The weather in the UK has been pretty dire for caving over the last year. So to try and remember what it feels like to clamber and swim around underground a group of us headed off to the Department du Lot in France. Several other people that we know also had the same idea and we ended up meeting and spending time with them as well.
The main group consisted of me, Andy, Sue, Marcus, Kath and little Pete. The others we met up with were Big Pete, Rick, Clive, Christine, Nadir, Cedric, Steve, and Trish.
The aim of the trip was to go cave diving with some other stuff thrown in. Plans were quickly modified to take account of illness and ear clearing problems. For some of us diving was off the list and for others it changed from a tourist trip to a project support trip. The activities are listed below in summary form without dates for simplicity. I like simplicity and Pete needs it.
Cycling. Just myself and Andy were dedicated enough to take our bikes and we were rewarded with some wonderful evening jaunts around the area with temperatures in the high twenties. The gite we were staying in was close to a T junction which gave us a choice of three possible directions to start each ride, each of which was up hill. Fortunately the roads in France tend to have hills that stick to a constant gradient so they are easy to climb at a steady rhythm. French motorists are also much more considerate towards cyclists than the ones in the UK so riding doesn’t feel like a life threatening activity.
We quickly established a regular circuit that took us up one side of the valley we were in, along the ridge and back down to the gite. On the first day we did the ride together we passed a house with a pool by the side of the road where a couple of ladies were drying off in the sun, the top halves of their swimming costumes clearly visible on the bench beside them. Being dedicated cyclists we didn’t slow down and were unable to take in any detail so we can only refer to the two as B and DD. Of course this incident had nothing to do with us continuing to use the same route most evenings throughout the holiday. To this circuit we would then add extra loops in different directions if we felt like it. The additional sections of route allowed us to visit various local cave entrances including the Goffre de Padirac and several Igue we were interested in.
Bar-B-Q. Having a lot of space available at the gite we decided to host a Bar-B-Q for all the friends that were around at the time. Several of these then invited others along and we ended up with about thirteen people turning up. Two were local (Big Pete and Nadir) and all were divers or married to divers (lucky people). The evening went off well with a good amount of information exchanged and a little personal abuse dished out.The only let down of the evening was Christine. Tasked with sorting out a pole dancer for the party she turned up with a green salad. A clear failure on her part.
Cave diving. Supposedly the main event of the holiday but illness and ear clearing problems meant that Andy and I only dived for the first few days. Marcus was fortunate that we met up with Big Pete who invited him along on a trip to a secret cave.
Andy just inside the entrance of the Oiel de la Doue.
The first site we visited was the Ressel. The viz was poor, the current was high and there was an unusually large amount of material piled up at the entrance. The dive was called when Andy had trouble with ear clearing. Big Pete and Christine also turned up. Pete scootered in for several hundred meters and Christine had a slow start after suffering a broken suit inflator nipple.
We also visited the St Sauveur a couple of times, which was very pleasant. Marcus used the site to do some training with Big Pete in the use of scooters (push button, hang on and don’t point it upwards I thought?).
Horses like sump pools too
One visit was made to the Oiel de la Doue, which is an open circuit, side mount cave. Equipment problems blighted the trip but we all made it through the glorious sump one but not into the well decorated passage after the short sump two. Water levels in the cave were very high.
The secret cave that Marcus was invited to turned out to be a digging project that Pete and two UK based divers were working that had successfully broken through to open passage. Sadly the site wasn’t as secret as Pete imagined. Several months previously a team of Dutch divers had been washed out on a holiday and had gone canoeing down the river Cele instead. Whilst paddling they spotted the water resurging from the freshly opened site and returned later to have a look. Being back mount divers they quickly decided that the site didn’t go and published the fact. (Pete and co dive the site using the more streamlined side mount rig.) Several other divers read the Dutch report and went to the site with side mount kit to have a look resulting in the line progressing over a km into sump three.
Throughout this time Pete and co had been keeping the location of the cave secret from Rick. With the cover blown and Rick in the area this all changed and Rick was launched into the site by Pete, Clive and Marcus to see how far it would go. On his first dive in the site he reached the limit of the line in sump three at a mobile constriction which he got stuck in. Small stones and sand were being washed in around him as he tried to dig through the constriction and he later described it as “like being buried in setting concrete”. After several minutes he managed to extricate himself and retired back up the passage to consider the problem. He was seen the next day buying a hoe with which to dig the constriction out on his next visit. Marcus made several visits to this site during the holiday, mostly in support of Rick’s trips. On each occasion the air between sumps one a two was very poor quality. This situation doesn’t improve with multiple trips into the cave.
Rick is still out in France at this time and is continuing his work in sump three. The last report we received from him stated that the sump goes to a terminal boulder chock at 1350 m in at a depth of about 50 m.
Igue hunting. One of the great sports of the Lot is Igue hunting. An Igue is a hole in the ground; it may be tiny with no passage beyond or it may be a massive entrance with a huge cave system below it. The problem is that the French publish a list of Igue and there location that doesn’t tell the reader with type of Igue each one is. It’s just a list of entrances. The fun part is to find the various Igue and then find out what type they are. There are guides to the local caves around each village but these rarely get published and the information is typically passed around between people that cave locally and know each other. There is no system of publishing larger guidebooks covering the whole area.
We found a big Igue
Igue hunting is an extreme sport. With temperatures up in the thirties and thick scrub to hack through anybody who has spent a day doing it will have ended up carrying the wounds to prove it. Andy and I spent several days at the task with some success. We managed to locate the entrances to several caves that we had information on. Most of these have sumps at the bottom. To help with the Igue hunting we didn’t take Andy (and Sue’s) 4X4 off road. We did use the bike rides in the evening to sort out the prime parking spot for the probable best walk in. Igue hunting was very technical this year…
Dry caving. After all the fun on Igue hunting/driving/cycling we only actually managed to get underground once.
The cave in question offered us a trip down multiple short pitches to a sump. A local farmer had stopped his tractor to have chat with us and explain that the cave floored dramatically during and after rainfall and with the hot weather forecast to turn to thunderstorms the following day we decided to get it done quickly. I sorted the gear we thought we needed and climbed into my SRT kit whilst Andy went into the cave to look at the first pitch. Once I was kitted Andy reappeared and told me that he thought the air quality was poor and I should have a look before we decided to go to the bottom. The cave takes a small stream and has several steps down through boulders and across pool before the first pitch is reached. At this point the air in the cave was decidedly poor with both of us noticing a significant increase in our breathing rate. There was no sign of headache or increased heart rate but even so we chose to bravely run away. We can only guess that the recent heavy rains have resulted in lots of vegetation being carried into the cave which has affected the air quality. Normally a stream running down a cave is enough to ensure good air circulation but not in this case.
Parc de Animalier. On a rest day when I was down with a cold, Andy and Sue went to the local zoo (the Parc de Animalier outside Gramat). When Marcus’s planned trip didn’t work out he came back to the gite, collected Kath and little Pete and went there too.
Donkey finds the wall cool
Being French the zoo is more like a farm for the animals but without the death sentence. It’s a mix of a petting zoo and a safari park with very few concrete built enclosures. A wide range of animals are kept by a seemingly invisible staff. The mixture is quite eclectic with a strong representation of local varieties of goat sheep and horsey things but also some animals from around the world. The wolves do a good job of waking up the people in the campsite across the road at 3 a.m. each morning (I know this) and everything else just tries to keep out of the midday sun.
Man it’s Hot
Driving Little Pete. Adventure sports can start at any age and Little Pete made full use of the facilities at the gite. The garden was large, mainly grass. It was equipped with a slide, a tractor/trailer combination and a football. Kath mentioned over dinner one day that Pete could do any sport he wanted as long as it wasn’t football. After the meal Andy took Pete outside and taught him to kick a ball and then ran away before Kath found out. The slide provided early morning entertainment before it heated up to much but Pete needed help with this as he is only one. The tractor and trailer were also in daily use. At the start of the holiday Pete only wanted to push it around but by the end Andy had got him to feel happy sitting on it whilst being pushed. This created more work for Kath especially since most of the garden was on a gradient and Pete didn’t seem to want to go across the direction of the slope; Andy had to run away again.