Friday, 31 October 2014

Ogof y Daren Cilau - caving in South Wales

 Epocalypse Way, Ogof y Daren Cilau.

At over 28,000m long (17 miles), Ogof y Daren Cilau is one of the greatest cave systems in Britain. It features arguably the most difficult entrance crawl in the UK, and the passages beyond are amongst the most remote and awe-inspiring places in the country.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe actually exists - it is one of two subterranean camps in a cave so big that multi-day trips are required to reach its furthest extremities. A mild obsession with the idea of a solo trip into this cave has defined the last month for me, the idea of being able to experience such a place too much to resist.

The 517m long entrance crawl has been described as "like doing 1000 push-ups on one arm whilst inching forward in freezing cold water". Considerable stamina was going to be required as was a fairly stoic mental attitude, as you have to endure this crawl a second time in order to exit the cave. At least four squeezes have to be passed in both directions in order to get through. Lots of upper body training and lots of caving over the summer was hopefully going to pay off.
"The Silver Goddess". An iconic formation and one of the thousands of crystal formations found throughout the cave.

I slid into the entrance of the flat-out crawl in the perfect mood - totally free of fear, expectation or pressure and aware that my existence for the next while would be crawling. After 80m I entered The Vice, a squeeze considerably more physical than it's namesake in Giant's Hole but not as tight as I was prepared for. First obstacle down.

Relentless crawling on my right side for the next hour took me round endless tight bends and over boulders, the passage almost never wide enough to let me crawl with both arms on my front. Long sections of rifts required a tiring half-crawl, half-crouch approach. I hummed music in my head and just crawled and crawled. Occasional spots that let me stand up never lasted long, but progress felt less strenuous than I'd been expecting. Was the fearsome reputation of this entrance crawl justified?

The final squeeze in the most difficult entrance crawl in the UK

After a long while I reached the bit that I thought might shut me down -  The Calcite Squeezes. I'd entered the cave with the strict principle that if I had doubts about these squeezes when I saw them I'd turn around without attempting them. The first hole looked intimidating on first sight, but I was definitely lean enough to fit through. The second and third were tighter and I had to carefully plan my moves before I entered them. Yet more sideways shuffling then a final squeeze which I had to take my helmet off in order to fit through, and I popped out of the crawl.

The contrast with what I emerged into could not have been greater. The entrance crawl might be tight and constricted, but the miles of passages beyond are huge, humbling places containing some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the country. Everything suddenly seemed so big. Was I meant to still feel quite fresh after the labours of the crawl? Excitedly I started down Jigsaw Passage, the knowledge that many miles of massive passageways lay beyond.

On the survey, Big Chamber Nowhere Near the Entrance actually does look pretty close to the entrance. So it felt to take quite a while to get there, a tight down-climb and another squeeze the only obstacles interrupting a long stretch of walking passage. I signed into the logbook in the Big Chamber and took note that I was the only person inside Britain's 5th longest cave. 

Turning right here would have taken me into The Time Machine, the largest known passageway in the UK, and the way on to Hard Rock Cafe and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Chambers and passages named on the theme of space and time covered the survey. The feeling of scale there and then felt overwhelming.

Epocalypse Way is huge and impressive, the roof high above and the walls scalloped from when a river last flowed here, tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Cracked mud deposits on the floor remain undisturbed from millennia past. And this is where I found The White Company, one of the most impressive arrays of crystal formations yet discovered.

The White Company.

The White Company.

The White Company.

These weren't like the huge stalactite or column formations found in Yorkshire potholes, these were mainly only a few inches across. But they were beautiful beyond words. I felt a strong urge to stroke them or to feel if they were freezing cold like ice, but firmly kept my distance from these perfect geological marvels. The way they seemed to glow at me out of the darkness was mesmerising, and each formation seemed more improbable than the last.

Epocalypse Way continued tall and wide. Being able to walk for such distances in a place of such vast dimensions underground is quite a surreal experience. After a while a short climb up a rope took me into Urchin Oxbow, and here the crystals became frankly unbelievable. It looked like some bizarre coral formation had grown all over the roof and walls, "urchins" of calcite sprouting out everywhere. Some distance later I found the famous "Silver Goddess" standing on the floor, an anthodite growing out of a column giving it the appearance of a silver winged figure.

Urchin formations.

Fatigue was starting to make itself known. The thought of the return trip had been ever-present in the cave, and this was going to be the test of my mental stamina. My return back to the entrance series was uneventful, and felt just as long as it had on the way out.

The reputation of the entrance crawl as arguably the hardest in the UK felt far more justified on the way out. Doing it twice in a day is indeed quite a test. The Calcites Squeezes felt a bit harder but not much so, but the relentless pushing along with my right arm never seemed to end. Shuffling my bag along in front of me was becoming very tiresome, the only relief being in the deeper sections of water when I could float it forward instead. Finally I was back at The Vice which was challenging on my tired arms, and soon after I entered the flat-out crawl into the entrance pool. "The delights of reaching this point on the return journey cannot be over-emphasised" says my description and it is not wrong.

Today, reflecting on what is surely one of my biggest ever solo ventures, I can't help but wonder if I'll return to Daren Cilau one day. Many cavers declare "never again" after the entrance crawl, but how can only one trip ever do such a place justice?


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