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Austria, Winter 1981-1982

Blitz and Herr Bobby (Chris Smart and Rob Harper) spent the I.D.M.F. grant on two pairs of snow-shoes and made their way to Austria this winter in a little Renault with 'summer' tyres, to the amazement of the locals.  The weather was atrocious and they could not get above 1400m under their own steam.  The mountain huts closed but they went up the Dachstein-seilbahn to the Mammuthohle and had a trip there.  Mammuthohle is now the 7th deepest cave in the world.  A system has been found further up the mountain which leads into the Wiener Labyrinth and, thence into the Minotaurus Labyrinth, giving a total depth of 1174m.  The cave is now the deepest in Austria and has been explored entirely by Austrians - the Poles have had nothing to do with it!  Blitz and Rob were warned that it was impossible to reach Barengasse under the prevailing conditions (only the most experienced skiers might attempt the traverse) so they spent the time usefully at a P.U. in Koppenbrullerhohle, and then in firmly cementing Anglo-Austrian relations with Alcohol.

Hopeful there will be a full report from them in the near future.

A Tourist Cave: Tito Bustillo, Northern Spain

by Sue Dukes' Mum.

We decided on a holiday abroad this year.  We chose Northern Spain and, pouring over the map in anticipation, months before we were due to go, were delighted to find that our ferry port at Santander was only a few miles away from Altamira, the home of the famous cave paintings; a place we had long wanted to visit.

Imagine our disappointment when, arriving there eagerly the same day as we docked, we were shown into, not the magical caves we, had expected, but a small and rather non-descript system of worn, rather jaded looking stalagmite formation.  Obviously a mistake had been made!

The six or seven in our party - ourselves, some Americans and a couple of Germans were all looking a bit bewildered and feeling increasingly disgruntled as we listened to the torrent of Spanish issuing from our guide.  As it was obvious that not one of understood the language, I cast around for a few words that might help.

"Cuevas de los Toros?" I asked.

It took ten minutes of Spanish backed up by a lot of signs to tell us that the famous cave of prehistoric paintings was closed to the public, had been for four years, and would be for another one.  Something to do with restoring or preserving, we gathered.  The breathing of thousands of tourists over the years was proving to be extremely non-beneficial to the paintings - at least, that was the conclusion we came to after studying the guide's excellent charade.

We accepted the sad fact philosophically, looked at the photographs in a nearby museum, decided that was that and wended our way.  Enjoying our holiday during the       next three weeks made us forget all about the caves.

That is, until the day before we were due to come home.  Crossing the River Sella into a little town called Ribadasella, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a signpost, on which I recognised the one word, "cuevas". We turned back and had another look. It was true; there were caves, open to the public.  The name meant nothing to us - Tito Bustillo it was called.  We decided we might as well have a look because it could not be any worse than what we had seen at Altamira.

The entrance to the cave was obviously man-made, with what was probably the original entrance down below pavement level on our left - a three foot cleft out of which a stream trickled.  While we were waiting for the guide we tried to read the large plaque on the wall, our Spanish having improved considerably during the holiday (I now had twelve words!). As far as we could make out, it said that the cave had been discovered accidentally in 1968 by a party of subterranean explorers who had been searching in the mountains for a colleague who had been lost for eighteen days.  It did not state whether they had found him or whether, if they did, he was alive or dead. My theory is that they were so excited at having found a new system; they decided he was capable of looking after himself anyway!

After awhile, a party of twenty or so having now assembled, our guide unlocked the grille which barred the way into the cave.  We went through another three doors about fifty yards apart, each of which was locked behind us as we went through, and was air-tight against the rock.

The guide had about as much English as we had Spanish.  We got along fine, understanding about one word in twenty.  We got the gist of what he was saying, however, which was to the effect that the doors were there to maintain a constant temperature in the cave. All this time we were still in an artificial tunnel and were beginning wonder when the real cave was going to appear. The marks of the drills were clearly to be seen. in the walls and the roof.

At last we reached the main system.  It was not brilliantly lit but the lighting was well hidden and was used to very good effect.  There were some quite interesting bits of formation, and I was quite impressed - then we went round a corner and it was unbelievable tier on tier of beautiful stalactites, in pristine condition, from a ceiling so far above as to be only just visible; some joined to stalagmites; others huge, pointed; all completely unbroken, in all shades through cream and white to tan and deepest brown.  There were curtains cascading down the walls, and niches in which we could see more, smaller, and equally perfect and unbroken formation.

We walked on and on. I did not need to listen to the guide - in fact, I was glad I could not understand him, if the spiel was anything like the rubbish they dish out in England, with names to the various formation groups like "Fairy Grotto", "Organ Pipes" and "Swiss Village".

In places we saw the finest, thinnest, tallest columns I have ever imagined - perhaps we had them in Mendip caves once, but long and careless usage has ruined them if they ever existed.  One was about three quarters of an inch in diameter and about ten feet, tall.  I can just visualise, if it had been discovered a hundred years ago, like some of our poor Mendip caves, how some idiot would have surely tested it to see if it would break.

The colours in the various chambers were fantastic - even blue-green in places from deposits of copper. I particularly liked a pure white formation issuing from a cavity thirty or more feet up the wall; clean and glistening, crystals glittering as they caught the light from the guide’s torch as we passed.  I suppose it could be likened to a frozen waterfall but to me, whose poetic vision has been stunted through years of cooking meals, it resembled a great vat of icing, sugar that had been tipped up and allowed to drip down the rock face in waves.

I was overwhelmed. The cave more than made up for the disappointment at Altamira.  About one kilometre into the mountain we turned a corner into pitch blackness. The guide waited for us all to assemble, then shone his torch on the walls.  Here was the ‘piece de resistance’!  Cave paintings!  We gazed in wonder on the herds of deer, the horses and the buffalo, put there so many thousands of years ago, and I felt my cup of happiness quite full.  Neither Mike nor I had realized that there were paintings as well!  There was evn a carving on the rock, just discernable as an animal of some probably a deer.

Imagine the feelings of those “subterranean explorers” who had stumbled all unwittingly into this magnificent system, and then, to cap everything, to find cave paintings as well! No wonder they forgot the poor devil who had been lost in the mountains for eighteen days.