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Berger 1985 – “An alternative View”

"Book your transport early", they said. So we did; months before the trip 10 “Bergerers” got together and hired a nice new VW minibus from Bristol.  A week before departure day someone casually observed that this VW had no "tachograph".  "So what!” said the hire man - "You must have a tachograph when travelling abroad with a minibus having more than ten seats, or your vehicle may be impounded, etc~ etc. etc.", said the Bus and Coach Council.  Panic! - find another vehicle - but nobody hires minibuses for continental travel.  Vincent’s in Frome do.  "With only one weeks notice?"  "Yes they will and they've one with a roof rack".  Panic over - at least for the time being.  The night before the departure the minibus was collected - with a tachograph, but without; a spare tyre, windscreen washers, a jack and a complete exhaust system.  After several frantic phone calls, a couple of journeys to Frome and some clever wiring of exhaust pipes, all was ready.

Ten people for ten days in France, caving, camping and cooking equals one large mountain of kit.  Thank goodness for that roof rack; we couldn’t have got it all in the VW!

All went well with the journey and we arrived in at Quentin.  By now it was getting late, about 3.00am, most people were asleep or at least dozing off. Two navigators and the driver were not quite asleep when the centre of St Quentin loomed in the form of a large roundabout.  Brian Workman, the driver, decided to approach it in English fashion and turn left at the roundabout.  The first circuit failed to reveal any road sign for Riems.  All ten people were now wide awake.  "Brian, you're going the wrong way round!"  "I know, don't panic, there's no one about and I feel more at home going this way round!"  Second time round and still no sign.  On the third circuit someone casually observed that we couldn't see the road signs because we were going the wrong way round!  Everybody dozed off again.

At breakfast time, a stop was made at Nuit St George, a pleasant little town, south of Dijon, in the heart of the wine growing region of the same name.  It was most enjoyable sitting having breakfast on the pavement in a place that had given its name to a well known wine.  Saturday morning saw us travelling down through the Saone valley to Grenoble.  As we journeyed south, the temperature rose and the minibus was now full of hot sweaty people.  What we wanted was a nice quiet lake for a swim.  Using her superb navigational skills Lucy Workman guided us successfully to a nice quiet lake just north of Grenoble where ten people stripped off to their 'shreddies' in preparation for a swim.  Dave Turner was the first to hop over the wall and onto the beach - where he, clad in his typical English gentleman's baggy shorts, was confronted by two rather well endowed topless young ladies sunbathing.  Keeping a stiff upper lip and eyes front, Dave ceremoniously entered the water to the amusement of the onlookers.  The rest followed, eyes definitely not to the front.  One of the young ladies quietly informed us in English (they were English) that the strange purple 'gunge' floating in the lake was in fact harmless bacteria.  After a short meal break we were off again to find Sassenage and to wind our way up the hill to La Moliere car park.  The minibus struggled a bit with ten people and kit as it wound its way up to Engins. Engins turned out to be about three battered houses - I wondered which one the mayor lived in - wasn't it the mayor of Engins, who we had to contact on arrival at the Berger?

By Saturday evening we had settled into the campsite at La Moliere.  Fears of trees smothered in pink (or was it brown) Andrex were soon allayed, in fact, the site was excellent, being very close to the car park and situated right on the edge of a pleasant pine forest.  The general appearance of the site was clean and tidy with, a good water supply from the spring on the hill above.  This water, in fact, later proved to be pure enough that we eventually stopped worrying about purification and boiling etc.  (This, of course, may not be the case every year).

By Sunday, most of the expedition members had arrived by various means of transport, including bus in the case of Jerry Crick and bicycle for Jim Smart.  Sunday also saw the start of tackling, with the first party getting as far as the top of Aldo's shaft.  The telephone line was also checked and found to be somewhat poor. Radio communications from the campsite to the entrance of the cave were successfully established with the aid of VHF radios, Ric Halliwell's car battery and an aerial stuck together with adhesive tape on the roof of our frame tent.  The radio sets, for future reference, were not CB but operated somewhere in the high VHF band, possibly around 150MHz.  Communications, despite the profusion of trees between the campsite and the cave entrance, were extremely good, good enough in fact to allow reliable all night listening, and for me to be woken up in the middle of one night to be told that Bob Lewis had at last come out of the cave suffering from mild hypothermia.

On Monday, another tackling party went in and reached Camp 1, the telephone improvement party were unable, at that stage, to sort out the jumble of wires they found just beyond the Meanders at the Boudoir.  From now on, trips were made with great regularity with the telephone greatly improved due to the sterling efforts of Brian Workman and Dave Turner.  Camp 1 was now coming through loud and clear.

It was during the next few days that many people reached the bottom of the Berger and many others, like myself, came to realise their limitations.  However, no doubt there will be many a tale told over a Hunter's pint during the next few years and I'm sure many people will want to go back again one day.

Along with the caving activities, many people decided to explore the Vercors area.  Obviously high on the priority list was a good village for shopping.  Autrans turned out to be the best bet, with a small supermarket and a campsite where hot showers could be obtained for a small fee.  A reasonable restaurant, the "Auberge of the two Wallies" (Vallees), was situated on the road to Lans en Vercors quite close to the Berger campsite.  It was here that one of the group nearly came to grief.  After a heavy evenings drinking session a certain young lady managed to "manoeuvre" her car onto the wall of the Auberge car park.  J Rat nearly got run over during the retrieval proceedings.  The journey back up the winding road to the campsite must have been quite exciting.

Over the next few days, sightseeing parties made forays into Vercors.  A visit was made to the Gorge de la Bourne and the Routes de Econges as well as to the Grottes de Choranche and Bournillon.  The Bourne Gorge is a must for anyone going to that area; it is a magnificent limestone gorge with cliffs rising thousands of feet above the gorge floor. The road, sometimes perched on narrow ledges hundreds of feet, up or cut through tunnels, winds splendidly downwards passing the great valley leading to the entrance of the Grotte be Bournillon. This amazing cave entrance, reputed to be the largest in Europe, is over 300 feet in height and equally as wide.  Although dry on the day of our visit, signs of immense water activity could be seen, including a hydroelectric station at the valley bottom.  Clearly this cave must be an incredible sight in flood. 

A visit to the Grottes de Choranche is well worthwhile for any caver in the area.  Next door, the Gournier with its entrance lake and climb is a must.  Turning out of the Bourne Gorge at La Balme de Rencurel, the Route de Econges is fascinating.  With the road here and there cut into the cliff face with little viewing windows giving superb views of the valley, hundreds of feet below.  It was here, during the Second World War, that eleven of the French Resistance held a whole army of Germans at bay many days.  They all perished in the end, and a plaque on the side commemorates the spot.

Swimming facilities in the Bourne Gorge are good and several pleasant 'dips' were taken in natural pools in the river bed.  After such a swim, the minibus party descended on a small but recommended restaurant at La Balme de Rencurel.  The decor was somewhat primitive but an excellent umpteen course meal was had at no more than about £5.  The locals in the restaurant were somewhat bemused by ten dishevelled English visitors. At first, they thought we were being a bit disrespectful and a few sidelong glances were noticed.  However, after we had noted that the locals helped clear the tables and assisted in the kitchen we joined in and the atmosphere completely changed to the extent that when Brian Workman showed his delight at being given a large bowl of raspberries, the waitress gathered up all the uneaten raspberries from all the other tables and dumped them straight onto his plate.  Brian, for the first time, was speechless.  Several 'Franglais' conversations were started up with the locals as more 'vin rouge ordinaire' was consumed, with one local insisting that her grandmother had been English and came from ‘Borne-a-mooter’. We later realised she meant Bournemouth.  A visit to La Balme is certainly worthwhile and it pays to get Away from the “touristy” area when it comes to meeting locals and eating and drinking.

The caving activities had reached their peak and by now someone had realised that he didn’t like SRT anyway.  Lisa Taylor had strained her ankle and Geoff Price of the Wessex preferred his feet without any skin covering. Someone else retired hurt with a pulled Ham String and Bob Lewis was still down the cave - somewhere.  Peter Glanville was very unhappy - he had had his tin of self-heating soup eaten at Camp 2.  Ken Dawe and Bob Pyke reached the bottom along with many others.  Jerry Crick tried to carry enough kit for an army and finally Lisa and her ankle got as far as “Little Monkey” pitch.  Well done Lisa.

On Saturday, the minibus team regrettably had to pack up in order to be at Calais by 4.00am on Sunday.  The return journey was uneventful except that we passed, going the other way, the longest traffic jam that any of us had ever seen.  The minibus made it without mishap and the improvised exhaust repair made back in England held together for the 1500 mile journey.

We arrived home at Sunday lunchtime in pouring rain to a Swildons rescue.  Brian Workman, Dave Turner and myself being dragged out only 10 minutes after arriving home.  But still, we did manage to escape the hail and snow at the Berger on the Monday and Tuesday.

Finally, note: - if anyone wishes to take a hired minibus onto the continent, then contact Brian Workman. He is now the world's expert.

Brian Prewer