Underground Camp 10-12th October 2008
Daren Cilau! The mythical cave, hidden under the Llandock escarpment and protected by a horrifying entrance series that opened up to the largest passage in the country, two underground camps and the prospect of many further exploration possibilities. This description, garnered over years of loitering around caving huts, doesn't really paint the right picture. The following are the experiences of a first time camper.
I set off from Paddington at 2pm, shooting down the M4 corridor and changing at Newport before being hurtled up the valleys towards Abergavenny in a comedy 2 carriage train. Adrian picked me up at the station and we shot up to Whitewalls. The view across the valley was absolutely spectacular, truly the best view of any UK hut! There I met a fellow first timer, Nick, and some more old hands.
A cup of tea and a bit of reassurance from the old lags, we changed and headed up the last bit of hill. Saying our goodbyes to the sky, we chucked our single tacklesacs ahead (apart from Adrian, who heroically carried in 5L of Parafin) and grovelled into the puddle.
And so the entrance series... Calling it a crawl doesn't really do it justice, its heavily calcited (so nice and slippery), with pebbles the perfect size to catch under your kneepads (oversuit outside boots is recommended for obvious reasons). After twenty odd metres it started getting 'tight', though by tight one means more like 150% body sized. Only there was no possibility of turning around, and the tight bits were generally combined with unavoidable streamway, which was extremely chill. And it just went on and on and on. I must admit I felt myself sliding towards a bit of a panic attack the first time my helmet got stuck, unsure of what I was letting myself in for. A few deep breaths and telling myself that 'this too shall pass', and I settled down for the remainder.
The Crux wasn't actually too bad, though I did have to flex my legs slightly backwards to get around. On the way out it ate my tacklesac rather cruely, but on the way in it was nice to be out of the stream.
Patches of badness, then respite, nodding at the telephone relay stations as they passed. The truly bad bit was at the end, where you simply have to sit down in the stream and push off with your feet and scramble along. Still, with a new Meander I was dry above the waist and none too wet below.
All in all it took an hour, and really wasn't too bad - despite what I wrote above! The oddest thing was perhaps the density anomoly - I was convinced that my Daren drums were slowly taking on water as I went along, making the sac heavier. Of course, it was just my arm strength ebbing.
Once through, and with knowledgeable guides, the rest of the cave was a veritable pleasure. A few flat out crawly bits in dry sand at the connection point to the Time Machine, and the usual ridiculous Welsh climbs with a bit of dat where in Yorkshire they'd be a pitch.
The ladder climb was fine, except for the rather warped dog leg on the ledge halfway up, making oneself do a manouver none-to-secure on a battery belt lifeline. A lot easier to climb than an electron ladder, though some of the bits did seem to catch irritatingly on the clothing.
The Time Machine was impressive enough, but my appreciation was perhaps dulled by Sa Compana in Mallorca. Checked the Crystal inlet for water containers, and then progressed to camp. We smelt the burning parafin first!
Entry to the Hard Rock Cafe (HRC) is via the toilet, which seems appropriate enough. The camp is above the streamway in the almost terraformed Kings Road. Drysone walls have been used to make a bench for sure, but fundamentally there's nice big flat blocks of rock for all the stoves and food daren drums, and even a sluice hole leading down to the streamway below for desposing of old tea.
And of course, in good caving tradition, that was the very first thing I was furnished with - a big sweet steaming mug with that lovely powdered milk taste that just smacks of exploration. Changed from the damp clothes and hung them up in the 'wet' area beyond camp and slithered into my dry thermals (yum).
The HRC is really quite palatial. Tilley lamps and parafin stoves, heaps of food sealed away against the mold in Daren drums, sound system run off a MP3 player carefully brought in, carrymats coating the armchairs, a plastic flower garden and the usual stolen street signs. The cocktail cabinet was an achievement, but not one that particularly interested oneself, being T-Tot (and Vegetarian - just like Hitler!). The observation that you craved sweet drinks was interesting though, the current embargo on the never-drunk Whisky being an example.
The bullshit and cocktails flowed late into the night
Middle stuff still to be written...
The way out was smooth and uneventful. The wetsocks had begun to chafe. In no time at all we were at the crawl, and far more prepared than before. Nick and I took our time, pausing in the little chambers for a quick natter before shuffling on. The Crux was far more cruel on the way out, eating my bag just as I was wedged in the corner. Having counted the relay boxes on the way in, it was a depressing count down. The last few went really quick though, and soon Nick shouted back that he could 'see the light'. We came out to stunning weather, the low sun flooding the landscape with a warming red glow.
Straight back to Whitewalls to a steaming mug of tea prepped by Adrian & enjoyed in the shower. Sitting in Abergavenny station with an overstuffed rucksack, enjoying the last few rays of the day smiling stupidly at the locals.
Go small, go light, go now - you will not be disappointed.
Notes on UG camping:
Food: As predicted I brought too much food for 1 person (slightly overflowed by 1st Drum). Cheddar + Red Pepper Humous in Pita was very good indeed. Turkish delight was similarly welcome. The Quaker oats instant porridge sachets were really good, and came up a treat with water from the kettle + a dash of dried milk.
Sleep: I borrowed an immaculate red Buffalo outer. For the first night I slept in thermals + silk liner in this, and it was not really enough. For the second I grabbed a grim mouldy sleeping bag and used it as an over blanket, and spread a space blanket over the top for good measure. I was then well toasty, though a fair bit of condensation on the space blanket. For the first few hours the sleeping bag on top steamed away all its rotton moisture - grimness!
For the future, I think a buffalo outer + fleece liner would be perfect. The buffalo was immaculate as 100% manmade fibres led to zero mold. But I am a skinny runt who likes a warm bed.
Vous finirez tous par crever du confort.
(You will all finish up by dying from comfort.)
- 1960s French Slogan