Caving in the Tymphe mountains of north-western Greece has a relatively short history, starting with the initial discovery and exploration of Provatina in 1962 by Cambridge (1). Since that time, numerous potholes have been discovered, the largest being Epos Chasm to the west of the Astraka plateau at -436m (2). With this in mind, as well as indications from two previous expeditions (3,4) that certain areas were worth searching in more detail, a small reconnaissance group from Croydon Caving Club and the University of Kent Troglodytes left for the Astraka plateau in the summer of 1988, just as reports were coming in that holidaymakers were dying from heat exhaustion. Unfortunately, this aspect as well as the major error of forgetting to take any SRT rope meant that the trip searched a limited number of entrances, only to discover a few small shafts (5), one of which, however, did provide entertainment half way up a ladder in the form of a 'speleo-vulture'.
Not to be dismayed, the group returned to the UK with excellent tans and largely unexaggerated tales of vast limestone pavements in a superbly scenic area. Bernard Charlesworth in particular enthused about Astraka several times on the outside walls of Croydon's cottage in South Wales, where ten foot high images of sun-drenched cavers-if- they-could-get-underground-in-this-intense-heat toting beers were observed. By some reasoning, the fever spread to 19 individuals from the same clubs as well as Speleo Caerdydd, and a pleasant day in early August 1989 saw a minibus off from Ramsgate, this time with a good deal of rope.
The minibus reached Ioannina campsite on a pleasantly warm Greek afternoon, meeting 5 members who had previously arrived. Plans were soon afoot as to the site of base camp, considering two areas which had attracted us in particular: the region to the south of Tsoumako mountain (2157m) and north east of Skamneli village, including area Z going east (area codes are based on the American expedition of 1977, generally used since that time (3,4)). This was partly explored by the SUSS group in 1979, but only in the western region (3); our intention was to walk the high ground further east down towards the upper end of Skamneli valley (see the area map). Another region which was to receive attention later was area M, containing Tripa tis Nifif (-299m).
The planning stage lasted 2 days, enabling vast quantities of vegetables to be stocked, much beer to be drunk and endless attempts at turning into amphibians in Ioannina's pseudo-polje lake. So keen were expedition members to stay in the cool waters that several decided to plunge into the lake late one night when swarms of French teenagers had arrived. Their horror at the sight of British cavers swimming late at night without much in the way of clothing somehow forced the campsite owner to take the decision for us to move, kind though he was!
By mid afternoon the next day, a potential base camp had been spotted next to the Skamneli-Vrikohori road at about 1100m, with a good supply of fresh water. Permission was soon obtained to camp from the villagers, and a large 'Wendy' tent (for housing 12 at a time) plus store tents were quickly erected.
Our first serious test of the new equipment we had considered bringing to base camp to aid exploration was soon under way: all terrain bikes for exploring the higher areas, and a set of five 27MHz CB radios to use for communications with base camp (permission to use CB radios in Greece must be obtained from the Ministry of Transport and Communication in Athens). Three groups set off in varying directions around the mountain, either by bus, bike or on foot. The bus group explored some small holes near the Skamneli-Vrikohori road, and the cycle group glimpsed the first close-up view of the steep, deeply forested northern side of the Tymphe mountains. The central walking group were more fortunate, but the area covered (from 1600 to 1800m in height) revealed a large expanse of sloping limestone embedded with pear-shaped troughs having a density of about 20 per square kilometre, the deep ends all being downslope and containing large supplies of boulders. Several were considered worth digging, but one which presented a strong draught was pushed by the thin men Phil Brooks and Gregg Ford, reaching a decorated chamber some 13m in, but with no way on. A random choice from a Greek phrase book later gave us the dubious name for this small hole; fortunately 'Shampoo and Set' was the penultimate cave to receive this treatment and later discoveries have been given a reference 89-n with increasing n, and usually the standard letter/number designation following the American area convention (so 89-1 or Z3 in this case). The next two days were in fact to show that small caves of a horizontal nature at the base of the holes were the norm (89-2, 89-3), generally being previous collapse features, although a small amount of stal had been able to deposit itself in places.
Saturday the 12th was therefore expected to see a change in the emphasis of exploration, and that couldn't have been farther from the truth. The day began as it intended to continue, for all at base camp were awoken by a large herd of cows and their resident bells at 7.00am. The local farmer, Theo, arrived on the scene with an orthodox priest friend of his, together with an assortment of axes and knives. Theo had been met the previous day and, on the whole, seemed like a pleasant sort. By this time, most people were up and realising that our pleasant farmer was actually trying to point out that our campsite was only a hundred feet or so from his abbatoir - did we mind?
The ensuing tale was impressive, but to sum it up: three people hid behind the minibus; three stood on the roofrack vying for the best photographic coverage; the camp 'nurse' was pointing out all the inside workings with vigor, and the camp 'vegetarin' was so impressed by the slaughter that he decided to join in for the evening meal after we were all offered 14 superb fresh-cut steaks!
It was at this point that we were all rewarded with the minibus losing three gears. The 500m or so altitude required to reach base camp was very slowly gained in first, with the realisation of our lack of transport becoming apparent. For this reason, the next two days were preoccupied with morale in camp being slightly increased with the construction of a bath some metres away, upstream of the abbatoir.
The bicycles were now coming into their own and Tuesday the 15th saw Phil Brooks, Jim Longbottom and myself cycling out to Ulysees pot with overflowing panniers of cave kit and rope. The entrance was quickly found, but not as far down the dry valley which leads into the Megas Laxxos as suggested by earlier maps (2,3). Ulysees is 152m deep, and with 7 short pitches makes a very fine trip. Needless to say, the cave was left rigged, even though the entrance was about 15 miles from base camp! On exiting, a very surprised local was discovered who just wouldn't believe that we'd been underground - he had to be shown the icy blast at the entrance to convince him!
Meanwhile, Bernie, Andy Sewell and Andy Todd had been conversing with more locals in the bar at Skamneli. One of these was more in touch with the area and immediately took them up onto the pavement above and to the west of Skamneli, largely explored by WSG in 1970 (6). They were shown several entrances which turned out later to be known, but as this wasn't communicated to the rest of the group at a chance meet in a bar in Tsepelovo, the following day saw a more detailed examination of that area (while Bernie's group was off to the Albanian border!).
Walking along the edge of the pavement and flysch for some time with Gregg and Jim the next day, I was able to find a small dry valley on the eastern side leading back up to high clints, but with a massive hole on the same line. A quick look around proved that the hole contained a pitch of about 30m. Rigging tackle was soon carried up, and in the absence of good naturals, one bolt placed either side, allowing a free hang to the bottom. A speedy descent soon led into a chamber at the base some 20m long, with a second pitch just over half-way along the chamber to the far wall. However, time and tackle weren't on our side, so a hasty retreat to the bar in Skamneli was made to meet the others and give them the good news. By that stage, 89-6 was estimated to be about 50m deep and going, and discussions in the bar that evening fixed the name for the hole - Tripa Pantopoleion after the name of the bar (which we later found literally means grocer's!). Thursday the 17th saw the exploration of Pantopoleion continue and conclude, as the second pitch gave way to the third and last, landing in a short calcited passage perpendicular to the rest of the hole at -59m.
While this was happening, Hugh Penny had discovered a draughting hole about 250m north of Pantopoleion. An initial short pitch led out over 'hanging-death' type boulders to a second pitch of about 35m, which unfortunately was later found to contain the remnants of a caver's dry cell.
That night was the festival in Tsepelovo, and with the help of Theo's car (plus several drinks), a move was made to dance with the villagers (well, the underage girls anyway). A short tutorial was given in Skamneli earlier on with a certain amount of feedback in the form of the expedition Morris dancer ploughing into the ground at full speed. By the next morning, people had finally re-congregated at base camp, only to be awoken early by the cries of Theo's cows being strung up (that time of the week again).
Over the next two days, a further examination of the area above Skamneli was made, with the holes shown to Bernie a few days before by the local being investigated. When Bernie arrived later that afternoon, it was realised that these matched the WSG find in 1970 called Coulioy, as did Hugh's further up. However, nothing similar to Pantopoleion could be seen in their report, and together with no apparent traces of cavers' activities, we were convinced of this being a new find.
Hugh's birthday on the Sunday became a suitable time to de-rig the Skamneli area, look for a new site, drink a beer or two and sample the delights of the Tsepelovo hotel owner's wife's cake made especially, before the departure of three members.
All this while, valiant efforts had been made by Phil, Simon Davies and Tania Jardine to extracate a new set of gears for the minibus. The AA were to fly a new gear box out to Ioannina, but it appeared to get only as far as a cargo depot in Athens. The Greek method of doing things 'parma zigga zigga' had become unbearable.
Two new areas were considered over the next three days whilst some took up the opportunity of visiting Ulysees. The first was the steep northern side of the Tymphe mountains towards the town of Konitsa. No real cave development could be found here, although it should be pointed out that much of the area is heavily forested and difficult to cover. The second group took up an area previously looked at a week or so earlier by Nigel Clark, Eric Downer, Andy Hillesdon and Martyn Pickering, who had discovered about 4 or 5 small to medium size caves in area M, called Kranoula on the Greek 1:50000 mountaineering maps. The area is more famous for Tripa tis Nifis (-299m), which is about 500m to the south east of these holes. Because of the large number of small entrances there seemed to be, a grid system was set up over the next couple of days here with cairns marking out 200m x 200m squares. A total of eight new entrances were recorded and some surveyed over the last few remaining days of the expedition. Still without a minibus, a hire car was used to ferry personnel from base camp to Kranoula, causing our resident treasurer Richard Rolfe to bear up with glazed eyes. As well as those entrances already noted the previous week (89-7, 8, 12 and 13), three more sites were found yielding one 20m pitch, as well as the last new hole to be seen on the expedition (89-14), which, as luck would have it, also happened to be the deepest.
Steve Wray, Gregg and Hilary Wordsworth started off by bottoming and surveying 89-7. The next day, Friday the 25th, saw six people at Kranoula setting the cairn system up, and Andy Sewell and myself finding 89-9 (Amstel Pot) which contains a splendid 20m pitch that was evacuated rather quickly as the first bad weather of the expedition came along in the form of a heavy thunderstorm.
The day was also well remembered for Helen Hougham's leg. It seemed to be magnetically attracted to a particularly deep grike with the result being a nasty gash. She was hurried off to Ioannina hospital for repairs, but actually had to wait there much longer than the 'carry out' from Kranoula! Being a student nurse, Helen was not over-impressed with the service, especially the staple gun used to bind the wound. It was good though to see that the only incident of this kind on the expedition was dealt with so swiftly (at the cave end!).
Saturday the 26th saw the complete exploration of the first study area with one more interesting hole: a 15m entrance pitch along a rift giving way to a slope and aven at the end (89-12). Unfortunately that evening saw three more back to the UK after an excellent 'buffet' party organised by Bernie at base camp. Sunday saw further surveying work done on caves 89-8 to 13, but Monday took on a new turn after the restaurant owner in Kapesovo took Gregg to a new cave on Kranoula. Inspired by the account, six individuals decided on a night trip to 89-14, entering at 11pm. Two pitches of about 10m each immediately led after a boulder slope to a large pitch, estimated at 50m from the timing of rocks. By this time, a return for the following day was considered and the cave exited. Unfortunately the return proved the large pitch to be just 34m with the bottom too tight to push. The group surveyed out before de-tackling the area and getting the minibus (plus one finally arrived gearbox which had been fitted) back to the UK.
Overall, the expedition was not as successful as we had hoped, largely due to the lack of transport. This was partly overcome with the use of all-terrain bikes, which did come in very useful and must be recommended for future trips. Repairs were made on occasion, largely due to worn brakes or buckled pannier frames. The central aims of the expedition, to cover the new areas, was realised, although what was found was limited. Further exploration around the Tymphe mountains will, we feel, require a very intensive coverage together with a certain amount of luck.
Finally, we must of course thank our sponsors: Colmans, Field & Trek, Lyon Equipment, Millstone, Mountain Equipment, Muddyfox Bicycles, Nikwax, Reg Braddick Bicycles, Ringtons, Schwartz, Tate & Lyle, Troll Mountaineering Eqpt, WD40, Cardiff University Student Union, Coventry Polytechnic and the Hatherly Venture Scout Unit. A special word of thanks must also go to all those villagers of the Tymphe range who made us so welcome in their home.
- D C Mercer, 1963, 'Cambridge expedition to Greece', CRG Newsletter 87 Pgs 1-5.
- A C Waltham, 1978, 'The caves and karst of Astraka, Greece', BCRA Trans 5 (1) Pgs 1-12.
- S Worthington, 1979, 'Sheffield University Speleological Society expedition to the Tymphe mountains, Greece, 1979', SUSS Journal 2 (5,6) Pgs 3-27.
- J Briggs, 1982, 'Imperial College Caving Club Greece '82 expedition', published by the club.
- B Charlesworth, 1988, 'Reconnaisance expedition Greece 1988', Pelobates 54 Pgs 22-24.
- G Bull, 1970, 'Expedition to the Pindos mountains', Westminster Spel Gp 6 Pgs 174-183.
Gregg Ford on the last pitch in 89-14.
Gregg Ford at the bottom of 89-14.