Three weeks after returning from Austria I was back across the Channel, this time en route for the Moravian Karst in Czechoslovakia. There is a certain mystique about an area such as Moravia, in my mind it was a close relative of Transylvania. I had vision of a mountainous region, dotted with lofty castles and inhabited by Count Dracula look-alikes. As it happened it was not unlike Mendip and not even the wildest imagination could mistake the beer lust of the local inhabitants for blood lust. The nearest thing that approached it was some villagers sat in a local bar watching a CSSR V. USSR ice hockey match on the TV.
Close inspection of my road map of Europe revealed that Moravia is only about 100 miles north of Vienna. It is close to Brno, famed for the Bren gun and the fact that nearly every army in Europe has trampled on it at some stage. The site of the battle of the three armies, Austerlitz, is nearby. Here Napoleon saw off the combined armies of Russia and Austria. The region's similarities with Mendip are that it is gently rolling countryside, reaching no great height, but incised by two large gorges. It must be said that this is as far as the similarities go. The caves are typically very large old phreatic systems, the largest of which, the Amertska Jeskyne, is nearly 40km long.
Being an official camp, all the delegates were put up at a local hotel. I was lucky to share a room with the only other English speaking person there, Tom Iliffe of Bermuda. Also sharing the room was one of the local Czechoslovakian cavers, a friendly chap who kept what could only be described as a bottle of clear methylated spirits under his bed. This he would offer to anyone who happened to come into the room. Prolonged exposure to it was ruinous and so visits to the room had to be timed very carefully. Lectures took up the first two days. A translation service was provided, but where someone was lecturing in a language other than Czech the lecture was translated into Czech first and then relayed to the other translators to translate into other languages. This somewhat delayed the impact of the speech on the audience and it was unnerving to find the audience laughing at a joke you'd told five minutes ago.
The formalities of lectures over, the diving commenced. Just to make sure we could all dive we were taken to a local reservoir where visibility and shallow depth was assured. A little while later, sat in a pool of liquid mud at -45ft, I began to doubt their claims. The appearance of my side mounted tanks with no buoyancy compensator was greeted with something akin to mass hysteria by the assembled divers. There was much jostling for place to get a photograph of the weird and threatened beast before they moved in for a closer inspection.
The first proper cave dive was in the Amertska Jeskyne, a cave that runs in the hills alongside one of the deep gorges. How nice to be able to walk to the diving site in dry grots with your gear in a rucksack on your back, to change into drysuit at the sump. Not that carrying gear was compulsory for the divers as the Czech organiser had provided any number of sherpas. Brief pause for photographs for the local paper and then off into the beautiful, crystal clear phreatic tube. This continued for 300m until it opened out in the roof of a large chamber. Below the chamber dropped away to -30m and more and the continuing passage has not been pushed by the Czechs. The sump which is fed by percolation water heads away from the gorge at right angles to the main system. It could be a long dive. Afterwards we walked up to the 180m open air shaft of the Macocha Chasm which drops into the Puuka river, the downstream connection and eventual resurgence of the Amertska Jeskyne.
Thinking that I might be feeling a little homesick the Czechs said that they had a good British sump lined up for me the next day. This was in the Barova Jeskyne, a cave close to the resurgences in the other gorge. Upstream was supposed to lead through to the Byci Skala though no-one had pushed it. Beyond this there is considerable potential up towards the system's sinks, but unfortunately the upstream sump in the Byci Skala is choked. The carry into the Barova Jeskyen was typically Czechoslovakian, ie. easy. The Czech diver with me explained that we would have to use hand signals in the sump, not the BSAC ones I was accustomed to, but something that approximated to bottom pinching. The significance of this became apparent when we turned to come back in the second sump having decided that digging would be required to make any further progress. The mud was so thick that I couldn't see my diving partner. Hence a quick couple of pinches rectified the position and it was an appalling dive back. The Byci Skala is close by so we went for a tourist trip.
It is a very impressive cave and steeped in history. A medieval lord who had died nearby whilst on a caravan was buried with all his entourage in a rock shelter near the entrance, such was the fashion in those days. About 400m inside the entrance a plaque announces that Marie Theresa was there. She didn't have to use her own carbide, the full length of the cave being lit by torches. In the second world war the cave was used as a munitions factory and several years after the war a German officer was found hanging in one of the chambers near the entrance. Most of the cave consists of long phreatic passage and there is a long canal section in the middle for which we used a boat. The whole lot didn't take more than a couple of hours to complete.
The final day was to a be a dive through to the Amertsha Jeskyne from the Macocha Chasm, a dive of 400m. Unfortunately the visibility was too poor to enable the line to be laid from where it finished about 220m in so we had to content ourselves with a dive to that point and back.
In between the diving the Czechs entertained us royally. Beer at 20p a pint oiled the cogs of international communication and their plum brandy left you with something to remember it by the next morning. A very fine week's caving.