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Provisionals tell it how it is!

by PCW ~, 01 December 2013

Last month we ran another busy and successful Provisionals' weekend, masterminded by Claire and with support from many members. Coincident with fireworks night - it was quite a party! (photos by Claire V, Stuart R, PCW)

Several folk have written about their experiences. Grab a cup of tea and read how it feels to meet the underground world for the first time.

Sometimes wellies just won't come off! Suspiciously clean

By Jess Hughes:

We survived our first caving trip!!!”… The sense of achievement was palpable in the car during our Sunday evening drive back to Swansea. Laura and I, both total cave novices, couldn’t believe that we’d spent the day deep underground, traversing rocks, squeezing into narrow passages and wading through gushing streams. How to describe our sense of wonderment at such a surreal, overwhelming experience?

At the recommendation of a friend and long-term caving club member we’d arrived with our wellies, some old clothes, a tad of apprehension and a spirit of adventure! Whilst both of us had experienced the show caves at Dan-yr-Ogof as children, we were relatively clueless about what to expect from ‘proper caving’. Upon arrival we were met with friendly faces and warm mugs of tea: the clubhouse was cosy and welcoming, providing the perfect atmosphere for us to get to know everyone else.

Introductions over, it was time to change into our caving gear and meet our friendly guides: Antonia would be our trip leader and we’d be joined by Adrian and Stuart, two experienced cavers. At this point we were warned that our clothes were likely to get trashed in mud, so we opted to borrow some caving suits. I’d highly recommend hiring a decent overall as it helps not to be worrying about your t-shirt riding up as you do your best caterpillar-shimmy through small, rocky passages.

A brisk walk up the hillside in the sunshine led us to the top entrance of OFD1. We descended into the darkness and were pleasantly surprised when our head-torches lit up a vast chamber ahead: we’d expected the cave to be confined. Whilst this is true of some passages the majority of the space we encountered was high and airy. Our trip was to take in Gnome passage, the Trident and the Judge, three awe-inspiring formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Dropping at around five meters the Trident is one of the longest stalactites in Britain. The Judge is a similarly magnificent stalagmite which, you’ve guessed it, resembles a beleaguered magistrate, resplendent in wig and gown. A gloriously textured blanket of protuberant formations, knobbly Gnome passage didn’t disappoint either.

Our trip lasted just under four hours and was genuinely one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. We emerged wet, tired, muddy and exhausted, but relieved to have overcome such a challenge. Our guides were immensely supportive, and their extensive knowledge kept the trip interesting. If you’ve never tried caving before, or have considered it but been put off by misapprehensions my advice is give it a go, it definitely won’t disappoint!

This is the Prisoner Pit I don't think anyone got left behind!

By Kate Hutchence:

Had a wonderful time trying out caving at SWCC. I had just returned from living in the USA, bit disoriented at being home, and this was just what I needed – a proper adventure! Also a reminder and first hand experience of how exciting, and beautiful, the Welsh countryside is.

This adventure involved climbing up rocks, climbing down rocks, crawling through tunnels, traversing streams, entering large caverns and squeezing through some pretty tight spaces. I was amazed at how vast the network of caves beneath the hills of the Brecon Beacons was. We were exploring underground for several hours and I know we only saw a tiny fraction of what is down there. We saw some amazing rock formations, drank straight out of underwater streams, and generally challenged ourselves – must admit I felt quite sore the next day!

Huge thanks to Claire and Boyd, our guides, who made us feel so welcome. I felt in very safe hands with them, and was very impressed with their ability to navigate the underground labyrinth.

My top tips for trying caving would be:
1) Zip-up pockets. I did take a bar of chocolate underground with me as a snack, but somewhere in all the activity it must have worked it’s way out of my pocket (which was underneath my caving overalls!) – will be a happy surprise for the next cavers on that route I hope!
2) If possible get an all-in-one caving overall (instead of separate trousers and top). My trousers had braces on but I think they must have become loose as I was forever pulling them up, and had particular trouble with them falling down while crawling – bit embarrassing!
3) Wellies – it’s quite wet and muddy down there. I was very proud to have avoided getting my feet wet through the experience, but then at the very end I plunged my foot into muddy stream that was much deeper than expected… A change of socks is also a good idea.
4) Eating well beforehand. You are underground for a while and will need the energy.

At the swamp Creek formation

On the Salubrious traverse

By Morgan Specht:

I really enjoyed the Provisional members weekend at Penwyllt. I've been meaning to get to the club for a long time, but I'm an outdoor instructor, which means that on most weekends during the summer and autumn I've been busy working. I want to get to know OFD, and other caves around because I would like to advance my cave leader certification to level 2 and perhaps Cave Instructor Certificate someday.
It was a bit of a mad weekend for me, Fire Service interview aptitude tests on Friday, Citizenship test on Saturday and then I made my way up the Swansea Valley to the jam packed caving club cottages on the mountainside. I was really intimidated at first having missed the start of the weekend's activities and introductions and everyone seemed to know everyone else. That was quickly put right as one of the members spotted me and directed me to Clair and the group of provisional cavers chatting about their day's exploits down the caves. I then happened to strike up a good conversation with Fred, the former president of the club. We talked for a long time about the club and how I was really was keen to get involved with the club.
It turned out that it was also the club fireworks night and with other guest clubs in residence at the cottages the place was heaving. It was a night of good conversation, amazing firework in the lovely Welsh weather with a lot of good beer/ cake on tap. After an enthralling video presentation Fred found me and introduced me to a member named Tony who was planning a harrowing caving trip on the Sunday. I headed off to my van at about 2 am and was impressed that the party was still in full swing!
The next monring I met up with Tony, and two other provisional members names Gareth and Phil. We planned a through trip into the OFD top entrance and out of Cwm Dwr. It was indeed harrowing, and I got to practice my navigation skills. We moved at a good pace through the cave doing the trip in about 4 hours. My long legs and reach proved very useful when doing some pretty high and slippery traverses. I really loved it!
It was a sporting route with all the best aspects of a good cave trip for me. The route boosted fossil laberinthyn passages with big chambers and "exciting" traverses, climbing up and down rifts all surrounded by lovely prettys. We climbed up through some impressive vadose and phreatic tubes then down we went into the Streamway in Marble Showers. I love active systems and the Streamway did not disappoint! Then we came to the Cwr Dwr system which apparently and obviously is a popular place to get lost! We didn't but we did find some more "interesting" scrambles and high traverses and then we came to the boulder choke leading to a long crawl located near enough under the club. This is where my lankyness always proves to be a disadvantage! However I don't mind, it's a good mental and physical challenge. It took a little while to get out of the pipe at the end but I eventually found the technique and returned to the club for a well earned cup of coffee with my new caving friends.
It was a good weekend, and I look forward to my next visit to SWCC!

At Top Entrance

By Celestine Crabbe:

Prior to the provisionals' weekend I had only been caving once, in Cheddar, for about an hour in total. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and knew that I wanted to go again... and again... and again. Hence I went along to SWCC for the provisionals' weekend. I had previously been in touch with a few members of SWCC, via email, beforehand and had been made to feel very welcome, so when I did eventually arrive I was relaxed and not at all anxious.

On the Saturday morning we were put into groups determined by our previous experience (I was not alone in my lack thereof) and once organised and kitted up we set off. Our group, led by Claire and Boyd, went to the top entrance of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu (OFD II). I wasn't really sure what to expect before going into the cave although I imagined it would be different from the one in Cheddar, so I kept an open mind. Once in, we had a go at getting in and out of the Prisoner Pit, traversing and were shown potential natural markers in order to help find our way around. Interestingly, some bacteria was pointed out to us and some fungi (although as pretty as this was, it was there as a result of people dropping crumbs of food). We also walked along passages where we could see some beautiful stalagmites, stalactites, straws and other calcite formations such as the Wedding Cake - thankfully these along with certain mud formations are protected, as conservation efforts are in place. Our trip lasted for about four hours and once back at the club we had very welcomed tea and hot showers, followed by soup and fireworks. The evening was a great time to chat with other members of the club and for them to share their experiences and knowledge.

On the Sunday morning we (Claire, PCW and I) set off again, this time to the bottom entrance of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu (OFD I). This was by far my favourite of the two trips, although the Bolt Traverse did scare me a little (well maybe a lot), but the equipment used was secure and I was in safe hands... Claire and PCW are trained in cave rescue. This cave was quite different from OFD II, particularly because, from what I remember, there was such a contrast in the way we moved throughout the cave and its passages. In one part of the cave we were clambering up and over boulders, in another we were crawling in small, wet, gritty passageways, then sloshing our way through shallow pools of water and in another we were rolling under a sandy bedding plane. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to wade upstream because the river was too high, however, I did have the opportunity to climb up (or rather be pulled up) Lowe's Chain and to do a little more traversing. We also had to make our way up and down the Elephant's Posterior (I'll let you figure out what this is and was like for yourself). What was particularly memorable for me though was a beautifully serene chamber that we entered, the walls of which were covered with crystals, here I could have happily spent a day or two... and I almost forgot about how we got there via the dreaded Bolt Traverse... but would I travel this path again to get into that chamber? Absolutely! Other parts of the cave consisted of black limestone, flowstone and beautiful gour pools. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to be in such an environment, not to mention that caving is an excellent form of fitness.

I left the club after the provisionals' weekend proudly covered in bruises (knee pads are advisable... thanks Claire) and somewhat exhilarated. Being in a cave certainly gave me a new and enhanced perspective of the Earth, especially while I was travelling over its surface in the following few days, knowing that a few days previously I had been travelling through it, a few hundred feet underground.

Many thanks to all who made the weekend possible :)

Visiting the Trident

By Sian Mundy: A Day in the Life of a Provisional Caver

1. It’s 6.45am on Saturday the 9th November. My alarm sounds, piercing my sleep and waking me from warm dreams – but I don’t mind – today is caving day and I cannot wait…

I’m due at SWCC at 9.00am. Google says it should take 1 hour but I’ll allow myself an hour and a half, just in case. Good job I do. I plug in my not so faithful or reliable sat nav. As expected, on one occasion it asks me to take a left where there is no left and on another occasion it leads to me sign which reads ‘road ahead closed’. (It is difficult to imagine the joy one feels being alone, lost, and stranded in the Swansea Valley on a Saturday morning when the rest of the world seems to be in bed – oh and there’s no phone signal to call for help).

It’s nearing 8.20am and Sat Nav informs me that I’m very close to my final destination. I’ve been driving for about an hour so it seems Google was right too. I’m told to “turn right” and follow the road to my destination. The road winds to the left and then continues up hill on a road mostly fit for a single vehicle. I continue, despite the fact that I feel I’m on the road to nowhere – or at the very least - a dead end. At the top of the hill I’m confronted with yet another ominous and foreboding sign “danger, working quarry ahead” and Sat Nav beams that I’ve arrived at my destination – very unlikely I think.

Surprisingly, I have enough phone signal to send a text “Hi Stu, Sat Nav has led me to a dead end”. This text won’t get read until I’m in Stu’s company later and I’ll never receive a helpful reply. I plough on anyway.

I turn the car around and drive off in search of anywhere that looks like SWCC. I see a sign for a country park, an interesting castle and the entrance to Dan Yr Ogaf Showcaves, but no SWCC. I know I’m near. I have no idea of how close I was.

I drive around in circles a few times and finally, encouraged by my full bladder and utter desperation go caving, I decide to stop and ask for help. I pull in at the country park, use the facilities and track down the only person who is around at this time on a Saturday morning – the cleaner.

“Excuse me, do you know where South Wales Caving Club is please?”
“The only Caving Club I know is the one around the corner, where the quarry sign is”
Two feelings hit me: relief, and something resembling hysteria. I thank the kind, helpful lady and return to the dangerous quarry that happens to be the home of the SWCC – if you just ignore the sign and carry on regardless.

9.10 am, a little late, but finally I meet up with Stu and the first-time cavers. We don our kit and are ready to go…

2. I’m sat, fully kitted out, in the SWCC common room. Harvey, who’s been coming to the club for longer than I’ve been on the earth, tells me ‘I’m likely to be too warm caving with all my layers on’. I’m soon to discover that he’s right.
It’s a 15minute walk to the ‘top’ entrance of the cave – whatever that means. It’s a 15minute walk up hill; walking up hill, something I’ve never really been a fan of and pretty soon I’m pretty warm, in my four layers of clothing. We make it to the entrance and there’s just time for me to strip off to a more sensible layer of clothing before we to descend into the abyss…

It’s a fairly gentle entry, much gentler than my last entry into a cave, but I seem to have forgotten quite how dark they are. Either that or my head torch isn’t great – both turn out to be true and a change of batteries helps slightly. Apparently a good second hand head torch will set you back about £100. I’m good with the darkness for the time being.

Just as well…as we’re asked to switch out our lights and try to allow our eyes to adjust. At this point, I have an unhealthy desire to scare one of our group who is already feeling slightly nervous. I hold back. I must fight the will to be wholly inappropriate and possibly dangerous.

Soon some light is resumed with the switching on of Pete’s torch, and with it all desire to be immature leaves me. I am suddenly struck instead with the marvel of the cave. An enormous cavity beneath the ground hollowed out by running water. I cannot quite believe that it is natural and not man-made. It seems too angular, too neat. Peter explains the make-up of limestone and how it erodes. It all starts to make sense with some memories of secondary school geography fumbling their way back into my working brain.

I begin to fumble through the cave. I love it. I love the dim, mood lighting. I love the gentle sound of clear running water. I love the “pretties” that mark our path. I love the small squeezes, immense enclosures. I love the challenge of climbing and falling through stone. I love it all. I love my biscuits that have been crumbed and my chocolate bar that has smashed and melted. I love the feel of the ice cold water invading my wellies and soaking into my socks. I scream with delight. I laugh with delight. I’m having a great, great time.

3. A few hours later and it’s time to leave the cave. Daylight is a welcome embrace. We thunder back down the hill to the caving club. Walking down hill always much more enjoyable than walking up hill and it get’s better still… tea and cake and a roaring fire. What more could you want??? (Well maybe a hot shower, a massage and Wales to beat South Africa – but you can’t have everything, not all at once, not on the same day.)
:-) We do have hot showers [ed].

Stuart has in fact been taken by aliens

By Dave Dunbar

It was a pretty wet weekend as I drove up to Penwyllt on the Friday night. I was not new to caving but I was new to the club. I was very impressed by the club cottages and particularly by the roaring fire. I got to chat with lots of folk on friday night.

The friday evening was sufficiently sociable that we got off to a fairly relaxed start on Saturday morning and after having a general get to know each other I set off with [Gareth+Iain+Ellen+Carl] to have a look at the OFD I streamway. After a bit of indecision we decided to head up the streamway which was flowing furiously. It was a totally fun, sporting and very wet clamber till we reached its endpoint.

We had a much more mellow cave trip back to the entrance via the dry route. Great caving. I'm joining the club to meet up with like minded people who love being underground and I'm glad to say so far it has met and exceeded my expectations. The cavers were very open and friendly and have been more than happy to meet and cave with me in subsequent weeks. Nice folk too.

(Get in touch if you have any photos from your trip)