My Holiday in France with the Red Rose and the CSCA

Bill Osborne, my partner has been a caver for many years and recently introduced me to this crazy underground world with some SRT training and a few ‘easy’ trips: Kingsdale Master Cave (Valley Entrance), Yordas (abseiling down Chapter House Water Fall) and Lower Long Churn/Dolly Tubs/Alum Pot. Having completed these so called ‘easy’ trips, I learned to appreciate the physical strength and stamina and skills needed to be a caver. I ached in places I never knew existed, and was about to embark on a holiday with a bunch of people who had their sites on the Gouffre Berger, which, until 1966 was the deepest cave on the planet! Imagine the strength and stamina and skills needed to tackle that!

Campsite at Autrans

We were not the first to arrive at the campsite in Autrans, but it was early days and Tents were going up and supplies coming in. Steve and Heather from Red Rose and Connor from the CSCA were on hand to oversee it all…the culmination of lots of effort and hard work organising a trip of this magnitude. When the lads and lassies of ‘The Forces’ arrived, supplies, equipment, communications, and literally everything but the kitchen sink arrived with them, all neatly stacked in the correct tent. To Bill’s delight, a trip to Scialet de Pot de Loup was scheduled for the ‘Rifles’ and their leaders Robbie and Steve.  Connor kindly introduced them and Bill got an invite to join them on a trip he had been hoping to make months earlier when doing some research back home.

“THE RIFLES” with Robbie, Steve and Bill

My caving trip came later; our planned trip to the Gournier. We had brought along a dinghy especially for the occasion. There was quite a bit of rain, and I thought the trip might not take place before we had to leave, but not only did the weather pick up, Dalek, a Red Rose caver and a real character, I had met for the first time, said he would like to come with us.  With the lovely Nicki offering to give us a lift, there was no stopping us… first underground traverse was imminent! All the gear was loaded in to the back of Nicki’s lovely air-conditioned motor and we were chauffeured through the magnificent Bourne Gorge to our destination.

Bourne Gorge

The road through the beautiful Bourne Gorge, with its twists and turns and overhangs is mind blowing, and almost as compelling a sight as the natural wonder it winds its way through.

The Gournier with Bill and Dalek.

For the cavers, this is not a technical report. Dalek did fill in the log when we got back to camp, so it is there for the record. (Gouffre Berger Expedition logbook – ed.) This is the account of a very novice caver, able to share and enjoy the experience because I was accompanied by 2 very capable and experienced caving companions. After waving goodbye to Nicki, and arranging a pick up time, we carried our kit up to the entrance, with its 30 metre lake. I looked at the entrance and wondered if our dinghy would be up to the job…the water looked deep and dark, and I knew it would be very, very cold. Bill had a plan! It was to blow up one of the waterproof bags and use it as a float in case the dinghy got punctured on the rocks….good idea, I thought, hoping we wouldn’t need it!

Dinghy below the climb to the traverse

We rowed across, one at a time, pulling the dinghy back on a 50 metre plastic floating rope. At the other end of the lake, all dry and dinghy still intact, Bill and Dalek climbed the steep rock face up to the traverse….me being a shorthouse and a novice caver, found this part very difficult, trying to reach the handy via ferrate type aids on the rock face was nigh impossible, but a couple of yanks from Bill, who had me on a rope, gave me just the help I needed to get up onto the ledge.  I looked over the edge to check the dinghy was tied up safely for our return.

It looked an awful long way down. I checked my cow’s tails and made sure I was hooked on. Bill was rigging the traverse and Dalek had begun moving along and was giving me helpful instructions as I followed him. There was a hairy bit when we manoeuvred around an overhanging pillar-like structure, and a couple of times when my knees turned to jelly, but I didn’t say anything to the guys, I gritted my teeth and went for it. Holding on to the rope for grim death and sweating like a pig in my almost new caving gear. I remember seeing pictures of other cavers simply leaning back with their feet pushing away from a rock face hardly using their hands and looking perfectly comfortable. I suppose it’s a question of being confident that the ropes will hold and you won’t fall. Having said that, on her trip in the Gouffre, Nicki had a bolt give way on her on a traverse and she fell a couple of metres and hit the floor, sustaining an injury that put her out for a few days. It would have put me out for the holiday, but she’s a brave, tough, experienced caver and shrugged it off. The incident crossed my mind more than once as I shakily edged my way along the rock face. I suppose by caving standards it was a relatively short easy traverse, but I felt like I had really achieved something when I landed on firmer ground and the cave opened up to reveal its natural wonders. It’s bursting with pools and formations at every turn. Here are some photos I took as we made our way through the vast wonderland underground.

Dalek on the Traverse

I was just amazed at the size and numbers and variations of the formations, and there were more and more and more at every turn, I gave them names, which seemed to amuse Dalek. I noticed he put some in the report he did when we got back.  We wandered further into the cave. One section was like a gingerbread shop full of biscuits and buns I stopped to take some pics and have a rest while Bill and Dalek ventured further. I felt I was a bit slow, and we didn’t want to keep Nicki waiting, so I rested a while to let the guys get a move on and go further into the cave.

Me looking in amazement – so high!

The Wedding Cake

They soon disappeared out of sight and I was left alone in the dark, turning my head from side to side and up and down with my helmet torch lighting up more and more wonders at every turn… thoughts drifted back to the traverse….I’ll have to do it again, I thought. (Gulp)

The Grandfather Clocks and a couple of Old Timers (cough!)

Actually it seemed easier going back, and I slid down the climb on a rope from Bill towards Dalek who was waiting to set off in the dinghy. He seemed very happy lying on his back floating along, looking up at the ceiling formations and singing. (Very good acoustics in the cave)

Dalek’s exit with vocals

The heat of the day hit us like walking into an oven and we changed quickly, as there was a group of tourists coming up the path to the entrance and we didn’t want any exposé of hairy derrières to upset the French tourists. Nicki was well on time to meet us, sitting patiently in the café with cold drinks for all. That girl is an Angel! I can sit back now and reflect on a wonderful holiday. I met some really warm friendly people. 

Me, Bill and Dalek enroute to the Gournier

The birthday bash was great, Heather looked after everyone, and what a BBQ cook!!! A lot of time and effort went into the planning and organising of the trip, Steve and Connor did a superb job, and many cavers achieved the big trip to the bottom, or to a selected target site in the great Gouffre Berger. Bill got to do the Scialet de Pot de Loup, among others, and I did my first traverse!

Witches procession

A big, big thank you to Red Rose and the CSCA, for an unforgettable holiday with some unforgettable people.

Susan Bohm.