Volume 38 Number 1 Article 2
from his Recce trip in Summer 1999
Parallel and south of the main road from Toulouse to Pau lie the foothills of the Pyrenees; undulating, wooded hillsides slowly rising in height and stature as they buttress up to the impressive main range of peaks.
In these foothills, some 15 kilometres south of St. Gaudens and the same distance north west of St. Girons, lies the village of Arbas, invisible almost beneath the wooded hillsides which crowd the valley beneath the Rochers de Pène Blanque, a white limestone cliff which is one of the few reminders in a veritable sea of foliage that this is caving country.
Arbas is small, one of a thousand such villages tucked away in the rural folds of these tranquil foothills. There is an air of the past, of a landscape that time forgot. And although there are good roads to access the valley one is not likely to pass more than a couple of vehicles on the drive in from Mauvezin or Aspet, or maybe the odd tractor with its load of hay. Not that this stopped the local Gendarmerie laying a speed trap in Castelbiague, but fortunately they were busy booking some pensioners when I sped through!
sped through! If it is an unremarkable landscape, it is all the better for it; the soft, indolent air making for a pleasant, laid-back, unhurried atmosphere, just right for a Red Rose holiday! Hidden in the trees on the steep wooded slopes, however, adventure awaits!
This snap of the Fontaine de l'Ours (one of the few places where you can see the trees for the wood!) gives a rough idea of the terrain.
Beneath the tree canopy, a mixture of pines and deciduous, it's not very photogenic unless you like 36 shots of trunks, branches and twigs. Oh yes, and the bogs....
Yes, this place has its own bog monster, just like Casterton Fell. The tree canopy keeps the ground nice and damp long after the rest of France has dried to the consistency of a scorched tortilla. The result is lots of squidgy bits and slipping and sliding around on greasy limestone and paths.
Paths, that is, if you can find them. The main trails are OK but smaller paths - petites sentes - might possibly be found by a sniffer dog with night sights.
The routes to some of the entrances are a bit obscure to say the least, and that's in daylight. Wisps of plastic tied to trees usually keep one going about right, but some of these paths must be a right b**d in the dark. If you get lost you may not come out of the woods 'til morning (on some day of the week).
Fortunately, the more popular, easier trips are not far from the main track, all of them twenty to thirty minutes walk beyond the end of the clearing and car park shown above. Trou Mile, Trou des Heretiques and Trou du Vent are all easily found.
Just as well, because if it's hot and sticky you'll work up a regular sweat bashing around in the undergrowth. I got a bit of a dab on looking for Gouffres Pierre and Michelle, and nearly gave up on the steep pull up to the Pont de Gerbaut. Pène Blanque is another half hour beyond that.
Beyond Trou Mile the track breaks out into open pasture with some very nice walking up onto the ridges (fine views of the Pyrenees) - but there aren't any caves up there.
Hugh St. Lawrence