As the result of the arrival of a large number of armed, uniformed "guests" in Czechoslovakia in August 1968, the Chelsea S S (personified by Mick Butterley and Janet Day, plus two non-caving friends) thought it advisable to cut short their visit.
Fortunately the situation was such that a larger expedition was arranged for 1969, on the same basis as the previous year's. This was that accommodation would be provided by Government-run bodies in regions where this was possible and references were given enabling business visas to be obtained.
Being suddenly strangely unemployed, I joined the expedition and on July 15 started hitching from Ostend, having arranged for my gear to be brought on later. After an incredibly fast journey of only two days, I arrived at Blansko, north of Brno, and installed myself in the research station - a small two-storey house - of the Moravsky Kras, the scientific/tourist institution of the Moravian Karst. Three days later the above-mentioned members arrived, together with another member, Glyn Williams, another dreaded Welsh medic.
After seeing the show caves of Balcarka, Sloup and Punkva we got dorm (sic) to the real thing, commencing with Pikova Dama (Queen of Spades) in which we climbed hairy rifts without ladders (our Czech guide didn't seem to need these) and participated in the original Tarzan Act - swinging on a 70 ft rope across a deep, icy pool, 30 ft. wide The following day we broke into Amaterska Jeskyne (Amateur's Cave) since the key to the small inside gate was with the ladders on an expedition to Slovakia. This cave is very well decorated, its main feature being a massive stalagmite about 15 ft. high in a gleaming white reproduction of York Minster. In the superb streamway a sump was dived about a month after we left the country and a further 2 km. of passage discovered, together with the junction of the Bila Voda and the Sloup river (see 'Descent' no 8). Then we did Rudickeho Propadani which is equipped with fixed ladders and in which we were treated to the spectacle of our guide taking his girlfriend along, with neither helmet nor light and the two of them climbing a 60 ft fixed ladder together with no lifeline. They like their beginners tough. Anyway, a very sporting cave. We finished our Moravian programme with a short trip to (e(iste Jesky(e, containing the largest stalagmite in Moravia. After a lecture in the afternoon on the hydrogeology of the region we were treated to a barbecue and piss-up which was a very fine end to an enjoyable week.
Because or the shortage of cars I set out early to hitch some 400 km. to Liptovsky Mikula( in northern Slovakia. My initial hitching experience in Czechoslovakia had been so good that I had few misgivings - after a 3 hour wait and very little progress I was a little perturbed! Meeting Mick's friends in a similar situation we took a bus a short way and I managed to get a lift to Olomouc, where I fell in with some Czech students. From them I discovered that although thumbing is exceptional there, on Saturdays and after dark it's no good at all! So after spending a few hours in awkward multi-lingual conversation I got a train overnight and a bus ride took me to the Demanova Valley Caving, Hut, where I collapsed and slept for 5 hours.
This Sunday was a rest day and Glyn suggested a walk up into the Low Tatras. So we walked about 8 miles up to Chopok peak (2020 m)! Some rest! We had a rather interesting experience on the top, where a cable-car runs up to a ski-restaurant ("Get your postcards here!"). Inside we spared no words in describing the quality of the food and service. Suddenly the speech of the people behind seemed rather similar. We all buried our heads and cowered in front of what must have been a rather disgusted family of Britons!
The next day we visited the town and the speleo-archaeological museum, and the day after that did the tourist's Demanova Ice Cave. That afternoon three of us went into town to do some shopping and got sidetracked into the Europa Hotel, whence we emerged after several pivos and some cognacs had been bought for us by a drunk. That same afternoon I had made the day for a coachload of Canadian tourists when they spied my "Pommy Bastards" T-shirt in the main street.
The only real caving we did was in Peace Cave. The former is in the process of being converted into a show cave and was very pretty (we had a slow photo trip) and the latter, although mostly show cave, has some fantastically beautiful side passages; vivid red contrasting with the pure white calcite and the black shadows.
We then moved on to south Slovakia, and this time I was able to reach Gombasec Kesici first, a camping site near Roznava where I waited all afternoon for the others to arrive. Six more Chelsea members had joined us at Demanova, and together with three Czechs from Prague we gave the restaurant on the site a lot of custom when he could be bothered to stay open. Several of us went to look at an ice cave (Silicka L'adnice) on our first fester day though I didn't descend as I had only a T-shirt on and it was a little nippy inside. And will you believe that on the next day we did two caves? Firstly Domica, which runs under the Czechoslovakia-Hungarian border, with even a gate at a roughly corresponding point underneath! Time for a ceremonial snakes into Hungary! Then Milada Jasky(a which was very muddy and like all caves in the area suffering from troglodytic frogs, which are my betes noirs. Due to the pub being out of pivo we went into the next village to eat but they too considered it after time (about 9 p.m.) so we had to suffice with spirits. Some time later, having sampled all the varieties in stock, some more than once, we emerged unbelievably paralytic. That night the honk per man ratio was raised considerably.
Feeling still very canned, I didn't participate in the next day's caving, but on the 5th August joined the rest in a trip down Buzgo Jasky(a, which reckons it has the biggest stalagmite in the world; about 100 ft. high and about 50 ft. across. Suspended from the side is the remainder of a previous summit, which, becoming top-heavy, crashed into the muddy floor which has since been washed away, but not before the remnant had become firmly calcited some 30 ft. above the present base.
A final epic to end the expedition was to be a walk up onto the opposite plateau and a descent of Divia(a Priepast (Pig Pot) and our Czech friends thought this would take all day, so those hearties that could face it got up at 5.30! After driving across the valley to a small village at the foot of the plateau, we climbed up a track for maybe 1000 ft. and struck out over the densely wooded top. The usual route-finding problems were encountered, but we eventually reached the entrance shaft in the middle of the wood, and started the descent. This is a very fine pot, with many pitches and a variety of routes. Near the bottom we came across the bones of wild pigs, which gave the pot its name, that had not had the sense to use ladders on the entrance pitch! Although the trip only took us 4 hours it was most enjoyable, due to the variety of formations and as it had been the only true pot we had done in Czechoslovakia. The walk back was considerably less strenuous, and then back on the pivo.
The last two days of our visit were spent in driving back to Prague (I now had a seat in a wagon) and in sightseeing round that very picturesque capital. The highlight to our tour was a visit to the "Staropramen" brewery where, as is usual with such excellent establishments, we partook of a couple of bottles of the old amber. The strength of this particular brew was 12°, the equivalent British strength being forgotten since, and our ebullient and extraordinarily hospitable companion Zdenek then proceeded to acquaint us with other potent liquids as we perambulated about the city. The pubs in Prague are very similar to those in Britain, and after several frosties of 14° and even 16°, we ended up in a great, rambling place with innumerable halls, courtyards and corridors, of which the speciality was a rather uneuropean black beer; the complete output of one brewery for that one pub. And of course the finishing touch was to get stopped by the fuzz on the way back for having faulty headlights - it's very difficult talking English to a Czech cop while holding your breath!
But all good things come to an end, and so we left for home after an extremely enjoyable month, having made some good friends and with a very high estimate of the country and its wonderfully civilised people. (And, of course, lager at about 1/- a pint!). The caves are good too.