Depth through thought

OUCC News 7th June 1994

Volume 4, Number 24

DTT Volume 4  index

DTT Main Index

OUCC Home Page


Many thanks to Michelle and Steve for hosting the demi-debacle after the punt party last Sunday. Also thanks to all those who organised Pimms and booked punts. Hope all those who got injured, or who have otherwise been laid-low this weekend, recover soon (and there are lots of 'em).

Foaming Sumps

Post-tacklebag mending malaise set in last Saturday (too much glue perhaps) and left little enthusiasm for caving. But Jenny and I felt the need to escape (of which, more later). The van pootled (for that is now all its up to) down to Mendip, rummaged around Stoke St, Michael looking, and eventually coughed its way to the leafy lay-by beside Stoke Lane Slocker. Now Stoke Sump 1 is one of Mendip's free-diveable sumps, but its a bit unpleasant. Good thing, in a way, because it keeps the formations in Stoke 2 from damage. Today, though, the sump took a turn for the worse.

Jenny's first trip in a wet suit went swimmingly as we whooshed our way down too-full a Stoke 1. Water everywhere. Also plastic bottles and bits of farmyard grot. But its an atmospheric place, well shaped and sporting. Tensions rose a little, though, as the crawl near tributary inlet (or whatever its called) seemed almost too full to pass. Jenny started to complain of tension related tummy pains. By the time we reached the sump, however, the tension pains had gone. In fact they weren't anything to do with tension. Genuine, full- blooded, gastro-grunching diarrhoea tummy pains is what they were. And Jenny was in vintage form. Down Trou, sploosh! Straight into the sump. Fine performance.

We looked at the sump. Joint Loris award? Naah. Flood foam, high water, dodgy weather and a bucket load of the Vernon were too much (for anyone, I think). We bottled the sump (metaphorically), and trundled out.

Swildon's sumps suddenly seemed more inviting. So we pootled to Priddy, and I enjoyed a solo scurry (45 minutes) to Sump 2 and back. Clean, empty, noisey. Pure atmosphere. Then a couple of pints at the Hunters, and a couple of hours climbing in the sun on Churchill rocks the next morning, and escape had been achieved. All set for the punting party and ludicrosities round and Michelle and Steve's on Sunday.
Tim Guilford

Recipes for disaster

Sharon's Expedition Cookbook

I'm in the process of compiling an expedition cookbook, and if anyone else has a recipe that they would particularly like to see in the cookbook (or if there's something they like but don't have a recipe for I could try and dig one up) then could they send their suggestions to me (my college is Somerville and my email is It would be nice if there were contributions from lots of different people.
Sharon Curtis

Expedition Medicine

Preventative expedition medicine has shuffled a few steps forward this week. In a bold experiment being carried out by Drs Lowe, Ramsden and Guilford. While it is considered quite normal for epeditioneers to receive a wide range of inoculations against a range of possible expedition diseases, no-one has tried to defer an infection, or even find time to become pre-infected before expedition, thus avoiding the inconvenience of being Ill on expedition.

That was until now, because a multidisciplinary team from Oxford has gone down with squits, weeks before they actually depart for expedition to Spain. Dr Guilford (zoology) will be studying the behaviour of the tummy bug, Dr Ramsden (chemistry) will investigate the effect of a range of chemicals and drugs, while Dr Lowe's (computer science) new ideas on turbulent flow in fluid dynamics will be applied to the problem to see if they can provide a useful model for the effect of this trickley trouser trauma.
Scatalogically Yours, Jim Ramsden

Going Underground

For those of you who don't know I got fined 92 quid for forging a French bus ticket on my way back from caving in the Vercors. I gave my friends address. Last week he received a letter stating that as two weeks have elapsed without payment the fine is now 115 pounds. In a months time I'll owe 250 pounds. My pen friend wrote back denying all knowledge of me. Perhaps I'd better get legal advice, Urs?, Sara? or failing that they'll have to fly me back to attend court. Mmmm the Gournier streamway should be passable now. The saga continues...
Bill (Not his real name)

To he who lit the Stygian caves

Staying at the M.N.R.C. the other week made me think of H. Balch, the pioneer of Mendip caving as we know it. While passing through his "Forbidden Grotto" (so called because he forbade any attempt to break through the formations) I resolved to write this article.

Herbert Ernest Balch was born in Wells, Somerset on November 4th 1869, the second of six children. He gained a scholarship to the Wells Blue School, leaving it at the late age 14 to work for the Wells Post Office. His initiation into caving occured at the age of 15 or 16, when in the Hyena Den of Wookey Hole he wondered about the broken fragments of a reindeer antler. Even earlier he had sensed the fascination of secret places under the earth for he records "When I was a boy I heard stories that in Tor Hill Wood it was possible to hear a rushing stream passing within the rock. I have searched in vain for it."

In his teens and twenties Balch familiarized himself with the known Mendip caves including Goatchurch, where "nothing less than a cord unwound behind you will ensure a safe return" Although living in Wells, distance was a problem in those days. It took several hours by bike or pony trap, over unsurfaced roads and tracks to get to the caves. It was not uncommon for Balch to fall asleep at work. For exploration, the simplest equipment was sufficient - old clothes and shoes, the inevitable cloth cap, candles and a bag of food.

The idea of going underground as a sport had not occurred to the general public. Around the turn of the century, the bottoming of Lamb Leer became a novelty however. One day Balch agreed to conduct a party of local "gentlefolk" down the cave and sent some workmen ahead to prepare a windlass at the top of the 65 ft drop into the main chamber. When Balch arrived, he fastened the rope around his waist and the men slowly lowered him down. Suddenly the cord snapped and he plummeted down. He wrote "for long I lay there and well remember coming into consciousness. I moved onto a boulder pile without any sense of motion. Eventually I found a waterproof match and at last got a light. Someone above caught sight of it and what a hubbub ensued!" It took two years to recover from the accident. The workmen had not tested the rope which had been stored under a leaky roof. Balch never forgot the lesson and always took meticulous care of his equipment. He remained in favour of the candle though, "by common consent the most dependable illuminant as they cast no treacherous shadows, electric torches are a good standby" (1937)

In 1895 Balch founded the Wells Museum to house his growing archaeological and mineral collection and by the time he was 30 he had become a popular lecturer on subjects such as "the Caves of Somerset" and "Man the Lord of Fire." Inspired by one of these talks, two friends of Balch went to probe the entrance of the "Swallet by Priddy Green" on Friday, August 16th 1901. With a minimum of effort they broke in and explored the Wet Way as far as the Twelve Foot Drop. The next weekend Balch joined them and after several hours the Forty Foot Pot was reached. The cave was treacherously wet and their clothes provided little protection. Balch refused, despite much publicity, to reveal the location of this new cave because of the danger to both amateur explorers and the indescribably beautiful stalactite formations (now sadly broken). Soon after, the landowner decided to wall off the entrance and turn the valley into a fish farm. Frustrated, Balch started a dig on the neighbouring swallet that, in spring 1902, opened up Eastwater Cavern. [to be continued]
James Hooper

Caving in Botswana

This was to be our final day of exploration. Myself and Ron Ritter had spent the last few days completing the exploration, surveying and photography of Bone Cave, a cave stuffed full of three million year old fossils, located in the second of the Koanaka Hills in Botswana's empty north west corner. Tim Longden, the man I suppose Oxford's sterile tones would dub as our Home Agent, had flown out to join us the previous day, and so avoided a rather perilous two day drive through the bush.

We arose at first light and by an hour after sunrise we had packed and were roll-starting the land rover in readiness for the day's journey. Our target was the third of the Koanaka Hills, some twelve kilometres to our south west, and almost on the Namibian border. We had viewed the hill from the air, confirming that it was indeed a dolomite outcrop, protruding like an island from the desert surface, and not just another sand dune. Its surface appeared badly broken up, with a lot of loose rock, and its size, only 200m long and 30m high, didn't inspire enthusiasm. However, its sheer location was enough for us, being one of the earth's most remote and unvisited corners; before us only the earliest map makers and the geological survey had disturbed this sparsely occupied bushman territory. Also this was the last place we had left to investigate, once we'd searched this hill thoroughly our project would be complete.

We arrived at the hill before the sun climbed uncomfortably high, and located a slope on which to stop the land rover. As we broke into a packet of peanuts Tim summoned me over to where he was sitting. He passed me a small stone flake, wanting confirmation that it was what he thought it to be, a stone age tool. It appeared to be, but as I tried to explain that as one cuckoo doesn't make a spring..., he placed two more in my hand. Obviously we had a site, but probably only thousands and not millions of years old. Nonetheless, this discovery vindicated our journey, guaranteeing the hill a right to protection as a national monument, and strengthening our case for gazetting an extensive protected area in the region. More immediately, it was mind-boggling to have such tangible evidence that thousands of years ago people were sitting here, resting and probably snacking in almost exactly the same manner us. Minutes later, the sound of "CAVE..CAVE..CAVE..CAVE..CAAAAAVVVE !", our official cave discovery call, resounded over the whole of the hill. Before me was the top of a dark hole that I had investigated to a depth of eight metres and the top of a large drop. This call resounded twice more in the next half hour as we continued checking the hill thoroughly; cave discovery wasn't meant to be this simple. We only made notes of the entrances we could get into easily, holes that might involve squeezing or digging would be investigated later only if need arose.

After an early lunch, we picked the largest entrance, donned our caving gear (hard-hat, lamps, shorts and T-shirt), and started our descent. We clambered down into a large entrance chamber, lit by several fissures back to the surface. In the corner of this chamber a dark hole beckoned, we climbed over a few rocks, and paused for eyes to adjust to the darkness. We were standing at the top of a long slope, our lights feebly lighting only our immediate surroundings, the only wall we could see was the one behind us, daylight diffusely filtering through the hole in it. "Wow" was all Tim could say as we carefully picked our way down the slope, Ron and I were equally gob smacked by the place even if not so expressive. Our way was blocked several times by short drops, each time we found an alternative route on. To our left was the top of a large breakdown pile, black gaps gaping down between the room sized boulders, to our right was a long steep drop.

Eventually our way was blocked by an eight metre drop in front of us; we seemed to be perched overlooking an arcade like passageway, 10m wide and 20m high, extending away to our right. The passage continued to the left in a much diminished form, but was accessible after a short boulder climb. The passage closed down after only thirty metres, but as it seemed that our days work was done, I noticed a promising crack in the far wall. Stooping through, I was greeted by darkness again. "Come and have a look over here" I called back; our heartbeats raced once again as it became clear that this was a parallel gallery to the previous, and obviously an equal to it in size. The two galleries merged with several others to form an impressively large chamber, over twenty metres high, and forty in diameter. Each of the galleries led off, some for as much as fifty metres, but each seemed to close down into banks of sand, bat guano or stal. There were a few nice pools of cave pearls, but these seemed trivial when compared to the !Wa Doum cave, but other than the boulder pile, it seemed we'd worked this cave out. Sitting down on a breakdown pile in one corner of the main chamber, chewing on some biltong, we reflected on our dilemma. The cave was impressive, of that there was no doubt. There was more to do in this cave than we could give time for now, the survey would take a day, then there were a few leads to look at, and photography. On the other hand there wasn't really enough to justify the time and cost of another trip out here, even if in our hearts we knew that wouldn't stop us. Getting up, I took a snooped right into the corner. Between the rocks I could see space, not the solid rock I was expecting. I called out "I think I've got something" as I dropped myself between the rocks. I found myself looking along another of the caves galleries, instinct told me that this one went somewhere. A couple of minutes later we were gathered around a most amazing find, Botswana's largest known underground lake. Actually it was a stal dam holding back about fifty litres, filled by the rains that had percolated through the forty metres of rock above, but still it was unexpected.

Two minutes later we found ourselves standing in another large chamber, again the merging point of several galleries. More gasps of awe, as we took in the scene. The chamber wasn't quite as large as the previous, but it appeared to have more passageways leading off it. The colour of the rock was particularly clear here, all the clean surfaces were a dark battleship blue. We started another systematic exploration, but found this wasn't so easy here. We found ourselves entering a large maze of passageways, and resorted to cairning our route. An hour here left us none the wiser as to the maze's layout, we hadn't even investigated the higher levels we could see up into in a number of places.

This was how we had to leave the "Blue Cave" that day; time and light was against us as we drove back to our camp that evening, but spirits were high. We had found over a kilometre and a half of cave that day, this was taken up to two when we returned a week later to complete our explorations, making it Botswana's largest cave. After two months of hard work in the field, this third cave was the icing on the cake for us. It may not have been the most spectacular, nor the most historically significant; we're quite sure that there are much larger caves waiting to be discovered; but to us the adventure of this caves discovery makes it quite unforgettable.
Paul Mann