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(Show) Caving In The Ardeche

This summer the Glanville family decided to take a holiday in France again but without going in the company of others or as part of an expedition.  Initially we had planned to spend a few days near the Ardeche gorge and then move on to the Verdon Gorge which we had visited with Ken Gregory last year.  Rick Stanton had visited the Ardeche area in the past and recommended it.  After a two day drive from Cherbourg we arrived at Vallon Pont d'Arc which lies at the head of the gorge.  We then set about finding a camp site which didn't take very long in fact.

The Ardeche river which has formed the gorge runs west to East debouching into the Rhone near Bourg St. Andeol.   It lies not far to the north of Avignon.  The gorge is around 150 metres deep and has many deep meanders with a gigantic natural arch, the Pont d'Arc, forming a natural gateway to the gorge. The arch was formed when the river cut through the narrow spur on a particular sharp meander.  The river has many rapid sections which makes it an attraction for canoeists of all ages as none of the rough sections are too difficult or dangerous to pass.  In summer the place is literally swarming with canoeists and places to hire them.

The Ardeche has a reputation of being one of the most dramatically flood-responsive rivers in France and tide marks in the gorge testify to this.  At certain times of the year the region is prey to particularly violent thunderstorms which can, make the gorge extremely dangerous.  Apart from the usual above ground feeders the gorge is well provided by resurgence caves which drain the extensive plateaux on each side of the gorge.  Some of the longest cave systems in France lie in the immediate vicinity of the gorge and all the water drains there.  To give you an idea of how many caves there are in the area, it supports a flourishing "have a go at speleology" industry for the tourists.

Apart from the sporting caves there are probably more show caves in this area than in the whole of England.  For most of the rest of this article I will be describing the show caves we visited. As the holiday progressed Sally, my eldest daughter, was heard to moan "not another cave" whilst Philippa, my youngest, seemed to liven up underground and become embarrassingly noisy. The first cave we looked at was right on the road side between Vallon Pont d'Arc and the Pont d'Arc itself. The entrance was in a cafe and looked like the way into the cellar!  Price to get in was 10 francs - about a pound sterling.  The entrance passage generated a strong cold draught but when we descended this proved to be coming from a large electric fan in the centre of the passage!  The descent of an excavated tunnel (the cave was entered originally from above) led under an arch into a chamber with anastomotic channels in the roof.  The cave seemed to consist of several high pheratic rifts, the route ascending one and descending another.  The first grotto we came to was most unimpressive but climbing higher led us to the Niche d'eccentriques where there were some nice helectites and white stal.  A further ascent led to another small chamber containing a big white stal pillar.  The descent carrying a small child in a back pack was a bit hairy.  The steps were constructed in a deep rift being steep and muddy with poor guard rails. Safely at the bottom we noticed that water flow occurs in this area and in fact we were led off down a slope into a final passage with a door in the end where flood debris could be seen all over the roof.  The cave obviously lies close to the gorge here and floods in the winter.  That was the end of the trip - about thirty minutes in length.

On the same side of the gorge as the Grotte des Tunnels is the Grotte des Huguenots which has been taken over by an organisation called CESAME.  They run an educational exhibition on all aspects of cave exploration and I bought the French booklet on cave conservation here.  The price was again 10 francs and, as mentioned, caving books, posters, and leaflets were available.  Amongst exhibits was some of Martel's old caving kit.  Every caving museum in France claims to have some of his gear - it seems a bit like keeping relics of saints.  Can you imagine Britain doing the same to any of our explorers? Other exhibits included a staled over skull, a cave bear skeleton, and a considerable amount of pottery.  The cave itself seemed to draught but how much associated passage there is I do not know.

The cave in the region which nearly everyone has heard of is the Aven d'Orgnac.  It was first entered by Robert de Joly back in the late 1930's and was rapidly turned into a show cave.  The surface buildings are all quite low key and the ticket office looks exactly like a railway station booking hall cum waiting room.  One descends to the cave in a lift which opens into a blasted tunnel.  The first impressions of the Aven d'Orgnac is of immense size.  One first encounters a huge talus cone lying under the 50 metre natural entrance shaft - thankfully well grilled to prevent idiots lobbing rocks in.  All around the chamber are immense stalagmites looking like palm trees or gigantic stacks of plates - many are still active.  The cave gives the feeling of great age and it is in fact thought to be very old indeed.  The stalagmites are standing on a gigantic boulder pile and nowhere can the true floor be seen.  A path meanders around the side of the chamber.  At one point the whole party is photographed for souvenir pictures if required. On a stal bank in the distance is an urn which contains another holy speleological relic, namely the heart of Robert de Joly who died about fifteen years ago.  A steep flight of steps goes down about 60 metres or so to a balcony view into the theatrically lit Salle Rouge - the end of the cave.  Much amusement can then be had watching fat French tourists struggling back out.  The guide did not mind us taking the odd photograph although they had to be small scale of necessity. About twenty years ago a big extension to the system was made comprising several more bigger and better decorated chambers. According to Pierre Minvielle's book (100 Grotte et canyons) it is possible to negotiate trips into this extension although reading between the lines I feel this might be quite difficult. It certainly would be a mind blowing kind of caving trip.

After the Aven d'Orgnac and a picnic lunch we drove off to the Grotte de la Forestiere.  This was not far away at the end of a track seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  The manager has been caving in England but unfortunately was not there the day we visited. His wife spoke poor English so our conversation in a sort of Franglais was somewhat halting.  However we did get a price reduction for being cavers.  A natural entrance leads into a roomy pheratic tunnel which widens into chambers in places.  The whole cave lies close to surface as can be evidenced by the number of large tree roots which pierce the roof, cross the chamber and burrow into the floor.  The management actively encouraged the taking of photographs which was nice because the scale permitted photography.  Just inside the entrance was a feature common to many French caves - a pile of assorted bones.  The terminal grotto was well decorated with many cauliflower concretions and crystal pools. There was also a speleological zoo in the form of several tanks containing cave dwelling creatures such as Niphargus and blind fish.  The cave looked as if it was a dead end but our guide said it was thought possible it might link with the Aven d'Orgnac.  This seemed unlikely to me.

One of the most impressive caves we visited, and an inspiration to any caver who has ever wanted to open his own show cave, was La Cocaliere.  It lies about half an hour's drive from the Ardeche Gorge but is well worth a visit.  The cave has only been open as a show cave for about fifteen years and is still being extended both for the public and in the exploratory sense.  The route through the show cave section was constructed by the original explorer and his team.  He purchased the land over the caves in order to develop it.  Initially, equipment, cement etc. all had to be carried in on back packs and the work was done in the light of caving lamps.  This might explain why the floor detail in most of the cave has been so well preserved - in places it looks as if the concrete floor has been rolled down the centre of a pristine passage.  A flight of steps leads into an abandoned stream passage about the size of the extension passage in Otter Hole. There follows a walk of about a kilometre in some marvellously decorated cave featuring amongst other things, cave pearls and the disc formations for which the system is well known. The lighting is unobtrusive and, as this is a feature of virtually all the caves we visited, there was no fern or moss growth to disfigure the cave.  The walk ends in an ascent to a higher level pheratic passage near the surface where the guide spent ages babbling away in incomprehensible French next to some skulls and broken pottery.  I am told that the first man up into this section had a bit of trouble on the climb.  His light went out at the critical moment and after making it over the lip of the pitch he shakily relit his lamp only to see dozens of grinning skulls surrounding him! After emerging to daylight we had a short train ride back to the main complex.  There is a cafe at the cave - it is a bit of a rip-off.  Price was 25 francs, i.e. average for the trip into the cave.

Lying on the plateau above the gorge is the entrance to Grotte de Marzal.  This is named after a shepherd who was unfortunate enough to be murdered and thrown into the hole.  This was one of the busiest caves we visited and was substantially commercially developed.  Nearby was a prehistoric zoo containing some life size dinosaur models - rather good fun. Aven Marzal was relocated by - yes, you've guessed it - Martel.  There is more of his gear in the caving museum plus some of Robert de Joly's. Underground the cave begins with a steep staircase down the 50 metre entrance pitch which enters a high chamber containing a few nice stal flows and some more bones.  A further descent leads past the (reorganised) bones of Marzel's dog which are lit by UV light for some reason.  Although there are potentially massive fines for damaging stal in French caves the management were taking no chances here and the final section through some grottos was most un-aesthetically caged in.  The climb out proved energetic and we left the cave by a second entrance.  Not a very exciting system really.

About two hours drive from Vallon Pont d'Arc will get you to the Fontaine de Vaucluse.  There is no real cave here but it is well worth a visit - you can always visit the Norbert Casteret caving museum if you are desperate. Vaucluse is another tourist trap and reminded me of a cross between Castleton, Cheddar and Wookey Hole.  A big stream flows down a pretty wooded valley (if you keep eyes right) from the base of a 300 metre high cliff.  At the start of the walk up to the rising is a paper mill and the path is lined with shops and stalls selling all sorts of souvenirs.  However nothing can really detract from the drame of the Fontaine de Vaucluse itself. The summer stream rises amongst boulders in the stream bed 20 metres below the main cave.  At the end of the path is a steep slope down to a massive arched entrance about 20 metres across and 9 metres high.  On either side are graduated iron plates - the sorgometre. This gives a measure of the water level at anyone time.  The cave floor is occupied by a pool of the clearest crystal blue.  Stones thrown in seem to go on down for ever.  This is the deepest known sump in the world, subject of the world cave (and sport) diving record currently held by Jochen Hasenmeyer. It is possible to traverse round one wall of the pool and get a nice view out.  It is staggering to consider the volume of water that must flow out in spring to overflow the top of the entrance slope.  The Fontaine de Vaucluse is certainly very impressive.

Not far away but badly signposted were the Grottes de Thouzon.  These caves are developed in quite a low key fashion.  They were discovered by quarrying and consist of a single passage, reminiscent of a large Devon cave.  The guide spoke very clear French and only after talking to her in French for most of the trip did I discover she was American!  Tree roots were again much in evidence showing how close the cave ran to the surface.  The final chamber contains quite an impressive array of straws.  The caves are worth a visit if you go to the Fontaine de Vaucluse.

Finally I should mention the caves we did not visit and those I examined with simple caving gear (mostly bare feet, bathing trunks and a Petzl lamp) around the sides of the gorge. Near the bottom of the gorge is the famous Grotte St Marcel which is featured twice in Pierre Minvielle's book. To reach it you will need to use the map of the area but it is worth visiting the entrance if only on the way to the nearby beach!  A rough track, passable by vehicles with good suspension, leads steeply down to a parking area.  The path to the Cafe des Grottes leads past Grotte St. Marcel.  There is an archaeological dig in the entrance and the cave has been gated.  This is a shame because it provided an opportunity for some wild caving.  The gorge entrance leads into a huge ancient main drain boring back under the plateau.  A relatively recently discovered upper series drops from the plateau into the main tunnel.  The system can now only be entered from the plateau.  The draught coming out of the holes in the gate can be heard several feet away!  The nearby sandy beach is quiet and secluded and marvellous if you like nudist swimming and sunbathing.  Walks along the gorge just above river level will reveal ancient oxbow caves of varying length and interest.  I had a look at two resurgence caves. One was the Source de Gournier reached by a long walk down a path from the road.  The river at this point enters a narrow canal for 75 metres after some rapids.  On the far bank at the start of the canal was a classic resurgence entrance with a dried moss covered stream bed leading from it. Off I went with my trusty Petzl zoom and bathing trunks.  An icy draught billowed from the cave and after groping my way over razor sharp sculptured limestone I came to an arete above a short pitch.  I packed up and left at this point.  The other entrance was the Event de Fossoubie at the start of the gorge.  This cave has been linked with the Goule de Fossoubie some kilometres away by Belgium cave divers.  The system is notoriously flood prone and contains 55 sumps!  My foray ended in a sump in one direction and, after a wade through glutinous mud, in a pitch in the other.  The system looks rather Otter Holish and uninspiring.

The other cave we looked at was the Goule de Sauvas near and part of La Cocaliere.  This huge rift entrance by the road led into a big semi-active river passage.  Progress was halted by the deep water filled potholes in the floor.  It is in Pierre Minvielle's book.

The Ardeche resion certainly merits a visit.  Some day perhaps I could do some real caving here!

Peter Glanville - October 1986