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Spanish For Beginners

by   Chris Smart

'Come to Spain Blitz". Rob said.  "It will take your mind off things”.   How little did Blitz realise the truth in that seemingly innocuous remark made over a couple of pints as plans were made for the expedition of the century on the back of a beer mat.

Indeed had Blitz thought back, he, and some of you, might nave remembered the famous (infamous?) Harper and Blitz offensive on the Dachstein in the winter of 1980/81, and things might have been different.  However memories and the Wessex are both short and the BEC Matienzo winter Expedition was born.

Deciding that people might talk if just the pair of our intrepid heroes set forth, to explore caverns measureless to man and to do battle with litres of Rioja, Harper decided to look round for suitable heroes in waiting, men eager for a challenge, the would be conquerors of the Stygian darkness and cavers of the calibre of Casteret, de Jolly and Wormhole.  After a long and fruitless search we had to make do with some of the hardest armchair cavers that the Belfry could muster ­Snablet, Rich Blake, Steve Redwood and that all American, clean living, crew- cut boy Chip Chapman.  They were all easily enticed with carefully edited highlights of previous summer expeditions, kilometres of virgin cave passage and quickly swallowed the bait.  The expedition was launched.

So it was that having played all the usual pre expedition games of; lets hunt for the BEC rope (most of it left in Rumania); lets hunt for the BEC hangers (found some or them); lets hunt for the BEC tackle sacs (succeeded); lets hunt for the BEC surveying kit (still held by the 1988 Black Holes expedition) and lets hunt for Snablets brain (failed); that Boxing Day 2300 hrs saw Rob and Blitz on board the Portsmouth - Le Havre ferry and Boxing Day 2301 hrs saw Rob and Blitz happily ensconced on the after deck clutching a carry out or three and, like two expectant penguins eagerly awaiting the forthcoming adventures.  The other four stalwarts of the team having promised faithfully to follow on the next day.

Midnight saw us pooping on the bivy deck (or something similar) and like two giant comatose slugs we dreamed sweet dreams before emerging butterfly like from our cocoons at six o clock the next morning.  You may be interested to learn that Blitz has lodged a reward with the ferry company in an attempt to find the sadist who seemingly took great delight in standing over his bivy bag at some unearthly hour announcing in a very load voice, and with sufficient volume to wake the dead, that "These two have picked a good spot to sleep in".  On a more serious note a word of warning, if you go to sleep on the Portsmouth - Le Havre cross channel ferry or even blink your eyes for an Instant then somebody will sneak up on you and alter your watch by exactly one hour, and the really odd thing is that they do the same on the way back across the channel.

I understand that 0630 is not the recommended guidebook time to see the sights and experience the delights of Le Havre but our thoughts were not on such tourist attractions but on more alarming necessities such as why wasn’t Matienzo on the signposts and you did bring the loose change for the French motorways tolls didn't you Blitz?

However we were soon on the way and within a few kilometres Dawn’s rosy red fingers were seductively caressing the early morning sky.  Its times like this that a young mans thoughts turn to love, poetry and the answer to life, the universe and Bowery Corner but it only takes a few bars of Meatloaf with “Hits out of Hell” to put the world to rights.  It seemed as it nothing could stop us.  Little did we know!

The morning quickly turned to the afternoon and the thoughts of our two heroes turned to the impending business of lunch.  Pausing only long enough to snatch a hurried three hour gastronomic extravaganza we were soon back on the wrong side of the road and the Pyrenees were looming large on the horizon.  France was soon behind us and Spain lay open and inviting before us.  Within what seemed to be an instant, but was actually a couple of hours in the all encompassing dark of the Spanish night we saw our first road sign for Matienzo.  Not even pausing for a brief smug self congratulatory smile we headed over the pass and drove down into the enclosed Matienzo depression.  The time was 9 pm and the advance guard of the expedition had arrived.

In good BEC tradition we stopped at the first bar and in halting Spanish ordered two beers.  The locals, who all appeared to be extras from a Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western, took it in turns to stare at us.  Blitz had one of those rare and fleeting moments of pure genius and suggested to Rob that a) that if the Brits had been coming to Matienzo for 20 years then one might expect a least a photo or a surveyor some indication to be visible and b) that there might just be another bar further down the road.

Consequently three minutes later we were in the next bar down the road and were confronted with Tony and Roz Williams who had driven up from Portugal to see Pete and Carmen Smith, who have a house in Matienzo, and in order to greet us.  Blitz then had another one of those rare and fleeting moments of pure genius when he announced that this was obviously the correct bar!

Introductions were soon made, food ordered and the wine began to flow liberally.  All too soon with tiredness catching up on everyone we decided to call it a night (i.e. the dark time between successive days) and the final introduction was made.  To those of you who are ignorant of the magical and therapeutic properties of a Matienzo Sol y Sombre then what little we will say is that they consist of approximately equal measures of brandy and anise (Similar to Pernod).  For the sake of common decency and in case anyone of a nervous disposition is still reading this then a veil is probably best drawn over the next few hours.  Suffice to say that by 2am, yes, only five hours after our arrival Rob had been arrested by the local police for having borrowed a car from the roadside, conveniently with the keys left in it, driven in it for half a mile down the road, attempted to borrow another car, had a shotgun fired over his head by two understandably irate locals and had managed to demolish ten yards of barbed wire and several bramble bushes with his bare chest.

The memories that Blitz has add little to these incidents, he will admit that Rob did seem a little merry when they left the bar to go and bivy in the field behind it, but as the night-time stars seemed to want to go round and round in circles, at a breakneck speed, even when he closed his eyes, his memory can be considered a little hazy. The only one event that Rob is adamant that he can remember from the evenings proceedings is apparently being brought to the bar by the two Civil Guardsmen, of them hunting out Blitz cocooned in his bivybag, of them waking him and asking in Spanish "Is this your friend?"  To say that Rob's heart stopped when Blitz replied "Never seen him before in my life" would perhaps be an exaggeration but only a little one. Those of you who know Blitz well must consider carefully whether such a story is fact or Rob's imagination working overtime and Blitz is adamant that it never happened.  What he does remember is of Tony Williams and Pete Smith waking him at 3am giving him Rob's car keys and telling him some cock and bull story that Rob was in prison and we would sort things out in the morning.

The morning soon dawned and Blitz awoke to find himself clutching Rob's car keys and a growing realisation that maybe it hadn't all been a bad dream.  The remainder of the morning was taken up at the local police station where the local inspector, who bore an uncanny resemblance to a short slim Batstone, established the facts of the case.  As Rob had managed to choose the day when the entire Spanish legal system was in the process of change he was unable to be put before a judge and was returned to Laredo jail for a second night’s incarceration.

Blitz and Pete Smith returned to Matienzo and were met by the other four stalwarts of the expedition who viewed the proceedings with some incredulity.  After all weren't Blitz and Rob the two quiet ones - how could they hope to compete against such over the top behaviour?  Snablet was not to be daunted and asked as to what Rob had been drinking the previous evening, and then asked a pint of it!  Four Sol y Sombres later he was not sure what planet he was on, let alone where he was or who he was, (or to put it another way just like a Saturday night at the Hunters).   He found his tent but obviously experienced a little difficulty as the morning found him with his head inside the tent but his body lying in a discarded heap on the grass outside the tent.  His comment that it was a little cold and damp met with some sympathy as fellow sufferers attempted to count brain cells and found several million to be missing.

Rob was finally released on the following morning and approached Matlenzo with some concern. However he was greeted like a prodigal son by the landlady and was subjected to a rib breaking bear hug, the offer of alcoholic refreshment and a voluble torrent of Spanish welcoming him home. Pablo, the landlord greeted him in a similar manor and immediately exhausted his complete vocabulary of English with the classic comment 'No problemo".  It seemed as thought the BEC had arrived.

The expedition having spent a little time on the above soon decided that we should gain some credibility with the locals and that it was about time we put our heads underground. Blitz and Harper opted for Cueva de Lleuva and spent a pleasant three or four hours srt-ing the 10 metre pitch, looking for the ways on and finally wandering about in enormous horizontal passages floored with sand and breakdown blocks.

The hard men chose to visit Cueva Uzueka.  This is a name that is meaningless in Spanish but if pronounced in a Mancunian accent gives some indication as to its charms.  They returned to the camp site about six hours later with tales of needing 4 hours to find their way through the entrance passages (something that does only take 15 minutes when you know where you are going) of a horrendous squeeze, of Darren sized passages (both very large and very small, and of having dug into 200 metres of new passage which reminded them of West End series in Eastwater. The expedition had obviously arrived.

All six of us returned to Cueva Uzueka the following day and while the new passage was surveyed Rob. Blitz and Rich pushed on down the Gorilla Walk.  This is a real collector's item and a previous expedition report describes it as " ... of roughly stooping size in knee deep water, which sets the scene for the next kilometre and is fairly described by its name.  Any gorillas contemplating the trip should wear wetsuits, for in various parts the water occupies more of the available space than the air does".  Needless to say we were in furry suits!  We pushed on deeper into the cave, through the "Near Stomps", 500 metres of wide stream passage floored with huge sand banks and Blitz found the way on at "Obvious Junction", which wasn't, into "Cross Over Passage" and onto the easy walking passage of "Las Playas" (the Beach). Unfortunately the others missed the strongly draughting connecting crawl and continued for an extra half kilometre along 'Far Stomps" before reaching the sump.  However by a stroke of genius we all exited together and returned to base.

It began raining that night at 3am and managed to rain through to 3pm.  Having spent most of the day drinking coffee in the bar we struggled out onto the hill side mid afternoon to search out Cueva de los Emboscados.  This took ages to find but Blitz and Rich Blake finally decided that having looked in all the not a chance places it must be that obvious large entrance.  The cave is only 180 metres long and consists of a single railway sized tunnel passage but contains some prehistoric engravings of the body and heads of deer and horses.

Pablo and family put on a special meal for us to celebrate New Years Eve and it goes with no real exaggeration to say that stomachs were severely bloated by the onslaught or several courses of wonderful food.  I shall gloss over the fact that one member of the expedition chose to await the arrival of the first course before announcing that he did not share our omnivorous eating habits.  On a word of warning to other vegetarians you should be aware that the Spanish do not appear to indulge in eating vegetables and that the word for vegetarian in Spanish is "homothexually".

A day or so later saw the four hard men gong for gold.  Pete Smith has casually told us that, near to end of Cueva Uzueka was a passage called "Shrimp Bone Inlet" which, although 700 metres long, and ending in walking sized passage had not been pushed.  The two old men Harper and Blitz elected to act as selfless sherpas and plodded on in behind the young tigers carrying spare food and kgs of carbide so as to establish a dump.  They made their way into the 'Astradome' which is a magnificent circular aven 30 metres in diameter and in excess of 100 metres high where a single voice sounds like a cathedral choir".  It was a magical place for the sardines and chocolate supper before exiting, with rampant indigestion, after a nine hour caving trip.

Meanwhile "Shrimp Bone Inlet" had been reached, the end survey station found and exploration and surveying conducted into the unknown.  Five hundred metres of relatively easy going passage later they emerged into a chamber with the way on visible as a passage 10 metres up on one of the walls.  The other possibility, a draughting boulder choke, was investigated but found not to go. The four of them exited after 16 hours underground and returned to the camp site where they arrived at 7am to be met by a relieved Blitz and Harper.  Survey calculations show this passage to be heading into a blank area of the map.

All too soon the next day dawned and it was time to pack up and go home.  The nearest town suffered an onslaught of six BEC members all intent on purchasing their own DIY Sol y Sombre kit and stocking up on those little delicacies such as tinned squid and octopus in their own ink, very cheap olive oil and rough vino tinto.  One little gem was attempting to buy some flowers as a gift, for our hosts but I’ll gloss over that one.

In conclusion, and to be serious for a moment.  We can say that Matienzo is well worth a visit and is about a days drive on the motorways from Le Havre or Cherbourg.  You could either go in with the 40 or 50 British cavers who regularly visit every summer (See Blitz for details) or as a small group at any other time.  (There is currently some talk about a return about next New Year).  Indeed the area is worth seeing and although it is not spectacular mountain scenery the locals have that easy going friendly and relaxed approach to life that is found throughout the world in small rural communities and what’s more they appear to enjoy the antics or cavers, even the BEC.

A few facts:

A Matienzo box file will shortly appear in the Library giving the real truth behind the expedition. Our main source of reference was BCRA Transactions Vol 8 No 2 June 1981 Matilenzo, but we now know that we should have consulted the “Report of the 1975 British Expedition to the Matienzo Polje” (Private publication).

The caves are not particularly easy to find but generally allow relatively easy caving.  Permission should be sought from the authorities in both Santander and Barcelona.  This is very important as access is delicate.  No English is spoken in the area so a phrase book and dictionary are essential.  Camping is easily arranged at the back of the bar from which food and drink is available throughout the day.

The weather at New Year varied from two afternoons we were in T-shirts to one morning where there was a centimetre of ice on the tents.


Grateful thanks must go to Pete and Carmen Smith of Santander, Juan Corrin, Tony and Roz Williams and the people or Matienzo.  In particular Pablo, Anna, Cuca and Granddad who made us feel not only like honoured guests but treated us as if we were their family.