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In February a number of regulars on Mendip went for a weekend caving in BELGIUM '80

by 'Bucket' Tilbury

Friday afternoon and evening saw various cars with cavers eagerly looking forward to a weekend in Belgium converging on Dover.  Our car started from High Wycombe with Graham W-J and Buckett and stopped in London to pick up Big Jim, J-Rat and Jeff.  This accomplished, a fight with the London rush hour traffic was undertaken.  While waiting at one of the innumerable sets of traffic light a little light relief was provided by a rather elderly gentleman. This old chap had walked up to a low metal fence by the back of the path and managed to lift one leg over the rail. He was about to take a short cut across a small park area.  We had all idly watched this when the fun started.  The leg on the path made the attempt to join the first on the other side of the fence, he nearly made it.  A number of energetic leg movements were made, all to no avail.  The car occupants by now had dissolved into laughter as it was obvious that he was stuck on his delicate parts.  As the lights changed and we moved off, he was trying to lift his leg over by hand.

Dover was reacted without further incident and a passage obtained to Ostend on the ferry which was supposed to be fully booked.  The crossing was very smooth and the time was spent dozing and nattering.

Off the ferry at Ostend and straight on to the motorway.  The next major decision was whether to go around Brussels on the ring road or through the middle.  Straight through was the choice, as the BEC never deviate from the straight and narrow.  Going through Brussels is quite entertaining as the road follows a series of over and under passes. Back on the motorway the passengers slept while the driver was kept on his toes by the occasional disappearance of steering capability due to ice on the road.  Eventually the motorway was left and normal roads towards our hut at Rochfort.

At the approach to Rochfort and as we were looking for the hut, a young lady standing by a mini waved us down.  The car stopped and the driver wound down the window and as it was 2.0 a.m., various rude comments were made by the passengers.  The girl jabbered away in French to be interpreted by the driver with a "Parlez-vous anglais” The girl replied "Yes''.  ''Where do you come from?''  '' England?” ‘‘Where the bloody hell do you think'' came from the driver. Other suggestions as to the driver’s origins came from the rear seats.  With cold air clearing away the cobwebs of the mind, the mini driver, a very earnest young chap told us that “The accumulator was dead".  A quick push down the road of the mini confirmed this and suggested something more serious.  Our mini magician, Graham, poked his head under the bonnet, fixed a loose wire to something or other and the mini burst into life.  The BEC departs leaving the mini occupants amazed but happy.

The search for the hut was resumed and Big Jim, who had been there before, finally found it.  The hut turned out to be a large run-down three storey building.  The caretaker was aroused and she showed us to a room with fifteen bunks.  She also explained that all the pipes were frozen, but we could collect water from her as she had many litres in buckets.  We were soon all in our pits trying to keep out the cold and sleep.  The thermometer by the door was showing -15oC.

Saturday morning was clear and sunny, but still very cold.  We explored our spartan abode and had breakfast.  The rest of the party were due to join us at 11 a.m. but they did not turn up.  So, we made our way to Hann which is near the Grotte Pierre Noel which was the cave we had arranged to descend.  While at Hann we met up with the rest of the party including the Dutch cavers who knew where the cave entrance was situated.

While waiting for the Belgium leader to arrive the whole party kept itself amused with such pastimes as climbing concrete telephone poles, tossing the caber with large fir logs and scavenging for bits of wet suits in the woods.  After waiting for 1½ hours for the leader to arrive the whole party became cheesed-off.

Everybody went back to Hann and paid a visit to the local museum.  While there the curator told us where the local club was.  The guide was finally located there at about 4.30 p.m. By 5 p.m. all were back at the meeting place and changing took place in double quick time.  The guide was a little apprehensive at a party of 13 but agreed to carry on.  We were all glad to be on our way as the Pierre Noel is reputed to be the best decorated in Belgium with large chambers.  The walk to the cave entrance is through scrubby woodland round the ridge of a steep escarpment with a panoramic view of the local countryside.

The entrance to the cave is a steep scramble down a large rift from which the roof has been removed by erosion to the inevitable gate at the bottom.  Through the gate leads to a low dug section of passage which drops steeply and emerges in the roof of a small chamber.  A short climb down from the floor of the chamber leads to the top of a descending passage that requires the aid of a lifeline.  At the sides of this passage are reasonable groups of stals and the passage widens and the roof gradually lifts to a floor of boulders at the top of a boulder pile.  Standing here one looks out on a very large ch8mber disappearing into the distance with the boulder floor sloping from a high point on the right to the wall on the left.  The boulder floor is dotted with small, uninteresting, stalagmites.  As the boulder floor is crossed the main features of the chamber become apparent.  The roof of the chamber changes from a rounded shape near the entrance passage to a massive flat section sloping right across the chamber at about 60o.  The colour is a sombre black and the whole area appears quite smooth.  This effect is relieved to some extent along the lower edge by the formation of some excellent curtains.  The boulder floor rises up a short climb leading to a ridge of boulders giving a fine view of the next chamber (this is really a continuation of the last chamber but the roof changes abruptly back to a more usual dome shape).  Immediately to the right of this point is a large fluted stalagmite column rising 30 - 40 ft. to end near the roof.  The roof overhead is now covered with a profusion of stalactites and curtains of all shapes and sizes and colours.  On the left and to the immediate front are groups of stalagmites up to 6ft high and from a ledge on the wall a stalagmite, about 6" diameter, rises to over 10ft and has a fine white crystal effect.  In front, down on the floor of the chamber, is a large stal which cascades down over the boulders to the right and on to an area covered with groups of stalagmites up to 6ft high and varying in colour from white to a soft brown.  The centre left is dominated by a large stalagmite column some 30ft high of an erratic shape, glistening white and reflecting the light of our lamps from the crystal facets on the surface.  In the far distance a huge stalagmite column rises from a 10ft diameter base in magnificent tiers to a height of 50ft.

While a small group of the party sat at this point the rest made their way forward lighting up the chamber for us.  The small black figures with their lights shining on the stals made a delightful sight. The path was followed through the stals until a climb down, round a large stale boss, landed one in a large rift passage with bare black walls and a glutinous mud floor.  One picked the way through the mud to the best of one's ability to the far end where a climb up and a short squeeze brought one to a small chamber with plenty of stal more to the size we are used to see in Britain. The right hand wall was covered with a huge area of flowstone disappearing up into the blackness.  Our guide halted here and informed us that this was as far as we were going, just as the cave was about to go big again.  We reluctantly turned around and made our way back to the entrance.  Various people took photos on the way back but were not allowed to spend much time over this.  We emerged into the cold clear night after 2 hours underground.

Speaking personally, I found the trip extremely frustrating as we had obviously done only a small section of the cave and I should imagine that the best formations were not seen.  Time was not even allowed to take good photographs.  To go to the trouble to go there and then only be shown a small section of the cave I find very galling.  The attitude of the guide was unhelpful to say the least, especially as we had plenty of time.  When we checked the survey later in the evening, it showed that we had done about one third of the cave and were about to enter the main chamber when we turned back.

Although the cave has been only open since '68 and trips are limited to one a month the areas of stal that had been damaged by hands and feet was inexcusable.

We all returned to the Speleo Holland Hut where a fine meal of sauerkraut and sausages was prepared for us all by the Dutch lads.  The rest of the evening was spent in a bar at Rochfort, where quantities of the local ale were consumed.  The beer is brewed by the local Trappist monks and is named after them.  It comes in three different strengths - medium, strong and blow your head off.  It makes one very unsteady when standing up after sitting down with no ill effects, a fact that can be confirmed by various members of the group.  The proprietors finally expelled us at 1.30 a.m. when we split up and made our ways to the respective huts.  When we arrived back at our hut we found that a large party of French people were in occupation and had obviously had a good evening.  People were lolling against cars; lying of the steps and stairs and sitting on the floor, all very much the worse for wear. A snack of beef burger sandwiches was cooked and bottles of the frenchies wine purloined to wash them down.

Sunday morning we were up and about by 8.30 a.m. to find that the French had cleaned up and were finishing breakfast.  We cooked the usual large English breakfast and were watched with amazement as we ate the lot by the French.  After recovering all our lost eating irons and cleared up we piled into the car and made our way to the Dutch Hut.  We were to collect the rest of the party and proceed to the cave we had booked for the day. We arrived at the Hut and found the whole lot of them still resting in their pits!  They decided that the cave would be given a miss as they wanted to catch an early boat. We said 'Cheerio' and made our way to the place where we were to meet our guide for the cave.  We arrived to find a large party of Belgium cavers changed and about to move off. This was the party we were with, so, a quick change into wet suits and we too, were off.         The cave we were to descend was the Grotto de la Fontaine du Rivire which ends in a large lake; the reason far our wetsuits.  The walk to the cave was very pleasant along the banks of a fast flowing river with tall outcrops of limestone all around.  The entrance is about 100ft above the valley floor at the bottom of one of the rock outcrops.  The entrance has a gate and is an awkward tight tube for about 10ft where it opens to a hands and knees crawl in a grotty muddy passage.  This emerged into a muddy chamber where a second gate is situated.  With this gate removed a squeeze leads to a walking size passage with some stal. Following along this the passage gradually rises and then gets smaller until a thrutchy section leads through stal to a climb, down into a larger section of the passage.  A short way forward and another climb down between stal. flows on the walls leads to a steeply descending route with lots of stalagmites and stalactites the passage becoming larger as it descends.  The stal here is light brown in colour and quite dead; large areas of formations have been spoiled.  The passage ends at yet another steep climb down over stal flows to the large lake.  While on this climb one of the Belgium’s had dislocated his shoulder although we did not realise it at the time.

We moved through to the lake and leapt into the water for a swim.  The lake is large and triangular in shape and about 30ft deep.  The water was really clear and the bottom could be seen in some places.   There is a traverse line bolted round one wall to allow access to a chamber and a climb to a dig on the far side of the Lake.  Some of us did the traverse and found it quite sporting. While we were engaged in this part of the Belgium party went out with the injured lad.  J-Rat who had no wetsuit went with them.  After further swimming in the lake we all made our way out, changed and joined J-Rat in a bar for coffee.  The trip took 2½ hours and was very enjoyable.  The journey home was uneventful and a good sleep was had by all on an almost empty ferryboat.