I think I went caving in Bulgaria - wandering through Sofia at midnight with trams clattering out of the fog, grovelling along a cold, tearing rift 400m down, or laughing at Bulgarian jokes only made intelligible by a fourth glass of brandy - it was all barely real, but I am pretty certain that I spent a week in Bulgaria, visiting five caves.
The cast was:
The plane deposited us at Sofia at midnight from where we were whisked away for the first of many drinking, eating and socialising sessions. It was also then that the news was broken that the Akademik Club had discovered the deepest pot in Bulgaria, and it was still going and I was to be involved in a trip. After the initial excitement, I started to wonder. A big advantage of Bulgarian caving is its very high bullshit to effort ratio. It's unlikely that many English cavers will have done the same trips; a little gentle caving and a lot of imagination can provide a large fund of stories with which to bore people during the long, wet winter evenings in the New Inn. So what was the point of doing a hard trip?
A couple of days sightseeing, two pleasant caves in the Douhlata area and it was off up into the mountains above Vratza. Drive up by great limestone cliffs, through golden brown forests and on to a plateau with views of the Balkan mountains stretching to the horizon. The plateau is well endowed with dolines, interesting looking holes, and little water. Many of the caves have required digging to gain entry and there are now a number of entertaining, well decorated trips. One of these is Barkite 18, discovered in September 1983. A short dig led into a crawling streamway for a few hundred feet to a boulder strewn chamber, the bottom of a ramp that leads up at 30°. At this point you have to take your wellies off and clean up before padding up flowstone, squeezing past stalagmites to the stal choke at the top. Unfortunately, not all the caves are as pleasant, Barkite 14 wasn't.
Barkite 14 was discovered several years ago and had been extended over a number of expeditions as various constrictions were passed. The pot was now 360m deep and still going, and we were to have the next pushing trip. The party consisted of two Bulgarians (Peter Bervn and Phillipe), one Pole (Andrzey) and me. I had been plied with stories of how grim the place was, but the entrace series was an enjoyable chamber down a long flowstone ramp. Not too bad this; should be out in time for a quick beer, what was all that talk about an overnight trip? But it changed dramatically, as the roof dropped to a nasty flat out wriggle to an awkward squeeze onto a pitch. And it never really got much better. A slow descending narrow rift. An odd pitch, a bit of a duck, just on down the rift for several hours. Then the walls parted to reveal a black shaft, leading to.... the bottom just out of sight, 20m below. We didn't reach the sump that trip; the next party down took in even more tackle to find the final pitch just round the corner.
Our exit was uneventful, if slow and cold. On emerging to a beautiful early November morning, Andrzey and I decided to take a short cut back across the hills. Several hours later we were still thrashing through the woods with Andrzey swearing at me in Polish as we struggled up the wrong hill yet again. Somehow, by mistake, we found the path back to camp, for a celebratory slab of bread and sausage, a little sleep, and a glass too many of brandy.