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The 1989 Romania Trip - Better Late Than Never

On Friday 8th August Tony Boycott, Richard Stephens, Mark Lumley, Tony Jarratt, Rich Payne, Nick Sprang and Brian Van Luipen flew to Vienna to board the Orient Express to Budapest, Hungary.  Memories of the journey are blurred by the vast amounts of booze consumed but struggling with great heaps of luggage and nearly losing Loopy featured heavily.

The journey on the train from Budapest to Arad, Romania was even mere drunken with a hint of excitement provided by the writer staggering off the (luckily stepped)  train in the middle of nowhere for a piss and nearly getting left behind, passportless.  His last memory was of hanging on to the accelerating train with one hand, clutching his still functioning member with the ether and being shouted at in Hungarian by amazed locals as he was whisked off' into the night.

At 5.30am on Saturday we arrived at Arad and spent some hours wandering around the gloomy, depressing square in front of the station.  The grey skies and greyer buildings and the overall sense of communist oppression were not encouraging.  Armed soldiers and police patrolled the station and streets and the lack of goods in the few shop windows added to the stark reality of life in Romania at this time - only a few weeks before the Revolution and deposing of Ceasescu.

Eventually one of our contacts appeared - Liana, a female member of the Aragonite Club, could speak good English and told us that her friend Pelo was on his way.  Suddenly, at the far side of the new packed square, a huge rucksack could be seen bashing its way through the crowd.  Beneath it the small but perfectly formed Pelo; bespectacled, bearded, hairy and ragged, stomped purposefully towards us.  His English was non-existent but he typified the Caver worldwide and there were few communication problems.

We left Arad on a local train and after some 50kms of flat, boring farmland reached the village of Helod.  A walk along the track took us to a pub with grim draught beer dispensed through a hose like petrol.  After an enforced 6½ hour wait we got a train to Sudrijo from where we bribed a bloke driving a contractor's tractor and trailer to take us 36km up into the attractive limestone Apuseni Mountains near the village of Padis.  The fare worked out at about £1.50 and two packets of fags - no wonder the driver was a miserable sod.  Mind you, with all the other illicit passengers he crammed in he should have been a rich man.

It was 9.30 pm by now. Pitch black, isolated, 1150m up in the middle of Transylvania and we'd forgotten the bloody garlic!  A 25 minute walk with our mountain of kit, get us to our lonely campsite where a brew and food preceded much needed sleep.

The following morning we awoke to find ourselves in a superb, wooded alpine valley Valea Cetatilor, near Grajduri.  While we got organized and acclimatised our resident nutter, Pelo, set off on a 50km walk to try and get some carbide.  He reappeared that night with no carbide and a bottle of Vodka.  His heart was in the right place.

20/8/89 Pestera Neagra ( Black Cave) was reached by a long walk through the pine forest.  Several large entrances led to a pitch.  Dressed only in shorts and T-shirts and with no tackle we could not descend so we carried on a few hundred metres to Pestera Ghetarul de la Barsa (Barsa Ice Cave) accompanied by six Romanian youths carrying torches and a hand held carbide gobbler.  We followed the lads in, using their rope as a hand line on the ice slope at the entrance. Beyond lay several hundred feet of roomy but impressive passage and a traverse to the head of a short pitch with a streamway below.  No ice formations were seen and only a few calcite decorations noted in this well used cave.  Another entrance led us back to daylight and the long walk back to co camp - picking wild strawberries and puff balls as we wen.  These became hors d'oeuvr to a meal of "goulash curry" washed down with Voika, Whisky, Gin and Appeal orange drink!  That night an impressive lightning display preceded heavy rain.

21/8/89 Up early to the sound of sheep bells.  Frankfurters, bread, peppers and tomatoes made an interesting breakfast before another long walk to a series of potholes in the forest.  The entrances of Avenul Gemanata and Avenul Pionier were examined in the company of a horde of Romanian ramblers before we reached our goal Avenul Negra (Black Pot).  This vast open shaft has a fine rock bridge spanning it a few feet down.  We rigged an almost clear free hang of 240 feet on to a huge sloping pile of jammed "logs" - actually trees up to 50ft long.  A delicate traverse between and over these, and a 50ft sloping abseil down an ancient fir tree trunk led to a large stream passage.  Downstream went for several hundred feet to a sump with the names of several Polish clubs written in carbide smoke above it.  A side passage led to a three way junction where two streams entered.  These inlets were followed for several hundred feet to where they both ended in avens. Some of this was very spectacular, beautifully eroded streamway.

A mad rush was made from the pot due to impending lightning strikes and on the walk back we looked at Pestera Caput - later followed for some two hundred feet to a traverse/pitch.

The gourmet evening meal consisted of macaroni cheese, sardines and Angel Delight.

22/8/89   An hours walk brought us to Pestera Focul Viu ( Living Fire Cave _ not Fuckall View Cave!).  A steep ice slope led down through a roomy passage into a large ice-floored chamber partly open to the surface.  A couple of fine 20ft high ice columns are supposedly very impressive when the sun shines directly onto them through the entrance - hence the name of the cave.  A short ice climb with fixed log aids led to another chamber full of ice.  Various side passages were looked at.

Back on the march again down into a deep wooded valley with an enormous entrance at the bottom - Cetatile Ponorului (Citadel Sink).  This was 300ft high by 100ft wide, took a large stream and had fixed but rotten wooden ladders giving access to a massive river passage and another huge entrance.

This was followed for some 600ft, past three more entrances to a series of entertaining fixed aid traverses made from logs, wire and string.  After some 2/3 mile from the main entrance we were stopped by a deep lake. This passage sumps a few hundred feet further in.  A large side passage with an impressive false floor was looked at on the way back.

A tremendous cave and well worth visiting - only marred by our embarrassment at being in the same company as hordes of shorts-clad, torch carrying tourists while we were fully kitted up!

Austrian soup, corned beef hash, Angel Delight and Whisky finished off a great day.

23/8/89 We walked ever the hills to Padis which consisted of a few huts and the singularly unattractive Cabana Padis pub.  Rumanian beer being unbelievably foul we were forced to resort to Vodka banana liqueur, red wine etc. to accompany the local delicacy of scrawny dead sheep soup.  It being the Rumanian equivalent of Priddy Fair Day we get absolutely shit-faced and only by a miracle made it back through the forest in dribs and drabs at various times through the night.  Cut, bruised, battered, lost and with rucksacks full of smashed wine bottles we had had another good day.  No gourmet meal that night!

24/8/89   Only three of us were capable of investigating a nearby 20ft deep pot which dropped into a large cave with the sound of a streamway below a second pitch.  Not knowing its true name it was christened Avenul Mahmur (Hangover Pot).  This slope and 15ft pitch was later descended and the streamway reached.   Upstream a cold duck led to a sump after 200ft and downstream a wet 30ft pitch dropped into another sump.  A nice little system conveniently located near the camp.

25/8/89   We returned to Pestera Ghetarul de la Barsa where a 20ft pitch was descended and a winding streamway followed for some 200ft to a 15ft pitch.  Then several hundred feet of attractive streamway, interspersed with technical climbs and a 30ft deep free-climbable pitch was visited.  A deep sump pool soon barred the way.

The adjacent Pestera Zapedia was next explored.  A large, square entrance in a deep log filled doline led to a steep ice slope and 30ft ice pitch.  From here a long, awkward and meandering passage full of climbs, crawls and squeezes debouched into a massive gallery boring off into the distance - rather like parts of the Gouffre Berger.  As it was getting late we fought our way back out of this fine, sporting cave intending to return another day.  This was not to be due to atrocious weather - a great shame as we later found out that this system is some 20km long!!

26/8/89   Festered and dug in local dolines - to no avail.

27/8/89   Avenul Mahmur was revisited in the hope of finding new stuff but without diving gear it was hopeless.  A promising surface dig was also started but bad weather later thwarted us here.

28/8/89   A very long walk over the ridge into the valley of Girda Seaca took us to Pestera Ceiba Mare near where the river Girdisoara sinks.  A 180ft wide by 100ft high entrance, the largest in the country, split into several passages.  The first looked at turned out to be a unique slimy, moonmilk covered ramp which was climbed for ever 100ft until it became too exposed for safe progress.

Another passage led through a crawl to the main way on - a lengthy stream passage and large chamber where the river entered.  Several hundred feet of beautiful phreatic river passage ended in a wide, deep and log filled sump pool.  A series of high level phreatic tubes terminated high above the floor of the entrance chamber.

29/8/89    Torrential rain threatened to wash the camp away.  A Romanian sheep milk cheese suffered this fate but was unfortunately rescued by Pelo.

30/8/89    Thick mist failed to conceal the Bad News:- mice had eaten the Angel Delight.  This was offset by the Good News that the shepherds' monstrous dogs had devoured the sheep milk cheese.  We had had enough so packed up the camp - giving much of our gear to the shepherds - and headed off for (relative) civilization.  A desperate 15 mile, 6 hour walk got us to Pietrosa where we caught a very tatty bus to Beius - the most publess town in Europe.  There followed an exhausting train journey to Oradea and eventually Arad.

We travelled back via Budapest and a few days R & R in Vienna where we ate, boozed and festered to excess. We even got underground in the Seegrette at Hinterbruhl - a tourist gypsum mine where Heinkel 162 jet fighters were made during the 2nd World War (which we mentioned quite a lot).  The lower levels of this working are flooded and it is advertised as the "largest underground lake in Europe.”  Even more inspiring was the nearby pub with 100 different beers.

So ended a particularly interesting but thoroughly exhausting caving holiday.  The caves visited were excellent but would have been more so if we had had more surveys and information.  The oppressive dictatorship at that time, lack of food, poverty and overbearing attitude of the police made us glad to get out back to the West and the fleshpots of Vienna seemed on another planet.  Only two weeks after we left came the Revolution and hopefully change for the better.  I can think of one fat police officer in Oradea railway station who almost certainly get put against the wall - and rightly so.

Our very grateful thanks to Florica, Liana and Polo for all the time and effort they put in for us. Florica lives in London but the others are presumably still in Romania and hopefully alive and well.

 (Compiled only four years late from log books written at the time. Some surveys and information can be borrowed from Tony Boycott).

Tony Jarratt     10/12/93