I think I was pretty lucky to start my caving in France - no water underground and beautiful weather above; I remember that my first Club Meet, to Yorkshire, gave me the opportunity to observe the true caving conditions more closely - only about a month after this semi-tropical initiation ! I admit my affection for the British caving life, but I have to declare a certain fondness for the French setting.
I am fortunate to know, from many summers spent in SW France, a family whose caving tradition goes back at least 30 years through the father, the archetypal retired French peasant - beret, black jacket, collarless shirt buttoned to the neck, baggy grey trousers and an incredible growth of beard framing his blood-shot eyes and ruddy nose, a character who knows all there is to know about his part of France. They are among the founder members of the Spéléo-Club de Gascogne (1957) based at Lectoure in the Gers region. With the treasures of the Pyrenees only 4 hours away by car there is no lack of opportunity, yet they have also found the time to open up the subterranean secrets of their own neighbourhood, admittedly of a lesser importance.
Their major sortie each year, apart from occasionally nipping up to the ice cave, Grotte Casteret, or the Gouffre Martel, is a two week camp at the Pierre St. Martin every August, involving complex culinary arrangements - food being a very vital part of the lives of these country people. When I was there at Christmas '77, they had their annual dinner in a local cave which they have arranged to make an ideal chamber for 60 of us sitting at trestle tables. We enjoyed a marvellous 6-course meal, cooked in a convenient alcove on camping-gaz, while wine and Armagnac flowed liberally.
My first pot (undertaken at about 10.30pm on a weekday - quite a usual time to go) was down a 10m well in a local farmyard with a fairly large chamber of white limestone opening out at its base. The way on was a small tortuous passage down to a short section of streamway and finally a humid and extremely glutinous chamber with no way on. Hardly an inspiring start.
The second step in my caving career was, however, a slightly bigger one just 10 days later. A five car party congregated in a layby above the valley side where the entrance to Labastide (referred to as Esparros by my companions, from the name of a nearby village) snuggled in a dip on the tree-covered slope. A posse of gendarmes who rolled by seemed curious at the sight of people undressing at the roadside, but obviously assumed we were just a bit mad - not that there were any wetsuits around; just claggies, the occasional spock-suit, and, most impressive of all, a T-shirt, shorts and remains-of-plimsoles combination. The latter was our our guide, an experienced caver as it turned out.
As we wandered down to the entrance, a few hundred yards from the road, the Pic du Midi basked contentedly above us in the hot summer sun, and the miniature cows way off down the valley just carried on cropping the lush grass. The entrance shaft is in a corner of a deep depression half filled with boulders around which we scrambled on greasy mud. I remember the entrance pitch being quite a long one, though Casteret (in Ten Years Under The Earth) suggests that people and foxes were able to use the cave easily enough - perhaps my senses were too busy absorbing the general atmosphere of the place. At the bottom of this shaft is the entrance to a vast chamber with an enormous hole in its floor, around which we traversed to the right. Our improvised lighting (those flat torches common in France with a change of batteries - they last 2-3 hours) was working well, though they didn't light the bottom of that hole. Using a single continuous rope loop as a sit-harness we were able to krab on to a safety line for the exposed traverse, before we wandered off into huge, dry boulder-strewn passages which would occasionally open up to become vast, soaring chambers. The effect of these enormous subterranean spaces was such that my attention only briefly fell on the cave art, though I remember seeing one of the renowned horse engravings fairly early on in the trip. Some of the curtains hanging from the distant roof seemed enormous, and the few unspoilt stals (one of which had been glued back together !) and fields of hanging straws in sheltered alcoves were fascinating.
When we reached the end of the tourist trip we were in a much smaller chamber, from which a small tube led off to the right for a few feet before being sealed by a concrete plug, blackened by the carbides of inquisitive visitors, which, I was told, had been inserted under Casteret's instructions to prevent anyone penetrating to the precious cave art and formations beyond that had previously been plundered irresponsibly.
We sat quietly in pitch darkness for a while to absorb the atmosphere before heading slowly back, via a detour to the left of the hole in the first chamber, through a tight but wide slot into another huge chamber littered with boulders. We emerged into the green-treed amphitheatre to fresh air, and an exotic French picnic up on the mountainside - a fantastic change of setting where we could appreciate the glories of the massive mountains bathed in sunlight, and reflect on the amazing caverns beneath us.
The Gers (pronounce the 's' if you want to get a taste of the local accent) is in the most productive agricultural region of France, where vines, wheat, and maize grow in rich profusion, and the Gascon tradition of gastronomy is also cultivated. The scenery is of low rolling hills (max. 200m), heavily cropped and dotted with the indigenous white stone houses. There is little surface limestone visible as compared with the Tarn et Garon region which links this area with the Dordogne to the north-east; there the patches of limestone join to form the more typical limestone scenery.
The caves of this area can be active or fossil, but are predominantly short and shallow (the limestone being at a depth of between 5-25m), generally occurring where the stream course has been interrupted by a change of relief, which is then cut through along a fault. The sink is the usual penetrable entrance found in the Haut-Armagnac, while caves in the surrounding areas can often be entered via the resurgence.
Where the cave has been formed in the above manner, the passages tend to be sinuous and uninterrupted, not often tall enough to stand in and with few formations. In the indigenous underground stream caves (where the water has been collected below ground to form the source) the caves can be much larger, with sizeable chambers, and various formations may be present. In general the caves are nearly horizontal - sinuous passages suffer sharp changes of direction as they take the line of least resistance through the rock, and the caver is normally following the streamway.
The Spéléo-Club de Gascogne was formed in 1957, with its headquarters at Lectoure, and it has spent much of its time since then revealing the underground world of the Haut-Armagnac region, many of the caves having been dug into, giving a total of some 57 systems. Their most pleasing find was amongst their first, and took a year's digging to reveal a development of about 1100m, including formations, three large chambers (the largest measures some 40m long, 15m wide, and 13m high), and the only example of passable abandoned phreatic passage in the area. This is the Grotte de Sinai, the most important cave of the area.
Nearer their HQ is the Grotte de Tane; unearthed by minor quarrying operations, an entrance pitch drops as a fine free-hang about 10m into a large chamber, landing on a boulder ruckle which descends a further 10m to the end wall. Back beneath the entrance pitch a large passage leads to a boulder choke hiding a small chamber with no way on. The size of the chamber and passage make its formation and lack of development both puzzling and frustrating.
The deepest local cave (30m) is Cavet Blanc at Marsolan, which is also fun to do late at night. Twin freeclimbable 10m entrance pitches (gated for safety) lead quickly to a 3m climb down which is very sporting on the return without assistance (especially for short, round people !); a further 12m pitch down the side of an impressive curtain leads to a small streamway which quickly sumps, and is at present defying digging attempts.
The last of the caves I shall mention is called variously Grotte de Mauvezin or Grottes de Broustès; buried in the woods away from the road, it has two entrances (8m pitch or horizontal stooping passage) and a central chamber 12m x 15m x 4m high on two levels. Its interest lies in the fact that this is where the club's annual dinner is held at the New Year - possibly the most suitable surroundings for such an event
In addition, I should mention that cavers suffer the perennial problem of access related to ownership of the cave rather than responsibility for accidents below ground, against which the caver has to be insured. The most important cave of the area, Sinai, is threatened with closure because of the ownership problem - the land to a depth of 1m belongs to the farmer. Needless to say, it is to be hoped that any such outcome may be avoided.
I end by thanking the relevant members of the club for having introduced me to the caving world, and acknowledge the source of the detailed information included in this article as their own guide to the area, 'Gascogne Souterraine' by Gérard Bianchi (1977), which I hope to have correctly translated.