It all started when the Pennine were sitting in the Helwith Bridge listening to the plans of the CPC to visit Belgium over Christmas/New Year. I accidentally asked Talking Pete if he wanted to go and, fortunately, he said 'yes'. So began a trip of extremes; everything from -15 degrees in the shade, to orgies of drink and severe dysentry.
We drove to Felixstowe in a driving blizzard with Pete in the back under a mound of gear, and Alan Weight (CPC) as co-driver. He took one look at the road conditions and refused to touch the wheel.
The usual bar-clearing trick was used on the boat; be very objectionable to all comers, take your wellies off and soon a large sleeping place appears. So we all had a pleasant sleep. When we reached Belgium things became worse; cars appearing out of no-where and, what's more disconcerting, from the wrong direction. I nearly killed us all by driving across a three-lane motorway junction because I thought I had the right-of-way. Three pairs of lights bore down on us but I was too quick for them and we disappeared into the morning darkness to the sounds of 'Zee English, zey are so stupide'. The snow became heavier and heavier until we came to a complete halt on the motorway; snowbound in a foreign country. Morale was low so Alan decided to brew-up; he got the stove going in the middle lane and then went looking for a G.B. plate to ask for some water. Whilst he was away and the stove was still burning merrily, the traffic began to move! More cries of 'Zee English, zey are so stupide!'.
When we arrived in Han-sur-Lesse, after getting hopelessly lost in Brussels, things started to improve. The Craven had located some Belgian cavers and they had a tentative promise of a hostel. We thawed out some tins of food and made a meal by the side of the road. Feeling somewhat refreshed but suffering from frostbite we visited the hostel. I was a little uncertain as it appeared to be a Catholic Youth Club.
Our hosts showed us surveys of huge pot holes they had found in the Pyrenees but we fought back with tales of Cigalère and PSM. Things were really serious until salvation arrived in the form of a crate of beer; Trapiste No. 8, a quaint little beer in a small bottle with a very distinctive flavour. We got quietly drunk.
The next few days were a complete blurr; during the day we were taken caving by a mad but friendly Dutchman. In the evenings we graduated to Trapiste No. 10, bottles of White Horse, Drambuie, Grande Marnier, etc... Quote from Pete, 'I wish I could have a drink to get rid of this headache'.
The caving was excellent but it was so cold that my wetsuit froze solid whilst I was wearing it. We visited the most beautiful cave, Père du Noel, and the most severe, Trou Bernard.
On the best/worst night of all, I had a long earnest conversation with a Belgian for hours. Unfortunately, he couldn't speak English, and John Cordingley ran amok amongst a party of sixteen-year-old girls. The following morning I was talking to Pete, who was on a top bunk, when he rolled forward and crashed to the floor; he lay perfectly still - so I rolled over and went back to sleep.
The following day we had to leave the hostel but our hosts found us a new place near On. The new hostel was a cross between a ghetto tenement and a huge block of concrete entitled 'The Spéléo Club de Gerney'. There were two-hundred beds, one toilet and a cold water tap on the wall. The Black Hole of Calcutta would have been paradise in comparison.
In charge was a dear man of seventy-five who made Jim Eyre look old in comparison and, of course, he ran a very religious establishment. There was a two-franc fine for abusive language; but he couldn't speak English so a lot of money was saved.
It was here that I became dreadfully ill; I awoke in the night faced with an agonising decision on my mind - should I shit or vomit. A rapid bowel movement quickly solved my dilemma. I started the long haul down several flights of stairs, rather like a demented quasimodo descending from the tower, my haste in a delicate balance with discretion. This put me out of action for two days and I missed an incredible New Year's Eve party thrown by our previous hosts.
We were in Belgium for about eight days and enjoyed nearly all of it. As the week drew to a close food became short and the immortal phrase was born - 'Would you like mash or macaroni with your rice?'
The caves and attitudes to caving in Belgium are entirely different to our own. This is probably due to the character of the caves and, hence, the sort of person they attract. The caves are largely abandoned, ancient passage without a trace of water or tight, constricted passage so that the wet-suit is no longer an asset and a much more gentlemanly approach presents itself. In fact, ideal for the average Pennine member!
However, the caving clubs are highly organised, even to the extent of having a timetable for the days events; ladder climbing practice in the morning followed by caving or perhaps abseiling practice in the afternoon. The clubs are very similar to the approach Ben Lyon is giving to caving at Whernside; definitely not the traditional Yorkshire techniques I am used to.
There are problems of access in Belgium, both for walkers and cavers alike. The legal right of access is very limited and it is all too easy to trespass. This makes prospecting and digging very difficult and the clubs become possessive about their finds. A large number of caves are gated and strictly controlled by the individual clubs. For the bona fide caver it is not too much of an inconvenience but anyone wishing to visit Belgium should notify the clubs as to their intentions.
The geography of the area means that many of the streams are polluted; one particular example is the Trou de l'Église which was practically an open sewer.
The following is a brief description of the cave regions I have visited in Belgium:
The most famous and impressive of Belgian caves is the Grotte de Han; the imposing entrance to the show cave appears on many Belgian tourist posters. The show cave is well worth a visit and could easily be pirated at night by liberating a boat or just swimming in. However, to avoid animosity it is better to pay and get a trip round the wild-life park as well. The cave consists of several large caverns and well-decorated passages; it is particularly notable because of its impressive streamway but, unfortunately, none of the other caves we visited were like that.
The River Lesse sinks in the Gouffre de Belvaux, behind the massif, but despite an impressive hole there is little open passage. The Belgian divers have yet to force the connection but the work continues.
In the same massif is the most beautiful cave I have ever visited, the Grotte du Père Noel. The entrance is in a shakehole in the Bois de Boine but it can only be reached by passing through the Han estate. The cave is gated and one must have a guide; but even with these restrictions it is worth a trip. The cave consists of 2,000 metres of passage which is crammed with calcite, the most memorable part being the Salle de Balcon. This is a traverse above a chamber filled with columns; it is like looking down on a forest. All the passages are dry and abandoned. It finally ends rather miserably in a glutinous mud sump.
This area contains the deepest cave in Belgium, the Trou Bernard, at 120 metres; reputably the hardest trip in the region. Unfortunately, by English standards it is quite easy. The most technical part is 'Les Chicanes', which is a tight rift about twenty metres deep, where a ladder is virtually useless. The remainder of the cave is straightforward, requiring only ladder technique; perhaps this is why it is apparently so difficult for the Belgians.
Another cave in the area is the Trou D'Haquin, definitely worth a visit if only for its English character. We were told of a well-decorated chamber not marked on the survey, but the crawl to it was full of water.
The Rochefort area contains a large number of caves, but nearly all of them are gated and the keys have to be applied for in advance. This is worth remembering for future trips to the area, as we missed all the more famous caverns. We visited the far reaches of one show cave, the Grotte de Hotten. This was well decorated in its higher passages but it is being progressively destroyed by quarrying, so the far reaches are very loose and unstable. The cave has one unusual feature, a vertical bedding plane which forms the main gallery. Along the bottom of this runs a large river and a short, but pleasant, piece of cascades. It was in this cave that we saw some Belgian digging that would put even Batty to shame. It was rather more of a mining operation than the usual dig; our host was sinking a vertical shaft, about two metres in diameter, from the upper passage into the space beyond the second sump (see survey).
Another cave we visited was the Puite des Lampes (a grotty little cave!) for which we had to pay to visit. It consisted of a pitch into a large, but strangely, unimpressive chamber.
I would recommend a trip to Belgium but anyone expecting even moderately hard trips will be disappointed. The pace of caving is geared down and the lack of active streamway removes the sporting aspect of caving. However, this is amply made up for by the profusion of stalactite and gypsum formations which makes Belgium a photographer's paradise (beware non-photographers in the party). I found the access restrictions rather oppressive but our hosts were only too pleased to show us round their caves and would have arranged for us to see much more if they had known we were coming.
I hope this article has inspired somebody to visit Belgium; it's only a days drive from Yorkshire!
The addresses of the hostels where we stayed are:
Spéléo - Club du Gerny
40 Rue Delvigne
5441 - ON - JEMELLE
Tel. 084/212.300 (only just habitable)
Route de Belvaux 21
AVE ET AUFFE
Belgium (very nice; and friendly natives)
"Han - Rochefort",
by Robert Delbrouck Rue Brunard 18
"Atlas des Grottes de Belgique",
by Paul Vandersleyen from the Spéléo Club de Belgique
"10 Ans D'Explorations et de Recherches Souterraines",
edited by J. Damzeaux
85-1820 Strombeek - Biver