Ardèche Easter Tour


Ben Richards, Dave Kirkpatrick, James Wilson, Rebecca Diss, Úna Barker, Ana Teck, Leo Antwis, Jan Kożuszek, Wojtek Sowinski, Astrid Rao, Julien Jean, Valery Kirenskis, Laura Temple, Kevin Sohn, Fan Wan, Salwa Ahmad, Thurston Blount, Ashley Wong, Priya Wan

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Priya, Fan's Pomeranian (yes she actually typed this with her paws)


Started the long drive: Kevin & Laura, DKP car with Diss, Ana and Una

Last minute stores preparation: Astrid, Salwa, Ben

With the second-year geologists having headed off to Spain last week (with a cheeky night spent in stores beforehand), and an eventful car packing session last weekend involving Kevin being buried alive by a large number of ropes in a shopping trolley, ET fever was certainly in the air. Tuesday had seen a reasonably successful kit packing session which had involved Astrid looking like some Doctor Who monster while wearing various tight-fitting pieces of neoprene, and Chris needing two people to pull opposite ends of his body while he remained suspended in mid-air, held aloft by only the power of a very tiny wetsuit.

Some last minute laminating.

Come Friday, I finished work, picked up some laminating sheets on the way and headed to stores for some last-minute preparation. A laminating party with Astrid and Salwa ensued for about an hour, where we frantically laminated all of the surveys for the coming week. Astrid meanwhile changed flight details, including phoning Leo who happened to be sitting right outside stores in the union by sheer coincidence. He didn't however pick up fast enough to stop Salwa from drawing a cartoon of him not answering the phone on the back of a survey.

We then headed to Victoria Coach Station, having decided to get an early coach and spend the night at the airport. Mistake. In fairness, we made this decision before James offered to take all our hold bags in his car directly to the airport, which was incredibly luxurious for the rest of us. Dragging Astrid away from buying Penguins in Sainsbury's as we stuffed our internal Slov fleece pockets with vast amounts of food, we finally met Ashley at the bus station and settled down for the long drive to Gatwick, as the Casio all synchronously beeped 10pm. We really should sync our watches more often.

Ashely was franticly writing up her dissertation, which it turned out was due on Wednesday, while Salwa got to work pre-sleeping. Astrid updated yet more middle names and passport numbers on the flights while I researched and booked some last-minute car hire excess insurance. I got about 15 minutes of sleep before arriving. Gatwick was utterly deserted at midnight - just us and the security guards, with a couple other overnighters occupying the best benches by the door. Fortunately, we found a great bench hidden away around the corner, and set ourselves up for the long night ahead.


Some last minute productivity before the long night of chatting.


Final stretch of the drive: Laura & Kevin, DKP car with Diss, Ana and Una

Flight London -> Montpellier: Ben, Jan, Wojtek, Leo, Salwa, James, Astrid, Ashley

As the Casios beeped midnight (we synced all of ours on the bus ride which provided hourly entertainment), Ashley continued working away on her thesis and Astrid had disapeared off to find a plug. Apparently she even did some work before playing games for the rest of the night. Salwa and I chatted about anything and everything for a good 4 hours, which flew past and were a surprising amount of fun despite getting zero sleep whatsoever. I was continuously on my guard against her legendary investigative powers but don't think I let anything major slip. Phew. Also apparently much of Ashley’s work ended up turning into listening into what we were chatting about, sorry Ashley!

Leo and James arrived at 4:30, having had more than 0 hour sleep, with Jan joining just before 5. Bags were dropped and we headed off to departures. In security I very nearly had my camera flashes taken off of me, as they seemed so incredibly sus to the staff. The manager had to be called over as the staff couldn't undestand what they were, and she then intrerrogated further me before resentfully allowing them through after the explosive swabs all came back clear. Note to self, never bring these on a plane again!

James was not amused.

Much sitting around in the departures lounge. A tube for sucking snot out of your babies nose was found in boots. James read a shockingly boring and non-informative free edition of the New Yorks Times. Plane boarded and we were about to leave when someone near the front became sick. This meant that they had to be madically evacuated, and so we missed out ake off slow and so instea of 07:10 we left at 09:30... which was after we were initially supposed to land in Montpellier. They did at least give everyone a free drink and snack. I made the most of the extra time on the ground by getting some much needed sleep.

Ashley next to me alternated between sleeping and dissertation write up, and after a couple hours we arrived in the miniscule airpor of Montpellier. With 20C and clear skies as we stepped off of the plane, Easter Tour had officially begun. We packed our bags, picked up the hire cars (which were upgraded to hybrid Fiat 500s rather than the Peugeots we had booked) and with no Julien, not a single offensive walky talky message was broadcast to the local security teams. Wonderful.

Wojtek looking fabulous.

It turned out that Leo and I, the two Google Maps nerds, were in the same car with Jan and Wojtek. James, Salwa, Ashley and Astrid were in the other car. Salwa immediatey wanted to race us to the house, but Leo wanted to get a coffee on the way and that was the perfect excuse to go explore some random places en route. First up was a random village, Boisseron, with a run down castle. Sadly we couldn't urbex much since it was all boarded up with construction work, so we continued onto the next town down the road, Sommieres, which we could see from the road had an impressive looking castle up on a hill behind it.

Meeting the other car at Lidl, having been detoured by some sign about a festival on today, we bought some lunch and SPF-ed up. This tiny town turned out to be amazing. The group of us wandered in awe, taking millions of photos as local French people looked at us in pity. Old medieval looking streets, yellow stoned buildings with wooden shutters, stone arches in every direction and the view from the castle was very impressive. We of course stopped to take photos. Round the corner was an old wall crying out to be sqeezed through with various holes along the bottom of it. A group photo was in order of course.

We hadn't even reached the house when the adventures began.

Other tourists walked past us into the woods behind, and seemed to be following some footpath. Naturally we followed them and a short while in I looked on the French OS maps equivalent and saw that the path never in fact went down the hill, comitting us to a very long walk. Not to worry, as we soon found a cheeky shortcut directly down the steep, steep hill. Perfect. The town didn't stop giving there though, we had popped out on a cycle path right next to a very ominous looking tunnel entrance, heading back into the hill we'd just clambered down. Naturally we decided to see where it went, and had a lot of fun taking yet more photos. There were even some cool flowstone formations at the end. This took us right back under the castle and to the very south of the town, and so we wandered back once again towards the Lidl we'd parked at. Ashley at this moment handed out some incredible lemon yogurt things, however no one had cutlery (other than Astrid with chopsticks). Still delicious despite me desperately scoooping it up with the foil lid.

Reaching a beautiful river, lined with tall white trees and quiet cafes, we decided that we'd head back to the cars and spend the rest of the lovely afternoon at the house. This plan lasted about 10 minutes before we were intrigued by some men running around in white clothes near what looked like an outdoor concert venue. Walking towards them, some people shouted to us from the roof of the building to come in and watch, waving welcomingly. We shouted up if it was free and they seemed to indicate that it was, so in we went. It was not in fact for music, but looked worryingly like a gladiator arena. A man was hosing the sand on the floor in the middle, and as we looked around in confusion we saw various pictures of cows on the walls. Still dazed by the chronic lack of sleep and tired out after running around this random town by the road to the hosue, we couldn't quite believe what was happening.

Everyone looked as though they were waiting for something, and a passer by tried to communicate to us that whatever was going to happen would do so in about 5 minutes. We couldn't believe our luck! We felt like a sit down anyway and were unbelievably intrigued, so climbed up to the top of the amphitheatre and took our seats. It turned out we had signed up to watch Camargue bullfighting! The men dressed in white we had seen warming up outside appeared one by one around the outside of the ring, and from behind a large metal door emerged a very angry looking bull.

ICCC goes... bull fighting?

As the bullfighting went on, we slowly figured out and Googled our way to some level of understanding. The team of men in white clothes had to try to grab strings and ties off of the bull's head and horns, meaning that they would run in front of the enraged animal, swipe at it's head, with a metal knuckle-duster looking thing which had a hook for grabbing the strings, and would then sprint for safety by jumping over the wall of the area, to where the bull couldn't reach them. This was somewhat traumatic to watch, but certainly novel and the traditions of it seem to go back for centuries. We also couldn't quite believe we had randomly walked into this on our way to Lidl, but there you go.

The first bull was very scared, the second incredibly confident and once it learnt how to escape from the central ring, it kept jumping out in increasingly dramatic fashion, often landing on it’s head or back as it did so. The whole experienced seemed like a pretty terrible deal for the bulls. The third bull was somewhere between the first two, jumping out now and then, and when we realised there were going to be 6 in total we headed out and finally returned to Lidl, before heading off for home.

The drive was absolutely stunning with vineyards in every direction and medieval towns perched on hills all over the place. At one point we spotted a very dramatic, tall and generally cool looking mountain from the road. Leo identified it in seconds from his maps, saying that it was Mont Bouqeut and had a road up the side to a viewpoint right at the top. 30 mins later we realised we could actually visit in en route. A no brainer since the sun was about to set. Driving up the winding road, through the desert-like scrub forrest, we were treated to one of the best views I've seen in a long time. We couldn't believe our luck, again! We had suspected good views given it's prominance but this was in a whole other league. In every direction you could see for miles and miles, all the way to the snow capped French Alps in one direction, to the see and Montpellier in the other, and to the west where the sun was setting were the beautiful were the hazy, orange coloured valleys, receeding into the sun. Many photos were taken.


The very top was some sort of weather station or perhaps fire observation point. There was also a gilder take off point, as this was the perfect mountain for it. We drove back down to a lower viewpoint to watch the sun set as I frantically ran around taking dozens of photos, some of which turned out quite well imo. Jan christened the event as the "boys trip" given our simple masculine logic of "wow that mountain is big, let's go up". We eventually followed the winding road around to the other side of the mountain, but not even 100m along the road, we all jumped out for yet another superb view. This time there was a lone castle, perched in the middle of the forrest, the colours of sunset above it and the shadows of the trees all around it. Once again we couln't believe our luck - we were only here as we had spotted the mountain from the road!

Finally as the light was fading we decided that we really should head back, to join the others and inspect the house. Much French music was played on the way, and we only got a bit lost trying to find the house itself since we weren’t sure which address was correct. Eventually we met up with others, I met Fan for the first time and her adorable pomeranian Priya, and James and the team cooked up a mean tomato pasta. We heard a little of the epic drives that DKP car and the Laura Kevin combo cruise, which both sounded like epics trips in their own right.

Everyone was completely exhausted (I for one had hardly had more than an hour of sleep total) and so we headed off to bed, after a top notch start to the tour.

Ben R

The day begins at 3:30 in the morning. Darkness still shrouds London, and I am joined at the bus stop by a few of the night’s stragglers. On the bus, I take a moment to reflect on the wisdom of my decision (after a stern talking-to by my girlfriend) not to “sleep” at Gatwick with the others and instead get some actual rest in my actual bed. In the end I slept for what I think was over 4 hours – it would have been more, had Astrid not messaged me about car insurance and my resident status in the UK at the exact moment I was heading to bed.

The train journey to Gatwick goes smoothly, bringing me one step closer to fulfilling my childhood dream of visiting every London airport. The Sun is rising as I take the little rail cart going between the two terminals. I quickly find the others, looking generally dishevelled from the night, and we head to security. I go through without issues, but Ben draws much suspicion because of his strange boxes concealing even stranger electronic devices. He eventually manages to convince the staff he is not planning to blow up the plane with camera flashes and we can go on our merry way.


We have plenty of time at the airport: everyone disperses immediately. There is a very high-tech lego shop, with 3D renderings of all the sets that appear on demand. There is a spoons, with a shelf full of its own newspaper, with an oddly lofty headline (“Does truth matter” or something similar). I head to a ridiculously crowded boots to find some sustenance. I instead find the Snotsucker.

Astrid passes time by gaming, James reads the New York Times, Salwa stresses about getting to the gate on time – soon, we’re all sat down in the cramped seats of EasyJet. The plane leaves from the gate and we’re ready for take-off… but then the plane goes back to gate! One of the passengers has fallen ill and must disembark. This apparently requires tremendous amounts of paperwork, and two hours pass before we’re ready to depart again. I brought earplugs and a blindfold to try and get some sleep, but the seat proves far to uncomfortable for my long limbs, and the plugs do nothing to drown out the sound of Salwa grilling James on the seat next to me. I do find a very cool piece of news featuring a photo of a bunch of bears stealing a swan-shaped pedalo. There is also a particularly cute baby on the opposite side of the aisle that I am quickly establishing rapport with. Overall a good flight experience, despite the delay.

Finally we land. I am outraged because the “all passports” line is moving faster than the “EU passports” one, but all negative feelings disappear the moment I step outside and feel the warm embrace of the Mediterranean sun on my pale, wintry skin. We swiftly make our way to the car rental place, where I am made to sign my name under a bunch of clauses in French. It is to be a triple first for me: first time renting a car, first time driving in France, and, as it turns out, first time driving an automatic, as instead of the car Astrid booked, we get handed the keys to two almost brand-new automatic hybrid Fiats.

ICCC visits a cycling... cave?

Driving an automatic is very different to what I’m used to. I just press the pedal and the car leaps forward like some oversized go-cart, and the brake is much stronger than in any car I’ve driven before. Duties are divided – I drive, Ben navigates, Leo DJs but also navigates, and Wojtek lounges in the back and generally takes care of the vibe. James suggested we drive straight to our rented villa, but we dismiss this ridiculous notion and stop in literally the first village we find. There isn’t much there, except a boarded up castle-like structure that we cannot get to. Instead we drive for maybe 10 more minutes and stop by a Lidl that has a rather cute town next to it. I eat two classic French beef empanadas and we go off for sightseeing. The place has everything: a wonderful old town, a castle upon a hill with plenty of little holes for people to stick their heads through, then an odd narrow path winding around said hill before we abandon it and head almost straight down, into a long and suspiciously well-illuminated cycling tunnel (cave count anyone???). “I can feel the seasonal depression leaving my body”, Wojtek says at one point. Or maybe it was me? My limbs certainly feel lighter, and it’s strange to imagine that mere hours ago I was worrying about some silly numbers and graphs, as I gaze over the landscape bathed in sunshine. The wonders continue with a charming bridge over a shimmering river, and a wide esplanade leading us between almost architectural-looking trees. We almost call it a day with the sightseeing, but get distracted by a group of men dressed in white, jogging and jumping in the distance, seemingly warming up to something.

Maybe caving isn't such a ridiculous sport after all.

That something, unbelievably, turns out to be bull fighting. We enter the arena in disbelief. There are people, there are dogs on the stands, and then, no more than five minutes later, there is a bull, black, complete with intimidating curved horns to which someone has rudely attached a few pieces of string. We are shocked. Thunderstruck. Gobsmacked. At regular intervals, the organizers play bits of Carmen, the opera, on a loudspeaker, before cutting it off mid-note. Ben is furiously googling the rules of the event. The competitors are trying to remove the various bits and bobs hanging by the bull’s head. There are 15 minutes per bull. The first bull doesn’t pose the French lads much of a challenge. The second refuses to play by the rules. He jumps over the railing surrounding the arena and lands clumsily on the little circular path around it. We are astounded. Astonished. Flabbergasted. They coax the bull back into the arena, but he simply jumps out again. And again. I am strongly on the side of the bull here. 15 minutes later he leaves, undefeated, a true proud beast. The third bull does not have the spirit of his predecessor. He jumps out once or twice, but allows himself to be drawn into the little games of his ape tormentors. After he leaves, we too get up, still unable to believe what just happened, and make it back to the cars.

After all that, we’ve actually barely driven more than 30 minutes away from Montpellier. The sun is slowly descending towards the west as we speed off along picturesque French roads, before Ben and Leo tell me to take a random left turn. Well, they actually miss the turn, which sends us on a cute little detour, before I’m able to make it back. It turns out they saw some cool mountain in the distance which we can now check out. Another thing I get to check out on the way up is the car’s ‘semi-automatic’ setting (or is it Tiptronic?). It is cool.

The all new Fiat 500.

At the top, the Sun is just setting and the views are stunningly beautiful. Nobody quite has the words to describe it, so I just shout ‘boyyyys triiip’ a few times to let out some of my energy. Ben runs round and round looking for the best spots to take photos. We drive a little bit down to get a better view of the west side, and end up accidentally creating a car commercial (before the thing is covered in scratches and mud). After the sun’s disc finally disappears, we get back in the car and begin the drive down the other side. Except, not two minutes later, I am told to stop again – there is another cool view, this time to the north, where a small tower is perched atop a hill beneath our feet. We get back in the car and drive off again. Except, not five minutes later, I am told to stop again – we are now on the eastern slope, and Ben has spotted a new perspective on the aforementioned tower. We get back in the car and drive off, again. Finally it is too dark for any more pictures, and I am free to navigate the winding road back down with no further pauses. Instead I get frequent comments from Leo, who I think found his inner driving instructor. He compliments my sharp turn, right before reminding me to turn on my high beam.

Finding our Airbnb villa takes a few wrong turns, but finally we get there. A two hour drive from Montpellier has taken some eight hours, and I am exhausted. I have some food, and at random choose the third of the three ‘houses’ – in reality subdivisions of one building. As a result, I am blessed with the presence of a tiny 13 year old Pomeranian named Priya, made of more fluff than flesh.

And all of this was only day one.



Hike around Pont d'Arc: Everyone else

They wrote nothing, the fools!

Aven de Noel: Ben Richards, James Wilson, Ana Teck, Jan Kożuszek, Wojtek Sowinski, Astrid Rao, Salwa Ahmad, Ashley Wong

Our humble abode.

Despite the not great forecast, we woke to lovely weather and inspected the three houses, pool and trampoline in the light. There were three identical houses, each quite smal with a double bed downstairs and 4 single beds upstairs, with each having their own bathroom and kitchen area so they could be completely independent holliday homes. I picked the middle of the three, with the DKP car lags, and the first house became the social house given it was next to the driveway. It was shockingly cheap - 1200 EUR for all three buildings for the whole week, it had been about 900 EUR last year for about half as many people, and this year's house had a pool and gravel petanque area!

We had booked Aven de Noel for two days, this being the first and the second being later in the week. The permit was for max 8 people, and we had to go pickup a key from someone beforehand as well. On top of this, the cave was enormous so we had wanted to start as early as possible. This did not happen, unsurprisingly. The faff strarted when trying to allocate people to caves. Initially two groups, then one, then two again, only to realise the cars wouldn't work, then a hiking gang, then finally we could begin the tackle faff.

Our first glimpse of the mighty Ardeche.

Being the first trip, we had to locate all of the club gear which had been creatively packed for the journey. Once this had been located, we had to locate the group kit like bothies, first aid kits etc. There was an endless list of other things that also needed doing, eg. figuring out how to get rescued, where the key actually was which we needed to pick up, identifying rope lengths from the terrible french surveys and hand scrawled notes from Clive Westlake. All this before a 40 minute drive to the cave... mega faff. All this meant we finally left at about 1pm, still with a key to pickup along the way. Astrid went and picked this up, while we waited for the stragglers in our car and headed off soon afterwards.

Nice drive - lots of tiny small roads that Jan the driver didn't enjoy, but after crossing a nice bridge at the south of the tourist route, we finally got our views of the main attraction - the Ardeche gorge! Very impressive indeed, we stopped to take photos, of course. Eventually we turned off the beautiful large road onto some horrible dirt track, went past a riding centre (note to anyone else visiting, just park by the horse centre, don't scratch your car going further, very much not worth it for the short and easy walk). After scratching the car, the cave turned out to be a minute's walk down the hill and Ana got to work rigging with me close behind.

The very unassuming looking entrance.

The entrance was full of crickets. Immediately you drop into a not very pleasant rift, right below the random manhole cover in the middle of the bushes. Ana was dangling below, and as we continued we were both rather paranoid of the CO2, with tales from DKP and Diss about the levels being too high last time they visited. After the first 20m or so rifty pitch, another 10m rifty thing followed before we popped out at the top of a very deep hole. The opposite wall was very close, but the floor was completely missing. As Ana descended further and further into the abyss, the enormity of the chamber became apparent. Spine tingly indeed. I waited near the top, one rebelay into the giant chamber (about 90m deep we estimated) with the creaks and groans of the completely dry rope echoing up towards me. Eventually Ana became but a tiny spec in the darkness, very cool indeed.

Ana, a tiny spec of light, far below into the darkness.

James was close behind and agreed that the CO2 seemed fine so far. Given we were in Europe, the cave was incredibly warm and so we put most of our tiredness down to that, still we were very cautious as we passed numerous CO2 mesuring stations with varous scary looking signs. As I descended after Ana, the walls became further and further away until at the very bottom you're hanging in completely free space, descending icnredibly slowly given the horrifying prospect of the dry rope melting, with the headlights of cavers above feeling like stars in an empty sky. Touchdown at the bottom and I carefuly removed by very warm desender, before settling down on a flat area of mud, lying down and staring up at the vast hole above me. Cool stuff.

The mighty pitch of the main chamber.

Regaining our breaths at the bottom, the CO2 was definitely fine, and given we'd made it this far we concluded the paranoia up above was all in our heads. Ana and I waited for about 1 hr 30 for everyone else to make it down, and I tried in vein to capture some photos without bothering to get my flashes out. A waste of effort, but a fun way to pass the time. When Jan came down with his ultra bright Fenix it lit up the walls nicely.

At last we'd all made it to the bottom! Having completely misunderstood the survey, I recommended that others take off their SRT as there was certainly no other pitches now. Oops. As we walked off down the enormous tube connecting to the main pitch, we were oo-ing and aa-ing around every corner. Vast formations, red roofs painted with white veins of quartz, stals the size of a house. Even having been on a few Easter Tours before, I was still incredibly impressed. Even Ana with her stal poisoning from the Berger last summer couldn't help but be amazed!

Cave sparkles! It looks much better in video.

Our first destination was the white chamber. Every surface was covered in pure white flowstone as we entered, turning right past "the grand column" which indeed was absolutely vast. After the white flowstone were tunnels with walls coated in sparkling crystals. Noticing how they shined when I moved my light, I got everyone to turn their lights off, removed my torch from my head and waved it around on it's lowest setting, maximising the sparkliness. A crowd pleaser indeed. This was by far the sparkliest cave I'd ever seen! Next up were some beautiful translucent stals, which I wow-ed the crowd with yet again by taking my headlight off and shining it through them from behind. The HM71R being removable turns out to be very handy indeed.

Returning to the giant column, we exited the white chamber and continued on, passing huge gour pools and yet more huge stals. In horror, we then came upon a short up pitch, only about 5m but on ultra muddy and slippery rope, and against a very smooth wall with few to no hand holds. Sigh. James yolo'd his way up and managed to climb it, but with freshers in the group this wasn't an option for us all. Luckily a few others had left their kits on, and so I combined two hand jammers to quite litterally jammer climb my way up, which worked very well. I went to go find James and tell him the others were going to wait below the pitch, and eventually found him in a muddy tube at the end of the passage, in typical Dubz fashion. The muddy tube went nowhere.

James on the slippery pitch.

Running back I found most of the others had actually made it up the pitch, and so they went exploring while I stayed back and took some photos of Jan in the giant gour pools up above the pitch head. There was a second branch other than the muddy tube one, which involved climbing up over a house sized flowstone formation, which I naturally couldn't resist. Up here were yet more huge gour pools, with a suspiciously hollow sounding floor between them. James and Astrid turned around at this point to help those without harnesses down the 5m pitch, while I stayed back with Ashley so that she had time to explore all the wonders near the back.

Returning to the main group after exploring this branch, I had been zooming around in the very warm cave for quite a while and so had tied my top around my waist. Upon seeing me Astrid proclaimed "yay, naked Ben" to which there there was many a confused laugh. Let the record show that I was not, in fact, naked. I also slipped on the way down the pitch and nearly hurt myself but managed to regain composure. All was well.

A willing photography victim stands next to 'a stal'.

With the first time having headed off to start climbing the giant pitch, I followed up with some willing photography victims. We took a load of photos on the way back of the giant stals and the huge columns, some of which turned out very well if I do say so myself! Reaching the main pitch we found Wojtek at the bottom who was missing a hand jammer we had picked up by the short pitch, and could see the others up above on their way out. Giving Wojtek his means of escape, James went to find some side chamber while Astrid and had a chocolate bar while waiting for Ashley to head up the pitch. James returned saying that he couldn't find it, the taped sections of the cave all dying quickly. Looking again at the rough survey, it seemed to be right next to us, and we eventually realised it was behind the tape the whole time. I went over but didn't go down, after which James headed down for a look. He returned a short while later saying it was actually worth a poke around and had a weird calcified bat skeleton (which I got a photo of Astrid pointing at that can only be described as a YouTube clickbait thumbnail) and a plant crystal looking thing, which Astrid and I confirmed were quite cool after taking a look ourselves. The plant looking thing I later tried to identify when back in the UK and I'm pretty convinced this is a gypsum flower - so alien looking!


On the way out I got my first try at a big pitch photo, giving Astrid and James both flashes as they headed up, while I waited at the bottom. It was infuriatingly inferior to flash bulbs or whatever other exciting things all the hard core cave photographes must use, but for a first attempt I was very happy with it. I then zoomed up after them, rope walking my way to Astrid by the top of the chamber much to her surprise, after which we made our way out for about 23:30 at the surface, to an Ana at the top wondering how on Earth this trip had taken so long.

In retrospect there was definitely a fair amount of CO2 when coming up that big pitch, as we agreed while discussing it around the kitchen table. In the moment you can easily convinve yourself that it's just the heat or the size of the pitch, but comparing it to caves later in the week it was considerably harder work getting up that big pitch. Alternatively, high CO2 might now just be a catch all excuse for being out of shape.

We got back at about 00:15, downed some food and headed straigth to bed. Up there as possibly my favourite ever cave? Only Su Palu in Sardinia can rival it imo. Aven de Noel had it all - giant pitches, enormous formations, beautiful pretties, easy stomping passage. Highly worth a visit in my humble opinion.

Ben R

Concentration intensifies

No alarm set, out of kindness to our tired selves of yesterday. Still, I wake up around 9, a perfectly reasonable hour, and head for breakfast in house 1. The weather is beautiful, and it only makes sense to try and spend the day as far away from the Sun as we can. To this end, we have booked Aven de Noel, a cave that apparently plunges over a hundred metres down over only two pitches. Since the cave is booked, you’d think there wouldn’t be too many extra details to figure out. Well, actually, if you’ve read any other trip report, you know this couldn’t possibly be true. We need to figure out which eight people are going – I sign up immediately. We need to sort out the ropes, the surveys, where to pick up the key. There is a team of four girls with laptops on the couch, expressions of intense concentration on their faces. Still, even by our standards, the faff is astonishing, and it is past midday when JanCar and JamesCar finally set off for the first caving trip of Easter Tour.

We have to drive all the way to the other side of the gorge, and the most convenient route is closed this week. On navigation duty, Ben instead leads us south, down some narrow lanes tightly bound by shrubs and short trees, before we get to a bridge with towers at both ends, only wide enough to let through one car at a time. Now on the desired bank of the river, we turn north and begin climbing up the side of the gorge. Soon we stop at a view point, the first of many along the road that follows the meanders of the Ardeche. Looking south, we see the end of the canyon, where it opens up to a great sunny plain. To the north, the stone walls rise ever taller above the river, before it disappears behind a bend. A short drive and another view point stop later, we finally get to the cave.

Our car park for the day

Correction – we get to the side track that leads to the cave entrance. Not knowing any better and enticed by the promise of a very short walk later, we turn into this track. The surface is gravel and rock, and the bushes and the tress reach out their thorny arms to caress the pristine sides of the rental cars. Ana squirms, as if the scratches that we’re sure are appearing on the car were in fact carved on her own skin. Dear reader, if you ever find yourself here, just walk the extra 10 minutes. This also begins the trend of our mistreatment of the poor rental cars – but more on that in later days.

For now, we park in a little clearing between the shrubs. The cave entrance, a vertical shaft hidden under a metal crate, is only a minute away. Ana and Ben disappear almost immediately with the ropes, shortly followed by Wojtek and James. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the wonderful weather, Astrid, Ashley, Salwa and I sit back and try to absorb as much vitamin D as we can. Minutes pass slowly, and Astrid, never able to stay motionless, initiates a competition of trying to hit distant tree trunks with little rocks she picks up. This seems to anger some small flying insects, and they begin buzzing around her head menacingly for this transgression.


Finally the ‘rope free’s come from below, and we enter the first shaft. It is entirely unremarkable, except for a bunch of crickets, a huge spider, and many tree roots bursting into the first little chamber. The pitch is a little narrow but does not cause any trouble, and we descend some 30 metres before we have to pause again. Astrid decides to climb back up the rope and take some pictures of us as we either perform mysterious rituals in a circle, or pretend to be dead bodies at the bottom of the pitch. Both Ashley and Salwa do not take their duties as models seriously, and end up looking like very happy corpses.

Jan staring into the abyss.

After the photo break it’s time for the main pitch. The cave suddenly opens up and I stare down into an abyss, the lights of Salwa and Ashley descending slowly below, and then, even further down, small specks, the rest of the group, at the bottom of what feels like a 100m drop. I begin descending and realise that I am surrounded by formations, huge stalactites lining the ceiling and walls. I turn up my light to see better, and Ben signals me to look down so he can try and take some photos. Ana is getting bored and begins to sing, her voice carrying far in the enormous chamber. The rope is very dry and I have to control my speed so my descender doesn’t burn my fingers.

Shiny stals

Finally we are all down. Ben tells us we can take off our SRT kits, and we begin the sightseeing part of the trip. A spacious tube-like corridor leads us further into the cave. There are formations at every step, from small straws and strange crystals to gigantic calcite monuments, reaching high into the darkness of the rock vaults above, dwarfing us with their immense size. At a junction by one such silent giant we take a right turn to enter the White Gallery. Here more wonders await, stalactites with horizontal outgrowths like the hooks of harpoons, or semi translucent stalagmites that glow as if filled with magma when Ben shines his light through. Then there is a section whose walls gleam and shimmer in our lights. My brain has trouble processing what it’s looking at, and for a moment I feel as if the sparks weren’t on the wall at all, and instead shone directly on the surface of my eyes.

The junction, with 'grand column' in the background.

We return to the junction and go the other way now. Shortly we find ourselves at a climb. There is a rope, but most of us have left their SRT kit at the entrance pitch. I’m also conscious of the time – we entered the cave quite late, and should probably start heading back reasonably soon. As I ponder this and explore the seeming dead end, James decides it’s not dead at all and simply climbs up the thing with no gear. Ben follows, and they disappear somewhere above. We stay down for a moment, but quickly get bored. Between all of us, we have a few random pieces of kit, and so manage to assemble some sort of a climbing aide, and one by one make it up the steep slope. On the other side there are gour pools even deeper than the ones we’ve seen before, with some effort required to even get in. Everyone disperses again, and I go into a corridor on the right, where I meet Ana returning from the other side, and tell her I’ll be back shortly. I notice she seems uncharacteristically winded, considering she’s only been moving on horizontal surfaces. I attribute this to her insane pace, but perhaps this lends some credibility to Ben’s CO2 theory.

More pretties.

After finding a random bucket catching stray droplets emerging from the darkness above, I decide to turn around. At the in situ rope, Ana explains down-prusiking to me, exasperated that nobody has done so up until now. Time, in its usual fashion, continues to move forward, and at least part of the group needs to start heading out. This part turns out to comprise of Ana, Wojtek, Salwa and myself. We walk all the way to the main pitch, where Wojtek discovers he’s left his hand jammer next to the climb, and I discover I’ve lost one of my two water bottles. Not ideal. I go back a little, but it is nowhere to be found, so I am left hoping that someone from the other group stumbles upon it.

Ana goes up first, followed by Salwa, who was a little apprehensive about how she’d fare against the long climb. At one of the rebelays, she shouts down that she’s encountered some trouble. Ana and I try our best to figure out what’s happening, which is made considerably harder by the strong echo. Ana ends up descending to be of more help, but before she can get to Salwa, she manages to sort it out by herself and is again on her way up. The other half of the group, who stayed behind to take some photos, are still not here, and Wojtek must wait for them to hopefully bring his hand jammer. He doesn’t seem particularly thrilled by this situation as I leave him to begin my own ascent. It goes slowly, though I do not necessarily feel any more out of shape than normal, which perhaps does not lend credibility to Ben’s CO2 theory.

Big stal, with a dubz for scale.

I get quite high up and still there is no sign of the others. We reassure Wojtek, via some spaced-out shouts to counteract the echo, that we will not leave without him and will hang out at the top of the pitch until the photo team shows up. Thankfully, I finally see their lights while I’m somewhere around the final rebelay of this pitch.

The rest of the way up is not particularly remarkable. I emerge to a world ruled by a cold night and a bright moon. After changing, I wait in the car with Ana – we decide not to attempt any smalltalk and remain content with silence. She eventually gets uneasy about how long it’s taking the others to emerge and goes back to check, but everything is in order, and not too long after everyone is out. Not only that, but Astrid found my lost water bottle. We begin the way back home, but pause while still on the shitty side track to give the other car the rest of our cake.

On the drive back we instead take the northern route, completing a full circle around the gorge. Ana stops me having too much fun with the car’s acceleration by reminding me of the concept of car sickness. All sing a wonderful rendition of Cecilia, and Ana tells us to “In the words of Diss, end diss”. I’m also instructed to drive straight over a roundabout much to general amusement. When we finally get home, everyone is too tired to do anything other than grab some quick sustenance and go to bed.


Astrid trapped by the pretties.


Via Ferrata: Everyone (!)

Another morning of beautiful weather, perhaps the last if the forecast was to be trusted. Giant dog came and pooped by our house. Priya was fortunately not eaten. Given the lovely weather, and that previous inquiries into canyoning had been shut down by those who'd been before saying it would be too cold, and that they didn't want to do the epic big pitch canyon, in addition to finding out all the kayaking places were closed until next week when tourist season began, it was going to be the via ferrata day.

Leo looking way too cool for school.

Initially some wanted to go ferrata some hike, but quickly this turned into everyone wanting to go do via ferrata as we found that a gear hire shop by the Devil's Bridge via ferrata said they were open, meaning we weren't restricted to the 5 club sets of lanyards. Upon arrival they were not in fact open. The drive up through the mountains on the way there was very nice as well, with waterfalls and viewpoints along the way. Our car also stopped to get a few pizzas and pastries from a boulangerie, with Jan giving a low wall a not so gentle kiss with the car's bumper. However when arriving to find the hire place closed we were about to leave when a random man in a van came along and opened it up, as if by magic. We then managed to rent out the kits, including the zip line pulleys which looked very exciting, and even though he was technically one short of the ones he was allowed to rent to us, he slipped in an extra one for free for Leo. What a nice Frenchman.


The then all happily headed off to the via ferrata in one massive and slow moving group, causing an enormous traffic jam and having a lot of fun while doing so. The route went up one side of the valley, then zip lined across the Ardeche to the other side, before continuing to climb even higher until you pop out at the top of the cliff and walk back down a footpath, crossing over the very asthetically pleasing Devil's Bridge to reach the starting point. Wojtek even managed to do the zip line 1.5x by sliding back out into the middle. Great fun.

Having seen that the point beneath the bridge was a prime swimming spot, we'd brought wet suits and so went for a freezing cold swim afterwards, with lots of jumping off of rocks into pools. I got incredibly cold due to my highly ventilated and poorly fitting club wetsuit, so hopped out to join Salwa with some photography as I'd handed her my new mirrorless camera while I went for a swim, with which she took many amazing photos!

On the drive back we stopped at a huge intermarche and were stunned at the sheer variety of weird foods. We decided that we must return here later in the week for a BBQ of exotic meats, which fortunately did come to fruition. We did buy some local specialities, including nougat beer and chestnut spread, which was meh, and chestnut spread, which was a strong crowd pleaser. Dinner was ratatouille, which we had to have at some point in the week, liberally coated with our new favourite seasoning "aromat" or specificaly, aromat with italian herbs, which is basically just salt, MSG and italian herbs. Truly the food of the gods.

Leo and Laura went to fetch the geologists from Nimes and apparently got pizza. The rest of us were exhausted so headed to bed.

 Ben R

Content for the caving calendar is progressing well.

Are you getting tired of the lengthy reports? You’re only two days in! There is already so much content on the website that it’s making scrolling to upload more a little annoying. Perhaps I should trim my reports a little more. I’ll give you a little moment to gather strength:

Ok, here it goes.

It was another beautiful morning (that’s right, now I’m writing in past tense! Gotta keep you on your toes). In fact, if the forecast was to be trusted, it was to be the final beautiful day of the trip, and nobody really wanted to spend it underground. At breakfast Priya moved clumsily on the smooth floor, eating any and all crumbs she could find, as we discussed our options. In the evening, someone would have to pick up the geologists who were arriving from Spain. There was some talk of driving to Avignon, which would make that easier, but eventually it was decided we’d all go north and do via ferrata, and worry about the geologist problem later.

This time I was joined in the car by Fan and Ben. We stopped at a bakery on the way, and I managed to lightly scrape a low wall when parking – I was still getting a hang of the hybrid automatic. Fortunately the ‘damage’ was minimal, and amounted to a few tiny scratches on the bumper, but I still got pretty stressed about it. At the bakery, we mumbled something in French and received a bottle of water, a few pizzas and an assortment of pastries. Fan’s was so good that she would spend the next couple of days obsessively trying to remember what it was called.

Fan on the ferrata.

When we got to the via ferrata, the place that was meant to be open turned out to be closed on Mondays, a very reasonable and normal day to be closed. I sat back and tried not to get in the way as the responsible people tried to figure out what to do. Eventually the guy running the place showed up anyway, presumably attracted by the large traffic and its promise of large earnings. All the necessary kit rented, we set off on the route. It began with a rope bridge and a few simple ladders before leading up to a zipline over the river. I was near the front of the group, behind only James and Kevin, and looking back across could see the incredible traffic jam we’d created: the rock face was peppered with cavers.

Before setting off further I waited for Wojtek to cross the zipline. Everything seemed, but when he got to the end platform, he didn’t find his balance and ended up sliding back to the middle of the line, dangling sadly over the river. Fortunately he managed to pull himself to the platform without much trouble.

Topping out with the gang.

The second part of the via ferrata was considerably more difficult, with long sections of overhanging ladders, but nothing that could cause trouble to your favourite group of battle-hardened cavers. We were at the top in no time, and made our way back to the parking lot over the charming Devil’s Bridge. People then began changing into their wetsuits to go swim in the river. I did not have a wetsuit, having failed to find one that would fit me in stores prior to the trip, but did not want to miss out on the river fun. So I did the only reasonable thing: I went into the water in swim trunks. Predictably, it was very cold, and I did not feel any particular need to follow the group that went up to jump into the water from some rocks. Instead I went out pretty quickly, with a sense of well-fulfilled duty. Only later did I learn that Wojtek also went to swim without a wetsuit, and spent a lot more time in the water.

On the way back, we stopped in the village to return all the rented kit to the man running the ferrata office, who’d gone back to pick his kids up from school in the meantime. Annoyingly, it turned out we did not have all of it, as JamesCar had driven off with one set still in its boot. Finally able to drive off for real, we set off on a journey south, with a long stop at a huge InterMarche in Aubenas where we purchased a box of wine, a few small goats cheeses and some chestnut things. The cashier turned out to be possibly the only French person in the region to actually speak good English, and seemed a little amused at our random selection of products.

The rest of the way went without major incidents. Off to day 4!


Swimming by the Devil's Bridge.


Aven Despeysse: Ana Teck, Astrid Rao, Valery Kirenskis, Thurston Blount

No one wrote anything for this :(

Grotte Estevan & Grotte de la Barbette: Ben Richards, James Wilson, Leo Antwis, Jan Kożuszek, Julien Jean, Kevin Sohn, Fan Wan, Salwa Ahmad, Ashley Wong

It had finally come, the day of the storm. Later today my Dad would send me a photo of my family's home in Devon covered in an inch of snow, and the same storm was forecast to bring ridiculous winds and endless rain to the south of France. Yet once again the forecast wasn't 100% accurate and in reality there was just endless light to medium rain for the entire day.

We therefore spent the morning researching what would be possible given the weather. Initially we thought that Event de Peyrejal, a supposedly lovely cave of big tubes according to Diss, would be the perfect cave for Ana to go do some SRT. After digging through many terrible quiality surveys, some in French, some handwritten by Clive, we eventually found one that described its water response as "the violence of the floods is terrible". We took this to mean bad things and therefore changed plans. The next best SRT option was Aven Despeysse, the top entrance of the popular St Marcel through trip, for which we had a permit for the next three days. Ana decided to take a team there to rig the SRT pitches, with a plan of a second team returning tomorrow for the epic through trip. This ended up being thwarted by the mega faff in planning the trip meaning they didn't get in until mid afternoon, having needed to pick up a key and then the cave being full of insects and ultra aggressive frogs, from what I gathered. They got one pitch in before deriging on their way out.

Meanwhile, myself and others wanted to visit a small cave near a road, described as "unreasonably beautiful" or something to that extent by some Cambridge University caving club notes we'd been sent after their recent tour. It was also only a 15 minute drive, which helped seal the deal of changing in the rain. As we arrived, rain pouring down, we whipped out bothy bags (some soaking from the lovely previous users who hadn't dried them out) and draped them over the car boots to create a make-shift changing tent. This mostly worked but did funnel very large quantites of water directly into my wellies. Changing completed, we coaxed the other two cars out into the rain to change as well, and headed off into the woods to try and find this cave.

Group shelter group pic

Supposedly the entrance was incredbly easy to find, being just along a path for 50m. After following the obvious path for far longer than this we realised we were heading in completely the wrong direction and so headed back, more confused and more wet. Some went to check down a small animal path looking route through the undergrowth while I went to ask if Julien had his phone for GPS. I soon heard them shout that they'd found something and followed to find first the Barbette entrance, followed by the Estevan entrance a short distance further.

The two caves connect in a through trip that we thought we'd attempt, given it seemed reasonably easy to bail on given how short it was. I sent Julien into the exit, Barbette, to see what he could find, and gave him a 15 minute callout given it was a minute walk down the path. I started rigging the ridiculously easy 6m pitch into Estevan, the only SRT in the entire through trip, and once 15 mintues had passed sent some others to go check up on Julien. It turned out that he'd bumped into some Germans in the cave who were apparently trying to do the through trip in reverse, but had come to some water and prompty given up, presumably since they didn't have the equipment for the 6m pitch I was currently rigging. Hearing this, we decided to give it a go anyway, since the way there might still be quite pretty and there wasn't much else to do.

I rigged down on what I believe was the single spit of the tour, and two naturals, before dropping down into possibly the most beautiful room of any cave I've ever been to. Myself included, everyone let out a "wooah" as they dropped in through the roof, immediately being surrounded by a forrest of stals, stretching as far as your light could see down a chamber about 10m wide. One by one everyone dropped down, and we took off our SRT as apparently the rest of the cave was all crawling. I ordered some people around with flashes and got a great photo of Kevin on the entrance pitch, from a viewpoint on the other side of the chamber. This room was full of guided pathways, since it had only been discovered quite recently in comparison to Barbette which was discovered about 50 years prior and so was pretty destroyed by comparison.

The spectacular main chamber.

After this everyone zoomed off exploring, and we found a second chamber with a weirdly white roof as if made of conctrete, but in fact plastered with moon milk. Behind this were hundreds of straws beginning the transition to stals, all hanging from the ceiling with tree roots dangling in from the sides of the chamber. A squeeze from here then led back to the first chamber via another series of tiny chambers, each full of columns, stals and snapped off straws showing their hollow centres. This route also carried on into the through trip to Barbette. Squeezing through small chambers, often head first into a tiny hole in the wall with your feet flailing as you slide down, was pretty characteristic of the rest of the cave, clambering over, under or through flowstones, stals and curtains, since there were just so many of them and they coated every surface in sight.

The moonmilk chamber.

A couple of small chambers in, we could again stand up, and took a turning off to another chamber which contained a ridiculous number of pretties. We saw our first glimpses of the walls of helictites that would reappear later in the cave, some growing to over a hand-length, and coating the wall like giant stony velcro. Looking up the roof was covered in straws and stals, but between them was a continuous fuzz of mini helictites, presumably popping out of pores in the stals and straws, causing the weird capiliary action magic that forms them.

This side chamber also had a text book, and possibly the best example I've ever seen, of botryoidal-type coralloid, i.e. popcorn that looks like a bunch of grapes. These were hanging above a lovely little gour pool, and behind them was some jaw bone taped off in the middle of the floor. After throwing ourselves into a few more holes in walls, and passing a sign presumably saying welcome to Estevan, we slid down into a cave that suddenly felt quite different. The formations were less dense and more battered, with all surfaces feeling muddier and smoother. A sure sign that we had entered the older section of the cave, Barbette.

So botryoidal!

Still, this part of the cave had a roof completely and utterly coated in helictites - the most I've ever seen in one place. Leo, Julien and I lay on the floor and marvelled at them for a few minutes, since there must have been thousands of them, and each of them were multiple inches in length, causing the entire roof to feel fuzzy. Carefully looking up close, you could see that some of the most impressive ones had started as straws, then become stals as water had flowed over their outside rather than through the middle, then helictites had grown off the sides of these, with further branching of these helictites until eventually new straws had grown off of these branches of branches of branches. Weird! Some of the longest easily reached over 30cm when combining all their wiggliness, with a huge varieties of colours ranging from icy clear to a dark yellowy orange. Absolutely ridiculous. We commented that it was by far the hairiest cave we'd ever seen, having read about another cave just down the road from this one that was also full of hairy looking helictites.

Julien disappears further into the cave.

The chambers kept coming, and we popped out into quite a large one, perhaps 20m square, and full of columns which you wound your way between. Kevin and James went to find the way on as the geologists and I continued to be fasctinated endlessly by calcite. We found another gour pool, this one half drained but full of pool spar and mini mammiliaries, with a very impressive shelf around the rim and a surface coated in calcite rafts. Leo didn't appear with a piece of curtain in hand, of which a small piece didn't make it's way back to stores.

Having found the way on, we realised we were at the infamous 37m crawl, the toughest part of the through trip at which the Germans had turned around instantly. Kevin and James had ventured into the crawl, which initially was very tight indeed so I'm told, likely too tight for Jan to fit through, and so Kevin turned around and headed out. James said "he'll just look a bit further" and so in typical James fashion finished the entire cave, crawled through the impassable flooded section and made it all the way to the exit of Barbette without realising, before turning around and doing it all again. Classic.

We all headed back the way we came, this time only taking about 30 mins to get back to the main chamber now we weren't stopping ever other meter to stand in awe of the pretties. At one point I managed to take a wrong turning and magically popped back out in the large final chamber all alone, only to see a leg disappear into a wall in front of me. I managed to refind my way and successfully made it out alive.

The Barbette entrance.

After derigging we poked out heads into Barbette - Leo was convinced the cave was cursed after bats started flying out of the muddy and quite grim looking entrance hole. It turned out he was partly correct as we struggled to escape on the way out, accidently taking a wrong turning and ending up in a completely different chamber. Nevertheless it was quite fun to take a look, with a giant hole in the floor and lots of beautiful flowstone to clamber over.

After all this fun we drove the 15 mins back home, heard all about the doomed trip to Aven de Frogs, and DKP promptly broke the door handle while Salwa was in the loo meaning she was trapped in there and had to be helped out the window. Not wanting yet another day of 3pm start caving trips, Astrid and I spent the entire evening and much of the night researching how on Earth we were going to do a Marcel trip with so many people and no rigging of the through trip. This turned out to be increidbly helpful, and we ended up completely changing our plans multiple times. Note to self, do this before the tour starts next time!


Meanwhile on the Ana&Co trip to rig Aven de Frogs Agressives...

The rain came at night, a constant thudding on the window in the roof of our room. When the sun rose, it had to break through a thick layer of clouds, turning the whole world a sickly yellow. Again the faff took a hold of your favourite cavers, and hours passed on fruitless discussions and trying to figure out the danger of flooding from terrible French descriptions, until eventually I was presented with two choices: either a rigging-and-nothing-else trip with Ana&co, or a crawly and possibly-too-tight trip with Ben&co. The regular readers of this publication will no doubt know that I’ve had my less than pleasant run-ins with squeezes in caves, so it will perhaps come as a surprise that I decided to sod it and try the latter option anyway.

Le bothy.

The parking spot was a short drive away, and JanCar, JamesCar, and FanCar rolled in within minutes of each other, still assaulted by the unceasing rain. Ben and Salwa constructed a makeshift tent out of the car boot door and a bothy to help them change while maintaining a semblance of dryness. In contrast, I gave up immediately and simply changed in the rain, passing various objects into the orange confines of the bothy much to the amusement of those inside, who only saw a mysterious hand appear from the outer world.

We were the first to finish changing and thus set off to try and locate the entrance based on a set of somewhat vague directions. When our first attempt failed, Ben went back to the car for the gps, while I set off on a narrow side path followed by Salwa. Soon, in a clearing on the right, I found a random hole in the ground that looked like it could lead into a cave. Returning back to the path a short walk further lead to a small vertical drop covered by a metal sheet, kindly labelled as ‘grotte Estevan’.

Ben sent Julien off on a quest to sus out the other hole, presumably the entrance to Barbette, and went in to the cave at hand. Much like Noel, there was a short downclimb into a small chamber with crickets that then led to a pitch. Unlike Noel, said pitch was only 6m long instead of 120, and I was down in just a couple of minutes.

Stals on every surface.

I found myself in the main chamber of Estevan, and discovered that it was absurdly beautiful. Almost every square inch of surface, be it vertical or diagonal, was covered with stals and calcite, with narrow paths marked with tape to try and avoid damaging this underground treasury. Ben gave me the survey and I did a bit of sightseeing, walking around the entire chamber, not quite able to believe what I was seeing. I located the way to the connection with Barbette, and then, in the far end of the chamber, a squeeze. I’d already taken off my SRT kit, as it wouldn’t be necessary, and so the squeeze presented no problems. Behind it was another chamber, its ceiling thorny and milky white, like an albino coral reef abandoned so far from the ocean. Along the wall crawled a single root, like a thick black snake emerging from its lair.

The second chamber with ceiling of moonmilk covered stals.

From there a further short squeeze among some pretties connected back to the main chamber, where almost everyone had by now descended and was also exploring. I reported back on my findings, and was handed one of Ben’s flashes to go stand somewhere inconspicuous and help with the photos. This naturally took a while, but eventually we were able to dive further into the cave.

The deeper parts of the system soon settled into a comfortable rhythm: short squeeze, then an opening filled with more wonders, then another squeeze. None of them were particularly challenging, and only one really made itself felt upon my ribs. Every now and then I had a look at the survey, and could not make any connection between what it showed and the reality around me, as it seemed to lump many seemingly separate small spaces into large singular chambers. It was for this reason that I completely missed the fact that we had crossed from Estevan into the older section of the system, Barbette, much more rugged and worse for wear form decades of tourism but still retaining a lot of its old beauty.


In a large chamber now, we were unsure of how to proceed. We had followed a series of marks made of red tape, but the one we could see now seemed to point towards a dead end. Eventually, Ben told us we figured out we had reached the beginning of the most difficult part of the route, marked on the map as a ‘37m crawl of some repute’. James and Kevin disappeared bravely down its cold throat, while the rest of us entertained ourselves by sightseeing different bits of the chamber. I particularly enjoyed a gour pool whose sloping walls were completely overgrown with crystals, discovered by Julien.

The beautiful gour pool, with Julien for scale.

Not too long later, news came from the crawl: it was wet and cold and unpleasant, and probably too tight for me to get through. Kevin came back and said we should go back the way we came, while James stayed back to try to check out a little bit more of the crawl. By ‘a little bit more’ he of course meant finishing the whole thing, turning around, and squeezing through the entire 37 metres again. As he was engaging in this classic James activity, we moved rapidly following our own footsteps from before. Now that I knew where I was on the survey, everything suddenly made sense, and I realized the cave was simply much smaller than I had thought. Because of this, and because we no longer stopped every five minutes to admire something new and take photos, it only took us around half an hour to get all the way back to the entrance pitch.

James emerges from Barbette.

Outside, the rain had stopped, and it was a cool, calm night. Forest mice scurried around in the leaves and hid under the metal plate from the entrance, now thrown aside. On the way back we quickly popped into Barbette, where behind a sloping unremarkable hole hid a roughly circular chamber, again filled with formations, surrounding a 30 metre pitch in the floor. Some people went around exploring, finding the other end of the 37m crawl, but I could not be bothered and shortly walked back to the cars. We’d stashed a large bag of madeleine cakes in mine, and I took it out as soon as I finished changing much to the joy of everyone on the trip.

Back at the villa I learned that the plans of the rigging trip were foiled by a veritable frog army near the cave’s entrance: choosing the squeezes had been the right call. FanCar returned from the cave last, having hit a curb in a village on along the way, puncturing the tyre (at least I think that's when it happened?). Ben and Astrid secluded themselves on the couch to do research before announcing that we’d have to be up by 8 the following morning. I was completely shattered anyway, so following a quick yet reinvigorating hangout with Priya the Pomeranian, I went to bed.


Hollow straws, coated in calcite to form stals, surrounded by moonmilk and snapped off (not by us!) - much prettiness.


Aven des Neuf Gorges: Dave Kirkpatrick, Rebecca Diss, Ana Teck

No one wrote anything for this trip :(

Sounded like they had a grand time. I think they were also glad to be free of the children given the mega faff the day before. They also apparently tried to take a shortcut back and instead it took them multiple hours and nearly killed Dave's car.

Grotte de Saint-Marcel: Ben Richards, James Wilson, Leo Antwis, Jan Kożuszek, Wojtek Sowinski, Astrid Rao, Julien Jean, Valery Kirenskis, Laura Temple, Kevin Sohn, Fan Wan, Salwa Ahmad, Thurston Blount, Ashley Wong, Priya Wan

We had ordered everyone to go to bed early so that they had to be up by 8, allowing us to get into the cave before 10am as instructed on the permit. At about midnight Astrid and I had the realisation that this 10am cut off was because that was when the show cave usually opened, however since we were a week before tourist season began the cave wouldn't open at all and therefore there was no reason for them to get up early after all. Oops. On the plus side this meant that we actually got into the cave by mid day which was unprecedented. Rather than our highly epic and very ambitious plan to do the entire through trip from Aven de Frogs through to the natural entrance beyond the show cave section, we had instead learnt from a single YouTube video in the early hours of the morning that entering from the natural entrance allows for a walking trip many hours long up a giant phreatice tube that continues on the other side of the show cave. Enticing indeed. We were still greatly confused about the conflicting descriptions of doors that one survey says only open from one side, and another say only open from the precise opposite side. Some surveys said there were two, others only one. We also had the next day available on the permit as well, so we could explore that route if we had time left on our hands.

Differing levels of kit were worn amongst the team.

Stopping by the same viewpoints over the Ardeche as on the way to Noel on Sunday, the river had turned a horrifying brown with large trees gently floating below us down the river. Laura did not seem overly enthusiastic about kayaking in it. Jan yet again ended up doing the horrifying driving, investigating the track down to the cave entrance and conclusively deciding that it was not at all worth risking sending the other car down there. When I told people not to bring SRT, some people for reasons unknown to myself interpreted this to mean bring nothing but regular hiking clothes, e.g. no helmet and no light... After only realising this after the 40min drive, we re-distributed some kit and luckily seemed to have enough to go round. I took in SRT just in case, as there were supposdly some pitches deeper into the cave, but no one ended up doing any. Fan also brought Priya in a very adorable looking dog bag thing with fake legs poking out. What a trip.

The large walking tubes of the natural entrance.

The entrance was a big metal grating beneath a very drippy waterfall, and given we were such a large group we decided to each sign ourselves out on a piece of paper by the entrance. Entering in the natural entrance we were immediately greeted with a huge phreatic tube, with a few giant formations and a vast amount of graffiti, some of it over a hundred years old if the dates are to be believed. Clusters of bats perched here and there, and the stomping down giant passages began. After 15 mins we made it to a huge ladder up into the ceiling, made of some lovely dodgy rusty metal. Beyond this the cave got prettier and prettier before opening out into a large chamber which turned out to be the furthest reaches of the show cave. Walking up some human carved steps in a giant 10m high flowstone wall we popped out next to some railings and information boards in the completely abandoned show cave, not opening until next week. We had the whole place to ourselves! At this point we all broke off and started exploring the various places in the show cave - quite an odd experience.

Fan and Priya reading an info board in the show cave.

The lower sections of the show cave are "the cathedral" with an enormous flowstone formation in the centre and smaller ones all around the outside. The concrete path leads around this to another large room, before climbing up some stairs towards the famous gour pools for which the cave is most famous. None of the lights were on, of course, and so it felt weirdly genuine, yet also very showcave-y. The pools would have definitely looked better with light in them though. Still incredibly impressive.

Beyond these we found the continuation of the giant tube passage, and some stairs up to the tourist entrance. A couple people ventured into the artificial entrance tunnel, only to hurry back reporting that someone was in the room at the top. There was also a vast amount of wine stored here, and a recreation of the cave painting in the Lion's Head entrance, in a different part of the system.

The famouns gour pools.

Continuing on we very satisfyingly stepped over the edge of the tourist boundary and continued along the cave, heading North along the giant phreatic tube. We walked past huge stals, flowstones towers and gours spanning the entire tunnel. It went on and on, but almost always with something weird or unexpected to keep us on our toes. As we got deeper, pools of water started appearing, some of which were beautiful greens and blues. The sight of turning around to every so often be reminded of Priya's presence on the trip was also endlessly hilarious.

We eventually reached the end of the cave reachable without SRT, and a few in oversuits pushed some muddy tube which they said wasn't that exciting, but apparently had a pitch at the end. We decided it was the perfect time for a group photo, and then split up with some wanting to leave straight away and others like myself wanting to take a while longer, mainly for photographic reasons.

The blue pool, complete with underwater flash setup.

Exploring the very back of the passage we found a spectacular blue pool which I showed off my total internal reflection party trick with by moving my headtorch from just above to just below the surface. Well worth a go if you ever have a similar opportunity. Turning all lights on before flashing between above and below had the intended effect of melting everyone's minds. After this we headed back the way we came also, taking many photos of everything we saw along the way - with one of my favourites being Astrid looking up at an enormous formation in the middle of the passage.

Team photo.

On the way back Leo's group seemed to visit some abandoned village of houses carved into cliffs for some evening urbexing, while the rest of us returned the house a fine dinner of Aromat and something. And of course Salwa and Ashley went for another late night bin emptying run.


I woke up early, as instructed the day before, with vague memories of dreaming about being addicted to drugs (I had to take eye drops to taper off???). When I got to house 1 for breakfast, I learned that this early morning was in fact unnecessary, since the show cave, which we’d been planning around, wouldn’t open for another week. On the other hand, we actually set off at a reasonable time for once, so maybe it was all worth it.

The drive to Marcel was almost identical to the drive to Noel, complete with the beautiful weather, the funky bridge, the stop at the view point, and a shitty side path at the end. This side path was, in fact, considerably shittier than the one before – when I got to the little parking spot on the side of the main road, Ben whipped out a set of keys and opened a gate leading to a dirt road that snaked its way between the bushes. We went in, and soon were driving down at a considerable gradient, taking extremely sharp turns and listening to the awful sounds of branches and loose pebbles bouncing off various parts of the car they should probably not touch.

Still we descended, turn by turn, deeper into the canyon, until we got to what was supposed to be the ‘parking spot’, but was instead a slightly wider patch of approximately flat rocky surface. Not convinced by this, we went further still, until we got to what looked like a semi-abandoned campsite, where we managed to find enough space to turn around. We then repeated the adventurous route back to deliver the news that it simply made more sense to just walk downhill instead of taking all the cars, especially since Laura’s car might not have survived the ordeal.

Back at the top, there was some confusion as to what exactly was necessary for the trip: some people came in furries, oversuits and full srt kit, while others were hanging out in jeans and t-shirts, sporting cheap lamps on their exposed for foreheads. I was somewhere in the middle, though closer to the former extreme. I had in fact planned to bring my full kit, but was missing most of my srt, either due to forgetfulness or thievery: people in search of kit could be desperate. At least the presence of people with normal pockets meant I could hand over the car keys to Wojtek without worry. Most importantly, Priya was hanging out in a dedicated bag on Fan’s shoulder: she would be joining the expedition too.

The motley crew.

The walk down to cave entrance was far nicer than the previous down the same road, and soon we were standing by a gaping hole in the side of the canyon, closed off by a metal gate. Fortunately we were in possession of the required key. The entrance itself forced me to bend down a fair bit, though without having to drop to my knees, but it quickly opened up into a wide corridor with walls of white and light grey. There weren’t many formations, but the vertical surfaces were covered with writing, names and numbers in plain black or red, often so smudged by now as to be completely illegible.

Many bats.

Groups of bats were sleeping on the ceiling and we walked silently, pointing our lights down as to not disturb them, until we got to a tall metal ladder generously sprinkled with rust. From then on, the cave began to increase in natural beauty, until we found ourselves in a large chamber with a gigantic formation at the centre. This was the Cathedral, the lowest part of the show cave.

We climbed over a railing and went exploring the well-maintained tourist route, walking through another large chamber and a set of stairs, until we got to the famous terraced gour pools. They were beautiful, like an image of rice farms in East Asia, though the impression was spoiled a little when I found the obviously fake source of the water running gently down between the pools. Then there was the tunnel to the touristy entrance, and a very large quantity of wine, and a reproduced cave painting, and several informative boards that taught us the history and geology of the system.

Stomp stomp stomp.

With that the show cave came to an end. We stepped over a red tape and walked further down the ancient river bed, a tall, wide corridor with walls fluctuating like waves, and browned as if they’d been scorched by fire. Every now and then I’d take a moment to look at Fan and Priya to remind myself that the tiny dog was actually really in the cave with us, and did not seem to mind. This brought me tremendous joy. Soon the formations started again, tall columns shooting up from the floor, covered with growths like fungi growing on tree trunks. This was more like a visit to a gallery than a caving trip, and every turn of the corridor brought more and more treasures to behold. The group spread out wide, as everyone took the views at their own pace, and I could see lone lights moving far in front and far in the back, passing along the walls as their owners looked around in amazement. At some point the entire passage was blocked by a gigantic block of formations, and one could only continue through a narrow artificial opening blasted through its left edge.

On and on and on it went...

Eventually we all regrouped at a large junction, shortly before the part of the cave that would require srt, which nobody seemed keen to attempt. Instead we decided to take a group photo, and I lied down on the ground next to Astrid to wait for the inevitable faff to roll over. Once the photo was taken, the group split: some people went back to the entrance, some were still hanging out taking more photos, while James and I went off to the side passage to see what we could find. Behind another circle of pretty columns was a chamber. To the right was a passage that led to a beautiful shallow pond which we did not want to disturb, so we went back and tried going left. There the floor of the chamber rose sharply up to meet the walls, but we found what might have been a dig or a very narrow crawl, and James of course decided to try and explore it. He quickly discovered it didn’t seem to lead anywhere worthwhile, and turned around.

In the meantime some of the others had arrived, and I went down to show them the cool lake, assuming James would follow. At the shore, Ben took off his light and put it in the water, turning all of it a lovely aquamarine to the delight of everyone involved. Then we decided to try and see what was behind and so we walked through, trying to disturb the water as little as possible, and found another rusty ladder leading to a higher portion of the corridor. Here there were more formations, some half-collapsed and lying across the ground like fallen chandeliers, and finally, there was a short crawl that emerged above a pitch, and after several hours of walking, there was nowhere further to go without rope.

I was at the tip of the trip at this point, and so I turned around and gathered everyone else as I went. Then the group spread apart again due to the immense faff of taking photos, and I sped ahead with Valery. After a while we came across James going the other way: it transpired that he’d misunderstood what we were doing and thought we’d left him behind, so he was trying to follow us back to the entrance before realising we’d not gone that way to begin with. Sad – I should have paid more attention to what he was doing after leaving that little crawl.

The walk back to the show cave section went without major incidents, except for an extremely slippery patch of white clay that sent me bum first onto the ground. I would later learn this happened to at least half the trip on the exact same spot.

Ashley admiring the scenery.

Back at the show cave, it dawned on me I would have to wait for Wojtek, who had the keys to my car. I’d had this thought before, but hadn’t fully realised just how far back the photography group was. To kill some time, I tried to find the passage that was meant to connect the show cave to Despeysse, or as everyone by now referred to it, Aven de la Frog. This, it turned out, was hidden in the upper levels of the big chamber between the cascading gour pools and the Cathedral. I left Valery, scrambled up the slope, and found a short crawl that emerged in a corridor very reminiscent of the entrance passages, but smaller, and with its floor covered with large, loose boulders. I followed this for a few minutes until I came to a narrower part and decided to come back to Valery.

We sat in the large chamber and waited for the others, entertaining ourselves by making random sounds and listening to the echo. As often in situations like this, my hearing started playing tricks on me, and I could swear I heard the voices of the others in the echoes of the water dripping in different parts of the cave. Not too long later, however, the sounds became real and a flickering light appeared from the depths: it was Fan, with Priya smiling resolutely in her bag. Fan had slipped, apparently at the same spot I had, and got her clothes wet, so was very keen to go outside. I thought she might have hurt her leg, so I sent Valery out with her for safety, and returned to my post in the darkness, waiting for the photography team. I wanted to make an impression, reveal myself suddenly on the slope above when they passed along the main route. This wonderful plan was spoiled by them simply faffing for too long, causing me to get bored and walk back to try and find them.

The giant tubes.

They were not too far behind by then, near the beginning of the show cave section, the final stragglers: Astrid, James, Ashley, Wojtek, and Ben, the Executive Faff Officer for Photography. The photos did turn out really well, so the time commitment was justified. I got my keys from Wojtek, showed everyone the path to Frog Cave, and left them behind to their own devices as I imagined everyone waiting on the surface. The keys to the entrance were left by the gate so everyone could leave at their preferred time, crossing their names off a list to make sure nobody got locked out at the end.

I made quick progress up the dirt path and soon was back at the cars. LauraCar had left already to sightsee some random village, Kevin and Salwa were chilling away at a view point, while Valery and Fan were waiting impatiently at my car, eager to change into fresh clothes. I gathered everyone and drove off, though I had to do an emergency stop on the way because Salwa and Kevin really wanted to take photos of the sunset.

As the final assignment of the day, we set off on a mission to buy pancake ingredients, including a pack of mushrooms from a Polish provider called GRZYBMAR (this is a very funny name you have to believe me). The pancakes were wonderful, and right before bed there was some drama about showers on the group chat. Good times.


Hundreds of meters of stomping passage.


Pont d'Arc and Ardeche: Salwa, Ashley, James, Valery

No one wrote anything for this trip :(

Pont d'Arc and Pont du Gard: Jan, Astrid, Fan, Kevin, Wojtek

Even the full force of Laura's sliders couldn't shift the lug nuts.

No cave. Time would actually have to be spent outside this time. We began by trying to change the tyre on Fan’s car, before discovering it had been apparently put in place by the Hulk, and there was no option other than to have the car towed away. I also discovered the joys of the French Scrabble set, where all vowels come in innumerable copies and a W is worth 10 points.

The main part of the day was to be a road trip. We first went to the nearby village to check out a trebuchet, but I had to drive back almost immediately to pick up Fan after her car was towed away. The next stop was the Pont d’Arc, which I still had not seen. It’s a rock arch above the Ardeche, which on this day was moving particularly quickly, emboldened by the recent rains and the snow melting in the mountains near its source. We then drove a bit further south, before getting to the road closure I mentioned before. LauraCar was nowhere to be found (they went to Lidl for a long time, apparently), while the rest of us went on a lovely walk along the river, making full use of the sun peaking its face from behind the clouds.

Photo in the cave.

We stopped on a rocky beach with a small open cave, where everyone climbed up into a hole for photo taking purposes. I then decided it was getting a little late, and I was keen to do a proper road trip. Ben and Leo had been talking about some mountain up in the north, but they disappeared with Laura, and I found a cool looking aqueduct in the south, with a possibility of continuing on to Avignon (spoiler: we wouldn’t get to Avignon). In retrospect I should have tried to follow the mountain team, as we would end up repeating the southern route almost bit by bit on the last day, and I’d be left with eternal fomo for the Jonc adventures. So it goes. I gathered those hungry for some sightseeing, which turned out to be Astrid, Wojtek, Kevin, Fan and Priya in her little bag. We got in the car and set off, first back to the town and then due south.

Priya, ready for another adventure.

The first stop was Lussan, a wonderful little town perched atop a hill in the middle of a shallow valley. Fan, on navigation duty, found there was a nice bistro there, which would be perfect for a late lunch: apart from her, nobody had eaten since breakfast. The place was beautiful, complete with a castle, narrow paved streets, a chestnut-lined main square, several cats, and a strange public toilet seemingly placed in an old baker’s basement. The bistro, however, was closed. No matter, we said, chalking it up to us arriving before the main touristy season. The place was pretty enough for a stop anyway, and soon afterwards we’d be arriving in a more major town, Uzes, where we were sure to find food.

The traffic in Uzes was intense, and it was nearing 5pm by the time we were walking the elegant streets of its old town. We sat down in a café whose food was well-reviewed, only to be informed that the kitchen wouldn’t open for another hour or so. This situation repeated itself twice more, until a very condescending (or just very French) waiter told us that if we wanted food at this hour, ‘ze kebab was zis way’. With no other options, we went in the direction where he pointed, only to discover that the kebab place wouldn’t open until 6pm. I was, by this point, becoming seriously hangry, cursing this nation that simply refused to feed me. Finally, we found some form of bar that was willing to serve us their dish of the day, consisting of cold pasta, chicken and mushroom sauce. This also came with dessert, which was actually very nice. Only once we’d already ordered did I think to check if there were any maccies in the area, which surely would not have failed me like all the normal French places had. There were none in the town itself, but there was a McDrive not too far away. So it goes.

Reinvigorated by the food, I was desperate to finally see the aqueduct we’d set off to find: the Pont du Gard. It wasn’t a long drive from Uzes, and, unable to be bothered to look for a free place to park, I left the car at the official parking. I wanted to see the bridge.

The mighty Pont du Gard

And what a bridge did I see! Resplendent in the light of the setting sun, spanning the river with three levels of arches, the Pont du Gard made up for all my hanger from before. We dispersed and walked around, taking dozens of pictures from all possible angles, as the light changed by the minute, bringing out ever new features. In the last moments of the fading daylight, we climbed up the hill on the forested left bank of the river to try and find a better vantage point, but ended up getting confused in the tangled web of paths and settled for some closer new angles before walking back to the car.

On the way back, after we fuelled up, Fan directed us to some bar which supposedly had lots of ‘local food’. This authenticity was very important to her, making it all the funnier when we found it full of Irish flags and serving mostly burgers. The place had a cool vibe, with a stage and live music, and we decided to stay there anyway, after taking care of Priya’s need to go to the loo. The food was actually quite nice, and the rest of the drive back went smoothly. I collapsed into bed the moment we got to the villa.


Hike around Pont d'Arc: DKP, Una, Ana, Diss

And no one wrote anything for this one either :((

I think they went for a lovely walk around the gorge and had a meal out somewhere afterwards.

Mont de Jonc: Laura, Ben, and the Geologists (Leo, Julien, Thurston)

I awoke to two pieces of bad news. Number one, the poop suction men were back to try and clear the overflowing septic tank again, which is why the showers weren't draining, and two, that Fan's car hit a curb at a rather high speed and destroyed the wheel last night on the way back from the cave. We tried to change the wheel ourselves on her car but the lug nuts seemed welded on, so she phoned to be towed to a nearby garage. On the plus side the weather was incredible and was forecast to only get worse, meaning today was the day for surface exploration.

Meanwhile, plans had begun to emerge of another Leo x Ben epic Google Maps adventure. We had set our sights on a very random mountain, pronounced "Mont de Jonk" (Mont Gerbier de Jonc) which looked weird, was made of an obscure mineral called phonolite, and should have great views of the sunset. The only problem was that it was about 1 hr 30 from the house, with no interesting things map pins en route. I also wanted to see Pont d'Arc, as I'd not actually set eyes on it yet. As if this wasn't enough, we'd spotted a giant trebuchet in the village next to the house and wanted to check it out, as one does.

Julien, the minstrel, before the trebuchet.

With our plans for the day sorted, we set off for stop 1, the giant trebuchet. This turned out to be part of a castle museum and was actually fully functional which is crazy. Julien also brought the ukulele along and we told him to sing something medieval given the occasion. He attempted greensleeves, and we'd spend much of the rest of the day singing it in a variety of settings. Given our crack team, we had obviously set off before the faff brigade and so were nearly finished by the time they arrived. Apparently when they did get to the trebuchet they actually hopped the fence and went to get a closer look, which was quite ballsy given the place was closed and full of builders doing restorations. Worth it for the trebuchet though. Julien then scerenaded us around the rest of the medieval village as we poked our heads down random alleyways and found the back of the castle.

In this village we found the village screen, a tourist information board with local places to visit. On this we saw an obscenely picturesque town on a cliff by the river, named Balazuc, and decided that it would make for the perfect lunch spot as it was on the way to Mont de Jonc. We bid the others farewell, and saw Fan's car trundle past on the back of a flatbed truck, after which the others headed back to pick her up.

As we drove away, the back row found that the renaisance lyrics to Greensleeves are very catchy indeed and were belting out "ALAS MY LOVE, YOU DO ME WRONG, TO CAST ME OFF DISCOURTEOUSLY" and of course the iconic chorus of "GREENSLEEVES WAS ALL MY JOY, GREENSLEEVES WAS MY DELGHT", and so on, at maximum volume. We headed on to Pont d'Arc and given the ridiculous amount of rain the previously tranquil blue waters were still a brown and rather terrifying looking torrent, flooding much of the bank by the beach beside it. Laura gave it some expert kayaking consideration, pointing out two mangled kayaks jammed against a tree on the far side, and decided that it probably wasn't worth the effort. Thurston also gave the Ukulele a play in the mens toilet, seemingly built to look like a cave. We drove as far along the gorge road as we could, but it was closed soon afterwards for road works. Still we managed to see the arc from the other side, before heading off to Lidl to pick up some lunch.

Our lunchtime view.

Lunch acquired, the other team informed us that they no longer cared for the Jonc and were instead heading away from the mountains to the sunny south and Pont du Gard. It's their choice. Lunch in hand, and pineapple in hand for Julien for some reason, we headed off via another Google Maps find - a cool tunnel thing on the D4 that popped out by a lovely viewpoint. Julien of course stopped for a seranade of Greensleeves overlooking the river canyon below. Leo and I charted a route towards lunch, finding a viewpoint based off of some google maps photos and terrain mode estimations. Clambering up an overgrown cliff we popped out beneath some sport climbing routes to be rewarded with the superb view we had sought of the town on the cliff, just as promised by the village screen. Lunch was pretty incredible, with a delicious brown loaf that was incredibly dense but even tastier, and some special local sausages and cheeses. Julien had a tin of Spanish sardines which he only made a slight mess with despite ample faff.

After lunch we went and explored the town on a hill, which turned out to be ridiculously pretty from the inside as well, and spent ages walking through winding cobbled streets, up and down staircases until we eventually popped out on an old stone observation deck that Leo thought was very assasains creed. There was also yet another shockingly public urinal, because I guess the French don't care.

Shockingly this candid photo wasn't even staged.

After this we had our sights set for the Jonc itelf. As we set off, Leo and I franticly googled for exciting things to do on the way, coming up with all sorts of crazy waterfalls, viewpoints and scenic drives. We decided on a waterfall called La Pissarelle, since it was right next to the road and a Google maps video showed someone sliding down it in dramatic fashion, which Leo was very excited to do also. We arrived at the spot, but there was no waterfall in sight. It turned out that while the waterfall was indeed 20m from the road, it was 20m horizontally but 100m below the road... oops. Regardless the geologists got to work smashing rocks with their hammers and I thought it might be possible to scramble over to a viewpoint to at least see the waterfall even if we couldn't get to it.This turned out to be a great idea, and from this viewpoint we spotted another viewpoint which would be even better. Scrambling back up through the overgrowrth on the loose rocky ground above a massive cliff, we returned to the road and did exactly the same on the next rocky outcrop which was even more dodgy. From here we spotted an even better one down below, from which we saw the best of all along a terrifyingly steep and slippery looking grass covered ledge directly above the plunge pool of death. Perfect. Naturally at this point we received a whatsapp that the other group were sitting down to a lovely meal in a restaurant, while we were risking our lives scrambling over some crags just for a photo. I certainly picked the right car.


After this we decided to skip the next waterfall as there wasn't long until sunset. We followed the winding mountain pass up into the Massif Central and as we climbed higher and higher we started to see patches of snow by the road. Fortunately Laura took this to mean that there might be ice, and so restrained herself to merely the speed limit. As we continued to climb there was more and more snow until finally it covered the landscape and we completely forgot that we were all wearing shorts and sandals having woken up in 20C+ that same morning. Not once did it occur to us that since Mont de Jonc is a mountain, that it might still be covered in snow, and we had a long way left to climb. We found our lack of preparation absolutely hilarious and snow mania broke out amongst the car, so much so that when we drove past an entire open field of pristine snow a foot deep that we immediately reversed, jumped out and had a snowball fight in our crocs. Leo then tore past us out of nowhere, topless wearing nothing but shorts and wellies and bombed into the snow while grinning his face off. Snow angel complete, the fight continued. Words cannot explain what caused us to do such things.

Julien, falling into the source of le Loire.

Jumping back in the car as if nothing had happened we carried on up into the moutains, the snow continuing to get deeper and deeper, with piles of snow meters high where ploughs had recently cleared the roads. I found that the source of la Loire was en route so naturally we stopped by there too, to stomp in the source of the river whose valley has all those nice castles in the west of France. Julien promptly fell into La Loire, and Leo polluted the entire thing by going in bare foot like a mad man, his abandoned crocs left in the snow at the beginning of the path, and his brown footprints splattered across the rocks on the way. We each drank from the source, in a desperate attempt to gain good louck for our impending assault on the Jonc, and with sunset on our heels we hopped back in the car, on our way to the grand finale.

The first glimpse of the Jonc.

As we rounded the last corner and the Jonc came into sight, many a woah was heard from the car. Its oddly cone shaped form is apparently something to do with it being a magma chamber or something, according to the geologists. The object of our pilgramige, the final destination of our voyage and the best view of sunset in all the land, finally lay ahead of us. Our task was to reach the top and sing Greensleeves to bid the sun adieu. With only 30 minutes to go, a frantic scramble up the Jonc was utterly exhilerating. Note to self, not Mont Blonc. Completely prepared for our winter alpine ascent, with shorts, a ukulele and crocs set to sport mode, we set off up the phonolite finish line. Slipping and sliding, as we reached patches of roped ascent we certainly felt extra adventurous. The howling wind was bitterly cold and none of us had any reasonable layers whatsoever so we all kept moving as fast as we could, taking welcome shelter behind the occasional outcrop.

At last we summitted out with minutes to spare, and took in the truly increidble sights that greeted us on the Jonc. We could see for mile upon mile in every direction - the weirdly prominant shape of Mont do Jonc meant that views were unincumbered whichever way you looked. This was also presumably why it was so insanely windy. With a foot of snow in places, I was deeply regretting wearing my hiking sandals but the Jonc would not defeat us now. We practiced our lines and chords in the seconds leading up to the moment, and as the casio beeped 7pm we burst into song for all the land to hear, as we professed, of course, that alas, my love, you do me wrong.

Our travelling band of musicians.

After the adrenaline had worn off, the geologists kept warm by hitting rocks with hammers, which Laura and I thought a rather inefficient strategy. Coaxing them away from the tower of phonolite, we headed down the icy, slippery and trecherous Jonc, to claim our eternal glory in the annals of history. After reaching the bottom and completing the mighty Ascent of Mont de Jonc, by the direct route no less, we zoomed back down a different but shockingly impressive mountain pass which at a petrol station near the bottom we learnt is used for rally racing the next weekend (!?). Feeling that our epic endeavours had earnt ourselves a pizza, we foud the nearest town and convinced Julien to use his French skills to book us a table, which it turned out was the first table he'd ever booked in his life. He did a great job.

Leo, in crocs, with Uke, descending the Jonc via the Grepon route.

We rocked up at the town, parked the car, crossed the road and looked up and let out a loud exclamation of shock as we realised we'd parked under an enormous castle without even realising it. Walking round the back of this castle we sat down to a set of delicious pizzas, which despite some language barrier confusion, despite Julien speaking perfect French to them and perfect English to us, still managed to cause confusion as to how much the sides costed. In the end it made no difference as they forgot to add them to the bill anyway. Amazing.

Just as I was making my way to the door, the bartender shouted at me and beckoned me to come over to him. "Damn, he must have noticed they forgot the sides", I thought. "Limoncello??" he asked. "Err, what?". At this point to my disbelief he pushed away the person he was talking to and started pouring 5 shot glasses of limencello out for the 5 of us for no reason whatsoever and then offered them to us all. Laura said she was driving, so Julien downed two as the bartender downed another for himself. He then gestured to Luara to look after Julien when he throws up. He chatted to us in very broken English about where we were from and where we were staying before sending us on our way with a smile and a wave. Not bad service overall! Julien probably got about as much for free from that restaurant as he paid for.

On the way back to the car we did a loop of the very impressive giant castle, which had amazing views out across the lights of the town. Concluding that this was enough adventuring for one day, we headed home and wondered what on Earth the next day might bring.


Laura and the geologists on the Jonc. Shockingly this wasn't staged either!


Aven de Noel: Leo Antwis, Julien Jean, Laura Temple, Kevin Sohn, Thurston Blount, Dave Kirkpatrick, Rebecca Diss, Ana Teck, Valery Kirenskis

DKP, Diss and Ana in Noel.

No one wrote up anthing for this trip :(

Sounds like they actually wetted the ropes so weren't screeching all the way down, that the DKP group zoomed out and the others had a fun old time before the tiresome derig.

Aven des Neuf Gorges: Ben Richards, James Wilson, Jan Kożuszek, Wojtek Sowinski, Astrid Rao, Fan Wan, Salwa Ahmad, Ashley Wong

Looking back through the photos I'm very confused as to why Salwa photographed Astrid asleep every morning. This morning Astrid looks as thoguh she was on the couch. Anyway, today was the second day we had a permit for Noel, and so people who didn't go last time went this time, as well as Ana because she just loves SRT so much. Fan wanted to cave as well, so we set up an SRT practice rope from the roof of the veranda, and apparently she nailed a changeover on the first try. Very good!

Entrance to Aven des Neuf Gorges

I went to Neuf gorges, and had been prepped by the DKP gang that the bottom rope needed re-rigging since it wasn't long enough as the length on the survey was wrong. Apparently they also made this mistake last time they came here, which is amusing. If you're reading this planning your own Ardeche Easter Tour, then perhaps third time lucky. They also warned us not to take the incredibly tempting google maps shortcut that links almost directly home. Not worth it.

The cave was completely rigged by the other team so we wizzed down to the bottom where we saw the main attraction, the collection of giant stals growing up from the floor. On the way, looking back up at the roof the holes look spookily like a skull where you descende through one of the eye... The columns at the bottom are particularly interesting for geo nerds since they are similar to the Orgnac cave stals in being splattermites, an informal name for the platy shaped stals formed by the spray of droplets falling from a great height. Usually formed only in more tropical climates where the CO2 content in the water is high enough for rapid calcite deposition, presumably these date back to when the Ardeche itself had a tropical climate. They certainly felt very inactive and old, but its hard to tell from a glance.

The impressive columns of the main chamber.

There was also a very cool L shaped stal DKP had told us to look out for, where a stal had fallen over and then continued growing from its base to make an L shape. We took some cool photos amongst all the columns, and then someone suggested we do one of a light shining out of a small side chamber, to look like the exit of the cave (a very good idea, shame I can't remember who came up with it but oh well). With both of these complete we all headed out and Jan kindly offere to derig.

As I reached the surface I rememberred the entrance being littered with acorns. After the 15 mintutes walk back to the car, changing, and walking back to the cave I was just in time tohoard enough together to send a few pot shots at Ashley as she reached the top rebelay, before offering her a place on the winning side in the upcoming onslaught against Astrid, next in line. Ashley and I furiously collected an enormous stash as Astrid slowly ascended the final pitch, none the wise as to what lay before her. By the time we could hear her approaching, Ashley and I had by our combined powers amassed a vast arsenal of acorns, and assume our positions as she entered our sights. With a cry of "open fire" taking Astrid completely by surprise, the assault began and Astrid immediately knew that she had to get off of the rebelay as fast as possible. She did so surprisngly quickly actually, given it was a rather twatty rebelay made all the more twatty by us twats, twatting acorns at her. Points are only awarded for direct hits of the helmet, which are ridiculously loud and ping off dramaticaly. Tremendous fun.

Ashley grows the size of the arsenal ever further.

As Astrid emerged, we extended our offer for the final assault against Jan who was derigging, as a thank you for his kind offer. Between the three of us we emptied the entire locality of weapons grade acorns and poor Jan by no means deserved the fate that he received for such a heplful and selfless offer to derig. I assumed a position upon the rock arch above him, allowing direct gravitationally assisted shots to the head, while Astrid and Ashley took up sniper positions above the final rope. Jan didn't stand a chance but once reaching the top did, quite reasonably, offer to throw me down the shaft. Jan also mentioned that he was frequently hit by richochetting acorns further down in the cave to great confusion. Much fun for (almost) all involved.

Astrid intrepidly poking the puddles.

Despite DKP's warning, I'd been looking at my French OS equivalent map and felt that I knew where Dave had gone wrong, and felt as though it would be boring not to try a cheeky shortcut given it was right there for the taking. This ended up being a lot of fun, with Astrid jumping out in shorts, Slov fleece, caving helmet and phone in one hand with long poking stick in the other, to estimate whether the car would actually survive the series of increasingly deeper and deeper pools we came across. Jan, yet again, was tasked with the treacherous driving but did a stirling job and we made it through unscathed and perhaps even saved a few seconds over the non-shortcut route. Amazing.

Back at the hut Una made pink lemonade from a plant that I thought was posisonous but now I can't remember which one and I probably shouldn't put the wrong one in writing incase someone dies, and then Ana and I went down a rabbit hole of crystal structure and Chemistry nerdiness which I very much enjoyed, and inspired me to read up on a bunch of cave science things after getting back home. Priya also wrote up her trip report of the tour on the same laptop that I'm typing this now, with her actual paws and only slightly manipulated by me aggresively inserting the laptop underneath her. All writing was 100% her own though. Dinner was French onion soup I believe, of course, with our lord and saviour aromat.

There is also a photo of Thurston grinning while showing his foot off to everyone on the dinner table, with quite the crowd and Astrid lighting it up with her phone torch. I do not remember why this occured.


If you have any information as to why this event occurred, please contact your local branch of ICCC.


We were now on the final stretch, the last few days of the trip. This one, at last, was straightforward: just a normal cave, not too far away from the villa. Of course, the ‘not too far away’ turned out to include a final stretch on a tight forest road, with branches yet again sliding against the sides of the car. The car was sent into panic, its proximity sensors beeping almost constantly to warn me of the dangers of which I was more than aware. We were listening to some strange tune put on by Fan, and the mixture of the beats and the beeps created an almost infectious auditory concoction that stayed in our ears long after we managed to park in a small clearing.

From the parking spot it was a comfortable walk to Neuf Gorges, its vertical entrance wide open to the world. Several people remarked that it was the most Yorkshire-esque of the caves on the trip, if Yorkshire was warmer, had more trees and fewer sheep. The pitches were already rigged, courtesy of the previous group that visited, and when I got to the entrance a few people were already well on their way down into the depths. Ben realised the area around the first pitch was overflowing with acorns, and he immediately began dropping them down onto Salwa and Ashley.

Looking up at the skull shaped entrance holes.

The descent went smoothly, despite a few slightly tricky rebelays. Fan in particular did an amazing job, considering she’d not done any srt in a long time. At the bottom of the final rope, we found ourselves atop a huge pile of gravel, its slope falling sharply away into the final chamber. We walked down carefully, sending pebbles down with every careless step, until we emerged in a large open space, dominated by several tall, thin columns at the centre. I was told that was basically it, except for two small adjoining chambers with a few extra pretties. We sat down and consumed some sausages, remarking on how nice and easy the cave was: a perfect Sunday trip if this was a typical weekend outing.

The final assault on Jan.

We took some photos of everyone standing around the columns, and Fan, keen to get out and pick up her newly fixed car, led the first group back up the gravel and the ropes. In the meantime, when someone (I think Wojtek) was emerging from one of the adjoining rooms, I noticed their light created extremely cool shadows among the stals just outside, all while their person remained invisible. I suggested this as a cool photo opportunity to Astrid, which then became known to Ben, and soon afterwards I was crouching in water in the room in question, pointing a flash at Wojtek positioned outside, while Ben shouted commands and warned of bright lights every couple of minutes. The things we do for art – the photo did turn out very cool.

Then it was time to head out, and I figured I might as well use the opportunity to practice my derigging. This mostly went smoothly, despite a few tight knots and some rebelays where I had to make use of the full length of my arms and legs. The whole process was made considerably easier by Astrid’s herculean strength, as she carried the first two tackle sacks out by herself, leaving me unencumbered in the final pitch. Then


Something fell just next to me.


Something hit me in the back.



Some 10 metres above me, Astrid was fighting for her life under a barrage of acorns thrown down by Ben and Ashley, and the ricochets were falling all around me. Soon it was my time, and Astrid too turned from prey to predator, and they all cheered with every dull PLONK of an acorn hitting my helmet as I negotiated the final tricky rebelay. Once out, I was strongly tempted to exact some extreme form of revenge on Ben, but settled on saving up a handful of acorns and throwing them in his face on the walk back when he was least expecting.

The way back to the villa should have been simple, but Ben was looking slyly at his fancy map app and I knew that was bad news. He assured me that he found a more direct route back which would bring us home quicker without further damaging the poor poor rental car. Inevitably, this led to us driving down a bumpy forest line as night fell around us, and Astrid had to get out to investigate the passability of various ditches and pitch black puddles, until we eventually plopped back on the main road, actually remarkably close to the villa. I suppose it was a shortcut after all!





Wojtek in the main chamber of Neuf Gorges, staring into Jan's flash.


Shop and chill: DKP, Ana, Una, Diss

No idea what these guys did today, no one wrote anything :(

Hike down the gorge: James, Kevin, (?)

Maybe someone else was with them, we'll never know because they didn't write anything :(

Hike from top of gorge, drive around some castle: Leo, Salwa, Ashley, Thurston, Laura

Apparently they tried to find some magical cave Leo had spotted but it didn't go, then they went to a town with a castle, then they went somewhere for sunset ignoring our recommendation of the waterfall and got lost in the woods for ages lol. If only they had written something we'd have known the details :(

Ardeche viewpoints, waterfall scramble and exotic meats: Jan, Ben, Astrid, Julien

The kit outside, completely flooded.

We woke up to find the kit outside completely flooded, so made a team effort to relocate everything for the sake of not completely obliterating both our hold luggage requirements and the axels on Laura's car. After this I wanted to finally see the viewpoint Leo had been running to and from each morning before the rest of us had even gotten out of bed, so a bunch of us drove a few minutes down the road to a very impressive lay by with quite the view. Astrid gave an impromptu Tai Chi session here on the edge of the cliff, which was pretty awesome indeed even if none of us had any idea what we were doing (other than Astrid presumably).

Moments before Tai Chi fever beset the group.

Leo announced that he intended to explore a cave he spotted on the oppostie side of the gorge, and would radio between his group and the Kevin James group to establish that they were in the right place, since James would be hiking down to the bottom of the gorge from nearby to the viewpoint.

After leaving the surface bashing teams to their own devices, we drove off to go see some viewpoints as we hadn't done so yet on the tour and this was our last chance to do so. First up I had wanted to visit the castle on a hill I'd seen on the verry first caving trip to Noel a week ago, so we stopped by it on the way and had a wander around the village. Everything was abandonned since it was not only off season but also an overcast day that felt on the edge of raining at that point. The view was still great, with the tree lined river snaking off to the horizon. Only if you payed close attention would you notice that the river had actually flooded all of those lovely trees along its bank. The village was yet another medieval gem - it really is ridiculous how nice all these villages are here. We also came across a bizarre half naked manequin with a caving helmet on strapped to a rocket ship dangling from a house above a carbide lamp. Intersting.

Astrid, with lunch, by the flooded river.

Next up, lunch. Hardly anywhere was open because France. Given we were in tourist central we decided to go for the dodgiest looking kebab shop I've ever seen on Google Maps, with a single image of a baguette filled with greasy looking french fries wrapped messily in tin foil. Wandering over to it, Julien told me it means the cheap place. Great. Of course, they required paying in cash to dodge all taxes, but when the food arrived I was proven wrong and it was actually a very good sandwichh. I enjoyed it a lot. We were going to take our sandwiches to the river but it was all taped off because of the flooding, then it started tipping it down. Nevermind.

Many photos were taken.

The rain seemed to wash some of the overcastness away and the sun shone out as we set off to visit every viewpoint on the tourist loop. We knew the road was closed at some point, but it seemed as though you could get to all of the viewpoints other than the one we'd seen before from the other side of the Pont d'Arc. Each successive viewpoint got better and better, the gorge really is incredble and I'd have never guessed it was in Europe had I not already known. About halfway along our 10 or so viewpoints, the wind picked up considerably but this was no match for our determination.

The impressive gorge.

One of the viewpoints was inside the compound of one of the show caves. Confidently striding in through the tourist entrance hoping no one would stop us and make us pay, we strolled out into the back garden and took our photos before marching back through and only receiving a handful of odd looks. Presumably most due to my bright orange camera peli case. Astrid evern tried to get into the show cave but apparently it seemed to be full of people training to be cave guides.


As we left the show cave belvedere our progress was abruptly halted... by goats! A herd of comfortable looking goats had settled down in the middle of the road, as presumably it wasn't that busy given the road was closed up ahead. Of course we all jumped out and started paparazzi-ing them. They were very cute in fairness. They also showed us to a cool secret viewpoint behind the shrubs overlooking more of the gorge. Finally as the goats slowly stood up and walked away as other cars drove towards us, we continued onwards and checked off the final viewpoint which overlooks the steep descent of the road back down to the Pont d'Arc, which seemed to be the bit closed for construction.

Turning off, I realised that this was really close to the canyon with the giant waterfall at the end and that it might be visible from "just a short walk" from the road. This was technically true. We parked the car in a muddy track leading off of the main road and walked off along the track, seeing on the map that were should be in store for a good view, if only we could see above these pesky trees. As we carried on walking the cliff on the opposite side of the valley came closer and closer into view, a rumbling could be heard in the distance but there was no waterfall in sight. Eventually we reached what the map said was the end of the path, and so in typical fashion for this tour we started scrambling yet again through the undergrowth in search of a view of the waterfall.

And what a view it was!

Julien scrambled off to the left but found nothing but a top notch pissing spot. I headed off to the right and could just make out the top of the waterfall - I shouted out that I thought there was a better way further down this cliff, and dived back into the undergrowth with peli case in hand. I emerged a dozen meters further down the slope to a pictuer perfect postcard view of the waterfall, and once again couldn't believe my luck. You miss every view you don't search for I guess! The others soon followed and we all sat in awe admiring possibly the best view of a waterfall I've ever had (certainly if you include unexpectedness). I took a million photos of the view and then we headed back to the car, as we had told Fan that we'd be meeting her at the supermarket soon... oops.

After this we realised we hadn't had any lunch so headed to the nearest shop en route. On the way Jan accidently bumped into a bollade while trying to reverse into a parking spot. The car fell silent as we all realised this would add a huge cost onto our cire hire, but when we got out there was absolutely no sign of a scratch to be seen! We out let out a sigh of relief before noticing a baguette vending machine right infront of the car and impulsively buying a baguettte from it which was amazingly good fun. Only in France.

Only in France.

Inside the shop we bought some more snacks, and Julien and I were over the moon to find Mont de Jonc branded souvenieres and even head cheese from Mont de Jonc itself. Increidble. We bought a Mont Jonc postcard to stick up in stores for our shrine. Snacks acquired, we headed on to the final stop of the day, the giant intermarche of exotic meats we had visited on the way back from via ferrata. Today was the day of the BBQ.

The main meats for the BBQ had supposedly already been bought, so our mission was simple - find the weirdest french foods we'd actually be willing to eat ourselves. As soon as we started looking we immediately found Mont do Jonc branded meat and couldn't believe our luck. First up were Jonc branded caillettes, delicious meatballs local to the Ardeche made mostly of neck and spinach according to Julien. Escargots were a non negotiable, followed by blinis and tarama (which Julien recommended but the pancakes turned out to be Slavic and the cod roe Greek, oh well, more nvoelty!).

'Duck stomachs are lovely in salads'

Next up was a huge spiral Ardechoise saucisse, which looked amazing but was dripped blood everywhere despite our best attempts to pick a non-leaking one, two horse steaks, a box full of microwavable duck stomachs which Julien convinced us would be amazing in a salad, a rabbit's leg, and finally the piece de resistance, an entire lamb's brain for only 2 euros. And all this was to add to the welks and boudin awaiting us at home, as well as normal food. Also we found a gigantic 1L bottle of wine for only 10 euros so impulse purchased that as well. There were various exotic meats too exotic for us to want to try, such as tripe, pigs trotters and head cheese, but we felt we had enough on our plates for one night so to speak.

Returning home triumphant, we found the table beautifully laid by Fan and the gang, complete with salads, cheeses, breads, wines and grilled vegetables. We of course promptly ruined this by covering the table in bizarre and rather unsightly meats. All three BBQs were fired up and pumping out food for the many hungry cavers, with wild thyme sprinkled on from the days foraging while hiking. Salwa was delighted to see we'd brought back an entire brain and gave us all an anatomy class while the duck stomachs and rabbits leg were cooking, which was very interesting in fairness.

The annual EuroBBQ

Big spiral sausage: excellent, duck stomachs: surprisingly moreish, caillettes: wow so good that I wish they weren't made of neck, horse steaks: couldn't even tell them apart from beef tbh, welks: 0/10 just snails but worse in every way, escargot: better than the welks, rabbits leg: think we over cooked it but very nice, boudin: meh. The brain immediately melted as we insisted on cooking it on the BBQ, which was very entertaining but looked ridiculous given it's mostly fat. When "done" it looked so grim that we had to convince everyone to eat their portion at the same time, given most of it was jus liquid fat mixed with the char off of the grill plate. A monumental amount of team bonding for just 2 euros.

Laura then proceeded to have about 10 deserts, including yogurts, fruit, yogurts, biscuits, yogurts and sweet tea, followed by yogurt. All in all a top tier BBQ, perhaps even eclipsing the dizzying heights set by last year's 1.5kg steak...


It was raining again, and all the kit piled up outside had become soaked. This caused a great increase in weight, making us worry we’d have to get extra luggage allowance on the flight back if we didn’t manage to dry everything in time, the prospects for which seemed pretty grim. Presently, Ben arranged a construction of a barrier from the wooden partitions between the three houses to prevent further soaking, and as we couldn’t really do much more, we set off on the day’s adventures.

Thurston on the edge of unpowered flight.

The rain had stopped, though the sky was still steel grey with clouds. We began by driving to the closest edge of the gorge, where I had not been yet as it was a dead end. It turned out to be a very pretty dead end, with a wonderful view point onto the river far below and the magnificent cliffs on the other side. We did a bit of Tai Chi and split into groups for further sightseeing. Ben, Astrid and Julien got in my car, and we drove south to the town with the narrow bridge. Before the bridge itself was a lovely castle on the river bank and several old streets, charming even if seeming a little abandoned in the off-season. We then crossed the bridge in the search for lunch, and after some deliberation ended up going to a slightly shady looking sandwich place. I was very enthusiastic about this despite Ben’s strong reluctance. The gods ruled in my favour, the sandwiches being delicious and a great value for their very low price.

Sheer excitement at yet another viewpoint.

The rain made a last attempt to scare us off and then retreated for good, revealing a clear blue sky and bathing the whole gorge in radiant sunlight. We began our quest north, the picturesque road following the twists and turns of the Ardeche. Every couple of minutes we’d stop at another viewpoint: none would remain unphotographed. They were spaced pretty tightly, and we rarely had the time to listen to one full song before the next stop. We stopped at the same corner where I’d first gazed upon the canyon not even a week before, passed the side roads to Marcel and Noel, saw some goats on the slopes below, and the road kept stretching further north ahead of us, offering viewpoints galore.

Then, as we were finally starting to get close to the road closure, I turned a corner and stopped the car in awe: the entire lane in the other direction was occupied by a herd of goats, which did not seem to mind our presence at all. I parked in a nearby side road and we all got out to take numerous photos of the goats, until finally they got bored and, one by one, got up and began walking down the road, away from us. We got back in the car and drove further north, and finally, there were no more viewpoints. We’d arrived at the road closure and have officially seen all of the available parts of the Ardeche road, having driven up to the closure from the other side on Thursday.

Challenge complete, every viewpoint on the stone map visited!

The final quest for the day was to drive up to Aubenas, the location of the memorable giant InterMarche, and procure various strange objects for the evening barbecue. Predictably, I only managed to drive for a few minutes in that direction before Ben realised we were technically quite close to a waterfall we’d previously considered canyoning down, and wouldn’t it be cool to have a look. So we stopped again, and went off into the thickets. Soon we could hear the rumble of warter in the distance, but the trees completely obstructed our view. We split up, desperately trying to find a better vantage point, until finally Ben succeeded, calling us down to an exposed rock platform with a perfect view down onto the waterfall. It was spectacular, well worth the scramble down the slope. The water seemed to emerge directly from the rock, with no involvement of any surface rivers, and we could see why the French had called the waterfall the Old Pisser (Julien's translation).

The magnificent waterfall.

Then we walked back on our steps, trying not to get too scratched on the shrubs, and got back in the car. Surely now we could drive to Aubenas? Well, yes, but we were also thirsty and a little peckish, so Astrid located a shop that was more or less on the way and declared that our final stop before Aubenas. On the way there we passed a lavender museum and had to fight every urge to stop there as well, before we finally got to a village were the shop was meant to be. Astrid did not warn me in time and I passed the correct turning, instead finding a side alley which I could use to turn around. As I reversed back onto the main road, everyone was talking at the same time, and several cars approached ahead, which perhaps goes some way to explain why there was a loud THUD as the back of the car hit a small wooden pole on the other side of the road. This shut us up, and I was extremely angry with myself as I drove back to the shop, parked, and got out to inspect the damage. Miraculously, there was none: the back bumper had absorbed the impact completely. Our spirits lifted, we were free to enjoy the shop, which had an assortment of nice snacks, Jonc-branded food items and, crucially, a baguette vending machine.

And one by one, each was cooked and reviewed.

The rest of the way to Aubenas, finally, went smoothly and without further stops. I will refer you to Ben’s report for a full list of the odd items we bought. Returning triumphantly to the villa, we found the barbecue already in full swing, and ate like kings. I mean this literally: I suspect keeping this diet up for any longer period of time would be a great way to give oneself gout. I thoroughly enjoyed the duck stomachs especially, and I’ve always been a huge fan of escargot, so I went to bed considerably heavier than I had been in the morning. There was just one more day to go.


Ah yes, the old piss.


Julien with the hero's breakfast of welk ramen.

The day had come, it was time to go home. Perhaps having a gigantic BBQ the night before leaving was a mistake, since now we had an entire fridge of weird food to finish up and Fan had gotten food poisoning, presumably from one of the bonus food items she brought herself since miraculously nobody else felt ill despite our best attempts. A quick game of petanque to warm us up and we got to work demolishing the leftovers. Astrid and Julien had managed to haggle an extra day of car hire the morning before, so we no longer needed to return them by 11am fortunately, but we still had a flight to catch in the afternoon.

Yes, that mound is aromat.

Thurston pulled a completely unecessary epic and finished almost all the aromat in a ridiculously headped pile on his passata, commenting that "you can hardly taste it" to concerned onlookers. Julien had the hero breakfast of welks and leftover ramen noodles, polishing off the escargot while he was at it. Microwaving the welks and escargot was an explosively bad idea, leaving the inside of the microwave looking like the aftermath of a ghastly gastropod genocide.

Various other meats were finished up with the brain remains decisively thrown to the bushes. The large quantities of disgusting UHT milk were no match for a milk-off and before we knew it we'd made it through the entire fridge. Thurston seemed to have an amazing time chugging half an entire bag of white wine after half the entire tube of aromat, presumably to cure his dehydration from all the salt.

Laura's car was packed to the brim, and somehow we managed to fit even more in there than on the way over, somewhat worryingly. Jan and Thurston went to help Salwa find her glasses that she thought she dropped on the way back from the Neuf Gorges that's she's owned for a very long time and not only did they find them they also found a bonus club AA. The three rooms were all cleaned surpringly quickly and one more group photo later we headed off. Fan was still feeling unwell but very generously offered to drive Astrid to the airport a little later, along with Ashley.

The big old bridge, once again.

Unfortunately for the non-Joncers, we ended up tracing a fair amount of the Pont du Gard day trip, as the rest of us had been so amazed by the photos that we desperately wanted to see it for ourselves. We first stopped at one of the many ancient towns on a hill. Jan would be our tour guide, having already visited once before, and gave us a whistly stop tour of the best streets, best cats and best public toilet in the town. Yet again shockingly public, where you can virtually poke your head out of the open door to look at members of the public while having a piss. So French. The toilets also seemed to have a bread over in the back? Jan wasn't joking when he said this one was the best.

Next up we headed straight for the main attraction - the Pont du Gard itself. Although the weather was nowhere near as good as when the others had gone seen it, I was still very impressed. It's huge, Roman (mostly) and the acquaduct up the top has almost a foot thick of calcite deposits on it's walls, very neat. Salwa took some cool polaroid photos of us all in front of the bridge and then we ran round the back to see another smaller acquaduct further along the ridge.

After this the rain started to close in and we zoomed off to Nimes to get some food. By the time we got to Nimes it was pouring with rain, but we grabbed some surprisingly good food from Monoprix and wandered over to the giant coluseum to pay it our respect, before returning to our funky minature underground car park below a cathedral with the narrowest lanes I've ever seen.

A rainy walk through Nimes.

Zooming from here down to the airport was a breeze on the toll fee motorway, and despite Salwa's ultra competitive request for a race, naively thinking we hadn't already filled up with petrol, we pipped them to the post and left them devastated at their humiliating defeat of about 2 minutes. Returning the hire car was somewhat stress inducing, given cavers might just be the worst possible customers by filling the insides with mud and then scrating the outsides to pieces by driving to the caves. Given Jan had also "bumped" the car a few times given the ridiculously quick response of the electric motor, we were shocked when the guy said there was nothing else to pay and let us leave. Victory! The car was completely covered in small scratches and the bumps had seemingly all been caught by the bumpers, so presumably that's why they weren't too fussed despite all our worrying over the week.

In the airport we did one last baggage weighing redistribution and had to head yet more forgotten foods, including downing an entire bottle of wine that no one wanted to risk smashing within their luggage, much to the amusement of some elderly French locals watching us. An entire melon was also devoured by the masses.

One final melon.

Bags weighed and ready to go, we checked in and headed through security. Salwa explained to Leo and I as we were going through the duty free which of the expensive perfumes she normally goes for, and which she thought would work best on James for the flight home. She also picked out a nice one for Leo which seemed to approprately smell of the sea given his surfer vibes.

The plane itself was quite empty, once boarding had finished I immediately bolted for an empty row across from me, before then being asked if I wanted to be upgraded to the emergency exit row given I was alone in a row. Don't mind if I do. I also had this entire row to myself. Julien apparently actually bought the £10 meal deal of a sad sandwhich, a small bag of olives and a drink on the plane meaning he must have been desperate.

So much kit.

Landing back in London, our week in France was almost a figment of our imaginations were it not for the gargantuan bags we had to lug through London. Unpacking on Monday was also very entertaining, with Matti dropping by and immediately drinking the alcohol we'd just brought back from France. James found some cider left over from M1 and gave it a sniff much to Lauras disgust. It was also Ashley's birthday and Salwa had bought her a cake, so in typical caving fashion we collected every dangerous implement we could find and posed for a photo while about to cut it. Valery then snorted it off the tray?

The sign of a successful tour was sadness when it draws to a close and the sadness was definitely palpable on the final Sunday. Despite the ungodly amounts of faff, 5 cars, 18 humans, multiple 3pm caving days and pretty terrible weather for the location and time of year, this was a superb tour and planning for Sardinia 2025 has already begun... next up, Slov!


Some car cleaning was in order.

It was hard to believe the final day had come at last. It felt simultaneously like ages ago and like the day before that we were just arriving at the villa, still wide-eyed from spectating the bull fight. Presently, the cleaning chaos was taking over the house, everyone trying to make themselves vaguely useful by wiping, sweeping, scrubbing, brushing, dusting, rope coiling or otherwise fighting against the entropy which had ruled over the space for over a week. Kit was piled into LauraCar until it sat so low on its axles that I was concerned it would not roll forwards at all, before it moved off smoothly and began its long journey home. Fan languished in her room, perhaps hurt by something from last night’s feast, as we gathered all leftovers from the very same feast on the table and began devouring them one by one.

Then Salwa confessed she’d lost her glasses on the path to Neuf Gorges on Friday and kept it secret until now because she ‘did not want to cause a fuss’. Now, however, she had come to the realisation that it is in fact Nice to be able to see, and so requested assistance in recovering them from the wilderness. Partly out of my wish to be helpful and partly to avoid the chaos that was engulfing the villa, I volunteered to drive her to the cave entrance and help with the search party. We were also joined by Thurston and set off.

Mission success

On the way there Salwa, in a typical Salwa fashion, engaged us in conversations about our love lives. The car plunged one last time into the thickets, a final embrace of the leaves and thorny branches sticking out from the edges of the forest road. At the parking spot we got out and made our way slowly to the cave entrance, our eyes glued to the path. At some point I noticed something peculiar and went to pick it up, only to discover it was not Salwa’s glasses, but a club battery. We walked all the way to Neuf Gorges and turned around, gradually losing hope for the success of our mission, but then, suddenly, Salwa cried out in joy. I turned around to see her holding a pair of very muddy glasses. She did not notice it at the time, but they were also quite broken, causing her to show up to our minibus test a week later with the glasses held together by tape and blind faith.

Back at the house, we cleaned out the car, doing our best to remove the layers of mud and dirt that had been carried in by tired cavers, but the decision was made not to wash the outside too judiciously, so that perhaps the various scratches could be disguised by the dust. Then, inevitably, it was time for one final photo, and one final hangout with Priya, and we bid farewell to the villa that had been our French home and set off back to Montpellier.

Predictably, we did not take a straightforward route to the airport. Instead several people who did not go on Thursday wanted to have a look at Pont du Gard. Thus, much to my annoyance, we ended up repeating the exact route of our roadtrip, complete with a stop at the Lussan basement loo. The bistro was open this time, but only served a very expensive set Easter menu. The weather was oppressively grey, and the bridge, though still magnificent, ended up looking far less picturesque without the light of the setting sun.

A band photo by the bridge.

We then moved ahead to Nimes to try and find some food. It had begun to rain, and was raining more heavily by the minute, as we struggled to understand Nimes’ bizarre traffic organisation, not get hit by any of the mad French drivers, and find an unoccupied parking spot within a walking distance of the roman arena. We roamed the congested streets until a helpful sign sent us down a narrow and extremely steep driveway to an underground garage, seemingly constructed among the foundations of the neogothic Saint Baudile church.

The parking was free for the first half an hour, so we decided to try and make it back without having to pay anything. Back on the surface the rain kept getting stronger as we walked by an Irish pub and the garish ‘London Tavern’, desperately trying to figure out what to eat. Then, in a random supermarket, we found a really nice hot foods section featuring roast chicken legs and a meal deal hot pizza. With our food in hand we walked and ate at the same time until we reached the arena. We looked at it for maybe one minute before deciding to leg it back, as the downpour had just gone up in description from inconvenient to torrential. Leaving the big square, we bumped into the JamesCar gang (though with James conspicuously absent), who were just beginning their quest for food. We told them to go to the supermarket and nearly ran back to the underground garage. Getting back in turned out to be non-trivial, as one had to scan the ticket to get the door to open. I’m not sure what happens if one leaves their ticket in the car.

We’d missed the half hour free period, and I had to pay the exorbitant parking fee of I think about 1 euro. Then we were back on the endlessly confusing streets of Nimes and through sheer force of will managed to make it out onto the motorway, where we zoomed off towards Montpellier. We still had to fuel up before returning the rental, so I stopped at a gas station and endured what I can only describe as Extreme Refuelling. There was no appreciable shelter, and the wind and the rain rammed into me with their full fury. To finish off the miserable experience, it then transpired that the dispenser had run out of paper, and I couldn’t even get the receipt to show the rental company.

Back on the motorway, I learned that JamesCar was challenging us to a race. This did not especially affect the speed of my driving, but it did make me a little more annoyed at the toll gates, which really did not want to accept my ticket and payment, causing me to have to lean out the window with almost my entire body. Still, we easily beat the other car and joyfully greeted them at the airport as the undisputed losers they were.

The airport crew.

I’d been dreading returning the rental, but the man from the company walked around, made sure the engine still turned on, asked to see my fuel receipts which caused me to start shedding receipts from all my pockets like a tree dropping its seeds to the wind, and then declared that everything was fine and left. Not a word was spoken about what the car had been through and the various little marks this had left on its shiny paint. I gave the brave thing one last salute, thanking it for its service, and walked away to the terminal.

A melon was consumed, a bottle of wine downed, the kit bags sent as oversized luggage. Salwa emptied the entire perfume section from the duty free shop onto herself, making her far more noticeable by smell than by sight. Fortunately I was sitting far away on the plane, and managed to secure an entire row of seats for myself, ensuring as comfortable a journey as a large person can hope for on budget airlines.

Then we were back in London, and then back at Imperial on Monday, depositing everything back in stores. The Joncers put up their little Jonc shrine, we had some cake, posed for some more photos, and then it really, finally, was

The End.