by Doug Florence and Andy Waddington
The weekend before Easter, four intrepid heroes loaded their gear into an Austin Maxi in Peterborough, destination Belgium. The four in question were Doug Florence (victim of the Peterborough effect), Andy Waddington (still glowing slightly having left Windscale earlier that afternoon), and Stuart Coote and Dave Eyre (members of PISS - Peterborough Institute of Speleological Studies and the Cerberus).
The ferry left Felixstowe at 23:00 which left time for two or three pints in the excellently sordid bar at Felixstowe station where several party cans of Ruddles were consumed before the team bedded down on the exceedingly uncomfortable reclining chairs. The start the next morning was, of necessity, rather early and it took a few miles to get used to the suicidal driving tendencies of the foreigners. Following a breakfast in Brugge, the team motored on to Brussels without mishap. Most of Friday was spent being tourists before we proceeded at high speed down the motorway to the Ardennes.
When we arrived at the CYRES (Centre YMCA des Récherches et Explorations spéléologique) cottage we were rather stunned. We were shown into a very clean and tidy twin bunked room with lino on the floor, a large washbasin and a BIDET! The rest of the cottage was of a similar high calibre, so much so that one took one's boots off before entering.
The Belgians had promised to take us down the Grotte du Père Nöel on Saturday, and we were scheduled to be down by 09:00. We were pleased to find that this meant leaving the cottage at 09:30 just like in Britain. The cave was in a nature reserve protected by a Colditz type fence. The cave was easy boulder hopping and of no great length. The formations, however, were really something else. Nearly all were white and some were very large.
From the entrance, we descended steeply through a couple of digs and some small steep chambers on the dip, finally emerging into a large sloping bouldery chamber, La Salle Bivouac, where the first good formations appeared. As we moved slowly across the chamber, a large mass of curtains became visible hanging from the slanting roof on our left, and large stalagmite bosses towered over the boulders on the right. We were already impressed, but much bigger formations were soon to appear as we arrived in La Salle Blanche. From the top of the boulder slope in this chamber, we looked across many large white stalagmite bosses and other massive formations which could not be photographed due to inadequate flash power. We left Salle Blanche by passing under a huge calcite bridge formed by the collapse of boulders from under a large stalagmite flow, and topped by a colossal multi-tiered boss looming up into the roof somewhere.
A short section of muddy walking followed and then a short thrutch up into another large chamber with many formations. Scrambling over boulders brought us to the top of a mudbank in the Salle de Cobra, named because of a remarkable stalagmite which was tall and thin but with a wide flattish top like a Cobra's head. From here we scrambled down and up to a small passage up on the left, which turned out to be a bedding with rows of formations aligned along the joints in the roof, but soon led out onto the Balcony, a spatially interesting ledge up to 20m above the floor of the chamber - La Salle du Balcon, with the usual huge towering stalagmites in it. This chamber, and the ledge, ended at a large stalagmite barrier over which we climbed to reach a set of further chambers and lesser passages eventually descending to a muddy place which was supposed to be a siphon, but looked more like a silt choke.
Later the same day, we visited the show cave of Rochefort a few miles away. We were late in the afternoon and were the only four people on the trip, so our guide at least attempted to speak English, which was very helpful. The large main chamber was exceptionally well lit, and quite well decorated, but was not improved by the taped music that the trip included, and even the guide seemed embarassed by having to play it!
In the evening, after an ausblaten meal, the CYRES amazed us yet further with their 'cinq étoiles' cottage by revealing first a bar, and then a cinema complete with folding banks of seats. A fairly heavy evening's drinking followed. Large volumes of Trappiste 8 (a curious beer a bit like Newkie Brown with a sludge at the bottom) were followed by Stella Artois. This led to fairly heavy use of both the washbasin and the bidet in the small hours of the morning, and a certain computer programmer was heard to say: "Sorry about your toothbrush Stuart, but I can't get the bits down the plughole any other way."
The next day was scheduled for Belgium's deepest and toughest, the Trou Bernard. We decided to adopt the nonchalant approach so after the enormous breakfast (to impress the foreigners), we went off sightseeing in the Dinant gorge, including (by accident !) about ten miles of France. The gorge is the classic type area for the Carboniferous limestone (The Dinantian), and the rock is spectacularly displayed on the banks of the Meuse, including sections with about fifty rock climbers per square metre.
We eventually reached our destination of Mont-sur-Meuse at about 2:30 after a quick look at Trou d'Église (which is almost an open sewer). A quick jar in a pub called 'Le Spéléo' and off we went to the entrance. A Belgian who watched us go down reckoned it would take us ten hours which seemed rather excessive and we hoped he was wrong! The Belgian surveys give little indication of pitch lengths, perhaps because there are so few pitches in Belgium. This caused a fair ammount of ladder juggling, especially since we did not have enough tackle. The big shaft is most impressive, very large and symmetrical but sadly the ladder was ten feet too short. On the way out, the awkward going, combined with the warmth and dryness of Belgian caves made for sauna bath conditions and on exiting we felt we had been on a fine trip. If you know the cave, a fairly competent party of four could easily bottom it in 5 hours. The main delays are due to waiting as each member of the party negotiates each tight bit and with a larger party times would increase.
Monday was mainly spent going home and we hit Britain again at around 22:30. Possibly the low point of the trip was the extremely tedious ferry journey back, the monotony broken only by a 2 hour game of 'famous composers' charades, which eventually deteriorated to ......
A long weekend in Belgium is a fine relief from the tedium of everyday working life (or student life for that matter). It is also reasonably affordable; we spent about £40 a head on transport and about £30 on a fairly dynamic lifestyle. No doubt the Belgians of CYRES would be pleased to see any future Cambridge speleos.