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France ‘81  

by John Watson

A joint B.E.C. cum W.C.C. contingent embarked for France in mid-July with the aim of having a good time. Failing that, we would venture underground. Our group leader was Jeff Price, the other Wessex member being Pete Watts.

Having braved the English Channel we arrived at Le Havre at 10 o’clock.  An hour or so later we had managed to find the right road and were on our way destination Dordogne.  The first night was spent just outside Le Mans.  Having arrived at 3 am, tents were hurriedly pitched when, only to be found the next day on the camp-site road.  No wonder we had bent so many pegs.

We arrived in the Dordogne on the Saturday, the rest of which was spent recuperating.  On the Sunday morning we visited Padirac.  We all agreed that this was the finest show cave that any of us had seen - a huge shaft 200 feet across and deep, which can be descended either by a lift or by iron stairs, which lead to the bottom of the shaft.  From there a short walk in a large river passage leads to a canal, where a boat trip is taken.  After this a short walk leads to a huge chamber some 300 feet high.

Jeff had brought with him a French Caving Book, containing some of the Best Caves in France.  Between us we managed to decipher the description and plumped for The Grotte de Braugue. After an hour or so we managed to find the cave, with the help of the land-owner's daughter.  Without her assistance we would never have found it.

Initially the cave consisted of a large passage, 15 feet wide and some 20 - 30 foot high, leading past several climbs and a tricky, muddy traverse, to what looks like the limit of the cave - a large choked passage containing what used to be a fine grotto, but now severely damaged by souvenir hunters.  A systematic search was made for a possible continuation.  A passage, small by French standards, was followed for some 200 feet as an inclined rift.  Caving in wetsuits we were beginning to sweat in unmentionable parts, and wondered whether to pursue our goal or take the easy option and turn back, but, like all keen Mendip cavers, we continued.  After another 150 feet we were back in the main passage beyond the choke.  The climb down to this passage was helped by a conveniently placed log.  The passage upslope terminated at another grotto with some fine, large stal, whilst downslope was the way on.  We were soon confronted by a river of mud, similar to Tynings but on a grander scale.  Slow progross was made in this glutinous mud, until a small chamber with some fine white pretties was reached.  We pressed on.  The mud became deeper - knee deep in places.  At one point I nearly lost a tightly laced boot, whilst Pete decided to go for a mud-bath.  Finally we were confronted with a large void, a chamber 100 feet in diameter and 50 - 70 feet high, dominated in one corner by a huge stal boss, with a column on top some 20 feet high and 15 feet wide at its base.  After a short rest we followed the chamber downslope to a very muddy sump. A passage was followed leading off the chamber, which led to another, smaller chamber, similar in shape and size to Chamber 3 in Wookey, but that was where the similarity ended, for the rock was festooned with hundreds of stalactites, one to three feet long.  A closer examination made all the mud worthwhile - in between the stal were hundreds of thousands of eccentrics branching off in all directions like tightly baled straw.  The trip took just over two and a half hours but for those who like revelling in mud it was a classic and its vast forest of eccentrics would be hard to beat anywhere.

The following morning we embarked for the Pyrenees.  All went well until we reached Toulouse.  Having been suitably impressed by my Wessex colleagues carbide gobblers we went in search of a speleo-shop where one was purchased.  Jeff and Pete could not resist the temptation to spend some of their money and purchased two Petzl helmets for around £11 each.  Leaving Toulouse was far from easy.  Like a magnet it attracted us to its centre.  Our problem was solved after more than an hour by taking a compass bearing south.  From here we went to Andorra.  Jeff lost ten years off his life, driving up the mountain passes in a night fog.  Andorra itself is a tourist trap.  A word of warning - do not purchase drinks in night clubs. Jeff was stung £2 for a coke.

From Andorra we travelled to the Ariege valley.  Here the glaciers have truncated huge systems, the entrances to which are now some 200 - 300 feet above the valley floor. Some of these entrances are 100 feet square.  The best of these are the show caves of Grotte de Lombrive, and Niaux, with its fascinating cave paintings which are well worth a visit.  Apart from the show caves we visited the Grotto de Emite, a modest but impressive cave - you could call it a French Goatchurch.  Apart from its sporting aspect it had a very colourful, historic past, having been used by an outlawed religious sect in the Middle Ages for an initiation test.  The poor participants would be led into the cave and left there for days at a time.

The day after visiting Emite we went to the Grotte de Sabart, which virtually consists of a huge chamber, one of the biggest in France, some 650 feet long and 200 feet wide. We were dwarfed by its huge stal, one column being 30 feet high and 5 - 10 feet in diameter.

From Tarascon we made our way to Villefranche de Confluence, an old, walled, medieval town.  Having set up camp we took a wander round this quaint old town and were very surprised to find a Speleo headquarters. Consulting Jeff's book once more we planned to do the Grotte de Gorner, a large system some 14km long, and one of the finest caves in France.  Finding the entrance from the book's description was impossible and somehow we had to get permission to enter the cave.  In the midst of a hopeless situation we were struck by good fortune. We had searched in vain and, as a last resort, had asked an elderly French gentleman if he could help.  In very broken French we tried to explain our predicament.  This was partially understood, at which point he beckoned a younger man over and started to chat to him.  Luck would have it that he was the president of the local Speleo Club.  He explained, in French, that the cave was locked but said he would take us to the entrance.  He told us that if we were outside the cave the following morning we could go down the cave with another party who just happened to be going in then. All three of us then retired to the local bar, where all this was confirmed by a translator.

The following morning we were up bright and early and parked near to the cave.  After an hour's wait a car drew up full with what looked like cavers. They were totally dumbfounded when we tried, to explain to them that they were taking us caving.  They immediately told us that it was not possible, so we tried to explain to them that their president had OK'd it.  Words were fast and furious and confusion reigned. The leader pointed to our car and we followed him back into town.  This went on for about an hour.  We told them we had our own gear, at which point they relented and we drove back to the cave entrance, heads thumping with confusion.  Our French friends found it very amusing when we donned our wetsuits. This was followed by numerous gesticulations and tugging of boiler suits - I think he thought we would be too hot. I explained that all English cavers wore wetsuits.  All this commotion had attracted a large crowd.  Within minutes we were surrounded by dozens of amused French speleos (by way of comparison the leader, who never stopped talking, wore a boiler suit and a woolly hat, and had a hand held torch).  The entrance to the cave was like Fort Knox - a three inch thick steel plate door, 12" x 18", with an internally fitted lock - definitely pirate proof.  The cave was impressive from the start - a large phreatic passage with interesting holes in the floor, some over 100 feet deep.  After a hundred metres or so we reached a large, sandy chamber.  We were entertained every step of the way by our woolly-hatted French friend would point out the numerous formations with cries of "Inglish" (he was a real piss-taker).  After 500m we reached a section called the Metro, a huge phreatic passage, 30 feet round with a flat, sandy floor.  Although the passage was dry it floods to the roof in wet weather. This went on for another kilometre until we reached the start of the aquatic section, which can be followed for 2km, to another entrance.

After lunch we were taken down a French dig?  I was under the impression that the French did not dig for caves - a huge misconception - as it would have put any Mendip dig to shame.  We had been told by our French friends that the cave was very small, and that we would be better off to carry torches rather than carbides.  By this time Jeff started to worry.  The entrance was a sandy crawl similar in dimensions to Cwm Dwr entrance series.  Anything small, i.e. squeezes, had been blasted to leave a comfortable sized passage whose draught threw us into darkness many times.  After 250 feet a small chamber was reached, where an inlet made the going wet.  The end was reached after 350 feet.  The way on could be seen, tight and. wet.  This was not pushed, since we were clad in T-shirts.  Very impressed, we followed the compressed air hose out to the entrance.  It was later explained that it had taken eleven years to reach the end.  The potential, however, is enormous.

After the trip we retired to the bar, swapped addresses and said farewell to our French counterparts.

The following day we left the Pyrenees to sample the delights of the Med.