel away from the village for ½ a mile.  Just round a left hand bend, right opposite the chateau and before a bridge, take the only track on the left.  Go up 300m. to a right fork and ignore the 'no entry' sign which only says "no access to river bank".  Pass through an archway where a farm building straddles the road and continue for 3 km. along the left bank of the Ouysse until you get to an obvious conical depression, on the left by the track, full of water.  Beware the odd "road train" which takes punters to see the sump pool as part of the Lacave show cave tour.

The following day, Trebor and Nick took a quick gander down St. George again to try and get a little further without the encumbrance of camera gear.  Pat and John went along to see Padirac to swan about in the very impressive show cave opened by Martel - one hell of a dig.  You can almost imagine where he started digging at the base of the huge entrance doline.  Later, Nick and Trebor accompanied Peter Harvey (SWCC and co-founder of OFD, Cuckoo Cleeves and Hunters Hole) down a 'dry' cave - Gouffre du Saut de la Pucelle, right by the road between Gramat and Montvalent.  A most impressive flood entrance, dry thankfully most of the time, leading to some very pleasant active streamway with plunge pools, cascades and, so they say, "fine situations".  In very low water a bit tame but in remotely moderate conditions quite an undertaking we imagined.  We encountered the French equivalent of Andy Sparrow, trailing a load of character-building businessmen wearing life jackets though the place. We quickly ran in the opposite direction.

GOUFFRE DU SAUT DE LA PUCELLE.   Leave Gramat on the N.140 towards Montvalent, Rocomadour and Martel.  After about 3-4 kms. on a long stretch of road there are two lay-by's on the right.  Pick the second one, nip over the wall and descend into the large and very obvious tree-lined depression.  The entrance in fact is almost directly under the road.  Walk into the railway like tunnel for 100m., pass through some static pools and ducks and then turn an obvious left into big stuff.  Walk along for 50m. and then duck left before a big mud bank into stooping passage.  Then just follow your nose as there's nowhere else to go but down.

Depending on the water flow, you can get away with one or two ladders, handlines and tapes, plus a few hangers and crabs.  Certainly a wet-suit job.  Nice formations.  Plaque at bottom to Martel who found the place 100 years ago.

Back to diving, with Trebor and Nick having a shufti at the Source de Moulin de Cacrey (Creysse, Lot) a quite spectacular dive site and as beautiful a place as you can imagine.  A 13th C. mill backs onto a lovely scenic sun-drenched pool fed by the massive Cacrey resurgence.  You merely kit up on the sluice gate wall. keel over into the water and paddle across to the large overhanging cliff base and descend into the crystal entrance with the sunlight following you in for quite a way.  Decompression is wonderfully relaxed - just perched on a boulder 3m. under in lovely sunlight watching the frogs frolic about.  A magnificent dive with two pots to descend, one 6m. deep and the other 9m. deep.  Mega passage with fine situations and as always crystal clear water. Trebor reached -26m. some 280m. in and Nick got to about -31m. some 300m. in.  The place continues on for frightening distances at silly depths, and is still going.

The most bizarre trip of the lot came next, the Emergence du Ressel at Marchilac sur Cele on the Cele river, south of Gramat and about a 25 min. laden van drive.  The resurgence is actually in the bed of the river Cele and in normal water conditions the crystal clear uprising water gives the entrance away.  In drought, however, the sump water is probably static so the murky river water predominates.  Great fun was had trying to find the entrance via a tatty minimal line tied onto a submerged tree root on the river bank.  A few seconds grope through zero vis river water and you break out into the magnificent crystal entrance door and arch.  From then on, a very pleasant photographic dive passing two junctions, both being the two ends of the same large loop.  Due to gymnastications whilst photographing Nick. John and Pat met thirds at or about the second junction 270m. in at -22m, whilst Trebor continued on to 300m.+ at -25m., just short of a magnificent pot which takes you down to -45m.!?  The vis on the return was horrible, only 25m. instead of 30m.!  All decompressed at -9m. and -3m., the latter stop being courtesy of a tree trunk wedged across the pot which you clung onto.  It could take 4 divers before starting to lift off the bottom if everybody breathed in at once. Dive time 64 mins.

Beware.  Silly photographers who fail to remove lens caps whilst carrying out well rehearsed action shots in the entrance pot.

Jochen Hasenmayer has dived silly lengths and depths in Ressel, without concluding the place, so it's still going after 2.5 kms.

Later that week, whilst returning from a dive elsewhere, we passed Ressel and saw the Le Guen's pantechnicon parked on the roadside.  They were just off into the cave to finish off filming some documentary or promotional shots with the help of a Cocklebiddy battery powered scooter.  It was quite bizarre to see them motor up the river like a WW2 limpet mine team, trim the guiding blades downwards and submerge into the entrance.

Visit Padirac. A very impressive place but spoilt by the tourist or rather, spoilt for the tourists. A feature is the ride by canoe/gondola/ barge along the river, piloted by very adept gondoliers.  You are well chaperoned so there's little scope for taking illegal photos or scything off from the crowd for an illegal look round. All French show caves seem pretty good.

Following a quick nip down Pucelle to take some photos it was back to our last dive dow Le Trou Madame at Ceneviere, Lot.  Pat and John had left early for home and to do some sightseeing on the way so it was down to Nick Geh and Trebor and also Dig Hastilow to go and have a look-see. Dig is a CDG member working in Switzerland so he came up for a few days for a swim or two.  His fancy car had tyres which were slick on the outside and treaded on the inner side to get the best of both worlds.

A very attractive resurgence entrance, dry at this time of year, with a 50m, stooping walk to the start of a long, crystal canal.  It's an easy swim but so as to save air you really need a snorkel until you reach the sump proper 100m. along the canal.  Presumably in normal wet weather, the canal shortens and Sump 1 lengthens. There's a good 2.8 km. of diving to be done, at unusually shallow depths with the roof often being no more than -3 or -4m's.  There are several sumps, interspersed with various air spaces and passages but due to the drought conditions we didn't have a clue which air space was which and which sump we were in at anyone time.  We think we got 50m. into Sump 4 but we can't be sure!  After a number of dives in mega crystal clear sumps we confess we were getting a little bored with the size of the stuff, so the return was livened up with Trebor visiting every little air space he could find in the roof and also changing gags every 10m. for something to do.  You really need a waterproof book and automatic paddle legs, or preferably a scooter.  Dive time 70 mins.  This vicinity was mind boggling for lepidoptera, damsel flies, hornets, purple emperors and other wildlife, some of which were very brave and had a good go at Trebor's armpits.

So endeth the trip, with a brief look at Lasceax on the way back - I thought it was much bigger - and a gander at the impressive Bayeux tapestry.  Some very good experience under the belt, very clear, scenic sumps we only dream about here, loads of potential for anyone that can dive 2.5 kms. plus at -45m. and a good chance to tryout gear we don't normally use in the U.K.  Some very good dry caving too with few access problems.  Roll on 1990.