Friday, September 9, 2011


Before I go into details of our dive here, I should stress that this cave is NOT for public access and is indeed the water source for the town of Millau. Permission is required to dive here and we obtained this through a friend and a French cave diver before visiting the cave. Illegal dives here are quite likely to spoil ongoing attempts to reach an agreeable solution about diving the source, hence I have withheld its whereabouts.

The plan was to video the cave and as a result, will offer any footage we have to the local speleo activists to use in their quest to demonstrate how important divers are in the protection of caves and scientific hydrological research. At the end of the day, we are the only ones who can actually see what goes on under the water, under the rock, in the dark.
We drove almost 2 hours on nothing but winding roads and stunning gorges until we reached the village and after a little inventive French speaking and some friendly locals, located the source. We parked up but our French guide, Mehdi, was not there. Worried, I made a few calls back home to some friends who knew him but there were no such worries, as he showed up minutes later, having been diving in the Font d’Estremar all day!

We began carrying kit to the cave and we spoke to Mehdi in our best going out French and he spoke to us in pretty good English. He was to dive with us and both Rich and Joe had video cameras.

Due to gas logistics (there are no filling stations down here, so all trimix was pre-filled, as were deco gases – the rest is to be topped off by the compressor, courtesy of the Derbyshire Section CDG) Rich and I dived sidemounted as these were the only ‘backgas’ cylinders we had left which could be used, the rest still full of 15/55 for next week.

Chris in the entrance series of the Esperelle
So we dived on 60m gas to reach pretty much the terminus of this cave, which ends in a jumbled, jagged breakdown choke at -65m.
The journey there however, was spectacular. Clive Westlake, my ex-CDG mentor was the last person to dive here 4 years ago and prior to that, the last diver had been in the cave no less than 8 years ago. And it showed.
Mehdi in the Esperelle

Our exhalation bubbles sent bits of conglomerate and chert raining down on us and wafting past the video cameras. Anything you touched simply broke off in your hand so we dived it with kid gloves. The entrance is a narrow rift and we dropped off our deco bottles as we followed the winding, ‘diaclase’ (maze) to the head of a shaft.

I’ve seen some impressive underwater shafts, some pretty famous, but this was one of the more pretty and intricate ones. Mehdi dived a Megdalon ‘recycleur’ and stealthily crept along behind us, grinning in awe at the view he was presented with, descending above Rich with his double 18W filming lights, above me with my HID… he said it was pretty amazing! The visibility was infinite and sparkling blue.

Mehdi diving the Esperelle
I saw the line snaking off towards the breakdown terminus and thumbed the dive at 59.9m. We had a nice ascent and Mehdi began chatting to me through his RB and I felt obliged to waffle some crap in French back!!
We picked up our deco gases and Rich filmed Mehdi down some side passage while I wrestled with getting an ali stage clipped off to sidemount 12s, all the while feeling a bit underweighted; I soon realised that this was due to a sticking wing inflator valve which was filling my ‘Scoff-Bag’ at a rate of knots. Giggling at my stupidity for not noticing it sooner, I told Mehdi I was fine and that I would deal with the simultaneously freeflowing regulator later……
Such annoyances don’t spoil a great dive like this though and we surfaced at dusk, waffling in barely coherent Franglais at how good it was and how worth the drive etc etc.
I asked Mehdi if he would please join us for dinner, or a beer at least. One step ahead, he produced a bottle of delicately balanced local white wine which had been cooling in the resurgence all the while!!
Oz and Joe are elated with their dive
We waited for the others to surface and giggled uncontrollably as they had stuck true to form, getting totally lost and taking the wrong line and ending up in some shit-hole about 0.5m high and full of mud, unable to turn around etc. They did make it to the deep in the end but they won’t live it down as it’s not the first time either! - LOL.

The stars started to come up over the gorge and the white limestone cliffs were lit by the moon and we tore down the gorge after Mehdi who showed us to a very welcome pizza restaurant and made sure we were looked after.
An absolutely awesome dive, great company and a superb evening. Days don’t get much better than this. Thankyou guys.

Event de Rodel

Oz kitting up at dive base
Rich still wasn’t feeling up to a ‘big’ trimix dive, but was feeling a little better so we opted for an easy tourist dive which I had yet to visit.
The cave is close to the road (100m) and involved another 100m dry caving. We set off in the afternoon so it was a pretty hot carry to get our kit and all Joe’s filming gear into the cave. We had also opted for drysuits which was a good thing underwater, but involved a bit more carrying too. Kneepads are a must over drysuits in this cave.

A couple of hours of carrying, setting up, filming and getting ready to dive and Joe and Oz set off with the camera and Rich and I began kitting up to dive on their return.

As they returned, the amazing, azure blue sparkling water flashed in their lights and I knew this was going to be good…..but nowhere near as good as it turned out to be.

Oz and Joe spat their regs out and announced it was ‘stunning’ so without further a do, Rich and I set off under the rock and were greeted with perfect white walls, cobbled floor and sparkling blue water with infinite visibility.

Screen grab from Joe's film footage of the sump
I dived in front and we weaved our way along the bedding planes, taking our time and gawping at this beautiful underwater scenery.
We soon met a cobble slope which was snug and required some digging. Oz and Joe and already dug a bit to get through so very little work was required on our part and we popped through easily and continued to virtually the end of the line. Rich followed me through and we ended up in a convoluted boulder choke which was getting smaller and nastier and was clearly a section of breakdown and the line was in bad order so I thumbed the dive as we were close to thirds anyway and had a leisurely swim home.
The carry out took half the time of the carry in and Oz and Joe had neatly tidied everything into 4 manageable tackle bags. We were out just as dusk turned to nightfall and we headed back to camp for dinner and some wine. A good day out!

Not the Rabanel....

Carmen Smith descending the
Abime de Rabanel in 2002
Tuesday is something of a disaster….

I was quite looking forward to the Abime de Rabanel which is a 120m ish deep pothole in thick scrubland, not far from the campsite. I last did this cave in 2002 and was looking forward to rigging it.

Rich was still feeling unwell so we left the trip until the afternoon, but he still wasn’t up to joining us. Oz and Joe meanwhile went to the showcave ‘Grotte de Demoiselles’ and when they returned, we set off to the cave.

It was a long time since I’d been here but Clive had been more recently so he seemed the choice to follow up the path. After 30 minutes of walking in blistering heat with heavy rope bags and camera gear, I had a feeling it was wrong and we had gone too far. I remembered it being only 10 minutes walk and I turned everyone round to take a different path. This one immediately looked familiar and in 5 minutes we were at the entrance.

Vis Gorge
I had been told that the cave was all P-hung (Wrong!) thus not taking any hangers with me and that 40m was enough rope for the first pitch (wrong again!) - so I scared myself silly on Noel’s 9.5mm ‘rope’ whilst hanging from a tree stump over the edge of a cliff with 120m space between my heels, only to abseil onto the knot 6m off the floor!!
Furious, I changed over and prusiked up the rope and thumbed the trip – and headed back for wine and to see if Rich was OK.

It was down on the beach that I discovered that my camera, which had been in a tackle bag that got thrown onto the floor (and not by me) had broken and was spouting ‘lens error’. Knowing that canon G9s don’t like being knocked at all, we asked around about temporary repairs and the result is that it is beyond economical repair. So, the photos you see for the next day or two are the last from this great little camera. RIP canon G9 :-(

We have internet! Better late than never.....

We finally arrived!
After a night on the tiles in Salisbury seeing off a work colleague of mine – good luck Sandra!! – we woke at 7am ish to chuck the final bits in the already bulging van and set off to Dover.
Gary Jones sadly not coming now as he couldn’t get his gear up together in time, so we didn’t need to swing by his place to pick it up.
We pulled into the ferry terminal 10 minutes before the off and drove straight onto the ferry. A miserable and expensive lunch later (should have gone in the posh restaurant as usual but decided to save a few quid in the canteen – mistake!) we sat about in the filthy lounge……Seafrance have finally let things slip :-(

So we arrived in Calais and set off on the boring section of northern French péage. The plan was to stop at Bourges, just south of Vierzon and after dinner, we pulled in here at an F1 hotel and got a good kip as usual.
We were treated to the usual welcome strong coffee, fresh bread and orange juice before setting off south again.

5 hours later we arrived at the Millau bridge. When I first visited the Herault with my caving club in 2002 this hadn’t been built and it took 2 hours to weave through the town of Millau. Nowadays, the bridge makes the 12 hour journey nearer 10 and shortly afterwards, we turned off to head to the campsite the ‘pretty way’. This involves wiggling down the hairpin bends of the Viz gorge and taking some piccies and video on the way.

Millau Bridge

This first viewpoint of the ‘Gorges de Herault’ is stunning and you really feel that you have ‘arrived’ when you see it. Of course, you haven’t really, as another hour of negotiating narrow villages with enormous speedhumps is still to come.

Vis Gorge

We arrived and started to put the tent up while Rich took timelapse photos of it going up. Nice idea at the time……

The others (Noel, Clive, Osama and Joe) had arrived a day early and had gone caving to the ‘Event de Rognes’ or ‘Rubbish Dump cave’ as the Wessex Cave Club had dubbed it.
Event de Rognes - by Clive Westlake,
taken on a previous trip

So Rich and I sat on the beach down by the Herault river which is a couple of minutes walk from the tent and as it was crystal clear and warm, I jumped in for a swim as the sun went down.

Rich isn’t feeling great and is wondering if he is ill, so we’re going to leave the diving until Wednesday and go caving today. Internet is being fixed today (Tuesday) so posting may be a bit random.
Rich chills in his hammock

Rich takes in the view of the Vis Gorge