We had originally intended to go to Czechoslovakia. However, things were getting bad in Czechoslovakia in August 1968, and the expedition - a joint Oxford-Reading undertaking - split up. Half went to Czechoslovakia, and had to leave hurriedly. Three of us - Dick Hazelwood, Francis Sanders and myself - went to Spain instead. We had no fixed objective, but we did intend to use the mobility we gained by being a small group and perhaps find some new caving areas.
Our first stop was at Islares, near our old haunts around Castro Urdiales. Across the Ria del Oriņon estuary from the Arenillas-Islares campsite is the village of Oriņon. This is the site of a cave which we had heard of but never investigated, the Fuente del Oriņon. The actual Fuente (spring) is on the hillside just outside the village, and a few feet higher up is a cave entrance. This leads into the upper levels of a large chamber, at the bottom of which is the stream. The stream runs through a series of chambers, sumping in between them, but they are also connected at high level, and one does not need to descend to stream level at all of in this part of the cave.
The first chamber had been much visited - for various purposes - and was rather sordid. After this, though, the cave was unspoilt, and it was obvious that most of the visitors had been speologists. Eventually the high-level route ended abruptly, in a 5 m pitch. We descended, and followed the stream. This very shortly became a deep canal, and it was obvious that we would have to swim. Here the previous cavers had marked the end of their exploration, and a final survey station. Deep water, as so often in Spain, had daunted them. At first it daunted us too, as we were not wearing wet-suits. After a little hesitation, though, have we plunged in and after a short swim found ourselves in a large sandy chamber. This was completely virgin, and we entered it with high hopes. Unfortunately, at the far end of the chamber the stream disappeared off in a large sump, and all high-level passages were blocked. Swimming back we discovered a fascinating passage, apparently a wet oxbow. The water in it was at least 2.5 m deep; the roof was about 1.5 m above water level, and hanging from the roof into the water were hundreds of large stalactites. Swimming among, and ducking under, these closely packed stalactites was a fascinating experience. It was no good clutching at them for support - they broke off, and one found oneself trying to swim in deep water holding 30-40 pounds of calcite. After about 30 m this eerie passage was blocked by a stalactite barrier which we had no means of breaking, although we could see the passage continuing beyond. The existence of this passage can only plausibly be explained by a rise in water level relatively recently in the cave's history.
After a few days, the weather turned bad at the coast, and we moved inland, to the village of Quisicedo, near Panatano del Ebro, and also near to the Ojo Guareņa, the largest cave system in Spain. We made attempts at various part of the system: the Ojo Guareņa proper, where the stream sinks, for which is a network of blocked passages, the Sima Dolencia, a large and spectacular shaft on the plateau above, which leads into the main system, although we did not penetrate very far. We also visited a pothole some 3 km away, which we later found was also part of the system, being near the resurgence. This week nicknamed "dead dog pot", since there was the corpse of a dog in the entrance passage. When we descended we felt inclined to revise the name - had there was a much wider variety of dead animals!
We learned that in 10 days a large Spanish speleological expedition was to visit Ojo Guareņa, so we decided to return to the area then, and booked in advance at the inn in which we were staying. Our next port of call was the remote hamlet of Cardaņo Arriba, at the foot of Espiguete, the highest mountain, apart from the Picos de Europa, in the Cantabrians. We spent a very enjoyable day climbing Espiguete, but speleologically the area was less fruitful. Near Cardaņo Abajo was a large dry cave, which had been visited by many youth-organisation parties, and spoiled of any beauty it might once have possessed. Just above this, on the road to Cardaņo Arriba, was a resurgence. Our hopes were raised when we found a way through the entrance boulder choke and found ourselves in a large passage containing deep water. After about 20 m though, this ended in a sump.
From Espiguete a chain of mishaps, involving a punctured petrol tank and the illness of one of the party, brought as by chance to the campsite at Barro, near Llanes. So we stumbled on what was to prove a most fruitful area. Our most important discovery in the area was the Cueva de Bolugo. We heard had time only for one short trip, with very little tackle, down the cave before it was time to leave for Quisicedo again, to meet the Spanish cavers.
We returned to the Ojo Guareņa to find the water-meadows below the cave a scene of organised but inefficient activity. A large number of Spanish cavers were there, and apparently even more had failed to turn up. We met some old friends, and made more new ones, but to our disappointment they were adamant that, for political reasons, we could not accompany them down the Ojo Guareņa. Instead they recommended a cave at Escalada, in the Ebro gorge. This was apparently a very hard 3-day trip, requiring boats, camping gear, etc.
The mayor at Escalada showed as a survey of the cave, which he kept in his office, and explained how to find the entrance. His instructions were not easy to follow, but we did eventually find the cave. The entrance series consisted of an Agen Allwedd type passage, in which one constantly had to change height. After 20 minutes of this we reached a chamber - and the Spaniards' first campsite! From here the passage was spacious and sandy, with deep muddy lakes at intervals, leading to a final series of boulder chambers (by which time the stream had been lost) followed by a long blind crawl. The entire trip, in and out, took us 1.5 hours. However, if we had had to carry boats, camping and cooking gear and food it would doubtless have taken at least three days!
Near the Ebro gorge we also noted, but did not explore, an influent cave entrance. This, we discovered, was already known to the Spaniards. After three days in Quisicedo we set off to Barro again, for a further attempt at the Cueva de Bolugo. This was not to be, however, for a torrential rain flooded the cave. Instead, we looked at the flood resurgence at Calduenin, a small cave of no great interest at Debodes, and various other sinks and resurgences in the neighbourhood. Full descriptions of the major caves in the area are given in the report of the 1969 expedition. Then it was time to return to England. We took a roundabout route to Le Havre, taking in on the way the Gouffre de Padirac - an expensive show cave, but well worth it.