Sardinia Easter Tour

Photos

Arun Paul, Ben Richards, Dave Kirkpatrick, Ho Yan Jin, Jack Halliday, Jennifer Ryder, Peter Ganson, Rebecca Diss, Rita Borg, Tanguy Racine

Summary

Ten ICCC cavers visited the beautiful island of Sardinia for week to sample some of its finest caves, wines and beaches. Notable highlights include camping in Su Palu, descending the vertigo inducing Tiscali shaft and swimming in the deep lakes of Locoli with an inflatable orca. Blessed with sunshine, unrelenting gargantuan passages and road-aware sheep flocks, this oft visited (by ICCC) Mediterranean location has it all and certainly deserves further attention by cavers. This success largely hinges on the good advice offered by Bobo, our local contact, who awaits our return for more fun adventures!

Introduction

I made the decision to come on the Imperial Easter Tour to Sardinia in early January, on the back of a Christmas holiday where I hadn’t (for once) attended the ICCC Winter Tour. I was relishing the prospect of a week’s caving in a warm and decidedly calcareous country.

After weeks of preparation, I finally stumbled on the Sardinian cataster or register of cave data, which hosted a lot of information about the cave locations, entrance photos and most importantly, freely available high resolution surveys.

I contacted Diss, to work out which caves we had planned to visit and find out from Bobo, our local contact, which unique number identified them on the map. Armed with the different ’numero catastale’ of Su Palu, Sos Jocos and others, I went ahead and printed the surveys on the waterproof paper I’d trialled earlier in the year.

All the documents went into a plastic sleeve holder, which I would then keep at all times. Alongside the surveys, we had coach tickets, flight boarding passes and papers on the karst of the Supramonte, the carbonate massif of Eastern central Sardinia we would be stationed in.

On the Friday before the trip, nine of us met up in stores at 11.00pm to finalise the packing of the hold luggage using our electronic scales. All the communal equipment fit tightly in the 60L backpacks we’d brought with us, and with a sense of anticipation, we sat down in stores, waving occasionally at the security guard making his rounds, and waited.

Attendees

Saturday 24th March

Where we fly out to Olbia and find the accomodation in Orosei. A group goes hiking to Monte Tuttavista.

12.00am, 12.30am. We left to catch a bus for Victoria Coach Station. In lieu of last years complicated peregrinations, we waved down the 52 bus just around the Royal Albert Hall and boarded. We met Rita at the berth for the A3 coach to Gatwick and waited a little bit more.

I slept in the coach, gathering a little bit of strength, before we dropped off our luggage at the EasyJet booths. I treated myself to a full English Breakfast and then waited some more.

The flight was fine, although I couln’t see the outside due to my position on the aisle, at wing level and kept myself awake by reading the EasyJet magasine. I learned more than I cared about the culture surrounding Vermouth.

In Olbia, we exited in a bracingly fresh, clear air, picked up our bags and headed for the car rentals. Starting with the Audi A3 (later referred to as Ezio), we worked out that having only one additional driver would be by far a cheaper option than two (an additional 250 EUR - almost the cost of another car!), so I picked up the car, loaded with a few bags, before driving to the nearest big supermarket with Arun, Yan Jin, Ben and Jack.

Loaded with foodstuffs of all kinds, we received a message from the other team stating that due to an acute case of smaller-than-advertised-boot, they were heading straight to Orosei, our final destination to drop-off the bags. We stopped shopping at that, paid and left the other team instructions to find vast amounts of cheap wine.

Team Shay suffered from a case of 'smaller-than-advertised' boot space

There was a short drive to Orosei, using the dual carriageway all the way to Siniscola, and leaving for the SP25, a seaside road, which we drove on for 35minutes before the reveal of Orosei, a cluster of white-walled, red-roofed houses nested at the foot of Monte Tuttevista, a lonely triangular mountain. In the distance, we could see the brooding mass of the Supramonte, and the wide gulf of Orosei.

Taking the small roads in the centre of town, and going wrong only once, we found the accommodation. Three stories, massive white walls, cool air inside, a view of the sea, a couple of kilometres away. This was perfect.

Team Shay, who were in the Jeep Renegade left to stock up on wine. I peered at the mountain above us, thinking hard. It was only 2.00pm, five hours to sunset, and what better to start off the expedition than a cheeky walk up the mountain to take in the scenery?

I recruited Ben, Jack and Yan Jin on this endeavour and packed the essentials; chocolate, peanuts and raisins our sustenance. We then drove to the foot of Tuttevista, parking near a clump of cypresses on the side of the road (our first attempt at finding the start of the path was thwarted by a quarry fence).

We started the ascent in the trees, with a cliff on our left rising above us: it was pockmarked with alcoves and possibly, cave entrances. At a dry well, we turned right towards the ’Belvedere’ or panorama, a way which was cairned fairly consistently all the way up. Soon we reached mortared steps into the limestone wall, wounding farther up, to the foot of a rickety wooden ladder.

At the top, we were treated to better views of Orosei and the sea to the east, and the granite hills to the north. Still following the cairns, we made a slow ascent until we started rounding a false summit. We had reached the 400m contour, with another 400m of elevation to go, and it was getting chilly and windy. We took a few photos and backed down the way we came, satisfied with the unobstructed panoramas we had seen.

On the slopes of Monte Tuttevista. From left to right, Ben Richards, Ho Yan Jin and Jack Halliday

We also heard the bells of impressively large mountain goat herds nearby and left the path momentarily to try to catch a glimpse, buy they were very good at hiding from us. The devils kept ringing their bells, tantalisingly close.

We came back to the house to find dinner nearly done, an invigorating feast of spaghetti. Diss also notified us that Bobo wanted to meet us on the morrow, and we decided to arrange a time in the evening to see him in Nuoro. Our address: the appropriate Imperio Bar.

Sunday 25th March

Where all of us go caving to Sos Jocos, near Dorgali, then meet Bobo in Nuoro for a beer at the Imperio Bar.

A good night’s sleep saw to a renewed enthusiasm for caving on Sunday. We settled on Sos Jocos, the closest, easiest cave we had a survey for and made sandwiches. After a breakfast of al-dente porridge and bread, we set off towards Dorgali.

The weather was clearing up after a damp start, and there were puddles left over on the winding road to the cave entrance. Peter had a pin on his phone exactly where the entrance should be, and after a while called Team Shay over the radio.

’You’ve gone too far’ he said, ’When are you planning to turn around?’.

After a seven point turn, we, team Ezio led the way back to a parking spot, which had deep pools of water all over.

We got changed quickly enough, having spotted a gate where we hoped to cross into the shrubs and start navigating towards the entrance. We forgot the surveys at first, but Diss went back. I turned the GPS on and started the short 300m walk to the cave.

The grass had been flattened before our feet, so with relative ease I made my way to a low, inviting archway. I found the metal plaque with the ’numero catastale’ and declared the entrance found. Shortly after we’d all congregated by this spot, and taken a group photo we entered.

Yan Jin gets ready to cave by checking the helmet batteries

At the entrance of Sos Jocos cave we stage a group photo. From left to right: Rita Cookson-Mallinson, Ho Yan Jin, Ben Richards, Arun Paul, Rebecca Diss, Jack Halliday, Tanguy Racine, Dave Kirkpatrick, Peter Ganson, Jennifer Ryder

There were many bats right after the entrance gate, which had been left open, and straightaway we felt the warmer than usual temperature inside the cave. From the entrance chamber I led the way down towards the right, down a few free-climbable drops, until we were faced with a deep 5m pit. This could not be it surely?

I looked at the survey trying hard to make sense of the maze of passages, hoping wildly that we hadn’t reached the end of the cave yet. We had some rope and slings admittedly, but I was keen to find another way. We turned around and saw other lights ahead: Italian cavers. They were not wearing oversuits.

I was getting suspicious that it was perhaps not a worthwhile cave. Bypassing the Italians, we started along another gallery until we bumped into another group at the top of a short downclimb. We followed, seeing a larger space ahead, with a flowstone formation on the right. There were traces of muddy hands on the calcite: sacrilegious!

We carried on, to another downclimb over a pristine pool of water we identified as the Lago. There, the tourist cavers hadn’t gone, fearful no doubt of filling their shoes with water, and it was our chance to go ahead undisturbed. I slipped down, landing on the soft muddy floor, sending vortices of mud on the hitherto pristine pool.

The water level was millimetres below the top of my boot. Carefully, I told myself, I traversed around. Not carefully enough: there was a sucking sound, and a cold trickle of water down my foot and I knew I would have to answer to Dave about a certain promise about ’dry caving’.

Stalactites with spar overgrowth

Further on there were two ways: a further traverse across the pool and a climb up, or the upstream passage which looked like a sinuous , dry abandoned stream passage. Not far upstream I entered a larger chamber which had large stalactites in the roof, all of them aligned on a fault plane. My spirits lifted although I couldn’t quite make where we were within the cave.

Further up that sinuous passage were more formations, including large weird radish like black stalactites. Jack almost got freaked out by what turned out to be fungus looking suspiciously like troll hair, but got a grip and moved on. We reached a bend with double pots, and a traverse continuation, more pretties (a profusion of helictites in particular).

Ben led the way into a large room with a massive column in the centre. Everyone whooped at that, turned around and whooped some more: Sala Cleopatra was a cluster of lopsided stalagmites which we took time to photograph.

When we moved on, I spotted a likely chattière and sent Jack and Ben in front, hoping it would not lead to a horrible crawl. It turned out to be a small hole in the wall, connecting two large chambers. This one was a massive crossroads some 15m in diameter. Amidst the fallen boulders were broken roof flowstones, exhibiting a strong banding. I’d never seen such clear cross-sections!

Some fun playing around the stalagmites of Sala Cleopatra in Sos Jocos. From left to right: Arun Paul, Peter Ganson, Jennifer Ryder

According to the survey, we then visited the Galeria di Ziclopi. There were more climbs and drops over large boulders, but most amazing was a dried out gour pool which almost completely barred an offshoot passage. Climbing over the top, we accessed a bizarre, well decorated passage that clearly had had stalactites growing before filling up due to the gour pool emplacement. The walls and formations were covered in calcite prisms we usually see in growing in water. No the gour pool was empty, and more stalactites grew, lacking the calcite overgrowths. very interesting!

Turning around, we then made our way to the Ramo della Cascata, which had ’basalto’ written in many places along the way. Could it be basalt in a cave? I was eager to find out.

In keeping with the rest of the cave, we climbed up and down many times before having to squeeze along the side of a massive calcite ship, which stood towering over us, at the edge of a large chamber. We stared incredulously at the formation: it was big, absurdly shaped and glittery white. This cave only got better and better!

The very end was a slight disappointment: lots of mud and a black boulder choke. Black? I had a proper look at the boulders and spotted the basalt: eroded in angular boulders, held together by the red mud. Its distinguishing features were the sparse white plagioclase crystals and abundant vesicles.

We turned around after more photography, content that we’d all had the opportunity to stretch our muscles and get into our caving mojo. At the major cross-roads, I looked up the survey for a shortcut to the way out and quickly found a chattière that took us to the first lake.

Everyone got their wellies wet again, but being second to last, I spotted the muddy stump of a stalagmite across the puddle: the perfect handhold for dynamic move across the water and up the slope. I jumped across, foot grazing the water and held on. Success! Behind me I heard a splash: Arun looking disappointed was slowly sinking in the puddle.

Out of the cave, we decided to have lunch - it was 6.00pm - before heading to Nuoro to meet Bobo. Team Shay left, but not before I cheekily off-loaded Simon to them. We followed signs to Nuoro, without really asking ourselves any questions.

At some point en-route, we received a message that one of the bridges on the SP 46 was closed. It was a good thing we were not on that road, so shrugging we carried on, taking in the Supramonte scenery with the setting sun. It was a festival of beautiful colours.

Then Team Shay shared their location: 30 minutes behind us. How that had happened, I could not know, but we carried on to Nuoro, parked outside the hospital and went inside the Imperio Bar.

The calcite cascade in the Ramo della Cascata

We glanced around briefly, I moved from room to room without spotting anything properly caver like, entered a corridor that led to a door: the toilet, a cul-de-sac. I took advantage of this, but there was no key, so Peter entered behind me, leading to an awkward stare down.

Arun then called out, saying he’d found Bobo, so we greeted him alongside Salvatore, and Michaele, other sardinian cavers. They ordered non-filtered Sardinian beer, which was very nice of them and we started talking cave.

I say talking, more like google translating, and stringing a few Italian words I knew together. But it worked, and by the time the other team made it to Nuoro - after having done some awful off-roading - we had a plan for the next day. We would do a 100m shaft with a knot pass 65m of the way down. Charming.

I reassured everyone that we would go over the knot pass in the house - we didn’t. With the evening drawing late, we found a late night pizza place open in Nuoro, which served some good fare. I had the ’Completa’ which true to its description had all the meat I craved.

We saved the left-over wine — we’d over-ordered — filling plastic bottles, but not before asking permission from our hosts who were slightly perplexed at this. With dinner over, we drove back to Orosei for a late night at the house. In fact, some even shunned their beds and ran to the beach for sunrise the next morning.

Monday 26th March

Where we meet Bobo near Su Gologone, before caving in Voragine di Tiscali, alongside some Andalucian cavers.

Too much wine. Not for me personally, though I suffered from an annoying lack of sleep due to the night’s antics, but for those who had finished 5L of Vino Rosso during the evening.

Rita elected to stay at the house for the day, while the rest of us packed the cars with kits for this first SRT cave. We had planned to meet with Bobo at 10.00am near Su Gologone resurgence, at the very foot of the Supramonte.

We were slowed down by two herds of sheep on the road to our meeting point, and blissfully engaged the cars on a single lane road wending south to Su Gologone, avoiding the closed bridge. The road was absolutely perfect until it came to crossing the river. There was first a ford to reach a small island in the middle of the stream, which was fine and then a narrow, curvy granite bridge. When I got midway, I lost sight of everything but blue sky ahead, and praying that the bottom wouldn’t scrape went forwards. The nose of the car dived suddenly, revealing the other side of the road. We all breathed hard and the car came to a sudden halt. We were through!

We arrived at the meeting place near enough to the agreed upon 10.00am to make no difference. Team Shay turned out to be 1 minute only, and since Bobo was there already, we wasted no time in setting off on the Lanaitu valley road.

I say road. It quickly deteriorated to a dirt track, then there were cobble, and then mostly holes and puddles. But around us, limestone cliffs rose, parted in the centre by the flat bottomed valley we were driving across.

After some time, we arrived at a shady parking place and started getting changed. Not long after, another convoy arrived and parked next to us. Cavers. Also bound for Voragine di Tiscali, our cave for the day it transpired. Spanish.

We set off slightly before them, and Bobo noticed that Jack had not brought hiking shoes (somehow the 30min walk to the entrance had been omitted in our discussions about the cave). His wearing flip-flops led to Bobo grabbing a handful of rocks and miming throwing them at Jack’s feet. ’You cannot exist, it’s not possible’ he said. We all laughed heartily. Jack looked nervous.

After the climb on the rutted road, we reached a small pavement on the side, a vantage point from which we could see the mouth of the cave: it was pretty big.

Bobo gave me the ’armour bag’, filled with bolts, hangers and krabs and ascertained I’d been on expedition before. When he was satisfied, he gave me the metal and led me to the start of the abseil route, putting a short handline on the way down.

He traversed around an exposed ledge, cowstails in his mouth, with a lenght of dynamic rope attached to a very small tree. He looped the cowstails around a pillar of rock, attached the rope and pointed at it. ’Don’t put your weight on it’ he said. Reassuring .

I followed to the first ’Y’-hang and, armed with spanner, rigging gear and vast amounts of rope, started the descent. ’Don’t use the red bolts’ Bobo said before I went down. Ah, those would be the ones around which the rock had obviously shattered.

Dave followed to provide morale support. Then the Spaniards caught up, spidering their way across our rigging to find their rebelay route. Why couldn’t I have the rebelays like every other human being?

I reached the final ’Y’-hang above the supposedly 100m hang and proceeded to rig it. It was very fun, seeing the way down to the bottom. At the same time, the Spaniard started a conversation with me. Apparently they had been to Sima Cabra, a cave in Andalucia we’d visited in 2016 and knew Jose Ballesteros. I eagerly started talking about the merits of the two caves (deep open shafts both), but then remembered that the overly and overtly exposed rebelay was perhaps not the best place to have that chat.

I tested my descender and plunged into the abyss. I kept expecting the knot pass to pop out of my tacklesack at every turn, but it never came. My feet touched solid floor, a good 65m below the rebelay, and out came the knot. That was lucky!

I relayed the message up to Dave, and looked around. It was truly a cavernous place, with a massive flowstone covering the eastern wall all the way down. The passage leading off in either direction from the base of the pitch was a good 30 to 40 metres tall, and 10 metres wide.

At one end, the Grande Frana (Big Fault) passage led off into the heart of the mountain. At the other, a Cwm Dwr-esque crawl led off to a rabbit warren of chambers with nice decorations and according to Jennifer, the world’s worst handline.

One by one, Dave, Peter, Ben, Jack, Jennifer, Yan Jin, Arun and Diss came down. Bobo met us at the bottom with a sweet brioche bun, a colomba, which was very much appreciated. Apparently, the lower exit was a mere 3 minutes away from the base of the pitch. Dave and Ben made a swift exit to the cars, so Dave could have a nap and Ben could retrieve his drone.

The main shaft of Voragine di Tiscali

At this point, I took a few long exposure photographs and exited via the lower entrance into the sunlight. Plan was to go back up and derig from the top. Down the path, I saw Ben playing around with the drone, indeed he was having tremendous fun by the looks of it. At the cars, Dave loaded me with a blue tacklesack he had stolen from the Spaniards at the top of the pitch. Thanks Dave!

I walked back up to the limestone pavement and struck up another conversation with the Spanish. After some convoluted krab exchange, I navigated to the top of the Y-Hang and called out below. Speaking slowly, I alerted them to the fact I was going to take the rope up. The additional 35m of unused rope at the bottom were untied from my end of the rope, which was very nice. However Bobo was adamant he needed the tackle sack more than I. Why, Bobo, why?

I pulled the ropes up, a tedious job and bundled them up at the top, with the help of the Spaniards. Then, as we were walking down to the cars, the Sun sinking fast to the west, I tried to recall the smattering of Spanish I’d learned before 2016 and understood that the Su Gologone Resurgence was well worth a look, as it took the water from most of the karst systems of the Supramonte.

Team Shay departed earlier as usual, with instructions for a dinner of risotto. In the meantime, Bobo led us, Peter, Yan Jin Ben and I to the resurgence, which was well in flood: the concrete bank along which some locals collect ’pure karstic’ water was completely underwater. We could see the force with which that amount of water was propulsed some 40m to the surface: it was a proper Vauclusian spring, with the décor of an 18th century painting.

At the house, it was time to enjoy a well-deserved courgette and mushroom risotto. The nearly 1.5L of wine came through very nicely, and everybody got to bed early, relishing the prospect of the next day’s cave, the meat of the trip: Su Palu.

Tuesday 27th March

Where we meet Bobo in Dorgali petrol station, before driving to Su Palu, then caving to camp El-Alamein and heading off towards Pozzo Oliena for some. Su Palu was to be the highlight of the trip. We’d built up our caving mojo throughout the preceding couple of days: freeclimbs and flowstone acclimatisation in Sos Jocos, SRT in Voragine di Tiscali. Now, we were ready for anything, and having agreed to meet Bobo in Dorgali at 10.00am, we spent the morning packing the daren drums with sleeping bags, food and cooking implements.

I’d bought eight 7hr candles from the shop, since we were only staying one night, and looked forward to their ambient warm glow at camp. Dave grumbled at what he foresaw as a lack of total darkness while others breathed a sigh of relief. For most, it would be the first time spending the night underground. For me, the first time in two years since the last UG camp in Slovenia I would be able to go to sleep to the slow murmur of rushing water nearby. I could not wait.

On the way to Dorgali, several things happened at once: first, Bobo notified that he would be an hour late. Second, Team Shay stopped at a petrol station to change their front left tyre, which had lost substantial pressure due to a small puncture. I immediately turned off the main road to park in the sun drenched town of Galtelli, where we had a spot of tourism around a XII century church. Ben and Jennifer walked up the west slopes of Monte Tuttavista to do some more droning, while Yan Jin and I walked across the cemetery. Arun stayed near the car.

After a while, we left Galtelli for Dorgali, finding the petrol station Bobo had indicated as our meeting point and waited. While I caught up on some emails, Arun and co went to a shop to buy today’s lunch, while Bobo said yet again that we would be an hour late. We waited some more, eating cherry tomatoes and local pitta-esque flat bread off the bonnet of the Renegade Jeep. The vista was remarkable, as we could see the entirety of the Supramonte unfolded like a tapestry before us.

Bobo turned up eventually, and we left off on the high, twisting mountain road that would lead us to Su Palu. Heading south, with something like 600m of valley to our right, and a limestone cliff to our left, we plodded along the surprisingly well tarmac -ed road. Suddenly we reached a col, and the views changed sides. We left the limestones behind, and started a descent through tunnels and more winding roads.

Bobo indicated left, turning into a gravel car park next to a small mountainside cafe, where he picked up the key to Su Palu. While a couple of us were having coffee, some wandered over to a rocky promontory above the road, giving them unobstructed views of the entire marine Supramonte. Bobo shook his head in disbelief.

We left off once again, eager to reach Su Palu. Bobo, who couldn’t accompany us inside the cave due to stomach problems - he would come of his car every so often to gag on the side of the road - still drove on to the Codula Ilune car park, a mere 15 minute walk from the entrance. I could tell he was very much disappointed not to be able to cave with us as he had four years back.

We got changed swiftly - it was approaching 2.00pm now - gaining some equipment and food that Bobo kindly offered. There was smoked cheese, a pelicase for Arun’s camera and an emergency hexamine stove. We thanked him and followed along the riveraved goodbye in turn, to Bobo and to sunlight.

And then we waited. Rita and I sang a little bit, going through the Twelve days of Christmas, but a caver’s version.

On the First Day of Caving, Tony spake to me And the CRO still came to rescue me. ... On the Second Day of Caving, Tony gave to me Two Tackle Sacks And the CRO still came to rescue me. ... On the Twelvth Day of Caving, Tony gave to me Twelve Pulley Jammers Eleven brand new Helmets Ten Cowstails Nine Shiny Ladders Eight Spare Batteries Seven Steel Bobbins Six Hyperslings Five Gold Crolls Four Oval Krabs Three Survey Books Two Tackle Sacks And the CRO still came to rescue me

Then Rita and I played several more games, but being unaccustomed to losing, I quickly lost interest. Rita frowned and said no more. Then it was our turn to go down the entrance pitch, rigged off a ’Y’-hang without traverse line. At the bottom, Yan Jin, Rita and I proceeded down the boulder slope that led to the stream.

The start of the White Nile in Su Palu, with Ben Richards

Far away, we spotted some lights: the rest of the team enjoying themselves around the granite boulders of the stream. Once we regrouped, Dave led the procession to the duck, into a passage where it was necessary to put one’s knees in the water. Most elected to let the stream refresh them a bit. I, although never properly admitting it, stayed high above as I have a distaste for getting wet as I get cold rather quickly.

At the duck, the dip into the streamway was a surprise to all, as it was much cooler than the cave air. Yan Jin became very vocal going through (the most vocal I’ve heard her anyway), and a string of expletives came floating back through.

All things considered, the refreshing duck was welcome, as the passages of Altaloma, which follow, are mainly dry and involve a lot of clambering around. I took a quick shortcut which brought me to the start of the group, and thence led the way, following the orange reflectors onwards.

We ooohed and aaaahed at the profusion of calcite, the fantastical shapes most of the formations had seemingly frozen into and the vastness of the space above us. Somehow it got better though: a short down climb to stream level at the end led us to the Confluenza, where the White Nile began.

It began in style: gour pools the size of desks, with shimmering water flowing above them, white stalagmites and organ like flowstones everywhere. A large crystal clear stream (50-100l .s-1? at the time) running over pebbles of granite. I’d never seen its like before.

I had teleported back at the end of the group somehow, but not for long, as we reached the start of the cascade a 10m high waterfall one could not descend. A little way further upstream was an ascending handline with the orange reflectors: the way around.

We started brewing vast amounts of tea at camp El-Alamein, with Tanguy Racine

I went up first, circumvented a massive column of flowstone and found the start of a long traverse line. Across, down, back, down again, past a deviation, where I could see the cascade we were trying to avoid, then across some more, bold step and then down again to the stream.

From the surveys, we knew we weren’t very far from camp at all. Maybe twenty minutes. While the first five headed off, I waited for Rita, Jack, Arun and Yan Jin. Arun appeared last, having derigged a descent rope across the bold step we’d put in place to help with going down.

Just before the climb into Tesoro di Morgan chamber formations abound, with Ben Richards

The rest was a stomp down to the lake, which we heard before we saw. It was, well, unlike anything I’d seen before. Vast, dark and noisy. Traversing across to the left, I reached a promontory from which I could peer across the water. Twenty metres beyond, a tube was discharging the waters of the Blue Nile in a little waterfall. Far over to the left, the expanse of water looked deeper still: the start of a massive sump, dived to the Su Spiria system.

I turned around and bumped into Arun. ’Where are you going?’ he asked, nervously. ’I was psyching myself up to cross the lake’.

Ah Arun... El Alamein, the sandy cavern where we would settle down for the night, was a little way upstream of the White Nile, and already people there were having fun, running around. The camp was dry, spacious, with still air, and no obvious signs that it had been heavily used. No piles of rubbish, no in-situ mats, no left over alcohol containers, dubious tins of fish nor gas canisters.

Peter Ganson and Ben Richards at the start of Tesoro di Morgan chamber in Su Palu cave

We unpacked, choosing the raised platform as a kitchen area, which I immediately occupied, unpacking our food and cooking pots. Our gas canister fitting was slightly damp, so it took a little while longer to get a brew started. Unfortunately, Arun’s MSR stove fitting didn’t screw on the canisters we’d bought, but we made do with one. I got some soup on, which we split into three bowls for sharing, while everybody else assessed the state of their ’dry’ sleeping bags.

Only one of the twelve darens turned out to have been slightly leaky, which was a disappointment to Jennifer, but lo and behold, the warmest man alive, Dave agreed to wear it for several hours to dry it off. He made an ungainly sight, but we were past caring.

I started cooking a risotto, Yan Jin at my side stayed near the stove to keep warm while others headed off for a dip in the lake. As they came back, the mixture was brought to a simmer and we ate voraciously.

At around 9pm, we decided to carry on caving towards the Pozzo Oliena area, as a reconnaissance for Disneyland trip on the next day. Letting Dave and Rita guard the camp, the remaining eight of us got back into caving kits, which although still damp were getting warmer and drier by the minute.

Armed with surveys and a sheer determination to explore, we went off into Lilliput. This was exactly how a previous French team had described it, walking into the darkness. After some dubious traverses, and roped climbs on the side of the passage - this was extremely reminiscent of the mines of Moria - we stepped off in a cavern bigger than anything I’ve ever seen.

With abrupt, steep walls rising on either side, a monstrous flowstone formation to one end, and scree slopes that would not have looked out of place on a mountainside, Lilliput was beyond words. Simply enormous.

In silence, we walked. In darkness, we walked. In awe, we walked.

Following the cairns and with extreme care not to end up in the Land of Mordor, we reached the end of Lilliput and the start of zone H. I was sure this was the right way when we stepped into a slightly sinuous high rift passage decorated in white calcite. But it was the red mud that caught our attention. It rose up to a horizontal level above our heads, stopping abruptly below what must have been the water line of a static pool before someone unplugged the cork.

Farther on we found the Tesoro di Morgan chamber, more red mud levels and the rope leading up Pozzo di Oliena. I walked 50 metres onwards to find the Finale di Lilliput ropes. We elected to turn around here, splitting between a core photography team and the advance return party.

Peter, Jennifer, Diss, Ben and I held back slightly, photographing our way back, until the first three peeled off our group. Then it was Ben and I, on our own, walking back through the vastness of Lilliput. Again, there were no words for what our lights were desperately trying to illuminate, just a conscious appreciation of how insignificant we were.

We arrived back in El Alamein at roughly one in the morning, in time for some mulled wine, capping off the long day we had. I headed off to the opposite side of the chamber, snuggled inside my dry sleeping bag and went to sleep, listening to the murmur of the Blue Nile not far away, while Diss blew out the candles one by one.

The sandy chamber of El-Alamein camp in Su Palu

Wednesday 28th March

Where half the group head towards Mordor, while the rest reach the base of the climb into Disneyland, before turning back to head out of Su Palu. I had a passable night considering the sleeping bag was flush against the sandy floor, yet felt refreshed all the same. At around 8.00am I finally got up, visited the ramp where we had set up a rudimentary toilet facility and came back to camp to prepare breakfast for everyone.

Couscous with vegetables it was, accompanied with slices of smoked cheese, salami and chocolate. When the food was ready, Jack, Ben and I woke up the others. I surreptitiously added some tinned fish in our portion after the veggies had been served to make it even more delicious.

The well decorated Altaloma passages, beyond the entrance duck of Su Palu, with Ben Richards

We split between a Mordor and Disneyland team for the day, to stagger the exit of the cave. Ben, Jack, Peter, Jennifer and I headed off not long after breakfast towards Lilliput passages, trying to conserve energy as much as possible. Our oversuits had completely dried up and we were soon sweating profusely, but keeping slow, steady pace we arrived at the Finale di Lilliput in surprisingly little time. I shot up the ropes.

Somehow, it took longer to reach the base of the Disneyland ropes than to walk from camp to Finale di Lilliput in the first place, despite being a tenth the distance. Still, we arrived at the base of another series of ropes (semi-ascent semi-traverse over large drops) which led further up into the ceiling of the high passage.

The traverse lines eventually gave way to a narrow, sculpted ledge from which we gained access to another large tunnel. I marveled again at the red mud plastered at eye level, while higher up, a profusion of ’popcorny’ white calcite covered the walls. At the far end of that passage, a carbide splodge next to a conspicuous 4m rope up indicated ’Disneyland’.

Jack had turned around at the previous climbs and Peter stopped there, so only Ben, Jennifer and I went up, each going a little farther into the final tunnels before Disneyland. Running out of steam, and conscious of the long way back to the entrance, we turned round, shy of the promised land of the pretties.

Very quickly we came back to camp where we rustled up some truffle risotto. Scrumptious. Then Jack, Peter and Jennifer led the way out, while Ben and I held back to take photos of the lake and the White Nile. The timing was very good, as we only met up again at the base of the entrance pitch, scarcely waiting before going up ourselves.

We exited by moon rise, greeted by Jack behind whose smiling figure stars were starting to twinkle, exhausted but happy nonetheless to have completed two nine hour trips in 36 hours. We walked back to the cars by moonlight, changed in our dry clothes and wolfed down some remaining snacks.

I found some prunes stashed by my seat, which I quickly devoured before lying back in the drivers seat. The nearly 1.45mins drive to Orosei couldn’t be helped and we needed to get back under signal coverage to alert the other team to our successful exit.

With people sleeping in the car and a good dose of classical music, I managed the navigation without too many glitches - I may have cursed the historic centre of Dorgali a little - and we drove back to a hive of activity in the villa.

The table was loaded with a heap of food, some of it left over from the previous meals but what stood out for me were the deep fried risotto balls, which had kept their white wine flavour throughout. Food for the gods...

The White Nile near Altaloma in Su Palu, with Ben Richards

Thursday 29th March

Where we hike for 2hrs to reach Cala Di Luna, and take a speedboat back to Cala Gonone. Half the group prepare a barbecue, while the other meet Bobo in Nuoro to discuss caving plans for Friday.

With Su Palu behind us it was time for an off day, recuperating before the grand finale at Luigi Donini cave. In the morning we texted Bobo about meeting in Nuoro in the evening again to get the necessary rope, equipment and advice. He replied soon, proposing to meet again at the Imperio Bar in the early evening.

With this in mind, I drove down to the Eurospin outside Orosei to get supplies for a barbecue. With Arun, Jack and Diss, we took the Dorgali road and turned off just before the main marble quarries, to find we had gone past the supermarket building. Uncomprehending as to why we’d missed the Eurospin we back tracked, and Arun gave a shout, spotting that the sign pointing towards the shop had been stolen. I wonder which caving stores has it.

Inside a ’bunker’ style Eurospin, we found some really good, fat cheap sausage, massive peppers, aubergines and colomba, the brioche bun we’d appreciated in Voragine di Tiscali. Arun ferreted around for antipasti, bread and salami to take for the beach while I stocked up on Ice Tea. I told Jack to go back for more sausage because it was so cheap, and laden with those supplies, drove back to the house.

I explained the plan for the day: drive to Caletta Fuili, and thence walk to Cala di Luna - some 5km away to reach a spot of beauty. Then we’d take the speedboat back to Caletta Fuili.

This was easier said than done. With the sun starting to beat down in Orosei, we all boarded the cars. I gave Dave directions and we set off. We first had to drive to Cala Gonone, a small seaside town located on the other side of the mountain range, only accessible by a hairpin road which took about 40mins from Orosei, and then we took the sign-posted turning to Caletta Fuili, where the road ended.

Cala di Luna beach in the centre of the Gulf of Orosei

There was no real parking space, so we stopped, like many others before us, on the side of the road leading up to the deeply entrenched beach of Caletta Fuili — itself a very picturesque location. Signs warned of a two hour walk to Cala Luna, which I dismissed easily: we would probably shave off half an hour.

This was a mistake: a group of ten moves slowly at the best of times. Peter, Jennifer and Dave were nursing diverse ankle and knee injuries and therefore taking it easy. We had several very good runs of What am I? though, including:

I’m a what.

Are you animal? No. Vegetable? No. Mineral? Yes. Are you a rock? no.

Diss: Can I enter you? Ahem, ... no? Diss: Damn, so you’re not a cave.

Metal? Yes. Native metal? err,No. Alloy.. Peter, we need help on alloys...! No.

I am of metal.

So you’re.. how big are you? Can’t answer that.

Are you made? Yes. By humans? No. Hmmh, are you made by an animal? Yes. Are you a by-product of something? No.

So you’re made for a specific purpose? Yes. By a mammal? err, yes? Are you made for that animal? No. For another species? Yes. On purpose? YES! By a bipedal species? Yes. But not humans? No.

Everyone: wait a minute... Are you real?

And that is the whole point. No, I am not...

I had misgivings when, after nearly two hours walk, we were still shy of the objective. Jack powered ahead to the beach, which appeared just after the next hillcrest. It was only another 20 minutes or so before we arrived at the Cala di Luna beach, and true to the research I’d done beforehand, it was impressive, beautiful, sunny. But at what cost?

Soon, these worries were forgotten: we settled for a swim and a picnic next to the mouths of two abandoned phreatic caves. Ben got the drone out for some stunning shots, while I went over to the boats to sort out a return to Cala Fuili.

What do you mean, not to Cala Fuili? Just Cala Gonone? Fine. This meant I’d go back along the path to the cars to arrange some shuttle between Gonone and Fuili. I grabbed Arun so the boat captain would remember his face, especially as we had nine people to ferry across the bay.

I set off back after taking a few photos, grabbing one of the club’s walkie-talkies to update the rest on my progress. I started off quite fast, but it became irrelevant as some other beach goers started jumping in the queue for the boats, pushing back the time at which our team could make it across later and later.

I arrived at Fuili after about 1.10mins of speedy walk, and who did I meet there? The Spanish cavers from Voragine di Tiscali. It seemed ages ago already, but we had a good chat about what we’d been up to in the intervening time.

I shook hands with them, said goodbye and took the car to Cala Gonone. Perched on the harbour jetty I waited. The radio signal across the water was very clear and crisp, over an unobstructed 6-7km stretch, and every so often I’d get an update from the stranded team at Cala di Luna. The sun sank behind the mountains, painting the high limestone hills covered in blue and beige pastels. Soon however, my attention was drawn towards a black spot across the bay, which could only be the returning ferry.

The only four people in the boat were Peter, Jennifer, Ben and Jack had, consciously agreed to come with me to Nuoro to speak with Bobo. The rest were already at Caletta Fuili, on another ferry. The drive to Nuoro was again pleasantly punctuated by wonderful vistas of the Supramonte in the sunset.

We entered the Imperio bar, once again looking for Bobo. He wasn’t there yet Diss told us via text, but would be soon, so we settled down at a table and ordered some more of that unfiltered Sardinian beer and waited.

Bobo arrived in a red velvet suit, with a woman we could not place. She wasn’t an interpreter, his daughter perhaps? I didn’t catch the name.

I first tried to work out the logistics of going to Luigi Donini Cave, but it quickly appeared it would take nearly 2hrs of driving, a third of that off roads to reach a parking spot. ’What about the other wet cave we’d talked about, Locoli?’ ’Easier and shorter. 50m from the parking spot. A 50min drive from Orosei’. All in all the better option for the last day. ’Oh, and there are tyrolean traverses. And you might need an inflatable boat...’ he added. ’Meoww’.

What followed was the usual drive back to Orosei, alerting the other half of the group to our progress so ’those aubergines would have no excuse not to be cooked’. We arrived to a well started coal fire in the barbecue, so we put the food stuffs to cook immediately, drowning in spice, olive oil, sausage fat and red wine. What a trip so far!

Friday 30th March

Where we head for a fun day in Sa Conca de Locoli, for some aqueous caving before clearing the accommodation for an early start the next day.

So there it was: the last trip of the tour, with added pressure of rounding off the week with some easy, fun caving. The resurgence of Sa Conca de Locoli is located near in the Monte Albo area, that is North West of Orosei, a region we hadn’t visited yet. A region probably inaccessible to previous ICCC tours to Sardinia, due to the prohibitively long drive around the Supramonte.

Everyone expressed an interest in this cave, which was an added bonus, and simplified our logistics greatly. We set off at the very reasonable time of 12.00pm, hoping to spend a couple of hours inside the cave. I was certainly keen to check out a certain free-diveable sump Bobo had mimed the day before, by drawing a passage in our logbook and holding his breath for a couple of seconds. Was there a rope? Obviously not. How long was it? 1m. Ah, and how long are the other sumps in this cave? 800m for one. Hmm, very unfreediveable then.

No matter, I thought, the rest of the cave with its different lakes and Tyroleans would provide more than enough entertainment. I would be proved right.

But first we had to go within 50m of the cave entrance as promised. We left the regional road to take the provincial road: this meant getting off the very nice dual carriage way to cross an industrial estate with very wide lanes and absolutely no markings on the asphalt, and doing a 180 degrees turn to find the provincial road, running parallel to the carriageway for 4km. Talk about going in circles! Then we turned right under the carriage way and left roads altogether to follow a country lane. Our progress slowed to a crawl, with Dave in front going very slowly over the puddles and cobbles and ruts the track was full of.

Eventually, we reached very deep puddles only team Shay could cross. I turned around and parked Ezio on the grassy verge. We then transfered all the equipment to Dave’s car, hoping to walk alongside the Jeep and direct the driver over the obstacles. We had about 1.5km of road left, thirty times the distance we’d been promised, but all the same, we walked, drinking the sunshine, dodging the shepherd’s dogs and admiring the otherworldly scenery.

Dave dodging the large puddles on the road to Dorgali

Dave stopped the car, 800m away from the cave, under the shade of a thick olive tree. We unloaded quickly, taking the picnic and caving items for the last stretch, where Dave was vindicated as the track deteriorated. We wondered how Bobo drove his Picasso to the end, or indeed, whether he had been there in a long time.

It didn’t make much of a difference in the end, as the cave was quickly located, the food divvied up and caving kits put on. The morning blue skies had turned to milky white, with hints of change in weather, but under the canopy of trees, and under the recesses of massive angular boulders, we figured that the kit was safe.

Now earlier that day I’d unearthed what I thought was an inflatable boat, and showed it to the morning table, unrolling the fabric. It turned out to be an inflatable orca, designed for the beach, which immediately destined it for this trip. It also fit easily inside a tacklesack, which is useful to know. I’s also learned from Bobo the secret location of a foot pump inside the cave, so leading the way, set out in search of it.

We filed in the large entrance, dropping down onto mossy boulders before leaving the sunlight and soon arrived at a traverse line, skirting a deep pool of water. With Jack next to me traversing above it and in the absence of any reflection, I became worried he was stood above a very deep pit.

There was a splash, as Diss proved, case in point that there was nothing to be afraid of, since there were several metres of cushioning water between Jack and the rock. I shrugged, clipped in, and looked around as more and more people jumped in the pool. And then I spotted it! High above the water, like a chock-stone between a large formation and the ceiling, the foot pump beckoned.

The first plunge pool in Grotta Locoli

I backtracked, climbed up a ledge, crouched and retrieved the pump, the group heading off below me towards the first lake. From my vantage point, I spotted a fun route down the flowstone and bridged my way down, pump in the mouth. What others would have made of me then, I have no idea, but all the same I was glad they weren’t there to witness the bizarre sight.

I hopped and jumped through the following puddles and waist high water, rejoining the group at the first lake. It was blue-green, about one Tanguy deep and very enticing. Sadly, the pump didn’t seem to function properly, so the orca was inflated with some mouth action. In the meantime, we spotted an in-situ boat to the side. We took it off the wall and Jennifer used it to cross, paddling with beach rackets, while Dave made acrobatic attempts to use the Tyrolean traverse. Arun and I had the only steel crabs with us, and all in all, it wasn’t very good. After helping Jennifer traverse the first lake - Peter had jumped in the water - we crossed the second, and reached a junction.

Onwards, another deep blue pool I identified as Sifone 1bis on our survey. And so it looked: I lowered myself and immersed completely inside the pool to peer through the darkness. I am however short sighted, and deeply resentful of that fact in the heat of the moment, got out and turned around. I lingered only long enough to see Arun use his feet to palpate the walls of the sump pool, to no avail.

Back at the junction, from which squeals of delight (or were they killer whale impersonations?) issued. We paused for a few photos before climbing up a thick handline. While packing up, diverse shouts of ’Free Whale’ and ’Willy Free’ echoed back from the obviously aqueous continuation.

The gour pools above which we found the freediveable sump to Locoli 1a

I followed, through what was the longest lake yet, a deep pool ending at a cascading flowstone. Then there was another climb down, this time a good six or seven metres of slippery slides, and further lakes. Finally, I saw a couple of cavers standing on an island of boulders, peering at what looked like the ultimate pool. However, when crouching, I spotted helmet lights shining back at me through a small triangular opening, but what struck me was the colour of the water, which was no longer the inviting shade of emerald green, but a deep inky blue.

Swimming through the hole, I reached the rest of the group, in what was indeed the terminal lake before the 800m sump. Clearly, we were in a much deeper pool than before, and the dive lines there testified that the way or ways on were for cave divers only. But where was that free-diveable sump Bobo had talked about?

I got out of the pool and walked back towards the 6m climb, with Ben in tow. He’d spotted a sump at the top of the flowstone and was keen to show me. We arrived at the place, and gave an appraising look at the sump pool. This was again, a deep passage as I could lower myself in the water completely. Holding my breath I went ahead tentatively, eyes above water until my helmet touched the ceiling. I backed out, took the helmet off and tried again. This time, I got enough leeway to shine my light across the passage and saw that in lieu of a sump, a short duck barred the way forward.

Even then, however, I did not chance a controlled glide across, instead opting to back out, spluttering as my nostrils finally emptied of water. By that time, we’d all regrouped around the flowstone, which meant taking a few more group photos, which we did before heading back out to the sounds of ’Free the Willy’ by Dave.

Willy did not, however escape unscathed, as it burst under my weight in the final lake, disintegrating almost completely, but for the tail, which now resembled a grotesque over-sized mustache. More photos at the first lake, where Arun, Dave, Diss and Yan Jin took it in turn to jump with grace into the pool before a swift exit.

Willy the Orca, taken against his will into the cave for the general amusement

It hadn’t rained after all, despite the threat from the clouds, and we changed feeling thoroughly refreshed. The sun burst from its hiding place even as we were walking to the cars, contrasting with the grey limestone, green shrubbery and cobalt blue clouds on the horizon. with heavy hearts and the realisation that the last cave was done, we boarded the cars. One group bound for Orosei, the other, which I was leading going there via a different route, hoping to stop at an archaeological site.

This was not to be, as the roads deteriorated too much on the way there, but it proved to be the right choice, since we’d forgotten about getting a present for Bobo. We stopped at Siniscola, and headed back to Orosei, where we were hoping to give him a warm welcome.

Another plan thwarted: Bobo couldn’t come to us, and due to the lateness (8.00pm) we had serious misgivings about going to Nuoro ourselves. At the house, we devised a fair plan of action: I would drive to Nuoro, alone, while the rest cleaned the house, laden with Bobo’s equipment which he had lent us for Su Palu and carrying the present. To help matters, I found my MP3 player, which had gone walkies for the last couple of days, charged it and plugged it in Ezio.

As soon as I got on the road, the heavens broke. Arriving in Nuoro on the stroke of nine, I was invited into Bobo’ s apartment, where I was made to feel very welcome. I met Giovana his wife, ate some basil based deep-fried delicacy and tested some homemade wine. We looked at some of the photographs from the trip I’d brought with me, to which Bobo either commented ’Bellissimi’ or mimed a person get shotgunned.

At the house, all that was left was for me to pack my back, gathering the remainder of the communal kit and hoping it would all fit. 22.3kg. Lovely! I had some delicious gnocchi, peas and sardinian sausage before heading to bed for the dreaded 4 hours to our departure from the house. In the midst of all the activity, there was no time to think back on the week, just grim determination to make it out.

Epilogue

Where we head back to Olbia airport early in the morning and head back to London.

The alarms went off far too early, but it could not be helped. We crammed the bags inside the cars, squashing everybody due to the necessity of fitting five large bags in each car, and using the remaining interstitial space for the cabin bags. I was fine, if tired.

we bade goodbye to the accommodation, to Orosei and journeyed through the pre-dawn gloom of the Sardinian countryside before reaching the dual carriageway at Siniscola. Then it was simple enough to retrace our steps to Olbia airport, which was well sign posted along the way, but the fatigue, compounded by lack of sleep clouded my judgment and with intense difficulty and unnecessary faff, we dropped off Peter, Jen and Ben at the airport, while Jack and I went to refuel. I doused my hand in diesel, started using the wrong pump (for trucks) and kept going off the sat-nav.

We eventually made it back to the car rental drop off, left the keys in the key box (it was still shy of 7.00am) and met the others in the terminal. A couple of coffees later, the bags were dropped off and we moved through to the boarding gates. Slowly, very slowly we trickled through passport control, I was the last of the entire plane to board, but I took heart in the fact, that this time, I would be sat next to the window.

With a pinch of sadness, we took off, getting a very good view of all the granite peaks norths of Olbia and of some tremendous Corsican coastline. Just before I dozed off completely, my attention was drawn to the snow capped peaks of the Alps: I looked around, and made passing comment to Ben, sat just in front that we were flying straight above the Dent de Crolles.

Acknowledgements

To Bobo, I can’t thank you enough for the help and advice given throughout the trip. The order of the caves turned out to be perfect and the equipment lent to us, invaluable. I have the sincere hope and assurance from ICCC members that it won’t be long before we return for some more Sardinian caving. This time I’m sure you will be able to cave with us as well. In the meantime, we’ll raise a toast with the very appreciated homemade mirta you gave us.

To my fellow ICCC Tour members, who despite the early starts, longish hikes and brutal pace inside the caves put up with me all week. You all helped behind the scenes to make this happen, and never once did you refuse to carry a flash, a tacklesack or a bottle of wine. To Diss, mastermind behind the trip, who organised the tedious admin work before leaving, got the team together and conversed with Bobo to get access to the caves. You made it happen in the first place. To the rest of the club, for talking up Sardinia as a caving destination, we were not disappointed!