Sardinia Easter Tour
Another cruel winter gladly behind us, the ICCC crew once again set off in search of sun, sea and speleology. Our criteria for the tour location were fairly simple; it must be warm, there must be caves and there must be cheap wine. Due to the enthusiastic descriptions of older members Sardinia was selected as the unlucky location to host us.
Rhys Tyers, Oliver Myerscough, Sam Page, Fiona Hartley, David Kirkpatrick, Elijah Choi, Sarah Gian, Ben Zelenay, Nadine Kalmoni.
Monday 31st March
Meeting at the previously unknown hour of 1.30am we shared tired grimaces and sluggishly hauled our rucksacks from stores to the road. We weren't waiting there long before Nadine appeared in her Mini, well known for it's ability to transport large amounts of gear. We struggled for a few minutes and managed to cram an impressive 8 bags and 2 people (usefully including Nadine) into the car. She sped off into the night, leaving the remaining 7 of us, and 2 bags, to make our way to Stansted via bus and coach.
Our journey out was swift and uneventful, filled with fitful sleep and subsequent boasting about the few minutes of precious rest. We arrived to obtrusively bright sunshine and picked up our two cars. We once again practised the now well-honed skill of cramming a lot of people and bags into cars, just about managing to fit everyone and everything in.
Team Robocar immediately got lost in Cagliari, leaving to Team Grand Dragon to speed ahead. The route there was picturesque (when there wasn't a tunnel) and we were excited by our first glimpse of the coast near where we'd be staying. Team Grand Dragon arrived at the villa first and we were all immediately struck by the beauty of our villa. When I had originally booked it I assumed the relatively cheap "beach side villa" would come with some strings attached, perhaps an adjacent sewage outflow, prison, or home for excessively loud dogs but it turned out to be true to the description. Team Robocar arrived shortly after and were also suitably impressed by the slice of paradise that I had found for us. The rest of the day was spent in a combination of resting, shopping, eating and anticipating the caving to come.
Tuesday 1st April
I woke up first, in time to see the sunrise (still not sure if that's a good thing). One of the few pleasures of getting up first is the chance to wake up everyone else with loud knocks on bedroom doors and shouts of "Get up you lazy f***ers!".
With a crack team assembled we set off on the two hour drive. I had only a vague idea of what we would be doing today as I had managed to contact a local caver who was willing to take us caving. "Bobo", as we would come to call him, and I had communicated by google translated Facebook messages so the planning comprehension was fairly low. En route I attempted to phone him and after a few attempts worked out that I needed to add the Italian country code to his phone number which already began 39 39, wonderful. The phoning did not help, I spoke no Italian and he no English. After our failed communication I received a call from Angela, Bobo's English speaking friend, who asked us to meet her in Nuoro, a nearby town. After skulking around a park, and engaging in a covert style meeting outside a cafe we ended up having coffee with Angela. She helpfully informed us that the Sardinian cavers were waiting near to the cave.
By the time we found them they had been waiting for 2 hours. Woops. After a brief and hand-gesture heavy exchange we followed them down some rural tracks, occasionally blocked by a wild pig, to the cave. We parked, and began changing. I sidled over to their car and pointed at a wetsuit. I got confused looks and decided that the cave probably wasn't what I thought it was. The descriptions I read had spoken of endless crystal clear pools to swim through. But I trusted that the Sardinians would know better. Soon changed, and with one of the party using a hand jammer instead of a croll, we set off to the cave.
The entrance to the cave was up a short steep path, alongside a small stream. It mouth of the cave is obvious and large and you nearly in sight of the outside at the first pitch. Up a small climb and through a gate the first pitch drops into a large chamber, which is swiftly followed by the second pitch. Beyond this is the cave's single crawl. A 5 metre low section, with a dry sandy floor. It has to be one of the most pleasant crawls in the world. Beyond the crawl is the main feature of the cave. A 600 metre long Via Ferrata. A steel cable, occasionally bolted to the wall, runs along the cave. The cave drops away into a steep rift, while the route we took, following the wire, stays high clinging to the wall. The passage here is large and nearly every surface is covered with some sort of formation; flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites. Along the traverse we stopped, for a break. The Sardinians had, in a stroke of genius, brought several bags of food and wine. We greedily accepted their offer to share and after a quick photo trip down a crystal decorated crawl we continued.
The traverse ended on a small ledge where once again we stopped for food and wine (again the wine is genius). Following a brief discussion we all descended the small final pitch into a narrower passage where the floor was comprised of pools of perfectly clear water. Half the group turned back at this point, Nadine, Sarah and Eli lead by Fiona and Oli leaving Dave, Sam, Ben, and me to carry on with the Sardinians. Almost immediately we began climbing the walls of the rift, comprised mostly of gour pools and other formations that it would rare in the UK but here were so commonplace as to become entirely reasonable footholds. Our climb up was followed by a climb down landing us merely a couple of metres down the passage, the climb seemingly to avoid a single knee deep pool of water.
The Sardinians were very keen on climbing around the pools we encountered and despite our wellies we copied them fearing that the incredibly beautiful pools would be damaged by our clumsy steps or something. Eventually the passage was completely covered in water but undeterred the Sardinians made a spiderlike crossing along the walls, then began rigging a rope for their inept UK counterparts. I have no doubt that I would have needed the rope to do the climb but as they rigged the rope Dave and I gradually edged further and further into the water. Whilst we we found the water to be quite an agreeable temperature we were keen to avoid what we referred to as "balls deep" sections. I can only assume the Sardinians thought that "balls deep" was some very important English technical caving term from the amount Dave and I shouted it as they rigged the rope. As they finished rigging it I plucked up the courage and made a semi submerged leap along the edge of the pool, making it to the other side and bypassing the traverse whilst not even getting "balls deep". Dave also made the aquatic crossing, but was less fortunate despite my encouragement due to being slightly shorter than me. Ben and Sam used the traverse and so avoided looking like mental people.
The caving here was pleasant and eventually we climbed out of the rift, turning left and heading into an impressively large passage strolling along until we came to a collection of rocks arranged to look like a table and chairs. On a wall on the opposite side of the chamber (separated from us by a deep rift) was a stal the size of a small building. After a sit down and another rejuvenating sip of wine we continued for a short way until the rift in the passage crossed the chamber and cut off the side we were walking on. The Sardinians pointed out a traverse that crossed the rift but we didn't end up using it, instead we went back the way we came.
We followed another large passage to a hand line up a steep slope. At the top the passage reduced in size and became a well decorated maze of stals, columns and shimmering pools. As I took photos we heard ominous shouting echoing down the cave and we waited apprehensively until a lone figure emerged from the darkness. Bobo had caught up with us and joined us at the top of the slope.
After some gesturing everyone began removing SRT kit and we followed suit. Then to my surprise we walked in between the stals and pools to find passage beyond. There was just a couple of minutes of stooping and climbing, if you were Sardinian, or stooping and wading, if you were a UK caver. The party stopped at a narrow slope and we commenced another "conversation". A combination of hand gestures, occasional English words and Italian words that sounded English we worked out that this was a short duck that we could pass if we wanted. Only Bobo wanted to go on, the rest unwilling to get wet. Ben, Dave and I were eager to see more so we enthusiastically followed. Where Bobo attempted an ambitious climb along the roof of the duck to save all but his bum from getting wet Dave, Ben and I slid straight into the water to the amusement of the Sardinians.
Beyond was a short stooping height section of passage that opened out into one of the largest chambers I have ever seen, we traversed across it to a constriction and emerged into an even bigger chamber. The floor sloped away, covered in boulder, to a large circular passage. Bobo explained as best he could that water level exceeded head height in winter which must be an insane amount of water. Conscious of the time we turned round at this point (though I think Bobo would have kept going all night if we hadn't stopped him).
Out of the cave and in the car park we exchanged some quick words with our caving partners and they ended up giving us an eclectic assortment of rope and rigging gear for Su Palu the next day. They also assured us that it wouldn't be locked which was a relief.
Back at the villa we discovered that the modified Team Robocar had caught a Pizza parlour as it was closing and bought us dinner. They'd graciously left us the cheese pizza. Thanks guys. Tired out from a long day, we all went happily to bed.
Wednesday 2nd April
Without any eager Sardinians accompanying into Su Palu I had made the executive decision that we would wait until the evening to cave. So we spent the day sleeping, barbecuing, getting bored of barbecuing and putting stuff in the oven, and testing our mettle in the icey sea. At the afternoon wore on we also packed Daren drums with sleeping bags, smash, cous cous, fairy lights, gas burners, speakers and mp3 player. All the essentials for underground camping. At 5pm, with the threat of finding the cave in the dark looming, we left for Su Palu.
Once again at the end of a windy dirt track we parked our cars and changed. Everyone took a tackle sack, some took two and we walked in the cool dusk alongside the Luna river. We were unsure of what the entrance to the cave would look like, there were conflicting reports in the few reports and record we had. In the end it turned out to be easy to spot because up a small scree slope was a large information sign all about Su Palu. To the right of the sign is the yellow gated entrance. Presumably due to our arrangements with the Nuoro club the gate was unlocked and I headed inside with everyone following.
We were greeted almost immediately by the first pitch, as expected a steep downward slope. The pitch was already rigged with some old looking rope. Our Sardinian contacts had given us several ropes and gear for rigging, including hangers and plates. We hadn't been able to communicate clearly but I assumed this meant that Su Palu wasn't rigged. Uneasy about using the in-situ rope I guessed at which of our various sized ropes to use and began to rig down. There was some confusion as to who had the rigging gear, including me insisting that it wasn't in the small orange tackle sack that it actually was in. One rebelay down and I was relieved to find the cave opening out into a small chamber. One by one we regrouped and set off together.
The route-finding hear was exceptionally easy as there are obvious reflective markers to guide you. A scramble down a large boulder slope lead to a streamway which we followed until we arrived at the next major navigational feature, the duck. I volunteered to go in first and submerged myself in the water. It was surprisingly cold, taking my breath away initially. And the passage was small enough that you sometimes had to inch yourself forwards with your toes. Combined it was fairly traumatic but I made it through, hyperventilating, to the other side and called back that the passage was passable. After a couple of people we began to pass the bags through, Ben volunteering to repeatedly dip himself into the duck to push the bags through to me. On the other side, quite refreshed, we headed on.
Again the route finding is easy, follow the markers, and we traversed the cave steadily. On the way were some incredibly pretty formations, including a section that looked like it belonged in a water park with a thin layer of water flowing over stacked gour pools. Eventually we arrived back at a streamway, the White Nile, and followed it for a short while until we were directed by the reflective markers to climb up. We made our way along a zig zagging traverse that led to a pitch. Oli mused that it was probably a mental bypass to a puddle, as the Sardinians have a particular fear of water. Again it was all rigged, but I decided to rig it anyway, in case someone else was in the cave. The pitch dropped onto another traverse and I decided that there was no way the rope we were given was intended for this, we just didn't have enough. A relayed shout instructing Dave to derig our rope solved the problem and we carried on. The "puddle" this traverse bypassed turned out to be a 20m high waterfall.
Dropping down the final pitch we ended up in more rift streamway, narrow with the crystal clear water occasionally balls deep. A long walk along this, disturbingly lacking in reflective markers (I assume because there's not any other ways on but still) leads to the final climb out into El Alamein. In the dry stal covered passage immediately after the climb we regrouped and attempted to work out where we were, deciding that we were very close to the camp. A minute further into the passage proved us right as we wandered into the large sandy chamber. Old gas canisters and suspicious fish tins (that are common to all underground camp sites apparently) confirmed our location. We dumped our bags and immediately began pissing in a bewildering array of places. Our lack of coordination made it then quite difficult to find an uncontaminated water source, but we managed eventually although not before filling a couple of daren drums with piss water. We settled in to camp, finding it unreasonably pleasant. We were quickly in bed, lulled to sleep by 80s tunes, stomachs full of smash, cous cous and vino.
Thursday 3rd April
The morning arrived, announced by a full bladder and dry mouth. I got up and tended to these issues gradually waking everyone up as I trudged round camp. Enthusiasm for leaving camp varied wildly between the group but after more smash and cous cous everyone was corralled into caving. Getting into the damp and sandy caving gear was less unpleasant than I imagined, the sand being fine enough to avoid irritation and the cave warm enough to avoid a chill.
We trooped off down the passage. Armed with three low resolution maps (each with a different set of hand drawn labels and warnings) and optimism we were sure we'd be reach our goal in no time. We were hoping to reach the ënd" of this half of the cave, a large well decorated chamber called Disneyland. Beyond a rope traverse and a couple of climbs the cave really opened out, into huge boulder strewn chambers. It takes a while to traverse these and there are no longer any reflective markers. We began by following cairns, aided by a rough idea of where we needed to go from the maps, and all was going well. Eventually the cairns turned off up a rocky slope in one of the large chambers. Oli was about to walk past it but I argued that we should follow the cairns and so we all climbed up.
A couple more cairns led into a narrower but still incredibly tall passage. There were a few awkward climbs and the rocks became sharper but there were also tantalising decrementing numbers painted on the walls which spurred us on. The passage wound gradually upwards, leading to a steep slope of dry soily sand. A few of us scrambled to the top to find ourselves in at a dead end, sheer unclimbable walls forming a 5 metre high bowl around us. On one wall and the adjacent floor was a very pretty formation, like a limestone waterfall into a river. We half-scrambled and half-surfed back down the slope. Grouping up, and after the more energetic members of our groups attempted every climb and crawl in the surrounding area, we decided we'd gone the wrong way and that we should continue down the main large passage. We decided also that where we had been was called "Mordor" according to one of the maps. An interesting diversion on the way to Disneyland.
The large chambers fairly suddenly became a dry riverbed, merely a few metres wide, with staining on the walls which made us wonder if water had flowed recently. The walking here was a bit easier, no boulders or scree to traverse. The riverbed lead to a small chamber where a climb accessed an impossibly pretty passage. It wasn't very big but it was completely covered in pure white flowstone and thousands of stals and helactites. Dave accurately dubbed it "Bukake Chamber" in the absence of any official name.
Unfortunately Bukake Chamber was not very long and the cave beyond became small (by Sardinian standards) rift. A few small pitches eventually led us to a rather complicated bit of passage that I had been warned about by members of ICCC's 2011 expedition. The numbers 1, 2, and 3 had been painted on the walls to direct you through but this did not stop us getting confused, and allowing Sam to mysteriously teleport from the back of the group to the front. We stopped for lunch below a large pitch/traverse series. Whilst everyone ate a civilised mixture of dried meat and cheese I went up the pitch to see whether it was worth everyone coming up. I climbed up a bewildering series of hangs on opposite walls of the chamber, linked by loose traverses, eventually ending up 30m directly above the rest of the crew. Another small traverse and the rope ended. My light, which had been running on the same flat cell for the whole tour thus far, was dim and as far as I could see there was a perilous drop into the inky black in front of me. A large passage lead off but in my benighted state I decided it was too risky a traverse and that Disneyland probably lay in a different direction.
Once back with everyone else we discussed our options. Half the group wanted to turn back, leaving myself Dave, Oli, Nadine and Ben still eager to search for Disneyland. After letting the returning team get ahead of us we began searching around the painted numbers and puzzling at our maps, each with a different theory about what bit of the map represented that spatially twisted section of cave we were in. It took a lot of discussion but we eventually decided to try the pitches I had already been up. I lead and once again got to the end of the last traverse. Dave was a little way behind and I took the opportunity to practice changing my battery in the dark. Dave arrived as I flicked my refreshed light on and I peered once again at the impossible way on. To my surprise, elation and embarrassment it no longer looked as dodgy and I climbed down, shouting back to Dave that it was fine.
Whilst Dave waited for Ben, Nadine and Oli I trooped off the large passage until it turned sharply to the left and I could only barely hear the muffled chatter of the others. I sat and waited. As Dave approached with Nadine I announced the way on must be along the continuing large passage. Nadine decided that this was the ideal location for a piss and wandered a considerate few steps away from Dave and I before undressing. Finishing up Nadine asked whether the way on was up the rope with "Disneland" painted next to it. Probably that way we decided. When Ben and Oli caught us up we continued. The passage beyond gradually enlarged. As we continued the floor played host to a greater and greater number of crystals until the entire surface of the cave was completely covered in glittering jewels. Desperately attempting to tread in already worn footprints we crunched onwards until the crystals gave way to a long, steep boulder slope.
We hadn't really known what to expect of Disneyland and we were unsure if we were actually in it (despite the fairly incredible crystal formations) and reaching the top of the boulder slope I think we were all fairly pensive to declare an end to the journey just in case we hadn't got to the end. Ben, in search of some unvoiced treasure, searched frantically around the top of the boulder slope but didn't seem to find what he was looking for. As an act of closure he pissed on a suspicious pile of yellow crystals, solving the mystery of their hue as he did so. I took the requisite photos to prove we had made it and we started back.
We arrived back at camp with no navigational issues to find Fiona, Sarah, Sam and Eli in various states of relaxation around the camp, having already eaten and wound down for the day. We shared another meal (no points for guessing what we had) and finished the last of the vino whilst we chatted. We all went to bed sated by the day's caving.
Friday 4th April
Once again it was left to me to start the day, waking everyone with a rattle of pans and the gentle hiss of the gas stoves heating the first of many lots of tea. After breakfast we slowly packed up our kit. To my relief everything seemed to fit back into our daren drums and tackle sacks (it would have been strange if it hadn't). We split into two teams, originally planned to be a slower team to head off first and a faster team to follow after half an hour or so but the splitting ended up just being Team Robocar first and Team Grand Dragon second. Both teams found their way out with little difficulty. Dave, Nadine, Ben and I did manage to go in the wrong direction twice on the way out, despite the ever present reflective markers but it bot times it was obvious because the cave became small and unpleasant almost immediately. Neither team rushed and we were out in the early evening. The rest of the day was spent, eating, drinking and chatting shit.
Saturday 5th April
We decided that we had done enough caving to warrant a rest day so I got up at the leisurely hour of 10am and attempted to avoid waking everyone else as I now feel a compulsive urge to do so.. The day was spent eating, napping, reading, and avoiding the constant rain outside. We picked an excellent day to spend outside of a cave.
I was moderately productive during the day, managing to arrange a final caving trip for Sunday with Bobo. The villa owner also turned up in the afternoon to collect the rest of the payment for the villa. I wonder what he thought of the piles of caving gear haphazardly hung all around and throughout his villa.
As the evening gave way to the night and the rain subsided we realised that we had not spent any of our pent up destructive energies and quickly formed a plan. A camp fire on the beach would provide the ideal way to satisfy our needs for fresh air and burning things (which as it happens are fairly exclusive goals). Undeterred by the thoroughly damp wood pile and lack of kindling we began piling up the smallest branches we could find. A combination of pizza boxes and inappropriate use of the gas burners (we had to use up the gas somehow) gradually led from a pile of steaming smoky logs to a roaring fire much to everyone's surprise. The night disappeared in a blur of wine, lemoncello, and star gazing.
Sunday 6th April
After going to bed at 4am, I got up at 9am, head spinning and woke everyone who wasn't comatose. Of the people who got up it ended up with me, Dave, Sam, Oli and Nadine who were keen enough to go caving despite the effects of the night before. Making the now familiar drive northwards we all sulkily considered whether or not we had made the best choice. However those who had remained at the villa would have the task of cleaning up so it probably was.
We met Bobo at a lonely intersection high in the mountains and, after generously gifting us 3 books about caving, he gestured for us to follow him to a local cafe. What he led us to was the an incredibly trendy looking cafe in an otherwise deserted area. Inside we sat at one of the 4 empty tables and Bobo ordered us a round of coffee clearly perceptive of our less than enthusiastic attitudes. We had some gesture heavy conversation as we drank, attempting to avoid distraction by the massive TV covering the one wall playing bizarre local programming. The coffee turned out to be exactly what we needed and we returned to the car feeling much better.
We followed him up the road, eventually turning off onto a cliffside road, which became a track which eventually deteriorated to nothing. We pulled up outside a ramshackle farm and began changing and preparing for caving. We deduced that a conspicuous outcropping of rock probably held the cave entrance. Despite some setbacks (me forgetting my oversuit) we set off into the cave. The cave, named "Routa 'e S'Edera", began with a small rift into the side of the rock outcrop.It soon became a crawl over a piles of decaying twigs and leaves but thankfully this dropped into the first small drippy chamber. We gathered and Bobo rigged the first pitch as we watched.
Dropping down we entered a bewildering series of climbs and squeezes heading deeper and deeper into the cave. If not for the omnipresent telephone wire that followed us from the surface, undulating from the floor to the roof and occasionally disappearing and reappearing amongst the boulders, I might've been concerned about navigating out. Eventually the climbing gave way to walking along a recently dried streamway. In some stagnant pools along the floor tiny white insect/crustaceans scuttled about. We were initially careful to avoid them but in places they were just too numerous and too slow and presumably blind to get out of the way.
The dry streamway led to an active streamway filled with beautiful, clear tepid water. A nice change from the freezing, foamy streams in Yorkshire. We followed the streamway for a long time, dropping a few pitches and climbing over many deep pools. Bobo did a significant amount more climbing because he had chosen to just wear shoes, meaning even the smallest puddle was a threat to him. He signified this by meowing loudly at the site of any water that he had to climb around. We didn't realise what the meowing meant for quite a well so it came as a relief when we did work it out because being lead underground by a meowing man is somewhat disconcerting. In our wellies we managed to avoid a lot of the climbing and instead stomped through the stream. At one of the deep pools, I climbed across first followed by Nadine. Dave came next and I looked away for a second only to have my attention recaptured by a loud splash. Dave bobbed back up above the surface and thrashed his way to the side of the pool. It might be warmer than the UK but it's still a bit chilly for a sudden submersion. I laughed for a long time.
After the streamway a short section of dry caving, again navigating through a confusing section of boulder choke, dropped into a large river. It was impressively deep where we were initially perched over it but a rope traverse led along the wall to where it shallowed and sped up. Bobo, at the end of the traverse, tried desperately for several minutes to climb along the wall without dipping his feet into the water but eventually fell back into it with a pained cry. All that work keeping his feet dry for nothing.
The river quickly came to an intersection where it joined another streamway and it was here that we turned back, after a few pictures of course. I really enjoyed the journey out, particularly climbing back along the streamway and pools. There is something relieving about heading back upwards, not caring whether you get wet or tired anymore because you'll soon be in the sun again. On the surface we changed and had a mini-dinner of bread, ham, fruit and cheese. Once again we followed Bobo to the cafe for a farewell coffee. We had a google translate enabled chat in which we learned that Bobo's native language is Sardinian not Italian which we embarrassingly admitted we were not aware was a language. We said our final goodbyes and headed back home.
We found the villa clean, much of the packing already done and food waiting for us, well done team villa. We finished off the last of the packing and went to bed.
Monday 7th April
In the darkness of some too early hour on Monday I repeated the ritual waking one last time, urging everyone to get up and get ready. We were all sad to be leaving. After packing the bags into the cars and giving the villa one last cleaning top up we gathered on the beach and stared at the pale blue horizon. Through far off misty skies the Sardinian sun slowly rose, the red glow spreading across our melancholy faces. A fine farewell.
Our journey back was smooth and we arrived in the UK to grey skies and drizzle. It will be hard to go caving in the UK after our experience of Sardinian caving but I'm sure we will reacclimatise with time.
I would like to thank Speleo Club Nuoro for being incredibly helpful whilst we were in Sardinia, particularly Bobo, Manuela, Andrea and Michele. Not only did they take us caving twice but they also provided the necessary equipment and access for Su Palu for which were are very grateful. On top of that Bobo also gave us three books on caving in Sardinia, which I am sure will encourage us to return in the near future. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with them and can only hope that we made as good an impression on them as they did on us.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.