Volume 43 Number 1 Article 4
Crete 2005 :
The Mavri Laki Valley
The Mavri Laki - an incredible area of bare limestone averaging 1900 metres above sea level in the White Mountains of Crete. Pachnes, the highest peak in the massif stands at the northern upper end of the valley, with Zaranokefala another significant peak looming over the southern extremity. The western flank rises slightly before dropping steeply into the Eligas gorge. The east side rises steeply to a ridge of crevasse-riddled hillside along its length.
The shaft punctuated Black and White Limestones that give this valley its unique appearance, observed last year, was to become the main target area for this year's expedition.
East to west across the Mavri Laki, from below Hillary's Step
Fourteen of us pitched up en-mass at the check-in desk with a worrying quantity of excess baggage. The poor girl looked in horror, threw her hands in the air as the queue ground to a halt with our pre-planned bottleneck. She murmured 'Near enough' with every overweight bag that hit the scales and sighed with relief as the last one went through. We also sighed with relief that everything had went through unchallenged.
Our flight was on time, while Roy on the Gatwick flight was delayed by 3 hours. The vehicles were collected at Chania airport and it was off to Annopolis, 650 metres up the hillside on the south side of the White Mountains. By the time we reached the village it was dark, so little was achieved that evening except making plans for the morning. Meanwhile Roy was stuck in Georgiopoulos for the night.
Next morning the PRICS (Pink Rose in Crete Society), assembled into 3 teams to utilise the manpower for maximum efficiency.
A) The High Camp Team - to establish a camp in the High Desert in an area convenient for access to the Mavri Laki: Richard Bendall, Dave Ramsey, and Shaun Sinnot.
B) Team Dracolaki - to suitably rig the cave system for the safe transport of air bottle and diving equipment to the Huey Sump at the far end of Dracolaki: Bob 'Dalek' Bialek, Phil Parker, Tim Eastwood, and Chris 'Mufty' Smith.
C) Dive/Logistics Team - to re-establish contact with the local dive centre and procure a suitable dive kit then arrange for collection when assembled. Source a lump hammer, a smaller bolting hammer and a jemmy bar. Transport further equipment to Dracolaki's entrance: Jim Stevenson and Graham 'Hucky' Huck.
The remainder went for 'jollies' down gorges, beach-bumming and taverna sampling: Roy Button, Eileen Stevenson, Hillary Parker, Bill Sherrington, Linda Cregg and Ruby 'Goatopopoulos' (aged 8).
That evening Paul Thomas and partner Karen turned up at Annopolis to announce their arrival.
Each team achieved their objective for that day and everything was accomplished as planned. Four tents were deposited 45 minute trek from the Mavri Laki, with a good supply of water left on site plus sleeping-bags and carry-mats. Shafts were also noted for investigation during the walk-in.
Diving gear was arranged and to be collected next morning. A load of caving gear was deposited at Dracolaki along with the procured tools.
The cave itself was well rigged throughout for transportation; a job well done but the rigging team were back much later than anticipated causing some concern at the time.
The following morning Tim was off at the crack of dawn to collect Heather at Heraklion Airport while a five strong team headed for Dracolaki. Three went to Hora Sfakion to collect the diving equipment (one of which went in search of the Pole Dance Club - unsuccessfully) and then headed to the cave.
At the entrance a brisk cold breeze was blowing out, not present in previous years - this new feature was to chill us all the way to the sump and back. With eight people in Dracolaki the diving equipment was shuttled forward through the cave until the Huey Sump was reached after about 2 hours.
Eileen and Mick at Dracolaki entrance (2004)
At the sump, after a few raised voices en-route, Huckey put on his dive mask and entered the static pool for a preliminary investigation. After a few minutes scrambling around the enclosing walls below water level he emerged to announce the sump was completely silted / shingled to the roof a couple of metres in and there was no way on! With all our hopes dashed we picked up and headed back, with a few keenies making investigative pushes up into the Oversight from where most of the draught came from. I think the disappointment and all the wasted effort caused an air of despondency and most were wanting to call it a day and return through the woods to the cars before darkness.
We arrived back at Poppy's (our taverna) at 22:00 to join with Hill, Lill and Roy who completed an obscure route back to Annopolis from Dracolaki, crossing the upper Aradena Gorge in a seldom walked region.
All in all, it's a first class cave and Dave returned the next day with Bill and Paul to enjoy it without the encumbrance of the dive gear and to de-rig.
The dive gear had to be returned to Hora Sfakia. The shop owner told us of a cave in a chapel that instantly made Hucky's ears twitch - 'we must take a look sometime'. It caused a lot of concern as Smiffy (aka Mufty) and Hucky enthusiastically discussed burrowing through Saint Antonios altar without wrecking it.
At the same time the rest of us tripped down Aradena to the coast.
Round the table that evening a high-camp rota was eventually drawn up by Hillary and plans for the supply chain proposed by Richard. It wasn't going to be easy but we had already figured that bit out. Poppy was trusting enough to give us a free hand in her shop and mark up a tab with everything we took. This amounted to clearing most of the shelves on the first day. Eight o'clock in the morning saw the jeep head off up the track with Richard, Dave, Shaun and Bill taking the first wave of supplies to 'Camp Paradiso'.
Two hours later at ten, Jim, Lill, Roy, Dalek, Tim, Heather, Phil and Hill clambered into a rather dubious looking Toyota pick-up and suffered a bone rattling 90 minute drive up to the trailhead at Roussies. The tourist route up Pachnes was followed for the first 45 minutes, then leaving the track behind we made our way around the south side of Pachnes. Roy, Hill, Heather and Tim kept to the path to bag the summit at 2315 metres. The remainder of us cut down to the trackless route to camp and busied ourselves erecting the four tents then headed down valley to the 'ugly limestone' and met up with Shaun, Dave and Bill who'd already been making descents on various locations. Richard and Dalek walked back down to Annopolis - roughly a 7 hour trek from camp. The night came fast and cold and at nearly 7000 ft our miserable fire of plastic bottles and dried thistles was no match, so it was off to bed - this became the norm for all hi-camp residents.
Morning saw six of us heading down valley. Our first objective was to traverse the east flank on the black and white limestone boundary hopefully covering as far as 'Hillary's Step', at the valley terminus. After a couple of hours and quite a few entrances, none of which, unfortunately, took us to any great depth either vertically or horizontally, we reached a point about halfway along the hillside towards our target.
The beckoning of the black, hole riddled valley floor became too much to resist so we dropped height to investigate the real reason for being in this region.
There were more holes than you could shake a stick at! Every way you turned uncovered more; even backtracking your exact route a metre either side opened new places to descend. It soon became obvious that hap-hazard wandering about was going to be exhausting and inefficient so a grid type method of search, suggested by Shaun, was implemented. Although insufficient people were available at the one time to conduct a military operation, it did give us a plan to work at.
That day many shafts were earmarked, as the bulk of the caving gear was still on its way up. An encouraging horizontal lead, a small strongly draughting entrance labelled ZN3 (Zaranokefala North No.3) went in 4 metres before it choked up with large boulders. Dave and Shaun spent a bit of time excavating in before announcing it as the 'remotest dig in Europe'.
The gear arrived at camp as we returned from Mavri Laki. Hucky, strangely enough, announced it as the 'remotest camp in Europe'! Oh well - it must have something going for it.
Dave, Dalek and Shaun at 'Camp Paradiso' - the remotest camp in Europe!
On the route to camp from the Pachnes track a huge gaping chasm in the black limestone is passed; Richard christened this Tweety Pot because of the swarms of small birds circling in the entrance. With Paul, Dalek, Richard back on site (Hucky and Roy back to Annopolis) a couple of evening descents were planned at locations close to camp. One was Tweety Pot and the others were up behind camp in the opposite direction. Paul and Dalek went for Tweety and the rest of us went for the closer alternatives; as yet un-named.
It was almost dark when we all met back at the tents. Paul and Dalek had descended Tweety Pot after a clever bit of rigging to gain safe access over the bare convex drop-off into the shaft. An airy 34 metre hang dropped them onto a great snow plug with no apparent way on. That's when the attraction for the birds became obvious - it was their water source.
At the other site Dave violently attacked a narrow corner of a larger hole with the jemmy bar while the rest of us gardened the loose stuff away from the sides and made ready the rope. Dave descended a belled-out shaft that choked at 17 metres. Closer to camp another open shaft on the ridge top took Dave to a magnificent 5m depth before clogging with breccia. Once again it was time for a cuppa and to stand around the heatless fire of plastic bottles and dried thistles, before bed.
Morning came again. Dalek, Paul, Richard, Dave and Shaun went off down the valley and Jim and Eileen walked back to Annopolis meeting Bill and Tim at Roussies on their way in. An interesting feature at the side of the muletrack in the Ammousteri Valley was looked at on the way down. A huge shaft, labelled LA2/3 - later found to be 122 meters in depth - descended in the 80's by SUSS.
Meanwhile back down in civilisation other things were happening. Hucky and Mufty returned to the hidden cave whose entrance had been built over with the chapel. It was under serious scrutiny with clandestine plans being hatched to dig through the floor and burrow through the gable-end that was covering the would-be cave. Deciding this was a bad idea they took to losing the car in a gorge while searching for another site - which they did actually find after three days of exhaustive searching. A large cave with a lake at the back that had been utilised for livestock water was their reward.
Down at the beach at Hora Sfakia, Jim and Richard were swimming along under the cliffs examining sea entrances when an ice-cold outflow was come upon. The cold pulses surged out a fissure just below the surface - it was fresh and drinkable! - by this time Nadia had turned up from Gatwick.
Young Ruby also led a successful expedition down the Aradena Gorge keeping eight adults under her bossy instruction.
Back at Camp Paradiso Dave, Shaun and Richard had dropped a few holes in the region of Hillary's Step then circled to the Aligas Gorge boundary where they found ZN84 aka Snow Plug Hole. That evening Richard and Dalek returned to rig down to the plug and in the morning went back again to complete the survey.
Phil and Jim took over. Descending two pitches to the plug, a gap between the snow and wall was descended for twenty feet to a cold rubble floor. Using the jemmy a tunnel was driven along the narrowing fissure between the snow and rock towards a widening area that was seen to be fluted and clean washed. Sadly the small chamber had a rubble-choked floor with no way on. Phil completed a tricky climb up a small aven from the snow-plug to find it went down the other side to a depth equivalent to the bottom of the plug.
Retreating prior to the onset of frostbite a few of the obvious valley floor holes were descended - many had cleaned washed water channels but were always rubble or breccia choked at the bottom. Heading back to camp via Hillary's Step a really deep rift was found - this was descended the following day by Shaun to a depth of 38 metres. Well it sounded horrendously deep when rocks were heaved down it!
Phil in the entrance to ZN84 - aka Snow Plug Hole
Close by, Birdie Hole, a massive entrance in black limestone, which like most of them is invisible until you are right beside it. This drops 34 metres onto a snow-plug, again the attraction for the birds - their water supply in the High Desert.
During this shaft-bashing period a SCUBA team had formed at sea level and enjoyed a pleasant dive at Amoudi Bay, a few klix east of Sfakia. Heather had personal tuition from the bronzed dive-leader, Damulis, and somehow made her air last much longer than anyone else!
Next day Heather was off home and Steve and Maude Warren turned up. Steve wasted no time in booking his place for an overnight stay at Camp Paradiso.
Other excursions saw parties heading for the Gavadhos Islands of the south coast.
The end came all to soon and before we realised, it was time for the camp to be cleared, a pick-up to be organised and everything brought down from Roussies.
On our way back to the airport we stopped for a last drink on the Askifou Plain when Tim suddenly realised he'd left his passport back at Annopolis - over an hour away.
This was probably the largest expedition mounted to Crete from the UK and although a lot of people worked extremely hard, the surface remains hardly scratched. This vast limestone massive has melt-water sinking at 7000 feet and resurging at sea level! 10 days were spent descending numerous shafts and openings in a region that is a logistical nightmare as well as being a hostile environment.
Dracolaki Cave, the half-way house, was hopefully to be the middle route in, but the choked sump thwarted any hope on that theory, so in actual fact we are not much further forward in solving the Lefka Ori speleological intrigue.
It raised the questions - are we searching too high in a frost-shattered region where all the breccia is swallowed into the shakeholes, ultimately choking them.
Should the Dracolaki contour line be searched in the hope of similar cave development giving us a window into the mountainside? Or is Dracolaki purely an enigma? Or should we be searching between Dracolaki and the High Desert?
What we have learned is that it remains very much an unexplored area with tremendous depth potential, and it's only one of a few other massifs on the island.
The reason it is unexplored is that no-one else is stupid enough for putting so much hard effort into finding so little cave passage and receiving so little reward.
List of PRICS: Richard Bendal Bob 'Dalek' Bialek Roy Button Nadia Button Linda Cregg Tim Eastwood Heather Eastwood Graham Huck Hillary Parker Phil Parker Dave Ramsey Bill Sherrington Shaun Sinnot Chris Smith Eileen Stevenson Jim Stevenson Paul Thomas with Karen Steve Warren Maude Warren and last but not least, Ruby (age 8)
On a finishing note, keeping in mind the size of the group, everyone had a good time; everyone got on well with each other with no serious conflict or argument; but most important, no accidents, injuries or incidents.
Hucky and Phil waiting to descend pitch in Dracolaki