The sun was quickly slipping away as we came over the pass and I saw the Matienzo valley for the first time.
In the background I could hear Grovel and Andy expounding upon the geology of the area, but at that moment in time, I was too taken with the beauty of the valley to listen.
Slowly we zig-zagged our way to the base of the valley and bumped our way into the field at the rear of Herman's Bar. Finally made it after Paul Stacey's non-stop drive through France and we all spilled out of the car. A group of people were cooking over a camp fire. One of them offered me a beer. I gratefully accepted.
The night faded away in a haze of drunken revelry and it soon became clear that your seasoned Matienzo expedition member could drink any average mortal under the table and was closely related to a fish. Some of them did go caving however.
I woke late the following day and decided with the combined effect of the drink and the long journey that a mega-trip would not be on the cards. However, Paul Stacey and myself wanted to get underground so as a compromise we decided to visit Cueva del Arenal. According to the BCRA Matienzo publication this cave emits a strong draught from its middle elliptical entrance. After visiting the cave, I can vouch for this as you can feel the draught several hundred feet from the entrance.
At the present moment the cave is only some 200m long with the draught issuing from two separate boulder chokes alligned on a fault. Later that evening we learnt that the chokes had been dug in previous years. Although the chokes are a little 'hairy' the reward for passing them would be great.
After a days fruitless shaft-bashing a visit to TV mast cave was planned. This cave had only been dug into at Easter and there was much talk buzzing around the bar of numerous leads to go for. The cave had already been pushed to a large ledge at the base of a 150 foot pitch, with further undescended pitches below. Work was to continue with one team investigating the pitches while our team consisting of Paul Stacey, Jim Davis, Andy Sweetman and myself were to investigate a possible continuation in the wall of the main shaft opposite the ledge.
Our trip did not get off to a good start when we realised we had left the survey kit behind. Dutifully our team minus Jim Davis returned to the campsite to collect it. Finally reaching the ledge at 150 foot it was evidently clear that Jim had successfully entered the possible continuation which was good. He was also muttering that it went which was better. Being mere mortals we cobbled together a traverse line and made our way across to him. Pushing on, we quickly picked up a stream cascading down an impressive aven, and rushed off down a stooping size streamway floored with sandstone.
Reaching the head of a 15 foot pitch, we were contemplating where to hang a ladder when a rather worried looking Jim Davis, who had remained at the bottom of the big pitch, suddenly appeared. He quickly informed us that Toby, who had been in the other party, had fallen while attempting a climb. Luckily he was not badly hurt. However he was quite badly shaken and needed to exit the cave as rapidly as possible. It had been decided that Paul would be the best able to help Toby out of the cave, so noblely sacrificing caverns measureless to man he disappeared back up the passage.
Past the 15 foot pitch, a 35 foot pitch quickly followed. At this point Jim left us to check on Toby's progress. Bottoming the 35 foot pitch using rather dubious methods - rope thrown straight over the edge - landed us in a large chamber. A possible high level fossil route led off on one side of the chamber but the stream disappering off into a lower passage beckoned us on. Expecting a stomping great streamway, the passage quickly did the dirty on us and degenerated into a narrow vadose canyon. Several curses later we had wiggled our way to the head of a 15 foot pitch.
By now exploration fever had set in and having left any gear we had behind and also any common sense, I decided to have a go at free climbing it. Things started out quite well with a few decent hand holds, but these soon ran out and the rest of the distance was covered in a graceless slide on my bottom. Feeling reasonably pleased in that I had not managed to break my neck, but with the nagging worry that I might do this on the way back up, I rounded a corner to be greeted by the trip stopper.
Below me yawned what appeared to be a large pitch. I say appeared to be as the head of the pitch was too exposed for a proper look and there were no rocks about to throw down. What I could be sure about was a massive boulder about the size of a house jammed in the top of the shaft. This pitch was later christened "Vertical Hold" for obvious reasons. I shouted something back about bloody great big boulders, and using the brute force and ignorance technique of climbing, rejoined Andy. As if by majic Jim Davis appeared and we started a frantically fast survey out.
Back at the big chamber below the 35 foot pitch, Jim entered the fossil passage mentioned previously after a typically dodgy free-climb. This was left on going that day but was later pushed to a point where it connected with the other side of the Vertical Hold pitch. A relatively uneventful trip out of the cave was made except for the fact that when I reached the first rebelay on the 150 foot pitch I found the sheath totally severed around the core. This obviously provided a few moments of worry for me and a topic for discussion later on in the bar that night.
Subsequent to our trip into TV mast cave, considerable work was put into extending the cave further. This mainly revolved around bottoming the 150 foot and Vertical Hold pitches. Sadly no significant passage was found at the bottom of either, and it seems likely that a way on lies in upper fossil passages.
For the tourist caver, TV mast cave is very reminiscent of a Yorkshire pot hole. If it were in Yorkshire it would be splattered in bolts and you would have to queue for six hours to go down it!
At the same time as the efforts taking place in TV mast cave, strange trip notices began appearing in the bar. One of them read "Dig in rubbish tip. Gloves required." Not surprisingly, there were few takers. The leader of this trip was a character called Lank Mills, who I assumed must be totally mad. However, I soon learnt that this was the man who had basically discovered the Matienzo valley back in 1969, so there might be a chance he knew what he was talking about.
I decided to give the idea of digging a rubbish tip some thought, but as a compromise signed up on another trip being run by Lank into Cueva de Riano. The aim of this trip was to find passage in downstream Riano, upstream Riano being already connected with the 40 km system of Uzeka.
The day dawned for our trip into Riano. The sun rose higher until even with the thick head from the previous nights festivities, I was scorched out of my tent. Lank rounded up the two others - Andy Pringle and Grovel - who had signed up, and we were conveyed to the entrance. Through the draughty flat-out entrance crawl and down the grovels of the Riano entrance series, my worst fears about Lark were being confirmed. Fortunately we soon broke into the side of a streamway very reminiscent of Swildons with formations. Suddenly my headache and any doubts I had about Lank had vanished. Clambering down numerous cascades, we quickly made our way to the head of a 15 foot pitch dropping into a large circular chamber. Below us I could see the stream entering a low bedding plane which at that point in time Lank informed us went to a sump. Lank's attention did not seem to be focused on this obvious way on but on a small phreatic tube on the opposite side of the chamber. Down the pitch and into the tube, relatively rapid progress was made through some squalid mud until we broke out into the side of a 30 foot high vadose canyon. This carried a small stream, an obvious inlet to the main streamway. It was only at this point that Lank informed us that we were in virgin passage and indeed as I looked around infront of us, not one footprint was to be seen. If only new passage was as easy as this to find back in Britain.
It was as if a starting gun for a race had been fired and we hurtled off up the boulder strewn passage. Sadly after a few hundred metres the passage degenerated into a meandering vadose canyon, requiring the same awkward sideways shuffling as that needed in the Crab Walk in Giants Cave. Thankfully the vadose canyon petered out and after negotiating an aquatic bedding plane, we reached a well decorated chamber. Here the stream issued from a sump and the draught disappeared up an aven. Having no climbing gear the explorations for that day were at an end.
Totting up the survey legs that evening the passage was surprisingly some 700 m long and was christened Side Shuffle Snicker. It was now obvious that Riano was by no means worked out. On the same day as explorations in Side Shuffle Snicker, we had also entered a wide bedding plane, believed to be running above the main stream. This obviously needed pushing to a conclusion. Lank by this stage was also muttering something to the end that when they had originally explored the main stream to a sump back in 1974, the sump had been draughting. "Draugting sumps?" I thought to myself. Something seemed to be a bit fishy here. Or should I say "eely" as Lank then admitted that what had really stopped them pursuing the passage further was that the so-called sump had been infested with eels. We now had two good leads to go for.
For some reason or other, I was not on the next trip into Riano which planned to investigate the passage beyond the traverse. However, there was no need to worry about the other group bagging caverns measureless to man, as the trip was aborted when Grovel fell down a cascade whilst explaining how a light bulb worked. Fortunately he was not damaged too badly.
We hoped the next trip to investigate the passage beyond the traverses would be more successful. Aswell as myself, Paul Stacey, Helen ? and Andy Pringle were also involved. In the end, approximately 300 m of well decorated passage was explored which was later named the Ghost Series after the chance meeting by Andy Pringle with some frighteningly realsistic ghost like stalagmites.
The next trip into Riano planned to ascertain if the mythical draughting sump did really exist. After surveying a few odds and ends in the Ghost Series, we could put the moment off no longer. So with Lank, Paul and Andy, I found myself crawling down the bedding plane towards glory or a nasty death in a carniverous eel infested sump. Crawling on I eventually came to a section of passage where the water lapped around my waist. Shivering I furtively looked around for any monsterous eels that might be lurking nearby. Not an eel to be seen and no unpleasant slitherings between my legs so I ploughed on into the bedding plane on the other side of the pool. I had crawled for some distance, with no sign of a sump, when it dawned on me that the pool which I almost managed to avoid getting my goolies wet in must have been the sump. My they were hard back in 1974!
Beyond a couple of squeezes the passage began to enlarge dramatically. Rather aghast at what we found, I stomped off with the others down the streamway. Lank, who had been cursing and nursing a hangover through the rest of the cave, even perked up. Just as the streamway was approaching OFD on the niceness scale, we rounded a corner to find the stream gushing down a cascade into a large chamber. Reaching the bottom of the cascade we bounded around looking for the continuation of the streamway, but none was to be found.
Instead the stream crept rather ignominiously into a very low bedding plane. A nasty niff was also assaulting our nostrils, a cross between toilet cleaners and something not so nice. It soon became clear that a stream polluted with sewage joined our stream at this point. The stream, however, slipped out of a bedding with no chance of following it. A high level passage appeared to offer hope. A few moments stooping and thruthching saw us join the side of a large fossil passage. Having already discovered an appreciable amount of passage and knowing we would have to survey all that we had found it was decided to leave this passage for another day.
Adding our new finds to the original survey that evening it soon became clear that something was dramatically wrong with the original survey. It was deduced that those responsible for the original survey in their enthusiasm had halved the scale, plotting twice as much passage than should have been present. Thus, although we were exploring new passage in reality, on paper we had lost almost as much passage as we had found. With this in mind we returned to Riano the following day determined that we would find so much passage today that if a few metres had to be knocked off in the future it would be completely insignificant.
Reaching the previous days limit of exploration it was agreed that we should take the left hand branch of the fossil passage. After about 100 m the passage appeared to end in a large boulder choke. A moments ferreting amongst some monumentally sized boulders provided a way on to a large breakdown chamber. In such a large chamber we assumed there must be a way on. However the lead I pushed quickly led to a whole series of horrible flat out squeezes through rancid sewage which I doubt I would even have pushed further in Britain. Paul in the mean time had been up a climb to a view of an aven with bog rolls hanging from the ceiling. We decided to exit this oversized toilet.
Taking the right hand passage, we hoped for more fruitful pickings. Climbing down a steep boulder ramp we reached the side of a large stream. This was clearly the stream which joined the main Riano stream through the bedding plane noticed the day before. The tell-tale niff also indicated that this stream was also providing the main source of pollution into the system. Fortunately the large dimensions of the passage meant that unlike the loo tube I had entered previously, I would not become too involved with the faecal matter.
Surveying upstream, quick progress was made along a large stomping passage, Numerous 20 m survey legs were recorded and keen to notch up some distance, it finally took a while to sink in that we were surveying in a sump pool. So that was the end of our stream passage. What with the sumps rather brown complexion and the bog rolls hanging from the ceiling, I doubt whether this one will ever get dived.
A large fossil passage had been seen to join the streamway some distance back so it was agreed we should have a crack at this lead. After a few moments groveling, we were in a large impressive passage floored with humungous boulders and possessing interesting pig trotter shaped rock formations in the roof. Tromping down the passage for about 100 m or so another choke with no immediately obvious way on was reached. By this stage I was becoming pretty knackered and when someone suggested we go out I wasn't going to disagree,
In summary, the reasonable draught running through what we later called Pig Trotter Passage and the various open leads left in downstream Riano means that this system is certainly not worked out and hopefully I may make a return visit to prove this.
My time out in Matienzo was coming to an end but I still had the Fiesta/21 years in Matienzo celebrations to look forward to. As you can imagine, a not very austere time was had by all. The locals tried to teach us some of their local tunes and we tried to do the same with the Beatles. A university group decided to disagree with each other physically and numerous people staggered around not making much sense and then fell over.
The following day we squeezed back into Paul's car and tried to drive back to England. We hadn't got very far before Paul had a prang which ripped off his bumper. Imagining we would be stuck in Spain for the rest of our lives, trying to make ourselves understood to a Spanish policeman, it was fortunate that Talking-Spanish-Terry turned up to save the day. Finally we wended our way back home.