Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The 'Pizza Party' and heading home...

Nathan prepares the pizza ovens
Following a fun day at the Source du Sorgues, we headed back south again to follow Nathan’s directions to the ‘Pizza Partie’. The CLPA had organised a farewell party – which was really just an excuse to hang out and show off their pizza-making and wine-drinking skills!
We weaved along tracks up on the plateau getting further and further from civilization as it began to get dark. Oz and Joe followed in their van, wondering where this mad woman was leading them now.
I wasn’t in the least bit bothered as the pizza party was being held in the same vicinity as the Calaven de la Seoubio.

Some CDG friends and I pushed this cave in 2007 and passed 7 sumps (the 8th had disappeared!!) and several kilometres of muddy caving with diving kit, to drop a climb at the limit of exploration and find tens of meters of new dry cave until a final, impassable (at the time) lake was found.
It was my first taste of virgin cave and it took four days of work and an 11 hour trip plus a set-up day, to get there.

Seoubio Team at dive base, Easter 2007

On that trip, we radio-located a chamber in the area of sump 7, as we thought it was quite close to the surface. According to the radio-location, the cave was only 30m below the plateau.

Radiolocating the Seoubio sump 7 in 2007

The CLPA that evening began digging with their bare hands, looking down every crack in the limestone pavement to find a draught. They have subsequently embarked on several digging missions, including the ‘Aven de Verriére’ and the current project, the ‘Aven du Team’. Each surface dig has reached a depth of around 20m but has yet to yield anything promising. Jean Tarrit pointed out that the Seoubio may well be destined to belong to divers only.
The CLPA get digging
The French pull tens of 'jerrycans' of spoil
out of the dig every weekend.

The Hortus Plateau is a barren limestone landscape, which must
hold the key to some serious cave somewhere...

We finally wiggled our way across the plateau and met another CLPA member, having trouble finding the correct electric fence. We found it and negotiated it and drove down some pretty Berlingo-hostile track until we found the group by lots of voices in the scrub!
Oz and Joe by this point must have really thought I was totally nuts – Oz had already declared he was never going to another pizza party again! Ahhhh, but they hadn’t been to one like this before….
The CLPA had been struggling to find a productive use for the digging spoil they had been producing from the Aven du Team. Some genius thought it would be a good idea to use the limestone pieces from the dig to build pizza ovens!

We stumbled in the near darkness through the scrubby bushes and over the cracked limestone pavement which clinked as you stepped on loose slabs and walked into a clearing where the pizza ovens were roaring with flames.
The wine was flowing, the pizza dough was being rolled, cans of allsorts of toppings were appearing and Jean was in full flow about caves which could connect with the Perdreau, other projects he had in mind for us and the other club members seemed to be queuing up to question us about the project.
It was a simply fantastic evening. The laptops came out and we showed the club the footage Joe had shot in the Gourney-Rou and the Gourney-Ras. They were suitably wowed and then the pizza started circulating – delivered by the same guy who had run down the hill with my cylinders!! I’m seriously considering joining this club!! They even made Oz his very own vegetarian pizza – but not without a certain amount of p!ss taking!!
It was a real shame to have to leave this great area and such great people. Next time I think we may need to take hammocks and stay the night on the moonlit plateau.

We packed up the tents with some sweaty effort the next day and had a dip in the pool before heading steadily back up the road to the UK. One final treat was in store – a restaurant which we came across purely by chance! It is called L'Ateliére du Gout and we had some of the best French food ever encountered!
The same sadly couldn’t be said of Seafrance…….but we did get a great sunset in Calais and a long, tiring drive home.

16th September - Source du Sorgues

Sorgues resurgence
Mehdi Dighouth

The Sorgues is in Aveyron and is a great little cave to finish the trip with.
We invited Mehdi Dighouth to come over for the day and Rich and I set off to the cave to have a picnic before diving.

Oz and Joe set off to the Durzon - because their instructions had the GPS co-ordinates mixed up!!!!!

The Sorgues is a beautiful river emerging from the cirque rockface and feeds the fish-farm just downstream. It used to be the case that divers were asked to hose off their drysuits before entering the water but now the fish-farm seem not to care and divers are welcome here.
We settled down to lunch by the weir and Mehdi produced some home-made Fois Gras and some fruit jelly thing which was amazing.

We were still waiting for the others to show up and without a mobile signal here, wondered just how long we should wait. Rich still needed fills from the compressor so couldn't dive with me until Oz and the compressor arrived. It was decided that I should go for a dive with Mehdi and Rich could dive with the others when (if) they showed up.

Chris faffing in the resurgence pool before her dive
Mehdi and I set off through the maze of boulders and concrete tunnels which fill the entrance. I first dived here in 2007 but didn't remember much about the cave as I was pre-occupied with a top-heavy independent twinset, having moved from sidemount to backmount gear myself, without any advice or training. I was uncomfortable throughout and didn't enjoy the dive.
It was great this time to know that I could just get on with it and relax.
We dived to what I consider the end of the cave. The main, spacious passage just ends and the way on is a small, narrow rift which goes up to about 3m depth from 31m and nobody has been any further. It is reported to be tight, nasty and a dead-end boulder choke - so we stay in the big stuff!
With loads of gas to spare, we turn round and I get the opportunity to waft my HID around and have a real good look at this cave. The geology is beautiful and there are ribbons of calcite protruding like a dragons back all along the edges and the floor. The water is typically clear, with a blue tinge and no decompression is required for such a short dive.

Mehdi and Christine return from their dive
We surface to see that the others have arrived and Rich is getting his cylinders filled. Elaine and Duncan set off for a short dive and Elaine returns with plenty of gas, so I offer to take her in again behind the filming crew. Rich, Oz and Joe have a lengthy dive briefing for the camera work and Mehdi sneaks in for another dive behind them. Elaine and I stealthily follow them all and we are treated to a fantastic view of four divers, all with bright filming lights and HIDs, spread out down the passage. Elaine is thrilled with her dive and we call it a day.
Chris, Elaine, Osama, Mehdi, Joe, Duncan and Rich.
Mehdi returns and gives me an impromptu lesson on his Megdalon rebreather. I always said I would never go over to RB because there is so much I can do on open circuit to last me a lifetime - and I haven't got anywhere near my limit of open circuit yet. But maybe in ten years time I may think differently.

We end the day with much giggling and silliness as Joe asks Mehdi for an interview about the Esperelle. Both Joe and Mehdi are extremely professional - you get the feeling they have both done this sort of thing before....I am in the background asking Mehdi questions in French and the video looks amazing.
Then it's Rich's turn to be in front of the camera and Joe's techniques for shedding a little golden light on the subject has us in stitches.
All too soon it is time to go. Mehdi has to go and give a talk at the speleo congress and we have to shoot off as we've been invited onto the Hortus Plateau - aka middle of absolutely nowhere - by the CLPA for a pizza party!

Monday, September 26, 2011

15th September - Gourney-Rou

Gourneyrou Survey from www.plongeesout.com
Having recovered from our day off and Oz and Joe having had a great day out in the Mas Raynal, we decided to go to the Gourney-Rou.Rich and I had planned on a 'big' dive in here to the 70m slope which is on the approach to the infamous 90m, gravel-filled U-bend. We weren't sure we would get this far as we had sacrificed one bottom stage of 15/55 for use in the Gourney-Ras and another each for use in the Perdreau. But we had intact trimix in our back-gas and a travel Ali 80 of 32% for the 300m long shallow section.
Oz and Joe only had enough gas to film the 300m level so Rich and I dived first.

Chris and Rich start lowering gear to the sump.

I hadn't been here before and after a brief excursion down the wrong path, Oz spotted the correct one and we were shortly joined by the French CLPA members, who had been trying to catch up with us over the last few days. Jean Tarrit and friends had showed up for a day out, to meet up with us in person and to thrust an armful of maps and paperwork into my grasp for a proposed project next year. Another one!!

Jean is a fantastic guy and I readily compare him to some of the older, eccentric members of the Wessex. He speaks good, fluent English and has a great sense of humour and has us in stitches. He is wonderful for morale. Not least because he invites his mates along, who pick up our cylinders and run off down the hill with them!
Jean Tarrit

Jean-Claude makes light work of twinsets
The rope is needed for the cave entrance. Water levels are extremely low and there is a dodgy metal ladder in place, but getting twinsets and stages into the water requires ropes and elbow grease.
Everyone got their gear into the water with the help of the French guys - and the amount of banter they were dishing out was great fun too!
Rich and I kitted up and set off into the crystal clear water.

Chris ready for the off
We dived along an inclined rift until about 12m depth where the cave became spacious and more interesting. It undulated, between 20m and 30m and we followed allsorts of line, from SRT rope to dental floss. The line clearly breaks in winter floods and allsorts of attempts had been made at finding various types of line.
Chris and Rich start clipping on stages and deco bottles
We came across one line break and Rich put a gap line in - not realising that by barely touching the rock, it would stir up a whole cloud of powder which just sat lingering in mid-passage.
We dived on and dropped our 32% travel gas not far from the drop down to the deep section. We had switched onto trimix and started down the gradually descending passageway and it wasn't long before we met depth...50m, 60m, 70m....That'll do......
We turned on the steeply dipping gravel slope, just short of the 'elbow' which causes allsorts of decompression games for anyone wanting to go beyond it.

We dived home and began our deco at -21m. At which point, during the gas switch, my primary light went out.
Now, anybody who knows me will know what I am like with lights. I can kill anything. I amazed Rich in Ginnie Springs by all my lights going out on one dive - back-ups and all - which was even more inconvenient as it was a night dive!!!
Oz and Joe set off. Photo: Jean Tarrit (CLPA)
So, a bit annoyed, I deployed my back-up which is a decent extreme-tek (this torch was the best thing I ever bought - thanks to Nadir Lasson and Clive Westlake for suggesting it) and continued my gas switch. We hovered decompressing while Rich tried to sort the light out. The switch had been somehow knocked off and it soon came back on. I re-stowed my back-up and we carried on working our way up through the decompression stops. Again, we did more than we needed, but took into account the whole picture of the carry, heat etc and aired on the safe side.
Even so, we barely did half an hour in total.
At 12m I saw Rich doing what looked like a flow check.
Now what?!
He had bubbles coming from his right post. Only little ones, so we carried on and switched onto oxygen at 6m in the awkward inclined rift while Oz and Joe passed us heading in for their dive.

Oz in the 30m section

Oz setting off down the inclined rift at the start of the Gourney-Rou
Great screen grab from Joe's film of the Gourney-Rou

Rich and I sat around for a bit doing not-a-lot, which is customary after deep dives which involve hills and hot weather. Jean and his CLPA mates started hauling gear up for us and our stages were out of the water and up on dry land before we were!!
Chris climbing the ladder after her deepest
cave dive so far in the Gourney-Rou.

Joe and Oz came back with some amazing film footage of the sump and after sitting around for a bit, we all made the steady plod up the hill with twinsets and stages. It was a bit cooler than our day at the Gourney-Ras and it was noticeably better for it. We managed to pack up, get some fills done and have a bite to eat before I managed to persuade Rich to come skinny dipping in the Viz river! It looked stunning and I thought it would be the same temperature as the Herault. It wasn't!! The beer was cooling on the side and after dipping my big toe in, we decided that a swim once round the 'island', dodging enormous trout, was in order - and then out!

After a beer, we headed back into town to find Joe and Oz who had set off in search of the nearest pub. A grand day out and well worth the effort.

Gourney-Rou by Joe Hesketh.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

13th September

Elaine descends the pitch in the Event de Perdreau
Nathan couldn’t be around today, but Elaine and Duncan kindly agreed to come and help us shift gear into the Perdreau and their help was very much appreciated. Within a couple of hours, all of our gear was assembled at the sump base and Oz and Joe were getting ready to dive.

Joe gets his gear together
The existing survey of the Perdreau (Siphon Nord – North Sump) gets a bit flaky at sump 2. It is merely reported to be 100m long with a maximum depth of -18m. Oz and Joe were to go in and survey the sump properly with station depth, direction and distance and to survey as much of the new line as they could. They dived a pair of 7l ‘safety’ bottles through sump 1 to allow divers to start sump 2 on fresh cylinders and also to add a bit of safety for the return journey back through sump 1 incase a diver had a problem or a cylinder go down which was unfixable. The water is cold and we were in wetsuits, so hanging about in the cold water because of a problem wasn’t really an option here.
Joe and Oz set off into sump 1
Joe and Oz came back with survey data confirming what we had hoped for. The length of sump 2 was indeed 100m and the new line was in addition to that. They managed to survey the first 10m of their new line before gas and cold turned them back.

Meanwhile, Rich and I sat huddled up at sump base, kitted up in wetsuits and wrapped up in suit bags and oversuits to keep warm while we waited over an hour for them to return. After a moment of worry and ‘what happens next’ planning, Rich and I were about to leave the dive base to go and get warm on the surface and hatch an action plan when their lights could be seen returning back to dive base. They were so cold they could barely speak – but they had done an awesome job of painstakingly surveying the sump until the new line and a third of that too.

Joe writes: “We dived through Sump 1 with the aim of re-surveying the existing line in order to provide data on the position of the start of the new line laid in the previous dive. Although the existing line was tagged, this was very loose in places and so each section between belays was measured with a measuring stick along with depth and azimuth information. The full data will be added to the survey held by Nathan Boinet, however the junction with the new line was measured at 83m from the start of Sump 2 putting the total distance (including the new line) at around 121m. Gas reserves prevented the full survey of all of the new line, however its overall length (from knots and tags) as well as trending direction was noted from the previous dive. A possible further new passage was briefly investigated on the return through Sump 2 which, from the general direction and type of passage (matching the one in which the divers had laid new line) was thought might bypass the rift to connect with the new passage.”

Then it was mine and Rich’s turn to dive and hopefully extend the line in the new passage. We both had a whiff of trimix in slightly bigger cylinders to aid with the depth and clear thinking in cold water.
We warmed up and kitted up, before setting off through sump 1 without issues. We climbed out of the water and got fairly quickly into sump 2. As we set off, it was obvious that the visibility hadn't settled since our last dives here and Oz and Joe surveying had inadvertently stirred it some more. The rift half way through the sump is narrow and it's impossible to dive through it, never mind survey it, without touching the walls which expel a powder-like dust which hangs in the water and doesn't move on as there is no flow here.
I dived through what I thought was the rift and met the junction with the airbell. I turned downslope and was now in completely zero visibility. I felt uncomfortable as the line was very, very loose in my hand and there seemed to be miles of it and no belays. I'm used to diving in zero visibility and it never worries me - unless the line is so poor that following it blind becomes dangerous.
At that moment, my hand followed the line into a pile of boulders and seemed to be snaking in amongst them. I couldn't feel any space around me or ahead of me and I knew the line had gone into a line trap, pinched between boulders, possibly metres from the actual way through.

I'm not playing this game! I've been here before, upside down in a boulder choke in zero viz, following slack line, with the clock ticking, only that time I was in Wookey 25 and I was trying to get home....

Not today.

I figured if I couldn't find my way into the cave, there was even less chance of finding my way out. I couldn't see what the line had done to even attempt fixing it. I backed upslope and tried to turn around. I could hear Rich bearing down on me and I felt around for his thumb and pulled it. He got hold of my thumb and pulled it back, indicating that he understood my signal to go home.

We learned a lot from this dive. With little or no flow, the cave does not clear while divers are in there so our only hope from now on is to fix that line and make it followable in the worst visibility, which is the first job for our next attempt at the project in 2012.

Disappointed, but certain that I had made the right decision, we left the cave and just managed to get all the gear out before dusk.
But not without drama!
Oz got half way through the boulder choke and I was close behind when I heard the most blood-curdling scream! Oz was wailing like a girl and I thought he'd either been squashed by a rock or had met a 'vipére' or something.
No, there was a "f***ing tarrantula" in the boulder choke and Oz was face to face with it!
I tried to belittle it with sentiments of "It's only a cave spider" and "It can't be that big"...
Anyway, I got into the choke myself and OMG!!! It was not only huge, but extremely ugly. It's eyes were shining and everything!
We scared it away - which took some doing - this thing wasn't scared of anybody..It didn't scurry or scuttle like normal spiders..this thing crawled. It was disgusting!!

We managed to get back for tea and medals and Rich and I declared that we wanted another day off tomorrow to sit on the beach, swim and sunbathe and do the square root of bugger all!

Caves and wine....what more do you need?

After yesterday’s antics, I wanted a day off. I met no resistance from Rich who was beginning to realise that the word ‘holiday’ had been misconstrued.
We decided to go and visit the vineyard at Saint-Saturnin and follow it up with a visit to a stunning show-cave, Grotte de la Clamouse.
I hadn’t visited either for almost a decade, so I was really looking forward to going back and showing it to Rich. Joe kindly loaned me one of his cameras so I was able to take some photos and video of our day out.
The vineyard was a great photo opportunity and we left with boxes and bottles of local wines, some for gifts and the rest for ourselves.

£100 lighter, we set off down the road to the show-cave. We were treated to the best AV (in English and French) of cave geology, formation and 3D models that I have ever seen. It was outstanding and I wish some British show-caves would put as much effort into their experiences as this place. The show-cave guide was well educated, spoke in two languages and gave a detailed and interesting tour and knew the cave inside out. There were plenty of photo opportunities as well as a music and light show, which might not be to everyone’s taste, but to be honest I find it hard to see how else they could show off the pinnacle of this fabulous cave in any other way. It was well done without being tacky and the tour was worth every penny of the 9 euros each….

Elaine and Duncan meanwhile had been spending their time diving the Rodel and hunting out various caves in the area to go and visit.

We headed back to camp central and dug out the BBQ having raided the local Super-U in Ganges. This fabulous supermarket has a meat and fish counter to die for and we went a bit mad, buying a big bag of tiger prawns, rack of ribs, some trout and salmon steaks, whole mackerel, beers plus salad things etc. Barely 60 euros later, we walked away with bags of goodies, amazed at how cheap it was.

It felt like the ‘last supper’ as we all sat round under the fairy lights, watching cave diving video films and footage that Joe shot of the Gourney-Ras. It was push day the next day in the Event de Perdreau – cylinders had been filled, trimix salvaged and gear was pretty much packed. All we had to do was go and lay more line…..what could possibly go wrong?......

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

We have pets!

This fella moved in the other day and has made himself at home in our diving gear! He likes bread and cheese and left over bolognese....

View down the Herault river from our swimming spot on the beach, only a few hundred yards from the campsite. Loads of Perch, Trout and we even spotted a fresh water crayfish toddling along on the bottom. You can see the bottom of this crystal clear river easily and it is warmer than the pool!
The river Herault is just down from the campsite at Brissac. The local kids jump off this bridge into about 6m of water. Oz kept saying he was going to do it but he was too chicken ;-)

Herault river at Laroque

River Herault

Rich in his favourite place, doing his favourite thing!

11th September – Gourney-Ras

Oz in the Gourneyras

“You said it was only 5 minutes from the road! Again!” they wailed. Well, it is if you don’t mind a bit of downhill scree-skiing and aren’t carrying a twinset……and stages…..and deco gasses…and drysuits…..and camera gear….

The Gourney-Ras is a stunning site in the Viz gorge. A crystal clear river flows down the impressive valley, cascading over waterfalls and invites canoeists and swimmers to take on the mild rapids and plunge pools.

It is about 30 minutes from the campsite to get to the start of the track, which is perched high up in the midst of the hairpin bends of the cliff. An iron gate (usually open) marks the start of the track. It is only just doable with a van and a small car may struggle a little – ground clearance is helpful. It is slow progress. A sheer drop on the river side of this narrow track makes for some bum-clenching driving and although it is only a few kilometers to the parking spot, it takes another 30 minutes.
Oz and Joe have already gone off me at this stage as my version of ‘only 5 minutes’ is not the same as theirs, so I prefer to tell them very little and allow them an element of surprise and adventure!

I’ve visited the Gourney-Ras once before in 2002, but had never dived it and it was long overdue. The path is mainly scree, which slides off down the very steep slope as you tread on it and the first thing you are faced with is a steep clamber over rock slabs. We tied a rope to a tree and set off down the path using it as a hand-line. Elaine started rigging the next bit and shortly we had a rope pretty much all the way to the water’s edge. The steep descent through the tall trees opened up into a large cirque, with a green and stagnant looking resurgence pool at the foot of the cliffs. The massive boulders in the river bed mark the path the flooding cave takes down to the river Viz, which was flowing noisily by a few hundred yards away.

Tiny fish, pond skaters, huge and colourful dragonflies, butterflies and the occasional snake adorn this neck of the woods. It is a tranquil and pleasant place to be.
It is hot though. Sweat pours down your face and into your eyes and doesn’t let up as you plod up and down, up and down the steep hill, hauling on the hand-line as you go to ferry diving equipment to the sump pool. T-shirts are soaked with sweat within minutes and we get grubbier and bloodier as we go, trees and bushes cutting at your legs, grazes forming as you slip or catch a shin on a rock and mosquitoes and flies enjoy feasting on any bit of you that you can’t swat…..
This is resurgence-flopping Herault style!

Once at the water’s edge, we watched Elaine and Duncan set off into the pool with a pair of 7s each. The Gourney-Ras goes deep quickly, but the best view in the house is reported to be from just down the slope. 7 litre cylinders are fine to get just that view, but we wanted to go further into the 50m section to see the impressive passage beyond the daylight zone.
We kitted up and Oz and Joe set off ahead of us with the video camera. We followed a short while afterwards and dropped our decompression gases off. We continued down-slope at a just off-vertical angle and soon reached 50m depth where we approached a left hand sweeping bend with a white cobbled floor.
We saw Oz and Joe’s light beams swinging towards us around the bend and Oz swam towards me, giving me a slow and exaggerated double ‘OK’ sign over and over….Assuming this was because he’d had such a great dive, we swam on and down the largest cave passage I think I have ever seen. Something in Florida such as Manattee springs may be comparable, but the cave was so dark I couldn’t reach the walls with my torch. Here, the white limestone reflects light brilliantly and there is an azure blue tint to the water which looks to be sparkling in the light.

Oz swims towards the entrance pool.
View from 50m depth in the Gourneyras
We dived somewhere between 150m and 200m along the 50m section which was still ongoing at that depth and showed no sign of dropping off deeper yet. We’d planned on a 60m dive but that depth wasn’t achievable with the gas we had so we thumbed it on gas and swam back steadily to the corner.
I was plodding along in my own little dream-world when Rich flashed his light. I looked at him and he pointed at me to look up. I craned my neck back and looked up the slope to see the best view I have ever seen underwater. In the distance above us, was an electric blue shape of the entrance towering above us, with the silhouettes of Oz and Joe decompressing in the middle of it, their torches like pin-pricks of light. I couldn’t take my eyes off it and we had a steady ascent, enjoying the view as we went. I realised then what it was that made Oz give his display of appreciation.

Oz swims down the huge tunnel
in the Gourneyras

We had minimal decompression but we almost doubled our stops for several reasons. The effort and amount of sweating involved with getting to and from the sump inevitably leads to divers sweating out more than they can replace, so dehydration is a real issue. The cave is at altitude and the water is only 11 degrees. There is no immediate help and the nearest chamber is 4 hours away. The cave is pretty remote and a bent diver would be disastrous because of access issues, so we were extremely careful. We carry a full ventilation, airway, oxygen and fluid kit with us on trips like this.

We waited some time before attempting to carry gear back up the hill to the vans. This is very much mind over matter as it’s unavoidable that it will be hard physically. You just have to keep going and eventually we got all our gear out as dusk fell.

Oz in the huge tunnel in the Gourneyras

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Caverns Measureless....Saturday 10th September

A good day out…

We met up with Nathan as planned at 10am in the car park closest to the cave. He had brought a friend along to come and help, called Mario. Mario is 25, a new member of the CLPA and was clearly being given some sort of induction involving carrying diving gear half a kilometre in the heat – none of which was his!

Nathan explained that he was the first person to dive the first sump in this cave 15 years ago!
We made it to the entrance with a bit of prickly bush bashing and a shin-bashing dry riverbed. Here, we gathered kit by the entrance and sent Nathan ahead to check that the boulder choke was safe (he was concerned that the winter floods might have caused it to move and become unstable). He called up that it was and we followed, ferrying ten 7 litre cylinders, 5 divers wetsuits, equipment and lead (top tip – unless you are all diving at once, share lead!!!!) fins etc and a bolting kit and rope, in case it was needed for the climb out of the water at the end of sump 1.

Rich and I were to dive first and see how far we could get. It is reported that the winter floods rip the line out of these sumps, so we had plenty of line ready to go in and loads of snoopy loops for belays, if required.
A line was tied off at dive base and water levels were extremely low. We passed all the equipment down the ropes and Rich and I kitted up in 7mm wetsuits and sidemount gear with a little buoyancy and set off into sump 1. This is 70 metres long and has a maximum depth of 21 metres. The sump was crystal clear with a blue tint as many of these Herault sumps have. Nathan followed five minutes behind with the bolting kit and rope.

The line was there…..but very slack and we took in metres and metres of loose line. It had been laid in zig zags across the passage and every belay except one had come free. We tied up the loose stuff as best we could and surfaced in a large air chamber with the reported climb in front of us. A thick rope was already in place, to our relief and we climbed up the rock face to land on a ledge above. We started down the jagged rock through some holes which led to the start of sump 2. Again the line was in place, but this time was much slacker and was combined with old, French washing line. I tried to tie some of it together in case the visibility was decreased on the way home.

We flopped into sump 2 and very soon surfaced in a bit of an airbell with the continuation ahead. Annoyingly, this meant a brief excursion above water, crawling on hands and knees and falling face first into the water on the other side of a rock barrier. Rich dived in front and I couldn’t help but giggle through my regulator as I watched this GUE technical instructor, our lord and master, crawling on his hands and knees then wallowing unceremoniously, helmet and all into the water face first, fins waggling in the air. You had to be there……

Rich dived ahead with the line reel and, after a narrow rift, soon came across the end of the white French dive line. It was tied off to a rock spike pinnacle and the line was wrapped around it several times, almost in a statement. Here we go……

Rich tied my line reel into to line and began to pay out line into the rift ahead. It was a narrow, inclined 45 degree rift and I deployed my extreme-tek backup torch to spot the way on. This long, narrow beam hunted out a widening in the passage lower down whilst Rich searched for tie-offs as he went higher. He indicated to me to tie the line off as he went and two belays later, the viz started to go. Ten metres of progression and I could hear, but not see, Rich scrabbling and scraping ahead and not finding anything to tie the line to, he wriggled back towards me. I fended off waggling fins and coiled up loose line, whilst Rich began to reel back in towards me and gave me a thumbs up and ‘turn around’ signal. I pulled a snoopy off a rock and the rock simply broke in two and fell off the wall. The whole cave is made up of porous, fragile and friable rock which simply won’t tolerate interference.

We dived back on thirds and I kicked on ahead looking for a better way on as I simply didn’t believe that this nasty rift could be it. I got ahead of Rich and deployed my extreme-tek cave spotting torch and carefully examined the wall to my right. I noticed a pile of boulders a bit above me and, using Rich on the line as a lighthouse, swam up and over to have a look. I shone my torch down a large, ongoing railway tunnel of a passage which was ongoing as far as my torch could penetrate – at least 20 metres. There it was. The lost way on was stretching out in front of us. I signalled to Rich and he came over to have a look and we stared at each other in amazement.

Then, Rich tapped his watch and I tied two snoopy loops onto the line and built a rock cairn to signal to Joe and Oz where to tie their line off and we set off home.

We surfaced between sumps 1 & 2 to explain to Nathan what we had found. I stumbled over my French in excitement but he got the idea! Nathan had surfaced in the airbell found by the British team 3 years ago and confirmed it as a ‘cloche’ – closed off airbell.

We all dived back to base and Oz and Joe kitted up. I gave them very clear instructions and directions about what we had found and what to look for. We left the line reel for them inbetween sumps 1 & 2.

Meanwhile, Rich and I got changed into something more comfortable and began hauling gear with the help of Nathan, back up the pitches. We got everything except Oz and Joe’s kit out of the cave by the time they returned.
They had tied into the line at the cairn and set off down the railway tunnel – which Joe declared was far bigger than any railway tunnel he had seen – and laid 36 metres of new line to a depth of 30m where gas reserves turned them around.

We hauled their gear out and began the soul destroying task of getting kit back to the cars which ended in doing so by torchlight as the moon rose steadily.

The day by far exceeded our expectations and a return trip this week is planned to resurvey sump 2 from scratch, as Nathan does not have proper data - and survey the new line and add some more, having decanted as much trimix into exploration bottles we can, in case it goes deeper. Nobody wants to do deco in this cave in wetsuits.

I will update this blog with photos when I gather them from Nathan and Joe's cameras.

Friday 9th September

Herault river, a few hundred yards from the tent!
We decided to have a day off today, for two reasons. One, we are knackered!! We didn’t get back til almost 2am last night… but a really good evening out nonetheless and so worth it. Two, we need to fill cylinders and prepare equipment for our exploration trip tomorrow.
Until the full report of our trip, I’ll keep the name of the cave under wraps for now.
It involves a walk up a dry river bed and a dry entrance squeeze followed by an unstable boulder choke and then a couple of short pitches which need to be negotiated by using ropes and SRT (single rope technique). All the diving gear needs to be transported to the dive base so it will be a long day out.
The cave was relined by some British cavers almost 4 years ago but no new passage was found. They found a dry airbell some way through the second sump but this was a dead end. The cave has since been relined and visited by a cave diver friend of Nathan Boinet.
Nathan is the local cave activist around these parts and a hard core caver and digger who dabbles in cave diving, but often seems to prefer to get us over here to do it instead!

Nathan Boinet from the CLPA
I first met him in 2007 when we found new, dry cave passage 8 sumps from home in a cave called the Calaven de Seoubio. His club, the CLPA are keen diggers and are friendly and welcoming and love having us down here to help with their explorations.Nathan invited us to have a look at the end of the line in sump 2 of this cave as his friend had lost the way on and had ended up in some narrow rift where he had left his french dive line tied off.

Nathan has asked to dive with us - which I found a bit bizarre - after all, it's his cave, his country and he invited us! So I said of course he could dive!!
So, we have 5 divers bottles and equipment to get into the cave...gonna be a long day!

Filling bottles - a necessary but dull task.

Cylinders waiting to be filled