CTS 87.3116: NPC Journal 4(1), Jan 1987, pp 44-50

The Trans-Iberian Express


The wine in Spain falls mainly in the Pennine

by Mikhail Gorbachev ( MA )

Scene : Huddersfield Railway Station

Date : 23rd June 1985

Time : 09:30 hrs ( ish )

Enter a yellow, twelve seater, Transit minibus with roof rack attached and four seats removed. The Yellow Peril stops and waits. It contains Stuart and Dani.

Time : 10:30 hrs ( ish )

Enter a Lada estate with no suspension and tyres that are very flat at the bottom. The weight in the back makes the front point at the sky. Barry has great difficulty in seeing the road over the bonnet. Pete is asleep. The Lada stops. We greet each other and start to transfer the compressor, generator, bottles, boxes, rucksacks, wetsuits, drysuits, ropes, ladders, stoves, etc. into the bus. Thus the expedition starts ... late !

The next stop was in Leeds to collect Dave. Fortunately, he had very little gear, and being only a small chap, he did not take up too much room nor perceivably alter the centre of gravity of the bus.

The bus left Leeds and continued down the M1, dropping into third gear for the steep bits, before breaking right and going to Coventry. Here, Rick, Angie and Mike were found waiting to add their weight. Once they had completed loading, the Yellow Peril looked just like Barry's Lada had done. After a good deal of tea drinking to stiffen the sinew, the bus and its full complement departed to weave gently towards the M5 and an overnight stop in Taunton.

Taunton is a lovely little Somerset town. But be warned: it contains an aquaintance of Dani's ! Mike Sawyer by name. He had been forewarned that Dani and seven mates would be passing through and looking for a floor to sleep on or shrubbery to sleep under. The man did not have the wit to run away and was found tinkering in his garage when the horde descended. A few gallons of beer and a fine chilli (courtesy of Shirley, also known as Mrs. Sawyer) broke the ice and a convivial evening followed in which a bottle of Anis, a bottle of Asbach, a bottle of Martini and all the beer disappeared. With the aid of these refreshing drinks the floor was found at about 02:30. Fortunately, the floor woke everyone up at 04;30 and after this good night's sleep, they departed for Plymouth.

The good ferry Quiberon was to be our home for twenty four hours as it sailed from Plymouth to Santander. A miniature version of Greenclose was soon established in one corner of the cafeteria. An assortment of bread, cheeses, pates, garlic sausages and other edibles covered the table, to be joined by empty cans and bottles. The only things missing were the heaps of cinders and cigarette ends which adorn the floor at Greenclose. Pete practised speaking from the heart, only it came out as speaking from the stomach, and the nearer tables mysteriously became vacant. Stuart was found parking a tiger in the Gents and then the Bright family from Horwich was met. Mr Bright was so clever that he had two brains. However, one was missing and the other had gone looking for it ! His daughters were similarly endowed. One of them asked if the expedition was going to the same place as they were : "I don't know. Where are you going ?" enquired Pete. "I don't know", came the reply. However, Pete is a gentleman and did not take advantage of the situation.

The ferry docked in Santander and the Pennine disembarked onto Spanish soil at about 10;00. A one hundred kilometre drive on the wrong side of the road took them westward along the coast, and then inland to the ancient shrine of Covadonga in the foothills of the Picos de Europa. From here a mountain road climbs for ten kilometres to Los Lagos at an altitude of over 1000m. The entire ten kilometres was accomplished by the yellow peril in first gear with the heaters on full blast. It finally pulled into the campsite at Los Lagos in the mid-afternoon and everyone tumbled out of the bus to bask in the glorious sunshine, surrounded by breathtaking views of the Picos over 1500m above us.

It was not to last. By 16;00, cavernophilic tendencies had drawn everyone to the nearby Cueva del Osu. Pete (having recovered from his intellectual encounter of the night before) and Barry entered to rig the two pitches near the entrance. The rest carried up the gear which would be needed to put two divers into the sump the next day. This was stowed away in the entrance.

A bright and early start on the 26th saw the group split into two teams. Dani, Pete, Mike, Baz and Dave headed for Osu, whilst Rick, Stuart and Angie went to Cueva el Gueyu Reinazo near Covadonga. In Osu, the carry to the sump was strenuous, but uneventful. The prettiness of the main streamway did much to distract attention from the loads carried. The team arrived at the undived downstream terminal sump and heaped up the gear. As kit was assembled, valves checked and wetsuits donned, a tense air of excitement permeated the atmosphere. Eventually, Dani was kitted up and ready to go. Pete was to follow.

A final check that both valves worked, the mask was properly sealed and lights were on and with a last look back at the sherpas standing at the water's edge, Dani dived. He stood up again after one second because the line reel had exploded and spilled gallons of line into the sump. Once the line had all been reeled in he was ready for a second attempt. This time there was no mistake. In his own words he described what happened.

"After the fiasco with the line reel, I prepared to dive again. By now, the vis had gone completely. So it was that I set off surrounded by the orange glow of the ghost-like clouds of ethereal cave sediment. I had barely gone one metre when the silt parted and I was floating in space. My powerful lights picked out the continuing passage, one metre high, perhaps two wide, with a sandy shingle floor and an arched roof. I prepared to kick out and push on into the unknown when, from above a shingle bank on the right, disturbed silt rolled down to envelop me. I heard my exhaust bubbles break surface.

I was gripped by a terrifying thought. Had I swum around in a circle and returned to base ? Gingerly, I raised my head; ready for the worst. I looked about. There was a sand bank and a rift passage just as I had left behind. But no Barry watching anxiously, no Pete nervously twiddling his taps, no Mike preparing sarcastic vitriol, no Dave asking. Were they all hiding around the corner ? It was then that I noticed which way the stream was flowing: out of the sump pool. I was through. The sump was only about three metres long."

The line was tied off and Dani returned with the good news. Both he and Pete then set off to explore, whilst the furry suit clad sherpas had to be content with scaling avens trying to find a dry bypass to the sump. Beyond the sump, the cave continued in a fine high canyon until a mass of flowstone blocked the way at stream level. To this point, a small stream covered the floor and babbled down small steps into pools. The passage was dubbed Buccaneer Streamway. The flowstone obstruction was christened Potter's Bar; for it barred easy progress and in memory of Keith Potter (a friend of Dani's who had drowned in Wookey Hole in November 1981).

Pete applied some thought to the obstruction and managed to thrutch up about four metres, to where the rift passage was a little wider, and passed over Potter's Bar. Using the full range of his vocabulary, he described to Dani the emotional impact of what he saw beyond. Dani's reply was "I hope so, because that's where we'll be going." The cause of Pete's erudition was Oxford Circus; a large chamber some twenty to thirty metres across, with a roof vaulting out of sight. The stream entered Oxford Circus from beneath Potter's Bar and skirted the chamber, below a magnificent fringed stalagmite canopy, to flow into a large, deep, clear sump.

For nearly an hour, Pete and Dani traversed and climbed to try to find a bypass to the second sump, but to no avail. With mixed emotions, they returned to their companions and commenced the journey out. The gear stayed in for a return visit.

Meanwhile, Rick, Stuart and Angie had been boldly going where none had boldly gone (boldly) before. Cueva el Gueyu Reinazo is a resurgence cave and, unlike Osu, is very close to the road. This, together with a minimal carry, makes it an ideal site for exploration. Stuart was the first to venture into the unknown and found the sump descended steeply in an inclined rift. Unable to make further progress, he returned, and then Rick dived. He passed Stuart's limit and found that the passage continued horizontally for some 25m to a blank wall of rubble. Ascending, he saw airspace and surfaced in a one metre square airbell with a boulder roof. A stream entered the airbell. The urge to dig away some of the boulders and find the way on was great, but the desire for self-preservation was greater. Rick returned with plans forming for an ETA bombing campaign against boulder chokes above sumps. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the local ETA types were on holiday in Torremolinos. Thus, the first full day of caving ended and the explorers retired to Amador's Bar. Then the officials from the National Park, the caving 'authorities' and the Guardia Civil started to arrive, asking for permits. "Mañana" was sufficient to fend them off for now.

The sun rose over the majestic peaks in the east and the second day of caving began. Dani and Stuart thought better of this and went shopping before goingon to Oviedo to sort out the National Park people. A half hour conversation between a Spaniard with no English, an Englishman with no Spanish, and a Pole with no sense resulted in bonhommie all round and a promise to deal with the problem.

Meanwhile the 'A' team ('A' for all the rest) loaded up with mountains of swag and went in search of paradise; El Hoyo la Madre. This major resurgence is described in the Proceedings of the Oxford University Cave Club as having "potential for extensions, especially by ... diving". The description concludes with the sentence "All in all a nice cave with some potential for extension if you can summon any energy for caving after the somewhat strenuous walk to get to it." The full implications of this final phrase did not immediately sink into our gallant explorers. They left Lagos armed with a detailed description of the route - ie. "follow the track until it becomes an imaginary line on the map" - and no compass. By now the usual Lagos weather had set in. Mike takes up the story.

"The cloud had reduced visibility to about 5 metres as we followed the path to the head of the moraine. We descended a short way before hitting level ground. After we had been walking for about two hours, the cloud suddenly dispersed. We found ourselves about two hundred metres away from our tents on the wrong side of the lake. Barry's shoulders sagged at this point. Whether this was due to his awe at the high standard of navigation displayed by the team or to the 40 kilo rucksack he carried we do not know."

A disheartened 'A' (for almost there) team consoled itself with vino tinto. Dani and Stuart had better luck. Not only had they successfully navigated to Oviedo and back but they had also been able to find Cueva Trumbio on the way. Therefore on their return to the campsite they consoled the 'A' (for 'ave another go) team, and all eight went for a tourist trip in Trumbio. A magnificent cave and, what is more, the terminal sump was found to be big and clear. The team resolved to return with all haste on the morrow.

The second trip into Trumbio was no less pleasant than the first despite the enormous volumes of diving gear which had to be carried to put Barry in the sump. As he descended into the aqueous void the beams of his lights created an eerie incandescent glow throughout the sump pool. Pete was incoherent in his admiration of the splendorous beauty of this spectral scene. Presently, Barry returned and described the sump as "superb". Unfortunately, at a depth of only five metres, he found that the passage had closed down to a vertical slot under a roof of slot sized boulders. Judging discretion to be the better part of valour, he had retreated.

By now it had become clear that not even a female with all the carnal charms of Miss Piggy could prevent Pete from going for a swim. Presently he had divested himself of his furry suit and was inserting his quart body into Barry's pint size wetsuit. Into the cold water he went, and then back he came with his ardour well cooled. The sump may have had the beauty of a Siren's song but the slot held a fate worse than a shipwreck. As Dave put it : "We returned to daylight a happy crew. We knew that Trumbio would 'go'. All we needed was a greater idiot than we had available at the time."

The fourth caving day dawned a scorcher. Mike and Barry departed with more gear for Osu to put Mike in the new downstream sump. An efficient trip soon had them at the dive site. Mike kitted up armed with the famous exploding line reel, a pair of Dani's high pressure bottles, and six pounds of lead. This was a mistake. Entering into the zero-visibility pool, he descended. By -2 metres he had become negative. By -4 he was going down faster than a U-boat on a crash dive. By -6 he had started to brake and by -9 he had managed to stop, but was hanging on the line like a spider on a thread. By finning 'full ahead both' and pulling up the line hand over hand, he was able to return to a smiling Barry. Apparently, even this sight was comforting. Further exploration in Osu was postponed. Stuart and Angie had great foresight and went shopping, leaving Rick, Dani, Dave and Pete with nothing better to do than shoulder their packs and make a second attempt at the elusive El Hoyo la Madre.

Using the same route description as on the previous occasion, they managed to find the imaginary line and proceeded down precipitous, nettle covered, boulder strewn, ankle twisting, leg breaking slopes to reach the bottom of the Casano Gorge. Here they rested awhile to regain their composure before attempting the approach to the cave itself. A moderately interesting climb led to the entrance which is some thirty metres above the floor of the gorge. By the judicious use of an occasional tree root, and delicate balance, the entrance was gained. A quick change and redistribution of equipment soon saw the explorers enter the nether recesses of the Picos. An exposed traverse above a deep, clear pool of near-freezing water led them to an ascending climb which Pete described as 'sporting'. Whilst negotiating this formidable obstacle, the party was joined by Stuart, who had returned from the shops. After much grunting and expleting, and a little climbing, Rick reached the top and lowered a ladder for the mere mortals in the party. Easy going in walking sized passage soon had everyone at the upstream sump. Pete proved its existence by walking into it before seeing it. The diving swag was deposited beside the pool and Rick started kitting up. Meanwhile, the sherpas looked around for possible dry ways on, but to no avail. Eventually Rick set sail and the sherpas settled down to a little photography and some singing.

After about one hour, they had run out of film and their repertoire was exhausted. A brief discussion ensued of the technicalities of air consumption at depth, the air/water mixture ratios given by Rick's valves and the endurance capabilities of a pair of 1300 litre bottles. The outcome of this discussion was that Pete would treat everyone to his rendition of 'Farmyard Impressions'. Fortunately, the assembled throng were spared the threatened assault on their sensibilities by the glimmer of Rick's lights illuminating the crystal clear pool. He emerged gibbering.

The source of his incoherence was not clear at first, but the word 'streamway' was oft repeated and tended to indicate a find of some sort. Once extracted from the cold water, Rick related more clearly what had happened. He had surfaced after a dive of about 100 metres, in a pool some 20 metres long and four metres wide. At the far end of this pool, the entire stream entered from a rift passage on the right. This passage, about two metres wide, continued for a further twenty metres before terminating at a waterfall which was four metres high. Having de-kitted, Rick had made several attempts to scale the waterfall. On his final attempt he succeeded ! The continuing streamway bore left through ninety degrees and consisted of a canal which sumped after ten metres. Unable to raise his gear up the waterfall, Rick had to retreat and return to his sherpas.

This good news fired the sherpas into a frenzy of activity and the cave was evacuated in double quick time. However, morale soon crumbled as, burdened by heavy loads, they had to make the tortuous ascent out of the Casano gorge back to Lagos. Fortunately, a balmy atmosphere and a gentle sun revived spirits on the last leg of their trek which, unlike the rest, was over level ground.

On arrival at camp Mike had news for Dani. "There are three men with guns looking for you.", he said. When asked why this should be, Mike continued : "Because they wanted the bloke who was in charge, and you weren't here." "Oh! and none of them speak English.", Mike concluded. Dani retired to the bar to ponder the meaning of life. He was joined by most of the others and they were into their third Cerveza when Barry sauntered in. Breathlessly, he said "They're back!" Barely had the words left his lips when, from behind the bar, another Cerveza appeared. Presently three Guardia Civil motor cyclists entered. Their leader surveyed the eight British cavers who were trying not to appear nervous. Dani was propelled towards them like a sacrificial lamb as the others muttered words like "¡El Jefe!" or "He's the one" or "Its nothing to do with us, Guv." The second Guardia unclipped his holster and fingered the butt of his pistol. It transpired that it was against the law, in the National Park, to have more than three tents for less than ten people. By explaining that he had once been to Oviedo, and showing a sudden keen interest in motorcycles, Dani was able to divert their attention from the seven tents parked in close proximity to the Yellow Peril. Eventually, after demonstrating their 'Wheelying' skills, the smiling Spaniards rode off towards the windmills in the sunset.

The next day was to be the last caving day of the expedition. Mike and Barry went to have a look at Cueva el Gueyu Reinazo. They found nothing, but had an entertaining afternoon watching the nuns in Covadonga. Angie had picked the short straw and had to stay on the surface sunbathing whilst Rick, Dave, Stuart, Pete and Dani went to detackle Osu. With five nearly full bottles at the first sump, it seemed a shame not to have another go at the second sump. At the same time, Dani could photograph the new bit. There was, however, one small problem ... Dave ! He had no wetsuit. If anyone wonders why the British have a reputation abroad for being mad, they need only have been at the sump in Osu that day to see why. Dave removed his warm, dry furry suit and put on Dani's diving jacket. This would not have been so bad if Dave had Dani's build. However, Dave is to Dani what Ronnie Corbett is to Ronnie Barker. Thus, attired in vast jacket, wellies, no trousers, and eyes closed to keep in contact lenses, Dave freedived into Osu II. Of such deeds is true caving made !

In comparison, Pete's push was an anti-climax. He descended to -17m in zero visibility. He could feel no floor and so he returned. Then the hard work began. Five cavers to carry out five bottles plus all the associated bangles and trinkets. The job was eased by Barry and Mike having moved a goodly amount of gear part way the day before. However, when they finally emerged, the gear mountain had grown to an assortment of fifteen bottles, boxes, bags and bundles. What is more, the whole lot was done without a single moan. A quiet night ensued, followed by a very tender morning.

The next day was a sad one indeed. The sun blazed down, the cow bells clanged and the flies buzzed. Our gallant explorers were having to pack up and leave. After five days of caving and discovery, the time had come to go. Once the Yellow Peril was fully loaded, and after a final 'Cafe grande con leche' at the Bar Maria Rosa, the journey back began. The long downhill road to Covadonga was accomplished in an exciting manner with the brakes having faded totally away after only two kilometres. The remaining eight kilometres were a living nightmare of screeching tyres, burning rubber and mumbled prayers. A brief stop in Cangas de Onis allowed discs to cool and frayed nerves to heal. Then it was all aboard the Yellow Peril for the continuing journey towards Santander.

The ferry was due to sail early on the following day, so a campsite had to be found. Eventually the bus was deposited on a car park in the picturesque town of Santillana del Mar. Its occupants went in search of sustenance. A pleasant restaurant provided a fine meal and a nearby bar became the focus of the night's activities. The climax was Barry demonstrating how to fall off a bar stool without spilling a single drop from his glass; a feat which no one else was able to emulate. The sidelong glances of the barman became even more concerned as Pete discovered the Spanish for 'bottle' and thereby increased consumption by a factor of ten. Rioja followed Rioja as the night wore on. It was clear that the barman was most apprehensive as he started to put up the shutters. However, his face was wreathed in smiles as, without his bidding, eight British cavers walked into the night of Santillana in an upright and balanced manner.

Sleeping bags were dragged from the bus and shelter sought. This was found on a building site. By now a gentle drizzle was descending through the warm night air. Lightning played across the sky; and each time a flash lit up the horizon, a bell on a tower crane would ring. This inevitably drew the attention of several people who proceeded to explore the source of the ringing by ascending to the very top of the crane. Unable to go any further, they returned to curl up on heaps of sand and gravel for the remaining hours of darkness.

A grey dawn roused the slumbering forms which littered the improvised campsite. Soon they were back in the Yellow Peril and heading for Santander. A brief stop to stoke up with coffee and rolls was the only concession to the effects of sleeping on a building site. Next stop was the Quiberon.

Once on board, a Pennine corner was again established near the creche. To everyone's joy, the Brights of Horwich were also on board. However, personal hygiene had priority, and soon the bilges of the Quiberon were awash with the accumulated grime of eight people's caving as the showers worked overtime to cut through the layers of caked on dirt. Clean and debonair, Pete renewed aquaintances with Miss Bright and Little Malcolm. Dani attempted to educate the younger Miss Bright about the evils of smoking and the demon drink, but to no avail. Much was read into Little Malcolm calling Pete 'Daddy'. Pete strenuously denied not being a gentleman. Rick put the crew in their place and night fell. In the creche, Pete's gentlemanly facade finally cracked. Dani watched the stars and counted sheep from a lifeboat. The remainder could be found draped over cafeteria furniture in various angles of repose. The ship sailed on.

In the morning, Plymouth was sighted and tearful farewells made to newly found friends, particularly Little Malcolm. Once the ferry had docked, vehicles started to disembark. However, due to a loading problem, the Yellow Peril was the last to come ashore and consequently the last into customs. One glance from the customs officer was enough; we were waved through and hit the road home.

Acknowledgements : The expedition would like to thank J.Harris (Motor Bodies) Ltd. of Barnsley for the supply of the Yellow Peril without which the expedition could not have taken place and millions of brain cells could have been saved. Also to Blackburn Infirmary who declared that Pete was still a gentleman.... perhaps.

Chris Danilewicz

J.Eyre cartoon - 16k GIF

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