Many of the Club's members will already know of my perverse love of going into a small hole up on the Llangattock Mountain that leads to, ( as far as fatties and northern cavers are concerned ), an unfortunate amount of large passage beyond. Most of the club will also be aware of my unrelenting attempts to make other Croydon members suffer for my masochism in the said Daren Cilau. On a Friday night just before the Christmas of 1985, Ian Chandler and I visited the very bottom of that system. Ten hours on Saturday were spent racing to Daren's murky pond and back so that we might at least stand a chance of getting to the pub before it closed. The following morning we emerged from our bunks contentedly shattered and returned back to Croydon just in time for Sunday dinner at Ian's.
Such was the success of that end-of-year trip that I thought it might be "nice" to repeat it again. This time, the mugs, ( sorry, that should read "group" ) were to be Nigel Clark, Carl Gibbs, Guy Jackson and myself. Despite the fact that the trip was arranged weeks in advance, we were still the usual hour late departing from Croydon in Carl's parents Rover Ambassador. Upon arriving in Crickhowell we went straight to the Britannia with plenty of time for a quick several and a chat with Arthur Millett. As usual, thank God; the driver managed to stay a lot more sober than his passengers and we attempted to drive the quick, steep route up the hillside. Despite the car's many failings we were OK until we swung round t a bend and saw a bulge in the centre of the road ominously 1 looming towards us. After much excited debate in the car, the a level headed opinion of the drunks in the back was that it was "probably a dead badger". Being at a loss for words or sanity Carl tried to drive over it. With cries of "Respect the dead!", and then "Rigamortis sets in fast, doesn't it !" the car lurched up the road with a horrible grinding noise. Bailing out we found that the Ambassador was in an uncompromising diplomatic position over a rock requiring something a little more powerful than a gunboat to shift it. Doing what most governments do in this situation, we removed any valuables and then abandoned the car to it's fate. I assured the others that the cottage was only a few yards away and so we doned rucksacks and trudged what seemed endless miles up the mountain. After an awfull lot of sweating and mutinous muttering we finally staggered with our tackle and food into Whitewalls. As if to round the evening off in a suitable fashion I proceeded to step in something extremely unpleasant whilst trying to turn on the gas supply outside. Preparing myself for sleep, I thought that if this was the start of "one of the most serious undertakings in Britain" then I'd rather go and dig in Cader Fawr instead.
Despite the usual good intentions of trying to get up at the crack of dawn, we still managed a fairly early start. Some delaying tactics were encountered when somebody decided that it was absolutely necessary to get the car up the remaining section of road and leave it outside the cottage. On close inspection the car was found not to be using it's exhaust pipe for the purpose for which it was designed, but instead seemed to trying to blow a deafeningly loud raspberry down it. Whitewall's neighbours seemed to be more concerned that we were residents, rather than bother about the noise which was similar to a Spitfire preparing to take off in their front garden. With no more excuses we got kitted up with the usual comments and headed up the hill for Ogof-y-Daren Cilau.
The first inkling of impending doom is a sign outside Daren's meagre entrance; "SINGLE FILE TRAFFIC". Daren tries to enforce this ruling for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has met another caver in the crawl before. The first 15 feet of the entrance series is probably the worst of the 2000 ft you have to do. Do not let this put you off. The passage soon enlarges enough for crawling instead just of wriggling. Whilst in the crawl you generally spend an hour looking at either your hands, your feet, pieces of distraught wetsuit material, or usually the rock just a few inches away. As all nightmares do however, the suffering comes to an end and you eventually emerge into the first part of the cave which might actually be described as pleasant. Negotiating a seemingly holdless slippery climb up into an oxbow you next go down on your knees again, though this time only for a few yards. Skirting round a considerably collapsed chamber into a rift, you come across the first section of passage that leads to what could be called the old-new extensions. Behind a slab, a horrible slit in true Daren style leads to a nasty looking boulder choke with a piece of bang wire trailing away. By following this wire you eventually drop down through a black hole at the bottom of the choke.
Looking around at the top of Jigsaw Passage you get the first reason as to why you ever bothered to wreck your knees that morning. Jigsaw is so named because along most of it's length are mathematically perfect cracks on seemingly artificially smooth mud banks, some being almost as tall as a man. The passage starts off down a slippery slope but soon levels off into comfortable size stomping terrain. The amount of original undisturbed flooring is great, the hideous red and white tape lining the route seems to have worked. The passage floor mostly contains a good solid base of mud and calcite, whilst at points the mud has dissolved and the visitor is left to wade through thigh deep pools. Just to the side of these mires the mud flooring is still unspoilt. How much longer this careful attitude from cavers is maintained will probably be related to how much more boggy the floor continues to get. Over the last year, this level has already dropped by about a foot. White straws with acute angled helietites as well as a few pure crystal "explosions" appear occasionally along the way. By clambering up and over some boulders at the obvious end of the passage you enter "Big Chamber Nowhere Near The Entrance. This chamber is aptly named. ( No prizes for guessing where the idea for it's title came from ! ) By taking a left bearing route the cave heads off towards Epocalypse containing the incredible helietites of the White Company. Further, more superb, formations may also be seen iii Urchin Oxbow and Antler Passage. Located at the top of the chamber is Eglwys Passage that leads off down the western arm of Daren and finally to the sumps.
Yet another crawl ensues and although it is over "comfortable" compacted sandy mud some of it is completely flat out. At the end of this comparatively short section of passage Five Ways Chamber is met. As expedition cavers and diggers will probably know the route that goes is never the large passage disappearing off into the distance, but the grotty rat-hole that's just off to one side. This applies ( on several occasions ) in Daren. Do not take the large friendly rift as you will soon wish you hadn't. Look around at the bottom of the chamber and select the smallest hole you can insert your body into and you might be luckier. Breaking out of the crawl you encounter what can only be described as a green chamber full of "interesting" collapse. At the bottom a squeeze through a boulder choke drops you at the top of a 70 feet high passage. For anybody who hasn't been there before, vertiginous stomach churnings are often felt here. It is therefore advisable to do impressions of a troop of gibbons whooping in the jungle at this point. It may not cure your stomach but it produces a really great echo Its a pity that there is not a by-pass along the top of this passage for it has to be first descended by boulder slope, and then re-ascended by ladder at the far end. At the bottom of the 65 feet ladder we were joined by Arthur Millett who gave us a heartening display of ladder sprinting. The method by which cavers used to descend back down to the level of the first pitch was via a spectacular 70 feet ladder in the roof of White Passage. On two previous trips to the new-new extensions I have done this pitch both ways, and didn't enjoy it on either occasion. An easier roped traverse over the top of the old pitch has now been installed. Two further rope-assisted climbs then drop you slightly "down stream" from the bottom of the old pitch in White Passage. Although these roped climbs are a less exhilarating than laddering they do require a little thought on the return journey. Care must also be exercised at the top of the climbs as parts of the boulder ceiling of White Passage leaves a bit to be desired. Guy spent a memorable half hour on the traverse with his botty extended out over 70 feet of nothingness, whilst I attempted to take some photos. As they weren't that satisfactory I will be requiring another model in the future; any volunteers ?
From here on in Daren seems to have satisfied it's sadism on it's visitors as there is not a single occasion during the final mile and a half jouney when you have to crawl again. White Passage is about 300 yards long and is typically 90 feet high and 30 feet wide. Selenite hairs, "antler like" formations and straws sporadically decorate its length. At the end of the passage is the fabled Time Machine. You know when you have got to this as you suddenly stumble upon a black void stretching away into the distance. ( Ignore what I said about route finding earlier, this is quite definitely the way on 1 The Time Machine is the most breathtaking piece of nothingness I've ever come across in this country. Apart from encrustations of crystal on the floor no formations appear along it's length, but the actual chamber ( or is it a passage P ) contains huge boulders, some as much as 30 feet in diameter. The chamber's dimensions start off about 80 feet wide by 120 feet high but reduce after 350 yards to something more cave-like. Bonsai Streamway may be heard, and then entered, at the bottom of a collapse slope at the far end of the Time Machine.
Bonsai Streamway gives a hint of formations to come when you start to see some digusting looking helietites on the walls. These look as if some mutated plant roots have managed to penetrate the rock from the mountain surface above. The formations start to improve and those called the "Crown Jewels" are soon met high up in the roof of the passage. This contains clusters of pure white calcite with knobbly bits sticking out, along with long straws and various helietites. Our group had a rest here, the camera was produced and I ordered people to go and stand in precarious places with flash-guns as usual. A little further down the passage more photos were also taken of the Bonsai Tree. This formation is remarkably like it's organic namesake and stands about 3 inches high; multiple calcite branches sprout out of it's trunk followed by twigs and then according to some people, a rabbit I Bonsai Streamway opens up into a stream passage of generous proportions once the water from Crystal Inlet joins it. Multitudes of long straws are passed, some being about 3 feet long, before you get to the start of the Kings Road.
The start of the Kings Road is marked by a obvious sign pointing to the Hard Rock Café. Navigating by following your nose is an unfortunately apt phrase whilst in the Kings Road area. Although the cavers involved in the push towards Agen Allwedd deserve some respect and support, it's a pity that the kitchen area isn't as clean as their sleeping area. The camp-site is littered with cooking utensils, food containers, executive gadgets, balloons, and scores of malignant white furry growths all over the floor. I hope they will tidy up when their digging operations have finished; particularly if Daren becomes part of the nature reserve. The newest aquisition I have seen here is an actual Kings Road sign from the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. A gentle stroll over a roof collapse leads to the terminal sump and the turn around point for the weary caver. The journey to this point usualy takes about 4 to 6 hours. After such a long journey with the prospect with an even longer one out, you would expect something spectacular to look at. Daren unfortunately runs out of sights, and all that is left are the murky waters of the sump that is tantalisingly close to the outside world and the pub in the Clydach Gorge. For the complete trip I had managed to con Guy to carry a BDH tube with contents that I kept a closely guarded secret. Once at the sump, I opened the box dished out the goodies like a subterranean Father Christmas. First on the menu was a mince pie each, then a half pound of fruit cake and finally an extremely generous swig of Southern Comfort. Christmas crackers were pulled and the jokes were read out once the paper hats were installed instead of the usual apparel.
When the booze ran out we decided that we ought to try for the return journey out. The litter was cleaned up and we set off up the Kings Road. Although the last two passages had both been stomping size for about a total of a mile each way, the combination of their length and a noticable gradient of ascent on the return journey, made them very tiresome at times. The first section of the passage was not quite so easy as before as the liquor took a greater toll on our caving technique than we would have wished. Particular care had to be exercised going back up Bonsai Streamway, so that our drunken staggering caused no formations to come to grief. Stopping at Crystal Inlet for a drink we were already almost stone cold sober and the entire length of cave to the bottom of the 70 feet pitch was travelled up in at a fast pace. The roped climbs and traverse did not prove particularly difficult despite our tiredness but the 65 feet ladder down was obviously a lot easier than going up it. The penultimate leg is Jigsaw Passage, and this too seemed to be a lot longer on the return journey then it was inward.
When you feel that the journey is almost over you come to the crawl, again. After 10 or more hours to see the crawl peering maliciously at you is enough to make most grown cavers wince. Many people at this point wished that they could either have free dived out through Elm Hole, pressed some form of hyper-space button, or that their alarm clock should go off so that they could wake up from this predicament. Setting off, slightly annoyed, definitely frustrated and almost certainly knackered you squirm, crawl or stoop for over a half hour. The metaphoric light at the end of the tunnel comes as you again meet the first inlet and you then know you are two thirds of the way out. This is not as wonderful news as one might think; the worst sections of the crawl are still to come. The true promise of release comes when you notice the occasional black speck on the walls. These increase in number until you find that there appears to be an entire mosquito graveyard all over the surrounding rock. Emerging onto the surface to a hot summer day after caving is often one of the most satisfying feelings I know; but after 12 hours of hell, beauty and splendour in Daren even drizzle under a cloudy, winter sky is treated with affection.
To people who haven't been to the sumps before; I suggest that you will require a little forethought and a lot of fitness. Anybody who has completed the trip will know and recognise the tired, smug look of cavers emerging after that ordeal.
As our car had caught a larger dose of Daren disease than we had, we went for a walk the next day after rising at a lazy midday. As the only member of the group who had to work on Monday I had to report absent by 'phone whilst the car was having a new exhaust fitted. I did not even mind missing the Office's Christmas dinner; as far as I was concerned the food we had down by Daren's sumps was far more satisfying than a meal in Croydon could ever be.