First fresher trip of the year, and the potential maelstrom of ten freshers + seven non-freshers descending upon stores to pack kit whilst all the other outdoor clubs were doing the same was averted as freshers started trickling in at 5pm for the early shift. Consequently, we only experienced some healthy confusion as it neared 7pm, and amazingly enough the minibus was on the road by about 7:10pm.
The drive up was pleasant enough, with Jana blaring suitably depraved Slovenian songs about dying and building coffins(?) by 'the Slovenian version of Joy Division'. Riight... First real snag of the weekend occurred when we got a phone call from the shopping team going up in Alex's car saying that they couldn't fit all the food into the car! So a little detour and a quick pit stop later than anticipated, everyone bundled into the WSG for hot tea + cheese on toast + buttered crumpets. Heaven by a roaring fire.
With an uncharacteristic bit of forward-thinking, an alarm was set for 0830 as we aimed to leave by 1030ish to get the OFD key from SWCC. Even more unbelievably, people woke up! So a production line of traditional sausages + bacon + eggs + beans + mushrooms + toast was set up, and freshers were introduced to the delights of a greasy pre-caving fry up.
At SWCC, we enjoyed a short walk up to the OFD Top Entrance to get the blood pumping before beginning the massive OFD entrance series. Actually, everything about OFD is massive. The passages are massive, the chambers are massive, the formations are massive, and the streamway (people tell me) can also be massive. But it hadn't rained much in the days prior, so our team (Jana's + Alex's â we never really split up in the end) decided to forgo a bimble to the main streamway.
We made our way to the main chamber as a long train of 17 people, where we took a group photo in Gnome Passage before splitting up into our groups. We went back to the Corkscrew, then down Salubrious to a junction. Made couple of little unnecessary loops along the way (particularly in the first bit of the Labyrinth), ostensibly to let the freshers enjoy a bit of rift traversing... Went to have a look at Trident and the Judge, then tried to do a little round trip of Swamp Creek but I think it lead to a pretty exposed climbdown, and so prudently turned back instead. We headed up Selenite tunnel to Shattered Pillar and then out via Edward's Shortcut, which I think is where we encountered a couple of rather committing rifts and climbs â especially if it was your first time in the cave! Some were very understandably slightly nervous, but with a little bit of gentle coaxing and some ideal footholds in Thomas + Alex, everyone made it through like true cavers and with minimal complaints.
We still had plenty of time so we made our way to the brilliantly named Big Chamber Near the Entrance, where we let the freshers explore a little bit, scurrying down little holes and tunnels at the sides. After that the still-keen then got very dirty in Mud Slump (Mud Sump? Mud Slide?) near the entrance.
Overall, I think OFD was a great freshers trip, not too many tight squeezes to put people off, extremely well-decorated, some fun scrambling over huge boulders that litter the floor, and a couple of sporting climbs and rifts to keep things exciting. And everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, which is all that matters at the end of the day!
Left the other's in gnome passage, and shot off down Ed's shortcut - the controlled fall, squeeze past the boulder wedged against the wall and traverse over the pit offering a very quick introduction to typical welsh caving style. At the shattered pillar we headed towards the Cross Rift - a place I'd never been. Our laminated survey soon found us there, and it was pretty impressive in it's size and sheer straightness. Our attempt to reach Midnight Passage was thwarted by lack of knowledge in which random sketchy looking climb on the right to attempt.
So we headed to Maypole from the far side - nice little set of 'rabbit warren' tunnels with a levelled floor of dry glacial mud to explore. A couple of sidebranches distinctly not drawn on the survey, and we found the deep welly groves that marked the bold step + way down through the wedged boulders. The freshers were feeling good, so we dropped down to the stream with the aid of a couple of 8ft slings slung off the in-situ chockstone + rope strop (hidden back towards the bold-step end of the rift). Much more pleasant than the friction flying required to go from the chockstone forwards to the ledge heading the other way — climb is less exposed too.
Wriggled down to the maypole ladder, admired its wobbliness, all passed the moonmilk freeclimbs with admirable speed and then down to the stream with the stemple. I put a bit of 10mm (10m would be more than ample) with alpine butterfly handholds on the enormous ring bolt - I think this is nicer than sling, but obviously heavier to carry out when wet.
Shot down to the connection with Cwm Ddr, then back up and out via a mission to the end of Swamp Creek — we were also turned back from the 'dry' loop by the massive rift traverse, so tried the wet way - really fine bit of stream. I ran up through the crystal water admiring the gravel and mud banks, to be moderately surprised that it had turned into a gloopy tea-coloured liquid for everyone else! The chamber drawn at the end of Swamp Creek, which I had assumed would be full of pretties, eluded us.Out for tea and medals - 6 hr trip, glorious weather up top. Picked up the Rescue tackle sac at the entrance with the communique from the other parties that they were safely out (note from Jana, Al's Tikka). Got changed in the last rays of the sun, was shocked and horrified when Al backed his car over my helmet mortally wounding the battery box.
Thomas oversaw an intricate chilli cooking operation to produce a dinner that was very well received by hungry cavers! Bananas on the fire + warm custard for pudding was lovely. The night was still young, so we cleared the dishes and entertainment in the WSG continued with a whole gamut of caving games. We literally played every game we could think of â the majority of which I don't even know the names of (that is, if they have names). Suffice to say things got funnier as people got increasingly pissed, and the next day I was sporting an impressive collection of bruises that were definitely not from OFD.
Second day of glorious weather in Wales — we could hardly believe our luck. Good old ICCC faffing was back in session on Sunday morning, and we sat around bandying about options until the Jarvmeister got up and it was decided that we'd check out the caves around Neath River.
The entrance to Little Neath is an innocuous opening in the side of a rock right in the river (Ed: True left of stream, about 80m upstream from the bridge). The entrance series gets small immediately, with the elbow-deep water instantly making things interesting. Thankfully water levels were pretty low so we managed to stay relatively toasty (Ed: Clare was in a furry, the rest of us had wetsuits). Nothing in the entrance series gets uncomfortably tight, though there was one bit where we had to take off our helmets and glide through lying down in neck deep water - always fun.
I think we took what is called the high level route, doing a controversial backwards round trip & saving the Canal for last. Anyway, we followed the followed the stream for a little bit, went up a calcite formation, bit of flat crawling, followed the little inlet stream, did a fun little detour through some almost-flat out crawling in a v. dry sandy bit of passage, before finding the big dry passage to the main streamway and visiting the downstream sump.
We were about 1hr45mins into the trip at this point, and thought it a good idea to start heading out via the Canal. Thanks to the low water levels (Ed: at least 25cm of airspace at all times, negligible flow), it was actually pretty pleasant and not too cold at all. Had a look at Sandy Chamber where emergency supplies lay reassuringly in a corner. Unfortunately the frisbee for people to keep warm with seemed to have disappeared... Anyhow, we soon found ourselves back at the entrance series, and daylight was a mere crawl away.
Perfect Sunday caving â in fact, I think it was my favourite Sunday cave thus far in my short caving life.. Passages are definitely more varied than in OFD and generally more sporting with lots of little, easy climbs. Some great decorations sprinkled throughout the cave too. A really lovely introduction to caving.
Nursing bruises from OFD and table-traversing, those of use without sufficient wetsuit or insanity to attempt Little Neath but still keen to get underground had a pleasant bimble in three shorter local caves connected to the Little Neath system: Bridge Cave, White Lady, and Town Drain.
Bridge cave started with a short, dry crawl to a boulder choke, a pleasant squeeze bypassed the choke leading to a fast flowing streamway which entered the large main cave. We followed the main cave to the Bridge - a large boulder wedged across the streamway and climbed up to the higher level to look at the formations. Continuing downstream, the cave got lower until it sumped, on the way out we detoured up the West Passage where the guide says a waterfall can be seen when the river outside is high. The river outside was not high, the waterfall was rather like a small child peeing through a colander. Fresher underground navigation brought us safely to the exit. An enjoyable 30-minute cave.
We continued along the river bed to Cwm Pwll y Rydd (An ancient tax on vowels in Wales has taken its toll on place names) where the river plunges underground (or would if it wasn't almost dry). We decided not to bother going in the cave as it is very short before the sump. Climbing over and around took us onto the dry old river bed which we followed to the resurgence at White Lady Cave. We followed the imposing entrance through some waist-to-neck-deep pools (the deepest pool can apparently be bypassed by a squeeze, but the squeeze looked far worse than the water) quickly finding ourselves at the sump, where Kate had a swim, or as much of one as caving gear permits. Exit was via the smaller western passage which had lovely formations and an easy, spacious duck.
Immediately past White Lady is Town Drain, with a squiggly, crawly, squeezy, muddy entrance series (Alex, after the sideways crawl in muddy tube: "Is there anything about this cave which is remotely pleasant?") leading to a pleasant walk-through rift ending at a mud choke. Navigation hampered slightly by the fact that the stream that was supposed to join us from the right at some point was dry.
After Town Drain, de-mudding by use of natural waterslide and swimming pool, then back to the van for beers and hot orange squash. Altogether, three very different but enjoyable caves in a lovely piece of Welsh countryside.