Them was the Days
CU 1999 Contents Page Next:
CUCC Recce to Katavothra, Epirus, Greece
Austria expedition archive

Cambridge Underground 1999 pp 18-21

Greece is the word

Sam Lieberman & Wookey

(Apologies to any Greek skolars out there) ((Apologies to any Scandinavian drinkers out there)) (((Apologies to any ornithological x-ray operators out there))) ((((Apologies to anyone who dislikes such appalling jokes))))


In early 1996 Cambridge University Caving Club (CUCC) received a mysterious letter from Greece. A man called Patrick Harris had retired there and had observed that every winter a sizeable lake formed in a depression and soon after the rains stopped disappeared into the ground. Millions of gallons of water disappeared in a couple of weeks, suggesting a significant cave draining it all.

He had heard that CUCC had been to Greece in the 1960s, and thus wrote to us asking if we wanted to check out this potential site. We were a bit nonplussed by such a letter out of the blue from someone who clearly knew nothing about caving. It could be a complete waste of time, but then again, even the faintest smell of caverns measureless is always tempting, and we figured that we could always go and lie on the beach or otherwise entertain ourselves if we couldn't find any caves.


So we wrote back to say we'd come and have a butchers, and Patrick talked to the local geological institute and anyone else who might know where any caves were, whilst we did a bit of research here. The area of interest is in Epirus, the top left-hand corner of Greece, just inland from Corfu. This area includes the famous Provatina shaft -- site of epic descent attempts with ladders and winches in the 1960s. This was about 80 miles away from our bit, and the nearest cave we could find details of (the Perama showcave) was still 60 miles away, but it was encouraging, as was a survey we were sent of a 100m-long cave in the immediate vicinity.

The time to go was when the lake had drained, but before it got too hot in the summer, which meant April/May. The first cheap tourist flights started at the beginning of May, and the cheapest way to get there was to fly to Corfu, then catch a ferry to the mainland, before a 20 mile trip down the coast to the village near the sink.

Permission to visit was obtained from the Geological institute, but we were unable to contact the Greek Speleo Federation, which was a pity as they probably knew where the caves were. We also arranged to be able to borrow digging tools as it seemed likely that at least a bit of digging would be likely.


So, come Saturday the 26th April the 6-man team (Wookey,. Tess Jones, Tony Rooke, Sam Lieberman, Tanya Savage & Dave Ramsay) clambered into Dave & Tanya's camper van and rolled down to Gatwick, for a flight at the unusually civilised time of 7pm. Being cheap and cheerful this was delayed by 5 hours so we got to sit in 'Ye Olde Oake Beamed Pub' in the Gatwick departure lounge at the airline's expense. Our arrival co-incided with the Greek Easter celebrations so the whole place was going to be very shut when we got there, with only a skeleton ferry service, so we had to get to the port before it stopped for the w/e.

Eventually we did make it to Corfu (at about 4:00am), and as we were skinflints with a map, compass & GPS, and there were no taxis in evidence anyway when we got there, we walked; carrying the obligatory huge rucksacks and solid metal hand-luggage full of crabs from the airport to the town heading for 'the old Port' from where the Igoumenitsa ferry was supposed to leave. Arriving at 'the old Fort', and wearily shooting the navigator, we continued round to the old port to find it very dead-looking, although it did have some boats in it. A period of tedious head-scratching and traipsing ensued as we wandered off the edge of our map, walking several more kilometers before finally reaching the right ferry (it had moved to the 'new port' - mutter), to find that we had missed it by about 6 minutes. Bum. Fortunately there was another in 4 hours time so we all fell asleep, (except Sam, who hadn't brought a pit!), and then nearly missed the next one too.

An hour and half's pleasant, but chilly ferry brought us to Igoumenitsa where we had agreed to meet Patrick. We had no idea what he looked like but a portly gent on the quayside looked promising, and was indeed the fellow. He (and a taxi driver, as six cavers and their shit won't fit in a Citroen AX) had been waiting since the previous ferry. A pleasant drive along the coast brought us to the village of Margariti, which was to be our home for the week. The taxi driver stung us for 20 quid, the price of a day's car hire.

Our accomodation was really rather palatial. We had hoped for somewhere to camp, but there didn't seem to be anywhere, so we had a set of 3 rooms and kitchen. The set-up was rather 'Greek', insofar as the owner's children and friends just kept wandering through our house all the time -- most un-British, and initially we weren't sure whether in fact this was their kitchen that we just being allowed to use for the first day. All communication had to take place in poor German as none of us spoke any Greek, and no-one round here seemed to know much English.

That evening we went down to Parga, a beautiful seaside town overlooked by a Norman castle (good for a ferret round except for the occasional turd) and were introduced to some of the locals who had been helping out with the organisation of the trip -- one of which very conveniently spoke English {\em and} owned a bar! The other was an englishwoman who had maried a Greek fellow that did extraordinary wood carvings from driftwood. We got to admire his works and have a drink before going on our way.

Day 1

The sun shone and after breakfast (what do you do with pickled vine leaves??) we were ferried in two carloads across the valley to Katavothra, a major sink. Basically in the winter the whole valley is flooded to 3-4 metres deep but by the time we were there the whole middle section (over 6km² probably) had drained off down this sink - impressive. The main sink would have required a lot of engineering work (including fetid sheep carcass removal) to get anywhere so we concentrated on the cliff face just behind - however the only open entrance that looked viable was Wookey sized and he hadn't brought an oversuit. Unluckily I had, so in I was stuffed. Initially it was a flat out crawl requiring rocks in the floor to be moved to allow progress, next however came a tight squeeze with rock floor and roof - I didn't fancy reversing the bit I'd done already, so on I went. Luckily the squeeze was short and dropped into a passage you could almost crawl in - another squeeze, climb over a rock -- it's getting bigger and then...

A bushy tail???

"What the fox that?" I could have said, the bushy tail turns round -- and it was a fox -- not what you'd expect to meet every day in a cave! Not having had my rabies jabs I beat a hasty retreat, just when it was looking good and all.

No one else fancied a try so we had lunch and decided to recce the rest of the valley - there were some other wells and sinks marked on the geological map we had managed to acquire. It was a nice walk but we didn't find anything useful from a speleological point of view. Wookey - keen to see the new find, donned my oversuit whilst waiting for a lift back and dived in. The fox had apparently moved on and he found a largish chamber with numerous exits before coming out again.

That evening we had a visitor in the form of John who was out in Greece working on a road construction project - he'd managed to photocopy a map of the area for us - useful, since decent maps are doled out by the military - ie. not at all. John also introduced us to the delights of Ouzo, and it's double distilled cousin Cypru, at the local bar.

Day 2

The sun didn't shine, in fact it had rained most of the night. We were due to be meeting official types that morning, Wookey had to be hammered out of bed at 8:00 am (Yes! 8:00 in the morning!!!) to go and sign his life away to the local constabulary. He then spent the morning promising that we weren't trying to steal their antiquities in a typically 'Greek' meeting with a local official and a couple of people from the Geological Institute, who seemed to have got cold feet at this late stage. The woodcarver's wife translated, and John provided helpful hints, explaining that this was entirely typical, and once they'd all had their say, and a couple of hours had been wasted, it would all be fine.

He seemed to be right, and we all met up again at Katavothra where a night's rain had turned our little swirling plughole of a sink into a lake 15m across and lapping at the edges of the bedding crawl. We asked the 'village mayor' when the waters would go down. He said "next month" -- great! Caving was abandoned, and just as well, since when we checked in the afternoon the entrance was completely under water. I (Sam) manoeuvred a handy tin into the entrance to stop the sheep floating in and that was that.

Day 3

The next day, with the weather still miserable and the cave still sumped, Wookey and Dave managed to do some flow rate analysis with a measuring stick and a sandal whilst us others spent the morning hiring cars (well Seat Marbella's anyway). Now that we were mobile, we went off to look at the Necromantion of Epirus -- an old pile of rocks -- historical stuff -- you know the sort of thing. After that, as we still had some time, we went to find Aheronda gorge -- which was worth searching for -- eventually. We decided to eat out in Margariti that evening and after much arm waving, bleating and pointing at the pictures of food on the wall we ended up with the most gorgeous lamb ribs, chicken bits and pork choppings I've ever had, Yum.

Day 4

The rain continued the following day and it was decided to head for the Vikos Gorge, a few hours drive to the North, near Albania. This was much more impressive in scale than the Aheronda gorge, though perhaps not as aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately we decided that there wasn't quite enough time for the full through trip -- which would have involved large amounts of car shuttling, so it was a down and out job. This did however leave time for a visit to the Perama show cave -- a jolly good trip of over a km through stal plastered cave. The cave was also plastered with cables and every named stal had it's own little numbered label hung on it to ensure that the photographers got pissed off.

Day 5

Our last full day, and the weather was clearing up a bit - so whilst Wookey, Tess and Tony went back to Katavothra to find the tin I'd left in the entrance had disgorged it's contents -- rancid lard -- all through the bedding crawl, Dave, Tanya and I followed up some other possible leads near Parga. The first turned out to be a small fissure cave behind the church and under a pile of brambles, and the other lead was described as 2 km walk "over there" (more arm waving) -- no hope. The afternoon saw Wooks, Dave & I completing the pushing-photography-surveying. We got as far as a grovelly dig from where you could see chinks of black space and hear the roar of the main sink but no easy way on -- in all 70m of survey. Tanya made it as far as the main chamber and then beat a hasty retreat when I pointed out the thousands of 6" long cave crickets inhabiting the cave -- scaredy cat.

Day 6

Our final day involved returning the cars to Parga and lying around on the beach for the day waiting for the bus -- very pleasant, then it was the monster trek back -- bus, ferry, walk across Corfu, wait for the plane (only 1½ hrs late this one), drive back to Cambridge and back in time for Sunday breakfast and a well-earned rest.

Them was the Days
CU 1999 Contents Page Next:
CUCC Recce to Katavothra, Epirus, Greece
Austria expedition archive