Ben Honan, Catalina Garcia, Cecilia Kan, Chris Dillon, Clara Rodríguez Fernández, Floris Wu, Isha Kaur, Jack Hare, Max Hörmann, Nuria Devos, Peter Ganson, Ramon Winterhalder, Sam Page, Tanguy Racine, Will Scott
When I first saw this trip it said on the description that it was a trip for freshers that wouldn’t involve ropes. I thought: “Well, that’s easy! Just walking in a cave”. However, it was nothing like that!!! I was really surprised and pleased to find out that caving involves much more than just walking; you need to crawl, to climb, and even to swim!!! But let’s start with the beginning of our trip.
On Friday I grabbed my bag and went to the packing stores in Beit, where there were already some people helping to bring everything outside. Everyone looked really excited and we started to learn each other’s names (which wasn’t very easy...). After a lot of hours in the minibus with a lot of music (including the Sandstorm song on the bridge) and at stop at Tesco, we finally arrived.
The cottage where we would stay was really cosy and there was a fabulous dinner waiting for us (pasta!!!). We chatted for a bit and everyone went to sleep. However, right at the moment when I was going to lie down and sleep using my toilet bag as a pillow, it started vibrating!!! I had accidentally turned on my electric toothbrush!! We laughed a bit and finally closed our eyes.
Having arrived quit late at Friday night, we were obviously happy about getting well cooked pasta. During eating, we started to get to know each other and tried to guess everyone’s age. Unfortunately the age of one girl was not exposed, but that has just encouraged us to be more persistent during the next two days, probably with a result. Beside these fundamental issues, we were also divided into 3 groups of 5 for the next day. It is still an unsolved riddle if it was just by coincidence that both Germans were in the same group or not. Nevertheless it proved to be valuable for a third group member during the Saturday.
I finished working at the lab early to go to the stores and help getting everything in the bus. I was feeling really excited to go on my first caving trip after building it up the previous Tuesday when packing our gear and having a pint with some experienced cavers.
We survived the minibus drive with some delicious hummus Jack shared with us, and once we arrived at the hut we had some tea and a delicious dinner. There was a really friendly atmosphere and we stayed chatting for a while, but not too much since we had to wake up at early on Saturday.
Having never been caving, I had managed to get an impression that caves were just long, repetitive tunnels of grey stone walls. I had signed up on the rationale that there has to be something more, surely?, for people to get addicted.
I was thankfully right (and also wrong, but let's forget that). While there certainly were some longish grey tunnels, there was so much more variety: impressive flat sheets of rock interacting, many 'straws', stalagmites, stalactites, trickling deposits of white, mud, streams, clambering, crawling, singing, squeezing. Given the expectation of simply grey, it was very awesome.
The highlight for me was a tunnel of black rock (that has some name I forgot) where the small gaps between the rocks had filled with a white deposit (limestone maybe?) - which to me looked like someone had painted the ceiling.
Another stand-out memory was marching through the stream for what seemed quite endless, with Jack providing the group with some singing to keep up spirits. Doing anything after the coldness was hard, and I felt ridiculously happy to not fall when pulling myself up at the top of a rope. From here, we made our way out in time for a beautiful sunset over the hillside, and this did remind it was maybe all grey inside after all. But the darkness isn't everything. Exploration, a sense of actual danger, exercise and camaraderie... beats a weekend in London!
After a night without strange noises from Catalina (she said she usually made strange noises during the night, but I didn’t hear anything) we went to have breakfast. A full English breakfast! We also prepared some sandwiches with lots of cheese and salami and off we went!
Almost all groups entered the cave through the top entrance, but my group (Clara, Will and me leaded by Tanguy and Sam) entered through a really small door at the bottom of a hill. I almost thought we were in the book of Alice in Wonderland (such a small door!). But no! I was mistaken! We were entering the Chamber of Secrets from Harry Potter! We got down through a concrete ‘tube’ and right from the beginning we had to crawl through a narrow passage. After some more squeezing and crawling we arrived at a much bigger place. We stopped for a moment and turned off our lights. It was so amazing to be in such a dark place where the only noises where our breathing and some water drops falling. We continued walking and sometimes climbing and discovered some really nice formations, like the travertines in Piccadilly (or at least I think it was there...) or some other stalactites. The whole way we had some nice explanations from Tanguy.
We stopped to eat our sandwiches before continuing, because the next part would involve getting wet. After eating we began to follow the stream way. In the beginning it was just bouldering and walking like we had done before, but then we passed some waterfalls and every time there was more and more water. At first, I tried to avoid getting wet, but after a while I realised there was no way to escape the water, so I practically swam!! It was really entertaining to try to find the holes where the stream way got deeper!! After a while, we all agreed it was time to go back so we started to walk towards the entrance. Going back was tougher because our boots where full of water, we were a bit tired (only a bit!) and wet. However, with teamwork everything went perfect!! Tanguy made us (the freshers) to try to find our way back and though we didn’t choose the right passage in the first junction, in the second one we got it right! We walked through some muddy places and Tanguy tried to throw some mud balls without success. When we finally got to the entrance I was at first a little bit disappointed to discover it was already dark. After 6 hours in a cave I was expecting some light. However, we saw something much better!! A sky with more stars than you could possibly imagine. We changed and went back to the cottage.
When we got back some people carved turnips (yes, turnips; there were no more pumpkins left at Tesco). For dinner we had burritos. I was surprised to find out that I loved them even though they had beans (which I normally hate). Everyone was tired but excited about what they had seen. We shared our experiences and then we began to play the caving games. It turned out that I wasn’t bad at all in these games! The squeezing machine, the pot and the sling or the table traverse, it didn’t matter, I was surprisingly good in all of them! However, the next day I was full of bruises and had aching arms... But, I was very proud of myself! Saturday night we heard the promised noises from Catalina, but for the rest it was a peaceful night.
I made sure to eat a lot during breakfast to be prepared for caving, and then we headed to the cave with the minibus. We had to get dressed in the cold morning air but I don’t think anyone minded since we were focused on what it was about to come. We made a group photo, including the mandatory funny face version, and divided into three groups.
Our group entered the cave at Cwn Dwr, which had a tiny entrance and a long narrow way to crawl through. I found it to be an awesome way of tasting caving for the first time. Once out of the narrow path, we stopped for a moment to turn off the lights and appreciate the darkness and the silence, only broken by the faint noise of a distant stream of water. I could feel the rocks surrounding me and it seemed incredible to actually be underground, underneath the well-known surface of the earth I’ve walked on all my life.
We turned on the light and continued our exploration, finding some amazing rock and mineral formations on the way. Tanguy made sure we were on the right track at all times and checked at some points if we remembered where we came from and how to come back, which showed us, the newbies, that we had basically no idea how to get out of the cave. I have resolved to study the map beforehand on the next trip, I believe it will make my next experience even better.
After climbing rocks up and down, we got closer to the stream, and stopped before it would get deeper to have our lunch while still being dry. As we advanced, the current became deeper and stronger, and I found out that walking with your wellies full of water can be really tiring. Apparently, the stream was particularly strong because it had rained generously the previous days, and it is supposed to be easier to get through when the water is gentler. We walked through the stream for what seemed to me a long time and found some waterfalls on the way. Some spots required a lot of effort because of the strong current, the slippery walls and the deep holes we had to skip from time to time due to the strength of the water carving the rock for years, and I have to thank Tanguy and Will for helping me get through a couple of tricky spots. After a while, we decided to go back to be out on time, and the same way we had done before proved way more difficult while being soaked and exhausted. However, I was still feeling excited and that gave me all the energy I needed to go on. Tanguy seemed to enjoy singing caving songs while advancing and it also cheered me up. We explored some nearby passages on our way back and had a lot of fun in one that had with deep mud that sucked us in, and then headed to the surface once again.
Getting out of the cave was not at all as I expected. When you see this kind of scene in a movie, they always get blinded by the bright light coming from the entrance. However, when we got out it was completely dark, and there was a perfectly clear sky that welcomed us full of stars, which I reckoned was infinitely better than my expectations. We changed to dry clothes and headed back to the hut. After such an intense experience, I was expecting everyone to go directly to bed, but we recovered having dinner and stayed up playing caving games, where Nuria, though new to the club, seemed to outperform everyone else.
On Saturday, after a short night, we started to prepare ourselves for the caving trip. We got a generous breakfast and drove to the caves afterwards. After having managed to put on our special equipment we were heading to the entrance of the cave. Not knowing what would expect us, I became really excited during the hike up the hill (Comment: some British people called it mountain, but I’m sure there were just kidding). Before we have entered the cave our one and only ”Jack” insisted to take some pictures of us entering the cave. First I thought it should prove our participation, but after some time of consideration I was sure it was intended to be a picture of goodbye for our parents, if getting lost in the cave. I consequently have taught Jack my last words in German for telling my mother in the unlikely case of death. Once entered the fabulous cave we were in the hands of our leaders Ben and Peter. Since our third group member, third because she was not a leader, played a important role in the following story I want to introduce her name briefly, she is called Isha. The other German, who emerged as a hero later on, is called Max.
So we started our trip in a big and impressive chamber next to the entrance, which was neither big nor impressive. The entrance actually appears as a small metal door. However, the chamber was full of various stalactites and stalagmites. But shortly after that we entered smaller chambers and passages until we had to crawl. Hence we almost stuck in one passage but we naturally found a way out into a bigger part of the cave. There after we were heading towards the Trident and the Judge. But to get there we first had to pass a traverse which was not only dangerous, but also really impressive and thrilling. At the scrumtrulescent trident, we had lunch and took some time for relaxing and getting ready for the following hours in the cave. During the lunch, we experienced full darkness, since we switched off our lights. It was both weird and astonishing to realize that you could not even see your hand in front of your eyes. It was ”zero-photon-dark”, to keep the physical language.
Having rested for almost 30 minutes, we continued our trip and entered the streamway. This part of the trip was my favourite one, since it was full of beautiful stone formations and impressive waterfalls we had to cross. Moreover we had to deal with the water, which was carried by the streamway. Following the streamway we got deeper and deeper into the cave until we reached a waterfall we couldn’t pass. So we decided to head back to the exit. The way back actually emerged as the biggest hurdle we had to cope with. Already exhausted and tired of the previous climbings and crawls, Isha was not fully concentrated anymore and tumbled into a pool and lost her right boot. In the pool she was overwhelmed by panic and she was afraid of drowning. The great-hearted Max helped her instantaneously and saved her life, otherwise she would have died in this deep pool with its dangerous turbulent flows. Then Ben was so kind an gave her his right boot, so we could continue afterwards. Nevertheless, faced to our biggest fears and this near death experience, the progress in getting back was very slow. The next big hurdle was a traverse followed by a small climbing. At that traverse, Isha lost her balance twice and I had to catch her each time. She would not have fallen that deep, but in her point of view I probably saved her life again. The following passages were not as dangerous as the previous ones, so we could continue without any further incidents. On the way back we also passed the corkscrew, which was really fun to climb up or rather crawl up to the bigger chamber. There after we finally reached the exit, after almost 7 hours in the cave.
We then headed back to our minibus, exhausted on the one hand but also really pleased and happy on the other hand. Back in the hut, we first had a fantastic dinner and then some interesting caving games. But actually they weren’t suspenseful at all, since Nuria won all of them, outstandingly. After being humiliated by Chuck Nuria, we went to bed for being prepared for the next day
Cwm Dwr entrance piqued my interest soon after the first Wales trip in 2015. The call of another entrance to the same system, the possibility to hone my navigational skills underground, and see some new passage certainly helped my decision. I decided I wanted the smallest possible cavers to go with me – or at least individuals I suspected would not balk at confined spaces. I had prepared the laminated maps, eagerly read past reports, mentally gone through the route with growing anticipation. It only needed to become a reality.
Cwm Dwr Quarry cave is found directly across the quarry – not one minute from the minibus… what a treat! A small square door and a buly padlock guard its secrets, hidden treasures and atrocities alike. An oval concrete tube leads down to wooden beam steps, and to the more spacious entrance chamber. Going down the slope, the way on is to the right, with an immediate traverse over a 2m deep hole and an awkward climb down using a slanted metal bar for support. Down the passage, a first junction appears, the most uninviting lefthand branch is chosen, with a refreshing trickle of water on the smooth calicfied floor.
This soon pops out into SAS chamber, a multiple junction. Straight on, the soon stooping passage degenerates to a T-shaped crawl. Past a flowstone constriction, the T gets taller until the Level 2 confined space is reached. A pebbly dig, turned flat out crawl enlarging rapidly to a hands and knees crawl, till another adorable and unavoidable stream is joined. A few metres on, a clamber on boulders leads to the very lofty Cwm Dwr Jama passage. Deservedly appraised for the quality and pristine aspect of its travertine formations, the rift is followed down several near sketchy climbs until a somewhat consequent stream enters on the right hand side., but finds its way mostly underneath the boulder floor.
Where the passage floor slopes upwards again, a polished tunnel on the right hand wall leads to a boulder choke, with the stream visible underneath. Dropping into the stream, a way on is found, indicated by smooth dark boulders and a scaffolding bar. Following the established route, a larger collapse chamber is reached, with several polished ways on. The correct route is found through a muddy puddle, followed by a sloping, smooth boulder surface and another scaffold bar. The passage is dry and sandy immediately afterwards: this is the beginning of the Big Shacks area.
The team made good time to this dry, decorated, lofty part of the cave. We found our way to the Smithy, an elongate chamber, where the not-too-distant rumble of the Cwm Dwr streamway underneath can be heard. We opted for the high traverse leading to more fossil passage, with many boulder chaoses. This eventually lead to the sandy Piccadilly. Looking up, I stared in disbelief at the altitude of the ceiling – this was on par with the biggest horizontal passages I’d seen in Slovenia and so different from the OFD II passages higher up the hill. From the four way junction to Diver’s Pitch, Heol Eira and the Flood Bypass, we turned left, until we joined the Main Streamway. Walking upstream a short distance, we were at the Confluence, with the smaller Cwm Dwr stream joining in on our left, while the Main Stream gushed out from a low arch. This was as good a place as any to have a lunch and photo stop.
With the batteries recharged, we attacked the streamway, stooping and crouching low, for the first time water filling the wellies. Battling against a strong current, we reached a technical climb, leading into the first river chamber, where a square reflector indicates the possibility to climb out of the stream in case of flooding. The presence of a horizontal scaffold bar alerted me that this was also the climb leading into the Fault Aven series. At this point, we were overtaken by a group of keen and wet cavers who were attempting on a Bottom to Top through-trip. Exchanging a few words of encouragement from both sides, we let them go ahead, and continued upstream for a little while. We reached a series of roaring waterfalls of the Marble Showers area before turning back. The return journey was punctuated by involved down climbs and plunges into neck deep circular pools which we had somehow managed to avoid on the way in. Eventually we arrived at the Confluence, went up Piccadilly, popped into Sandbanks (exquisite cave sediments there…), circumnavigated the Smithy and found ourselves at the Big Shacks area again. Through the boulder choke, up Cwm Dwr Jama, in the Confined Space (stopping there for a few photos) and out the concrete tube!
Stars, whisps of clouds, the waning sun and strobe lights. The scent of earth and grass and wet rock. Looking up towards the top of the hill, the other team’s beacons were lit and slowing moving in our direction. I love it when a plan comes together so well !
The last day arrived and we had to choose whether we wanted to go hiking or caving again. I had a lot of doubts, but finally couldn’t resist it to go caving again, this time with Isha, Ben and Peter. On the way to the cave we got to hear a lot of caving songs, which I really want to learn!! (That’s why I’m writing this report... Haha). When we arrived we first did a bit of hiking to reach the top entrance and then walked into the cave. We went through the corkscrew, saw a really big stalactite, passed the Judge and did some bouldering. Oh, and we saw some beautiful halactites!! We found Tanguy’s group and followed them back to the entrance while singing some caving songs. This time, a sunny day was waiting for us outside. Back at the cottage we had some nice eggie rice and packed everything. The way back was a bit more silent than when we left. You could feel everyone was tired. But we still had a lot of music to fill the silence!! Max lost his phone but somehow he found it a week later in the minibus. So after this trip the only thing I could think about was: WHEN IS THE NEXT ONE!!!!???
On Sunday we got up early again. And what should we do with the drunken caver early in the morning? We did not know. So Jack and Chuck Nuria and some of their subjects cooked some delicious eggy bread with beans and cinnamon. But since some of us had some sore muscles or were still just tired or thrilled, a little group of five, me included, decided to go hiking that day. It was actually not a bad decision, since we had sunny weather and approximately 20◦ C. So we hiked up the little hills, those I have already mentioned above, and enjoyed the sun and the clean and fresh air. We also had nice conversations about ”Baga Fantas” or the way Spanish men in the south greet each other (if you are interested in that just ask Clara for more information). Soon after noon, we headed back to the minibus to meet the rest of us and we had some lunch in the hut then. In the early afternoon we started to drive back to London. The return was almost without any incident, but again one German played a dominant role in the story that happend then. Max lost his phone in the maintained and almost new minibus. Unfortunately we could not find it, even though our rescue mission was led by Chuck Nuria. So slightly frustrated of that loss, Max and me went back home. Nevertheless we were really glad to be part in this fulminant trip to Wales and we are looking forward to the upcoming trips. (Update: Max did find his phone after getting sober and when his eyes got used to daylight again ;-) ).
On Sunday I was feeling sore, but full of energy. Although some people went caving again, I decided to stay hiking to enjoy the awesome weather of that day and see a bit of Wales landscapes, since it was my first time there. We explored the surroundings, climbing rocky hills, getting our feet wet in hidden streams and tried to get to a forest nearby, but we had to turn around, defeated by a fence that surrounded it. We had plenty of time to enjoy the landscape and the weather, and to talk about past experiences and future plans. On the way back, everyone was happy but also tired and some of us napped for most of the way. We helped get everything back in the stores and say goodbye with the hope of looking for adventures together another time.