Wednesday 24 February 2010

18th February 2010 - Andalucia

The entrance was just as we had dreamt, after walking for 15 minutes through the idyllic high pastures of the Sierra Castril the GPS took us directly to the impressive cave entrance, a dark gash in the steep hilside surrounded by rocky bluffs and ancient pine trees.

Just a few feet inside the perfectly placed bolts allowed us all to abseil down the bell shaped shaft in quick succession. Bruce, bringing up the rear, lowered down the carefully prepared leightweight inflatable boat that we would need in order to cross the huge underground lake that lay somewhere beneath us.

The walls of the shaft were now hard to pick out in the vastness of the chamber, but after nearly 100 metres of free hanging decent we landed on the crystaline white floor of the cave, surrounded by spectacular sparkling gour pools. The distant walls of the huge cavern echoing our amazement that such a place could exist.

By this time Johns concerns about the pre-planning of this trip had now evaporated, we knew how difficult caves in this area of Spain are to locate, their co-ordinates and access details shrouded in mystery, jealously guarded by locals. However Bruce had spent several days roaming the hillsides until he had identified first the gully, and then the cave entrance.

A late night feast around a blazing log fire at our high altitude camp the night before had been the perfect start, and the amazing display of shooting stars shortly after midnight seemed like a good omen.

The small but robust boat was quickly inflated, and soon we were paddling across the underground sea, at one point we stopped paddling and as the ripples faded the water became so transparent it seemed as if we were floating many metres above the floor. This really was just like a dream.

OK - you've guessed it it was.

The Reality

Slipping and sliding, engine screaming our little hire car was urged on up the muddy track by the exhortations of the four occupants. At least the arcs of yellow mud plastering sides, windows and mirrors of the Peugeot hid the steep drop off from the track side. A combination of clay, slush and a ramp of snow against the front spoiler where it scraped the track stopped further progress. With a bit of cajoling the car slid back, completed a graceful arc with one wheel more than a foot off the ground and slithered, wheels locked, the way we had come. No country for young Peugeots. Any further progress in search of the entrance to Cueva Fuente Frio was going to be on foot. 

 Peugeot put to the test

Meticulous planning by Bruce led to a carefully organised chance meeting with Alfonso on main street Castril, he had pointed us this way, “the cave entrance was in the second quebrada at about 1600 metres, but dangerous in the snow” he said. Hours spent plodding to the col at over 1800 metres confirmed what he said. It would be a dangerous descent in the snow; locating the entrance to Fuente Frio and its tropical underground lake remains a good excuse for a long walk on another day. 

There is a cave in those hills!

The second cave is even harder to find, a narrow slot somewhere high on the slopes of Pico Del Buitre and almost certainly snow filled. Unable to find two of our three caves this was turning into my sort of trip. So it was time to Fandango with Cueva Don Fernando. Bruce and Tom had already done the real work on this with their previous trip, but it’s still an hour and a half uphill slog carrying 230 metres of rope. 

You can't miss this cave entrance

The impressive entrance is slightly marred by the accumulation of years of goat muck, incredibly slippery where wet but with a high incentive not to fall, we left brown ski tracks. Fortunately there is a small clean area before the first pitch to rig up and scrape off the clingons. Pitches, all bolted, descend past the Gran Estalagmita and flowstone features increasingly dominates the cave. 

Flowstone formations

A water lubricated squeeze over more flowstone gives access to the lower pitches – no Yorkshire pot this, full of the noise of running water, all is silent. The route climbs gradually again from the pitch bottom and becomes noticeably warmer, white sand and powdered lime covers areas of the floor, sufficiently few people have been here that individual footsteps are identifiable and most of the cave remains pristine apart from the bats! A squeeze into creepy chamber revealed a pulsating lump of aggregated bats huddled together like one organism just above head height. We had swapped from goats to bats – metre high cones of bat crap built up under their populous winter roosts. 

Bat "deposits"

Quickly leaving creepy chamber and moving through Bat Chamber the fantastic formations of Sala de la Colada were revealed. The most impressive that I have seen outside a show cave. An enormous screen of flowstone dominates one wall of the stalactite decorated chamber. Plenty of time was spent trying to photograph the splendours of the cave but its size soaked up light and a bigger team with more flash power is really needed to do it justice. 

Below - the extensive formations in Sala Colada



We regained the entrance to a wet misty dusk after 6.5 hours underground. It was dark on the descent, but not only had Tom remembered to bring a GPS he had remembered on the way up to turn it on, so without too much staggering about we were back at Cortijo Sierra Castril, wood stove burning, Bruce pouring out the beer, Janice serving lashings of hot food – good country for old men. 

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