Steve Sharp, Gary Kiely, Mad Fi, Andy Snook - Trip Report by Andy Snook
As is usual with the last few Daren camps it's been more of a jolly than digging (apparently that's what the camp is for!). Seriously though, I’ve made a promise to myself to only dig and nothing else on future camps….
As opposed to being tourists, there was actually a purpose to the fun this time. Steve has been getting footage for a video he is making about Daren Cilau. This was his last chance to get the film he needed so we were on a mission.
The journey in was a long one. The hard rock cafe is normally reached in 4 hours depending on fitness and how much you put your back into it. Today, for me and Steve it was more than 8! Normally our bags contain a couple of drums which are round and smooth, aiding their passage through the entrance series (relatively speaking). This time Steve was in front of me with a bag full of peli cases, all angular and determined to catch at every opportunity. Normally the entrance series is passed in under an hour, this time we took 1hr 45mins, most of which was spent listening to a series of profanities coming from a constantly stalled caver not far in front of me.
After the trials of the entrance series we were going to take it easy. Steve had some video footage that he needed to get and also wanted to take some nice stills using his lovely new digital SLR. A stop at big chamber, then Valentine's for photos, then again at the ladder to try to pad out gaps in his video footage. I have a strange relationship with this ladder; its construction seems to have been designed to be extra uncomfortable compared to any other ladder climb of the same height. Although, it does improve each time - so probably flaws in my technique are to blame.
Gary and Fiona caught us up after we'd climbed the pitch; I had not long before detected a faint and distant cry of "WICKED!" - this could only be one person. Fi and Gary had entered the cave many hours after us - we were clearly taking our time.
The remaining obstacles were passed without incident. The rope climbs seemed to be programmed into our muscles now, the boulder hopping through White Passage and the Time Machine seems familiar and happens almost rhythmically as we subconsciously follow the reflectors placed upon the boulders.
As is usual, (for me at least), arrival at Bonsai Streamway is met with a smile. Seeing and hearing the running water again always gives the cave a fresher feel. However, this is soon superseded by a feeling of rather repetitive stumbling over rocks; annoyingly not a single slab seems to present a level surface. It is of course at this time that you start thinking about camp, getting into dry clothes and having a brew - this drives us on.
Crystal Inlet is always a welcome sight - it means we're on the last stretch of passage to camp and we can get a well earned drink. As many will know this is the source of the water supply for the camp. Unfortunately though, it must be delivered by hand. We each fill two 5 litre petrol cans - this is usually more than enough to sustain us for our 2 night stay.
The last stretch is always a slog - carrying a bag on your back and the two clumsy water containers ruin your balance on the rocks. As we approach camp our spirits lift, somehow managing to dull the pain my shoulders are now feeling - we have arrived - our base for the next two nights.
Even before the Tilley lamps are lit and the stoves fired up - the Hard Rock Cafe feels like home. Although it's clearly been engineered, there is still a freaky aspect to the layout - it's a perfect piece of cave in a perfect location. Fairly quickly the camp supplies are unpacked, the bar is set up and the mp3 player is connected to the stereo system. The Hard Rock Cafe is now a place of comfort and relative luxury in this otherwise bleak and hostile place. The evening was finished with a curry and the usual selection of randomly assembled cocktails.
Plans for Saturday were firmly suggested by Steve, a strict time to get up was clearly stated, and mostly ignored. I blame the lack of a sunrise, combined with too many cocktails containing an unknown blue liquid. A little tip for anyone thinking of camping underground, wear a watch - or you WILL lose your mind! You'll wake up and not know if you've been asleep for 1 hour or 8.
First job for the day was to get more footage of the Rock Steady Cruise and ultimately end up at Borrowed Boots Streamway. I've actually got to quite like this part of the cave, it's dry and sandy at the start and often very flat - a welcome change to stumbling over boulders. Steve managed to get additional footage through the sandy crawls, Miami Vice and Acupuncture. We arrived at The Micron in good time, we celebrated by standing up for the first time in a while - there was much rejoicing.
Borrowed boots was new cave for me, it's a bit like Ankle Grinder, but with the higher ceiling you always wished Ankle Grinder had. Foam sitting high on the walls down here is a sobering reminder that this isn’t the sort of place to take for granted. We were aware the weather forecasts were very good, and knew we were safe. Other commitments dictated that we couldn’t continue all the way to Psychotronic Strangeways - hurrah, an excuse to return.
We returned to camp for a short break, some lunch and a cup of tea. Next item on the agenda was to head back down Bonsai Streamway to visit both the Eastern and Western Flyovers. These are fascinating fossil passages completely missed by many groups who simply blast down to hard rock and out again. Vast chambers, beautifully sculpted by ancient waters with a dry sand floor, it's a different world up there.
On the way back to camp I tricked Steve into having a look at KP's dig. I came up with a story about it being a short easy crawl immediately after the initial rope and ladder climbs out of the streamway. The top of the ladder brings you into Frig & Frag St. It was worse than I remembered - fairly flat, but not impossibly so. However, progress is made tortuous by the amount of rock litter on the floor, it's just plain awkward. KP’s dig is a fairly claustrophobic affair, but frankly it was a welcome break from the passage we'd just come from. A previous shopping list had stated that some goggles would be beneficial for this dig. I had caved them in and decided to have a bash whilst I was there. The dig likes to spit shattered rock into your eyes - the goggles worked a treat. Returning to camp Steve protested that our little diversion was worse than all the caving we'd done so far put together. Sorry Steve
On returning to camp I was pleased that Gary and Fi had already got food started. An improvised pasta meal using some fresh ingredients we'd caved in was very welcome. Everything down there tastes ten times better than on the surface. The highlight of the evening was a birthday party! We celebrated Fiona’s 36th with a cake that Gary had cut into slabs to fit in his drum, and impressively re-assembled at camp.
When Sunday morning comes I am filled with conflicting emotions. I am sad to leave the Hard Rock Cafe, a place of comfort and happy memories from this and previous trips. I am also looking forward to seeing daylight once again, having a shower and wearing some clothes that aren’t full of grit. I wonder what events have unfolded during our voluntary and total exclusion from the outside world. The camp is packed up, and I've once again put on my cold, wet, ripe and gritty caving gear. At this point I definitely have my “out” head on. We're all a little tired and looking forward to the return to normality. At first it seems such a long way out, but the thought passes quickly as you realise that you don’t have any choice in the matter. As the obstacles are passed I almost tick them off in my mind, all the time feeling closer to being out - but also being ever closer to the dreaded entrance series.
I've become quite attached to the Daren Cilau entrance series; I now approach it in a completely different way to my initial visit to the cave. However, when you've been underground for almost 50 hours, it’s a bit of a bugger. On the way out through the entrance series there is always less conversation. We typically spread out a lot more, preferably enough so that we don’t bunch up. When you are tired, cold and trying to convince your reluctant bag to cooperate its better that others don’t hear what comes out of your mouth. I believe that this was particularly true of Steve, who still had his bag full of peli cases.
The crux of the exit is usually The Vice, when you are at your weakest it eats your bag and refuses to give it back. Your only hope at this point is a Zen-like calm, losing your temper with The Vice doesn’t usually achieve anything. The last couple of corners are passed as the crawls flatten out for the final stretch and the faintest glimmer of daylight reflects of the wall in front of you. The smell of the outside hits you and teases your senses - we're out!
The Eastern Flyover
Fi's Birthday Cake
The Time Machine
48 Hrs Later