Volume 32 Number 3 Article 7
Crete - Sun, Sand and... Speleology?
Crete is a large Greek island in the Southern Mediterranean approximately 120 miles long by 40 miles wide. As well as the usual Greek attractions of beaches, blue sea and tavernes overflowing with Ouzo and Retsina, Crete has an abundance of limestone! Cretes mountains are towers of limestone reaching 8000 feet in height. There are several vast plateau's at 5-6000 feet and impressive gorges running from the heart of the hills right down to the sea.
Almost every village has its own spring which can be anything from a small pipe to a large stream suddenly appearing out of the rock. It is interesting that part of the island has been steadily sinking over the last thousands of years so there are many resurgences known to emerge below sea level. There are 2000 known cave entrances on Crete (see Tony Walthams "Gazalteera"), but it is not clear how many of these go to depth. The deepest cave on the island is known as "Mavri", which is a 1000 feet shaft which is said to be blind at the bottom.
One of the main aims of the week long stay in Crete was to descend Omalos Cave. The team members were Jim and Aileen Stevenson, Mick and Mark Hodkinson and Angela Hare. Omalos Cave is the second deepest known cave on the island with its lowest point at 800 feet depth. The entrance is situated on the right hand side of the road about 500 metres before Omalos village. Both are on the large Omalos plateau at an aftitude of 5000 feet.
The impressive entrance is 20 feet high by 20 feet wide and the cave itself begins as a large walking passage of similar height and width. The walls are decorated with tall stals and shimmering flowstone. A series of small pitches follow, some are free climbable and some require a ladder or handline. Soon an inlet joins from the left called St. Georges Passage, which is the main route through which water and snowmelt enter the upper part of the cave in winter. The main passage continues down and gradually the walls become coated with slimy mud, as you approach the first of the three sections of cave that sump in winter. This first sump remains as a deep static lake in the summer. Rope and flotation aids are advisable for this 50m lake as it has two distinct end and nowhere to hold on to the wall.
(Warning: Childs dingy may burst here causing sinking and shouting from its occupants)
Pleasant stream passage leads from the lake to the biggest pitch of 150 feet. A 30 feet drop leads to a ledge with a deep pool over which a swing is required to reach the rebelay. As the remaining 120 feet of passage is descended it becomes apparent that the passage is of huge height and has been entered because suddenly it is impossible to see the roof! This large passage continues varying in proportions as it descends over large boulder slopes and down a series of small pitches, again some ladder, some abseil and some climbs. Two more dry sumps are passed but both of these contain no water, just gloopy mud to ankle depth.
Eventually the lowest point of the cave is reached. The way on is a phreatic tube, approximately 15 feet in diameter with sand, gravel and boulders on its unstable floor. This tube ascends steeply for about 350 metres and at the top a ten feet climb pops the caver out into the enormous Sand Cavern. In Sand Cavern the far walls and roof cannot be seen. The floor is sand and mud with strange column lined holes formed by water dripping from above. By following the right hand wall a large hole is found leading down to further stream passage. On our trip a search of the sand cavern was made to try to locate the second way out of the . chamber. The second way out is said to lead to tight Yorkshire type passage and eventually a sump but unfortunately there is no clear description of where the passage begins. An inlet was found but this was 30-40 feet high and would have required a Maypole or bolting to ascend.
Another interesting site was located to the north end of Sand Cavern where a strong draught was felt, blowing the cavers carbide flame. Unfortunately the draughting hole in the floor under the wall was blocked by boulders. Of course, it is possible that the boulders may have moved in Sand Cavern when an earthquake struck Crete two years ago.
The large hole leading down to further streamway was descended down two short pitches. Pleasant, well decorated streamway passage follows. There is wading and traversing of deep pools and sporting climbs. Alas! this passage ends in a 120 feet pitch leading to a sump and our cavers had run out of rope! At the top of this pitch rocks were thrown down confirming the approximate depth. Disappointed by the last pitch but thoroughly impressed by the rest of the cave the team were forced to turn back to detackle and make their way out.
Omalos is an excellent cave, well worth a visit. It is friendly, well decorated in places and a good sporting trip. It is definitely to be recommended. A trip to Crete is also recommended. Other days of our visit were spent exploring possible cave entrances, digging in a promising resurgence and searching for ways on in existing grottos. It is also recommended to bring Jim Newton on holiday with you. Not only has Jim got a brilliant eye for where to look and where to dig but also his caving tales provide endless entertainment for the rest of the team!