Hidden Earth 2023
Hidden Earth 2023: Panda-monium
Chapter 1: Fear the Panda
Hidden Earth! The annual UK national caving conference had been in hibernation since the pre-Covid era, and our motley crew of four adventurers – Kevin, Laura, Ellie, and yours truly Ben R – decided to embark on a weekend trip to Portishead, so close to Bristol that you could practically hear Perry rambling in his typical fashion, so that Ellie could deliver the Migovec expedition presentation. Little did we know that our journey would turn into a saga of really quite epic proportions.
We rendezvoused at Cave House on a fine Friday afternoon, with Kevin's grand plan to beat the rush-hour traffic meaning a launch window of between 2 and 3 PM. Naturally, I arrived at 3 PM, and was met by James who wondered, quite reasonably, why I was breaking into his house on a sunny Friday afternoon. Turns out, I was the first one to grace Cave House with my presence, and so the waiting game began. Next Ellie arrived on the Oxford Tube, followed by Laura, who had left her car there the night before. Fashionably late, she had apparently taken a detour to her new flat. And Kevin, well, he rolled in extra fashionably at 5:30 PM, decisively beating the rush-hour chaos. So far, so good.
After a challenging round of car Tetris, we finally embarked on our estimated 2-hours-and-30-minutes drive to Portishead. Laura was behind the wheel of her trusty Fiat Panda, which Kevin misheard as the "Fear Panda". Freshly released from the garage after something or other had broken the week before, the Fear Panda was ready for action. Having extracted an entire cat from underneath the car, as we set off Kevin immediately began a passionate critique of Laura's signature frenzied-wobble gear shifting technique. Ellie and I in the backseats braced ourselves for an impending 2 hour bickering sesh.
Chapter 2: Crunchy Dashboard Bingo
A few minutes into our journey, mysterious noises began emanating from the Panda every time Laura shifted gears. A symphony of crunching, grinding, and metal-on-metal. As we attempted to wildly postulate about possible causes, Laura, ever the optimist, assured us that everything would be fine as her mum exclusively uses 3rd gear anyway. Crisis averted.
"You have to rev past the crunchy noise"
"Can someone look up ticking crunchy noise meaning"
We then noticed a constellation of strange lights illuminating the dashboard. Laura claimed most of them were always there, but just to double check I did some Googling anyway. None of them looked particularly promising, but at this point there was no cause for alarm and we continued on our way. An angry taxi driver even shouted something completely unintelligible at us out his window, in typical London taxi driver fashion. As we merged onto the M4, the ominous crunching sounds grew louder and more persistent. Some gears were abandoned altogether.
"We're down to four gears"
"This is Laura warning light bingo"
In the midst of this vehicular drama, we noticed a new light on the dashboard – the engine was in fact critically overheating and the manual said to turn the engine off immediately before imminent nuclear meltdown. Sadly there was no hard shoulder in sight for several kilometres so we carried on regardless. Pressing on in the rightmost lane, the scent of roasting engine components started wafting ominously toward Ellie and me. It was definitely time to stop. Finally, we spotted a hard shoulder on the horizon and pulled over immediately to consider our options.
Chapter 3: Stop One, Some Random Verge on the M4
We abandoned ship and found ourselves admiring the verdant verge beside Osterley House. To open the bonnet or not to open the bonnet, that was the question. We initially decided against it, for the engine was too hot to touch. Instead, Laura attempted to call the AA but was put on hold for absolutely ages. Eventually she got through and we were told that help may be up to four hours away.
"We need to get out and blow on the engine now"
Ellie, ever dedicated to the cause, continued working on her presentation for the following morning by squatting by a fence with her laptop. Inevitably, Kevin eventually couldn't resist the urge to inspect the roasted engine and decided to open it up. Upon closer examination, we realized that the coolant level was very low indeed, completely out of sight from the top. A quick Google search assured us that you can top up the coolant with water in emergencies so we sacrificed Kevin's precious hydration supply to the thirsty thirsty Fear Panda. Much hissing and steaming ensued, but it seemed as though everything had cooled down and we may even be able to escape from the hard shoulder.
"Control your flow we need that shit"
We cautiously hopped back into the Panda and, to our surprise, it roared back to life. We decided to gingerly head for the nearest petrol station, just a few minutes away. Our initial excitement waned as the crunching made a swift comeback, accompanied by a variety of exciting warning lights flashing in protest. We eventually made it and stopped the Panda in a rather arbitrary spot right in the middle of the forecourt.
Chapter 4: Stop Two, Some Random Petrol Station on the M4
Just as we were pondering our next move, the AA decided to grace us with a phone call, inquiring about our whereabouts and readiness for assistance. Triumphant and filled with the false bravado of the temporarily victorious, we informed them that we were absolutely fine and in no need of help whatsoever. Off to find coolant we went.
We scoured the station for coolant and struck gold. Amidst other mundane purchases, I also successfully procured the last slice of pizza. We returned to the Panda, popped the hood, and fed it our bottle of coolant. At this moment a worryingly large cloud of steam erupted from the engine toward the heavens, as if the almighty Fear Panda was dissatisfied by our liquid offerings. Our coolant deficit was far more severe than we initially thought. So, we decided to buy another bottle. Adding this we still were far below the max level, so we bought yet another. After three bottles, we finally hit the recommended level, and had emptied the entire shop of coolant.
"The bitter taste of Bittrex will help protect your family"
"The pump lady was looking at me like: another one?"
With our newly quenched Fear Panda, we gingerly manoeuvred around the forecourt, hoping for no more crunching or billowing. It seemed safe to rejoin the motorway, and with renewed hope, we set off once again. But this joy was short-lived. The crunching noise returned with a vengeance, and the warning lights flashed like a Christmas tree at full throttle.
"The engine light is on, it does that all the time"
"Oooh there's a third light on."
Then, disaster. The car lost all power and, in an act of vehicular acrobatics, Laura crossed four lanes of traffic to reach one of those orange SOS lay-bys. We phoned the AA again, only to be told that it would be up to another four hours for someone to rescue us. The clock ticked past 7:30 PM, and we faced the prospect of a long, arduous wait.
Chapter 5: Stop Three, Some Random Orange SOS Lay-by on the M4; A Bridge Over Troubling Water
With time to spare, we looked at the map and saw salvation just beyond reach – a small village ten minutes by foot from the road, near Heathrow airport and with a solitary Co-op. We safely reversed the Panda into a suitable spot and set off on foot in search of sustenance.
As we walked along the roadside, we encountered a rather formidable obstacle – a three meter wide drainage ditch of pure filth. Our options were limited. Undaunted, we pressed on, reaching an overpass that concealed a treasure trove of random belongings, rubbish and other peculiarities beneath it. Amongst the debris, a lone wooden pallet had been unceremoniously plopped in the midst of the trench filled with a concoction of flowing water, inky mud, assorted rubbish, and other unidentifiable filth.
"You could just absolutely yolo it"
And in typical Laura fashion, absolutely yolo it she did.
Immediately one foot was lost to the filth, fully submerged to the sock, but the palette held, with more structural integrity than first thought, and she made it to the other side, phone torch in hand, with the other foot unsoiled. The rest of us, having watched this with a mixture of awe and concern, decided to seek alternative strategies.
Looking further down the ditch, we found a solid-looking but rather narrow metal pipe bridging the gap, albeit suspended a meter above the river of filth. Ellie, in a daring display of balance and bravery, attempted to stick a branch into the filth for balance. The stakes were high, as falling would lead to a pungent continuation of the trip. Ultimately, she decided to retreat.
Our last hope was to construct a bridge at Laura's Ford of the filthy palette. Kevin, Ellie, and I dispersed in search of construction materials, gathering an assortment of logs and planks.
"Laura," I called across the divide, "do you have any wood on your side that you could contribute?"
"We had to build a bridge under a bridge"
After tossing our materials across the gap in a vague line, one by one, we ventured across, testing each plank to discern which parts of our civil engineering project were structurally sound. Miraculously, none of us were lost to the filth, even though I was sporting hiking sandals. Midway across our homemade bridge, surrounded by flowing filth, on a Friday night beside the roaring traffic of the M4, I couldn't help but ponder my life choices. But there was no turning back – Co-op awaited.
We pressed onwards through the undergrowth, up a muddy bank and onto the main road. After a few minutes we reached the promised land of Harlington, which had everything we could possibly have dreamed of: a car repair shop, car dealership, car wash, the enigmatic "hair by amnesia", a boarded-up pub and finally, the Co-op. We stocked up on supplies for the impending all-nighter, much of which we devoured voraciously outside. Laura's phone rang, mid-feast. It was the recovery driver, inquiring about our whereabouts. He was a couple of hours earlier than expected. Typical.
Returning via our public infrastructure project, we all successfully crossed without further mishap. As we made our way back, we were greeted by the flashing orange lights and the sight of the Panda being hoisted onto the back of a pickup truck. After a series of phone calls to some mysterious traffic people, we piled into the back of the pickup and embarked on a journey to goodness-knows-where with our grumpy driver from Slough.
It soon became evident that our driver from Slough had chosen to deposit the Panda in the darkest recesses of a car park behind the nearest petrol station. Bizarrely, he placed the Panda's keys in his mouth while manoeuvring it off the ramp – a wholly unnecessary gesture. He then proceeded to complain to us about various grumpy things before departing into the night, assuring us that he had contacted the AA, who would definitely be arriving shortly...
Chapter 6: Stop Four, Some Random Dingy Car Park By a Premiere Inn on the M4
After almost an hour of no contact from the AA, and with the clock nearing 10 pm, we decided to brave the endless holding and called the AA ourselves to double-check the situation. We discovered that our recovery request had been cancelled due to some issue with our AA membership details, a fact they had neglected to convey to us. Wonderful. Fortunately, they agreed to issue a new recovery request, with an estimated arrival time of less than four hours. Sigh.
As we waited for rescue, insanity started to set in. We feasted on Co-op and petrol station fare, which included a surprising discovery: the 60p discounted watermelon slices Ellie had purchased were, in fact, floating in liquid vinegar due to fermentation, causing them to leak all over our other food items in a sticky, acidic mess. Undaunted, Ellie attempted to consume one of the contaminated pizza swirls, the bag of which had dissolved, with part annealed to the swirl and the rest failing in dramatic fashion causing the swirl to fall to the floor. Laura informed us the floor had come into contact with Moroccan faeces and an abundance of dog hair. This revelation did little to deter Ellie. Eventually, after trying some of the top of the swirl and deciding it wasn't worth the effort, she succumbed to the passionate pleas of the rest of the group, she threw the rest in a nearby hedge. Madness continued with frenzied language learning and Laura watching Jamie Oliver eat raw fish. After being unsure of the Panda's exact symptoms, we drove the car at an excruciatingly slow pace around the car park to check. With each crunch and loss of power, it became clear that the Fear Panda was in dire straits. Kevin, also, was enthralled by the "Frag-a-rence" machine nearby.
After a mere two hours of waiting, just before midnight, a man in a "mans" van arrived, who was surprisingly helpful and not particularly grumpy at all. In contrast to our previous driver, he was not from Slough and thus refrained from putting our keys in his mouth. It didn't take him long to deduce that there was absolutely no oil in the vehicle whatsoever. He then filled the 3L coolant reservoir with 5L of water, to discover that it was pouring out from the bottom of the car. Putting two and two together, he explained that a complete lack of oil had caused friction and overheating, causing a meltdown of the thermostat housing and a coolant hose flailing loosely, spraying coolant in all directions. Not ideal, but at least the Panda had a diagnosis. The car couldn't be repaired then and there, but after adding more coolant and starting the engine, it sounded surprisingly good. He made arrangements with the AA to have the car towed back to London, somewhere in the vicinity of Cave House.
"Please don't drive [the Panda] you're just going to fuck, scuse my language" - The Mechanic
And so, once more, we dialled up the AA, enduring the interminable hold sounds, and were told that recovery would be with us in under five hours. A couple of hours later, around 2 a.m., I was roused from my slumber by a call saying that they had given up sending someone out to rescue us at such an ungodly hour. Instead, he arranged for a taxi to take us home, with the car scheduled to be towed away the following morning. He instructed us to hand over the keys to the nearest Premier Inn, assuring us that this was a normal thing to do and not weird.
Laura and I thus set off to the Premier Inn, passing the smallest hedge I've ever seen – barely 5 cm tall, an astonishing botanical feat. Our arrival at the hotel's reception, well past 2 am, left everyone involved somewhat confused. After explaining multiple times that we weren't staying at the hotel and in fact were not going to pay him anything at all for his services, we jotted our details on a post-it note and surrendered the Panda's keys. As we arrived back at the car, a text message informed us that our taxi was waiting outside the Premier Inn. We hastily gathered our belongings and scurried back, only to realize later that we had inadvertently left the 2L bottle of highly pressurized, homemade, weapons-grade ginger beer beneath the car seat, rattling around all the way back to London.
We clambered into the taxi and dozed off as it whisked us away to Notting Hill. Kevin, the true hero, volunteered to spend his night renting a car and driving us to Portishead. At 3:29 am, with an estimated arrival time of 5:58 am, we embarked on our journey in a shiny new car that thankfully lacked the unnerving crunching of the Fear Panda. Our boot was loaded with camping gear, and we set forth, headed for the West Country.
Chapter 7: OMG We Actually Made it to Hidden Earth, Wow.
As we departed London via the M4, we passed by familiar landmarks – the crunchy junction, the first hard shoulder, the exit to the now-coolant-depleted service station, the filthy bridge beneath another bridge, and, of course, the orange SOS lay-by. But we pressed onward into the night, determined to put the mishaps of the previous day behind us.
Along the way, we made pit stops for Kevin to rest and get coffee, eventually arriving in Portishead just as the sun began to rise, painting the sky in vibrant hues. It was nearly 7 am when we pitched our tents, selecting a spot conveniently located behind a children's play area. We constructed our humble abodes to a dawn chorus of phone alarms in all directions, with fellow cavers emerging from their tents, ready to face the day. Ellie's presentation was scheduled for 10 am and, miraculously, there was even an hour to spare for a brief nap before I roused myself at 8:30, hauling myself to the sign in reception and finding a seat for the 9 am welcome lecture.
Ellie was the conference's first presenter, but she rose to the occasion admirably, drawing a surprisingly large audience given our modest expedition in comparison to others at the conference. Her presentation was met with many thoughtful questions, and the chair even attempted to explain the insanity of our journey, undoubtedly earning us some extra clout points with the crowd.
The remainder of the conference paled in comparison to our preceding misadventures. Tomaž Grdin showcased his Primadona 2.0 film about the Riley rescue, though he himself was absent. We crossed paths with friendly faces from Matienzo and various other clubs. Given my well-known affection for overseas caving tours and photography, I found myself in paradise, absorbing presentations from around the world and forming connections for future escapades. In the evening, we embarked on a moderately chaotic excursion to the coast in pursuit of fish and chips – some of the best I had tasted in ages actually. Dinner was followed by a late night lap of the harbour and accompanying beach walk, given there's literally nothing else to do other than cause a nuisance in the camping site. After this we wandered aimlessly around the school grounds, with Laura becoming ever more convinced that Portishead was in fact a figmant of Kevin's imagination, given how poorly designed it all was.
"My weakness is large metal objects in harbours"
On our way back to our tents, we found that everyone else was in fact causing a nuisance in the camping site, and so we of course joined in, clambering over primary school play equipment and being equally impressed by Laura's acrobatic abilities and Kevin's ability to fall over.
Sunday arrived with a torrential rainstorm, but Kevin, ever the hero, dismantled our tents and transported our gear to the car with assistance from Jess, the bat lady. Meanwhile, I immersed myself in more talks about overseas expeditions, even making the 9 am for a second time. The conference eventually drew to a close, and Ellie parted ways to join her parents on a family holiday. The remaining three of us set off on the really-not-that-long-compared-to-Yorkshire journey back to London, drawing a close to our unforgettable weekend.
Later in the week an update informed us that the Fear Panda, our problematic partner in Panda-monium, had bid farewell to it's dashboard disco and crunched it's concluding crunch. It was never destined to grace the shores of Portishead, and one can only assume that it now enjoys a peaceful crunchless slumber in a land flowing with engine oil and coolant. RIP Fear Panda, you radiator renegade of the roadways.