Matienzo Easter Tour
Ben Richards, Dave Kirkpatrick, James Perry, Ana Teck, Matti Mitropoulos, Julien Jean, Laura Temple, Erica Keung, Kevin Sohn
🎵 Required background music for reading this report can be found here 🎵
Day 0: Sunday 26th
Yes, that background music is indeed compulsory - go click the link. Sunday evening and one by one the cavers begin to appear, ready for the long journey ahead. A variety of unusual packing activities occurred, including the vacuum packing of PVC oversuits and the furious exercising of thumbs while trying to charge the luggage scales. As the hours passed by, the union became quieter and quieter and kit bags became fuller and fuller, until most cavers headed to Julien's room to get in a last minute nap. At 2:48 am only Erica and I were left in Beit quad, both working away, when at last, I finished my lab report. As the casio beeped 3 am, it was time to head out into the night. Specifically, to Spain. Technically this should be day 1 come to think of it (but aren't days defined by when you wake up?).
We met on the Sunday evening to pack our kit in preparation for setting off at the very reasonable time of 3am on Sunday morning. Laura skated around stores on a board we found in stores while blasting Avril Lavigne on the club speakers. Ben needed to finish off his essay on recreating black holes in a laboratory setting before leaving so he was working at the table outside by stores, joined at some point by Erica who needed to finish a quiz on the maximum temperatures of exploding rockets or something. I spent quite some time wrestling with the Ryan Air website trying to check everyone in and printing the tickets. After finishing I played some FTL outside to pass the time and mock Ben and Erica, while a few others slept for a couple hours in Julien’s room.
Day 1: Monday 27th
Coventosa: Ben Richards, James Perry, Matti Mitropoulos, Julien Jean, Laura Temple, Kevin Sohn
3:20 am. After giving up hope waiting for a bus, we walked to Victoria coach station and napped our way to Stansted. Meeting Perry and DKP there, we successfully managed to take our spiky jammers and suspicious looking metalwork through security and were soon on our way to Santander. I woke up to see us approaching the Spanish coast, and as we circled inland I spotted between the tufts of clouds the rolling hills and bowl shaped valley of Matienzo itself - unmistakable having spent far too long zooming around it on Google Earth over the last few weeks.
Upon landing at an incredibly underwhelming and verging on adorably small airport (both of the people stamping passports at immigration were in the same room as the single luggage carousel), we faffed around geting hire cars before making the first mistake of the day in giving Julien the walky talky. After immidiately shouting "El Bolbo" in response to the noisy conversaation spanish of the airport radio channels, his walkie talkie access was temporarily revoked, naturally, as he had not first introducing his callsign. It also tuned out that El Bombo does not in fact mean the bomb, but rather "the hype". Regardless, we decided to make a speedy getaway, up into the mountains.
Rules for walkie talkie usage (as far as we could remember):
After a lovely drive up from the coast through what felt like a very high quality rip off of Yorkshire, we arrived at the AirBnB. Thankfully with no obvious signs as to why it was so much cheaper than everywhere else, we had a brief tour of the property completely in Spanish from relative of the host, Rocio (pronounced with a "th", remember). Asthmatic Roberto, who earlier had sent a 60 second clip of his heavy breathing whilst walking around the hamlet, was nowhere to be seen. The house was interestingly split into two completely disconnected floors, and from the thickness of the walls was presumably an old farmhouse.
One brief adventure later, of trying to buy large quantities of food from the tiny village shop entirely in single word Spanish while the shopkeeper tried to shoo us out to go siesta, we tried to get the hang of Spanish time with a 3 pm lunch. Sun, wine, bread, olives and cheese, sitting beside a field of horses beneath looming limestones, cliffs the scene was idyllic. At this moment one of the horses slowly turned around, presented us with its arse and proceeded lto let out the longests fart I've ever heard from an animal. It stank. His honerary callsign would be Stinky Farter for the rest of the week.
After an all nighter, a long drive and a rudely interupted lunch, Dave, Ana and Erica decided to stay at the house while the rest of us went to check out a cave Matti had stumbled upon whilst wandering around earlier, doing whatever Matti does on his walks. We wandered through the hamlet, past the ginormous tadpoles, and down a footpath adorned with primroses and dog violets that wound it's way along the side of the valley towards the next village of Asón.
About 20 minutes into our walk we heard what sounded like a generator up above us, towards the bottom of the cliffs. Kevin scampered up to go investigate and came back reporting he'd found a bunker belonging to an interplanetary agency called Astroland. Concerned that the lack of sleep had finally broken him, we Googled the text Kevin has seen on the signs, but to our surprise it turned out to be real. We really had just stumbled upon one of the first full scale Mars research stations, run by the Astroland Interplanetary Agency. Behind the bond villan themed doors, complete with culty symbol, there's an entire fully equipped mars base research station with living quarters for 10 astronauts in what, from the website, looks like a next level underground camping setup (despite lacking fairy lights). For $6800 tourists can join the researchers in experiencing underground camping without the fun of defecating in a plastic bag whilst wearing a onesie. According to a Forbes article "The 197-foot high and 1-mile long cave alone took more than two years for the team of biologists, archaeologist, architects and environmental engineers to locate". Took ICCC less than a day. And we got about 1 hours sleep. Just saying.
After wrapping our heads around getting farted on by a horse and discovering an interplanetary research facility, we continued our walk, only to discover that Matti's "small cave by the path" was in fact an enormous series of beautifully decorated chambers. So enormous, in fact, that it took us nearly 2 hours to wander through them with our jeans and phone torches. Luckily some of us had actual lights, allowing us to see the high ceilings and towering columns. A classic Easter tour cave. Deep into the cave we bumped into some Spanish cavers, and after explaining that we really were cavers despite the jeans and iPhones, they showed us a survey of the system and pointed out a truly bonkers 300m pitch from the top entrance. They also showed us www.clubviana.org which had many surveys for the surrounding area, which came in handy later in the week. After deciding we'd had enough adventures for one day, we headed back to the house.
After some deliberation about whether we should bus or walk to Victoria, we set off in the direction of the bus stop, only to realise after 10 minutes of waiting that we missed it, so just walked through the back streets to the coach station. Unsurprisingly I, and I assume others as well, were quite tired so slept for the whole journey. It was practically empty when we set off but a bunch of humans materialised during my time in dreamland so it was actually quite full by the time we arrived at Stansted. It was astonishingly full at the airport given it was like 6am but eventually I spotted a flat cap sway closer and closer over the sea of heads. United with Dave and Perry we did all the usual airport things like weigh luggage, put on some extra clothes, get stopped at security for carrying a laptop but not for carrying ascenders with sharp metal teeth and 25 rusty AA batteries, lose some people, joke about all the random shit in duty free, and get to the plane in good time only to have take-off delayed by half an hour because the wings are falling off or something.
I had expected Santander airport to be small, at least compared to the likes of the ‘London’ airports, but even so it was a surprise to arrive and realise that it takes a whole 5 minutes to walk through the entire building. I reckon working here must be one of the chillest jobs ever – one flight every hour or so, runway only big enough for tiny planes, and you’re in Spain so everyone gives an order of magnitude less shits. Getting the rental cars was a piece of piss too – Dave and Perry just walked up to the desk and they handed over the keys. Perry was initially somewhat stressed about driving though: ‘drive on the right, drive on the right, drive on the right…’
As is tradition we used the walkie talkies to communicate between cars, but quickly realised that we weren’t the only ones on the frequencies; occasionally there’d be some Spanish babbling coming through. Naturally, being right by the airport, Julien’s reactionary response was ‘El Bombo!’. Extraordinary mountain scenes guided us through the meandering roads into the land of relaxation and serenity, late mornings and cheap wine, warm weather and quaint cottages. Once we arrived in Socueva, our residence for the week, we scouted the property and optimised bed allocation so that only Laura and Erica ended up sharing. Perry decided the sofa was preferable to sharing a bed, and Ben decided that even the floor was preferable to sharing a bed with me. The hut was very pretty and pretty well equipped, only missing a couple luxuries like extra large pots and extra chopping boards. Everyone sits down to relax but I’m a bit restless so decide to go for a walk around the village to see what I can find.
Sure enough after walking about 5 minutes through the gravel roads I find a path labelled ‘Val del Ason’. Guess I’ll check out what that means. Turns out to be a beautiful, fairly well maintained track leading to the next village (named Ason, who’d have guessed), looking over the green, peaceful valley below. On the way back I had a bit of time to explore some of the branching tracks, one of which leads straight to an enormous cave entrance – practically a 10m diameter semi-circle in the side of the cliff, with a smaller passage leading into darkness at the back right. I take out my phone light and try to do a bit of exploring. After a short stoop I reach a huge chamber, too large for my crappy little light to see exactly how large, with quite a slippy incline leading down into the unknown depths below. I quickly realise I’m woefully unprepared, also having no form of call out so turn around before I fall into a pit I can’t even see, intending to come back soon to have a better look.
By the time I get back a small group had been to a small shop in Arredondo, the nearest village of major habitation (~500 population) to prepare a feast of fresh bread, cheese and fruit. We carried out the table to have a delightful afternoon meal in the sunshine overlooking the mountains and valleys. Laura had bought some Muscato for ~2.50 Euros or so, which was beautifully sweet and mellow with a sparkling festive touch to it, and would become my go-to favourite drink this week.
After the lunch-ish meal most were up to join me in exploring the mystery cave, but I think I didn’t quite make it clear that this was an actual cave not just an indent in the cliff, and so only Perry and I thought to bring specialised illumination devices. Dave, Ana and Erica stayed at the hut to doze in the sun. As soon as I led the group to the entrance and we entered the darkness I was immediately scared by bright headtorches blinding me from inside. The other cavers didn’t give very many shits about us and carried on, while we stumbled our way down the slippery slope into the huge chamber. Now with Perry’s powerful Fenix and my slightly less powerful Pixa I could see that this was an entrance chamber of sorts with a couple branching passages coming off of it. We arbitrarily chose one and were immediately rewarded with gigantic formations everywhere: titanic columns raging 10m high decorated with flowstone ripples, stalactites and -gmites peppering the ceiling and floor, cascades of pale gour pools skirting around the edge of the chamber. As our lights swept over them all we kept spotting new features to catch our eye, ooing and aaing at every one. In one corner the other caver was packing rope efficiently into a bag, who we were initially too scared to approach. Eventually I scrambled down to him and tried to initiate conversation – quickly realising he spoke about as much English as I did Spanish. He did however understand a bit of French, so Julien was ushered over to translate. Turns out this was an enormous system called Cueto-Coventosa, 32km long, most of which was only accessible through a series of pitches from the entrance, but no permit was required to visit it. After he left we took the opportunity to explore some more high-level chambers as safely as possible with our limited kit.
A bit further on Laura and I look at a potential free-climb and think ‘hmmm shouldn’t really without a helmet’ and go up an opposite slope to some huge curtains. It quickly dead-ended however, and on the way back down we saw Perry had bouldered up the climb and Julien was being assisted up as well. I made it up next and was rewarded with an even more extraordinary cavern – 30m tall, 20m across, flowstone across all the walls and a centrepiece on the opposite wall that reminded of a chandelier. What was unique however, was that a huge piece of the ceiling seemed to have been covered in flowstone, broken off and collided with another sprouting from the ground, ending up lying diagonally, leaning against the wall. Then over the years, more flowstone seamlessly blended the two flow directions into a 20m tall two-pronged fork. I was hit by a rush of euphoria and immediately ran off deeper into the system, leaving the others to slowly make their way up the climb, assisted by Perry. Similarly impressive formations eventually funnelled the passage into a choke where it died. Everyone did eventually make it up to marvel at the passage, but we then decided to head back out before we started pushing our luck too much.
During the walk back Kevin investigated a noise reminding of a generator emanating from a branching path leading steeply up the cliff. I followed, and we found a small, gated complex leading into the side of a cliff, with a very Bond-villainy logo printed on sheet metal beyond with the words ‘Astroland’ below. Kevin was instantly hooked, convinced they were breeding aliens or searching for extra-terrestrial life or something and began raving about what wild things could be happening behind the corrugated iron. Although we initially dismissed his claims, he managed to pull up the Astroland website with astonishing speed. Turns out that that was actually a facility that trains astronauts to live in isolation in preparation for Moon and Mars colonisation, testing hydroponic cultures, sleeping cubicles, hygiene kits etc. Craziness. Kevin earned the call sign: ‘Astro Lander’
After what one would call sleep on the floor of Julien’s room (Laura yoinked the only other bed in the room), me, Anna, Laura, and Julien groggily arose like the second coming of Jesus to set out on a glorious adventure to Stansted airport. The walk to Victoria station was a complete haze, unhelped by London being the grey maze it is, and the only thing engraved in my mind is the constant struggle Julien and Erica faced lugging around their enormous suitcases. In contrast, Laura somehow only packed 2 “purses” worth of stuff; one containing caving gear that was vacuum pumped to oblivion into a dense gravitational mass; the other containing her trusty bumblebee blanket (which is essential).
When we arrived at the bus station, Ben and I hurried down to the toilet for a lil wee and encountered a strange man covered in black makeup/oil(?) cleaning himself at the sink, which we thought was amusing. Furthermore, the toilet itself was constructed in a strange circular topology and was as decrepit as you would expect for a public toilet located at a bus station. I could be convinced that this part of the journey was a concoction of my mind rather than true fact, but either way it doesn’t change the fact that my eyes were violated. Afterwards, we promptly got on the bus and dozed off, basking in the green neon lights of the bus.
We got through the Stansted customs fairly unharmed considering all the weird metal work we were carrying. Ben and I got pulled aside and questioned about the metal work but Ben was held a lot longer than I was, which he wasn’t happy about since he just wanted to get a move on and was dead tired. The flight itself was pretty standard and I got to see some pretty sights over/of the ocean and a cheeky glimpse of the Pyrenees.
Once we landed, we started the process of assigning each other call-signs, as was custom on these Easter tour trips. Julien was immediately assigned the call-sign of “El Bombo” from the fact that when we turned on the walkie-talkies, we tuned into some local radio chatter originating from the airport, and he got the urge to yell “el bombo” into the walkie-talkie, which may or may not get the bomb squad called onto site. For the rest of us, we’ve only just been in Spain for about 10 minutes and haven’t had time to accrue enough shenanigans to synthesise meaningful call-signs from. The drive over to Socueva was absolutely gorgeous though and I really enjoyed bashing my head against the car window while trying to sleep through the curvy mountainous roads.
As stated above, Matti went for a walk and found a cave which we explored. We (us excluding Matti) really underestimated the scale of this cave, considering we didn’t think it was in the cards to randomly stroll across a cave of this stature and beauty on the side of an obscure mountain trail. Reflecting this, Laura waltzed into the cave with an attire I would attribute to “a random tourist looking for the beach” rather than what would have been more appropriate for the level of muddiness we encountered. At least the photos we took really highlights the fact that we really did just unknowingly stroll into this gorgeous cave.
One thing to note: on the way to the cave, we heard this humming noise midway through the trek and decided to investigate the source of the noise. I got excited and ran-off first, only to find something I definitely wasn’t expecting. There was an opening into the side of the mountain with metal fences barring entry. Across the fence, you could see an intimidating rusted iron gate with the greek letter Lambda inscribed onto it in several locations, resembling something one would expect from a sci-fi movie. On the side of the gate, there was a sign that read: “ASTROLAND: Interplanetary Agency”, “RESTRICTED AREA: UNAUTHORIZED PERSONS KEEP OUT”. Needless to say, I was absolutely dying to know why this was here and for what purpose. The others from the group that also hiked up to see it thought it was peculiar but quickly moved on. I could not get over how fast they moved on from it and started to feel like a conspiracy theorist. It ended up being a recurring joke as we explored the cave, often remarking the strange martian-like landscape as “astroland” and calling the cavers we encountered inside as “astrolanders”. Due to my obsession with it, my call-sign would later end up becoming “Astro-Lander”.
Day 2: Tuesday 28th
Our first contact with the Matienzo expedition itself. We'd arrived before the expedition really got underway, but a couple of the older British cavers on the expedition had moved to Matienzo, and one of them had offered to give us a tour of the area. We met Andy and his wife Julie at Bar German, the headquarters of the expo, and from there we followed Andy's car around the valley, poking our heads in various caves along the way. Andy mentioned that he used to run a university trip to the valley, and as he told our motley crew about the history, geology and speleology of the area, it certainly had a school trip sort of feel to it.
Early in the trip Andy mentined that the yellow flowers we'd seen covering the entire surrounding area were in fact turnips, and demonstrated that pulling one up produced a first sized turnip with relative ease. Immdiately carnage ensued as turnips were being pulled up left, right and centre. This craze of uprooting turnips at any possible opportunity would continue throughout the week, and the finest specimens from the tour with Andy were bundled into a backpack, flowers and all, to be stewed that evening. They were considerably more fun to uproot than to eat.
We popped into quite a few different caves throughout our tour. The Matienzo is actually a large bowl shaped depression, with no river river valley leading out of it. Instead the water rises from and returns to the caves in the area, making the caves much wetter than those we're used to exploring in Slov. Poking around one such wet cave, Andy pointed out the crayfish that we had been obliviously stomping past without much thought. Apparently most of those we saw were invasive and the American crayfish have such an appertite that they in fact eat the native European crayfish. Typical Americans.
One of the caves required climbing up a mountain of manure, only to find the cave entrance was also full of manure. Others had howling drafts and some were too wet to poke our heads in with only trainers. Some of the entrances were very large and impressive, with two of them being linked to abandonned mills, providing convenient stone paths over and around the streams. The caves were very decorated, as we'd discovered the day before, but some still had a distinctly expo pushing front feel to them.
After a long day of bimbling around on the school trip, we popped to the large shops in Ramales before returning home to stew the turnips. Whilst waiting, broom traverses were achieved and excellent photos of a limbo competition were taken.
A breakfast of crusty fresh bread, spongy cheese and marbled tomatoes had us ready for the day’s plans: meet with two cavers named Andy and Julie who would show us around the Matienzo valley and explain some local geological oddities that generated the unique caves there. The meandering roads into the valley were lined with heaps of bright yellow flowers which had us guessing what sort of plant they could be. Rapeseed, mustard, dandelions and various others were suggested, each less likely than the previous. Eventually we met with Jundy who enlightened us: they were actually edible turnips growing as a weed. We’re entranced, vowing to incorporate them into a meal.
We visited a variety of cave entrances, some slightly wetter, some entirely dry, each having some interesting history that Andy took time to explain. Between each there were nice walks in pleasant weather, admiring this surprisingly green area of Spain. Andy also explained that the meteorological consequences of being fairly far north and near the sea meant comparatively large volumes of rainfall, resulting in quite agriculturally favourable land and hence plenty of greenery around.
As the afternoon came to a close we said our goodbyes and thank yous to Andy and Julie and drove to the Lupa supermarket in Ramales, turnips in hand. 4 of us were designated a meal to cook – mine was a beany chilli, something I had never cooked before, god help us. The supermarket also had plenty more extraordinarily cheap wine which we very much took advantage of, including the incredible Muscat from the day before, as well as a disconcertingly blue version.
We arrive back at the hut still in warm daylight so sit around for a bit to discuss more call signs. Various options are discussed, including ‘todo bombo’ for Julien, bastardised into ‘total bomber’; quite a few unflattering ones for Laura such as ‘titchy loser’, ‘total loser’, ‘total moron’ etc etc, but a slightly more acceptable ‘loser cruiser’ was settled on. ‘Slip’n’slider’ seemed apt for Erica given her mud-covered trousers, and ‘lanky strider’ was assigned to me which I considered quite generous. We struggled to find a suitable one for Ana, only coming up with some unpublishably offensive bread-related names.
Perry’s stew was on the cards for dinner, which, as promised, featured one of the wild turnips. I got quite merry with the cheap wine, realising that the blue muscat tasted exactly the same as the pink one – equally as splendid. I diluted some actual wine with orange juice which worked surprisingly well, but also got me wafted before the stew was even ready. I distinctly remember causing carnage at the table breaking and spilling multiple glasses simply by trying the stir the pot one-handed. Gratitude to Perry though, for cooking the delicious meal. At some point later in the evening he decided to dead-lift the sofa with Laura on it – I don’t remember how we got to that point, but she landed straight on another wine glass, generating the next casualty. After most had gone to bed, Perry, Kevin and I chatted till the morning hours got to us. I went on a walk in the comfortably warm night, finding a pleasant spot overlooking the twinkling lights in the Arredondo valley to doze off on, returning around half five.
The day was jam packed with tours of several caves around the Matienzo valley (or depression, as Andy would remark). We got a bit of a geology lesson and the weather was absolutely stunning with the scenery to match. The fields of endless yellow turnip flowers contrasting the green hills and the blue/white skies looked like it was pulled straight out of a Van Gogh painting. Julien and I got slightly obsessed with pulling out the biggest turnip from the ground and I got stung by a metric ton of nettles in the process. The initial goal was to incorporate the turnips we found in every meal henceforth, but we found out the hard way (ha. ha.) that using it only once was satisfactory.
The path to one of the caves we visited was ridden with so much horse feces that it was akin to walking in quicksand. Later, we found out from Juan (Joo-an, don’t get it twisted) that the path is actually made out of concrete, but we never would have known that if we weren’t told so! On the upside, this cave was a nesting ground for some local bat species and we found a pod of at least 30 of them in one little nook above a pile of shit. We later came back to this cave to collect said shit for Jess, the bat lady, to send back to her lab for analysis. Very neat.
This was also around the day Matti put on some spanish tunes in the car and happened to play the song called “Bamboleo”. Little did we know, this was the exact moment when Ben would lose all grip with reality and proceed to hum and sing “bamboleo” for the rest of the trip, non-stop, until we got back.
It was actually on Wednesday on the way back from the beach but oh well Kevin mentioned the Bamboleo incident. An innocent enough Spanish music playlist that Matti put on would lead to a tour defining moment when a certain "Bamboléo" by the Gipsy Kings came on, and from then on there was no going back. A brilliant multi-prupose word, bamboleo was hummed, whispered and screamed throughout the rest of the trip, with spontaneous outbreaks becoming an increasingly frequency occurence. This got so out of hand that my call sign was eventually changed from "Over Watcher" to "Bambo Layer". If you haven't heard this song yet stop reading immediately, scroll to the top of this page and open the background music link before proceeding any further.
Day 3: Wednesday 29th
Due to uncertain weather conditions later in the week and still suffering from a lack of rope and metalwork, today became the designated beach day. Ben and Ana picked out a suitable location: quiet, a bit out of the way, scenic, not too far away etc… And featuring a cave nearby of course.
Stunning weather guided our 40 minute drive to the coast, also featuring new call signs and slanderous navigation. The final stretch of the journey led us through an exquisite fantasy-esque eucalyptus forest, spitting us out onto a ledge overlooking the deserted crescent bay. Its decided we should visit the cave before eating and swimming so we start the short coastal path there, arranging a dead snake to appear as lifelike as possible along the way for entertainment. The cave entrance appeared to have previously been used as some religious shrine, indicated by candles and pictures and sacrificial altar. Perry, Kevin and Julien put on some head torches and push the cave beyond the easily accessible, disappearing for 15 minutes or so while us surface dwellers admired the turbulent sea from the cliff-perch.
Once back, we made our way down to the beach, finding a small cove to set up lunch – crusty bread, cheese and tomatoes of course. The water was off-puttingly cold, so although I had brought clothes to swim in I had an initial back and forth about swimming, but I made up my mind and marched definitively into the ocean, jumping and rolling over waves as they approached the beach. After a short while I was joined by others, also diving through waves. Eventually though my tendency to get quite cold caught up with me and I had to turn back, amid excessive teeth-chattering. After warming up in the sun I spent a good couple hours whacking things with sticks, breaking rocks, throwing things around and lying in the sun to pass the time. Perry started playing catch with what seemed to be an innocent-looking pine cone, but turned out to be an indestructible force of chaos, causing multiple injuries before I annihilated it with a rock, decimating the rock itself in the process.
That evening we had agreed to meet with Big Steve and Juan (pronounced Djoo-ahn), who would show us around the kit store and the file management system. Things had a tendency to move very slowly however, so there ended up being a lot of waiting around, making people quite restless. Eventually however the restaurant started serving food and we were able to order our dinner out. I had a bean stew for starters, steak and chips for main and flan for dessert – safe to say I was extremely full by the time we climbed into the cars to drive home. Most weren’t in the mood to stay up chatting so it was just me and Perry discussing various controversial topics in the kitchen for several hours before retreating.
It’s a well known fact that I love the water and the ocean, so I was very excited about beach day. The journey to the beach was quite bizarre; a cement truck merged in front of us part way through the drive and the truck driver started zooming around corners and roundabouts like nobody’s business. We remarked that the driver should’ve been in Formula 1 from the way they were attacking racing lines with a vehicle as beefy as the cement truck. This must’ve inspired Perry in some way because after this event, he started driving around the mountain side mimicking a pro racer and spared no mercy for us backseat dwellers. Moreover, just before arriving at the beach, we had to go through an off-road path into a forest that seemingly appeared out of nowhere just on the outskirts of the port city. The way the light fell onto the trees and the abrupt change in scenery from city to forest made me feel like we were entering Narnia, albeit a tropical version.
The beach itself was stunning. The cliffs gave way to a valley and an alcove with waves shoaling enough to properly surf on. Before heading down to the beach though, we took a detour to a nearby cave with an entrance looking over a cliff. On the way there, I took note of a path/climb that led down to the base of the cliffs where the water was much deeper and huge waves were crashing onto the sides. After exploring the cave and the surrounding Eucalyptus forest, I told Anna that I was going to go down that path and ran-off. For safety reasons, Anna, Perry, and Julien followed me to the path but didn’t go down with me to the base. Being so close to breaking waves was exhilarating. I did a little rock hopping to manoeuvre around the place, being careful to time my movement with the breaking of the waves so I didn’t get caught/washed away. I ended up climbing the side of a boulder to avoid getting splashed and sat there for several minutes, enjoying the rhythmic sound of the waves. By the time I got back up to the group, they were slightly angry at me for being down there for so long (whoops, time goes by when you’re having fun) and for being out of view for some of the time. All valid criticisms.
At the beach, Perry found the densest pinecone I’ve ever seen and we thought it would be a great idea to play catch with it. Perry, Laura and I played catch for a little while, slowly increasing the distances between us until the act of receiving the pinecone was painful. Who am I kidding, we increased the distance until we couldn’t throw it any further. At one point, I threw it at Perry and he accidentally “caught” it with one of his feet, bouncing off the foot bone and pinballing to his leg, bruising both places. We quickly called it quits after that and joined others in the water. The water was icy to the touch and required some courage to sink my whole body under. It wasn’t so bad afterwards, although many would disagree. After some period of hopping and diving waves, the tide started to roll in so we slowly started heading back to shore. I got thrown around a little bit near the end because the waves were pulling me back towards the ocean, but I managed and got out happily moisturised.
While everyone was drying up in the sun, I decided to try and break the pinecone by throwing it with all my might towards the cliffside. It actually took about 20-25 throws to break the damn thing. Impressively durable. In between the breaking attempts, Perry and I played a game where you’d try to get the pinecone into one of the holes in the cliffside at a fixed distance away from the wall. The game was much harder than I expected and Perry beat me by being the first one to score. Even worse, Erica joined in the middle and beat me as well! The losses only fueled the rage I channelled into the pinecone breaking.
For dinner, we decided to eat at the bar in Matienzo where the old cavers have their base of operations. There was about 2 hours to kill before dinner orders would even be taken (because spanish people eat dinner at 9?) so Erica and I decided to take a walk around the area. We explored a pathway previously taken the day before with Andy and Julie before meeting up with Perry and Julien, who also got bored waiting around. A bit of tomfoolery occurred around town and we eventually happened across a mini cave by the side of the road littered with broken cardboard boxes. They mostly contained shattered teacups and plates; except there it laid on the floor; a cursed-looking statue of a woman dressed in black. Now, we could’ve taken that as a bad omen and left it there, but we said “what’s the worst that could happen” and took it back with us. It now rests in stores, overlooking anyone foolish enough to enter and fall within its grasp.
Day 4: Thursday 30th
El Suto: Ben Richards, Dave Kirkpatrick, James Perry, Ana Teck, Matti Mitropoulos, Julien Jean, Laura Temple, Erica Keung, Kevin Sohn
The first proper day of caving: you’d think we’d be well prepared and rearing to go, but of course faff is all-permeating so we only left the hut at 11:20, after another superlative breakfast. The instructions to park up and find the entrance were fairly vague so we were quite cautious when approaching. Luckily parking turned out very convenient – a perfect 2-car-sized hole was carved out of the forest floor right by the road. Unluckily, finding the entrance proved more difficult. We had been instructed that for some unknown reason the entrance had been covered up by a selection of tractor tyres which we may need to move to gain access. Unfortunately this had been done in 2011, and 12 years of neglect would leave any partially covered hole firmly in nature’s grip. A very obvious depression in the middle of the field became the first point of call, but after much sweaty digging was concluded to be a futile effort. We fanned out to examine as many holes as we could find, and eventually Dave peered into the correct pit and we settled down to analyse what to do.
Although it was possible to squeeze past improving access would make everything much easier, especially since the entrance slope was extraordinarily slippery. A quick Z-rig was jigged up while I sat patiently in the hole, and the surface team successfully lifted the giant tyre out of the hole, allowing me to yell the brambles into oblivion, rig up a deviation on the present spits and bolt in a rebelay, eliminating most of the rope rub. Dropping down into the chamber I found many bones previously inhabiting… cows… and more tyres of various sizes littered the false floor. I had a quick peak down a free climb that quite abruptly ends in a gigantic pitch forcing me to very carefully but hurriedly scramble back up, not least because I knew Ana would chastise me for going down there unprotected if she saw. When she dropped into the chamber she equally did a quick recce of the situation and we prussiked back up to plan with the rest of the group.
As it happened, Perry had started by teaching some knots to the novices, but quickly diverted to climbing eucalyptus trees until they gradually leaned over and gently lowered him to the ground. Ana, Dave and Julien head down to rig the traverse safely, shortly followed by Kevin, Erica and I who were doing the surveying. I took quite a laissez faire attitude towards the survey, allowing the novices to make and learn from mistakes rather than interfering prematurely. That did mean that the survey of the entrance chamber was a bit whacky, with the length of the centreline wildly overrepresenting the length of the cave. Laura dropped down in normal clothes just for the cave count and prussiked out with two gigantic jawbones sticking out of her SRT bag.
After some time the bolting team decide not to drop the big pitch and the surveying team hit a convenient stopping point so we all headed out and packed up our things. Before we leave I try my hand at Perry’s magical tree-bending technique, executing it beautifully until the very last moment when I failed to let go and snapped the tree in two. I did feel quite bad about that, so hid the evidence as best as possible to avoid responsibility.
Back at the hut, Erica made her designated meal – a less stodgy pasta-sauce combo that turned out very well. I decide to lay off the wine a bit and have an early night for once.
Day 5: Friday 31st
El Suto: Dave Kirkpatrick, Ana Teck, Matti Mitropoulos, Julien Jean, Erica Keung
Once again a superlative breakfast greeted the day, over which the day’s events would be bespoken. It was decided we would be splat in two, one team to plumb the depths of El Suto as far as it can go, the other to ascend into the clouds on the Iron Path. Despite all the kit being, in theory, already prepped from the day before, there was a considerable amount of faff before we were ready to depart. Nevertheless, we wanted to keep it a chill day so there was no rush, and we got to the entrance in good time, now cleared of detritus and ready for us to dive straight in. While Ana and Dave bolted and rigged at the head, I stayed back with Julien and Erica while they got some more surveying experience under their belts. Once again I took a fairly hands-off approach, letting them figure out how to optimally represent the cave’s features, giving odd guidance here and there.
The large pitch which we had abandoned the previous day had some delicate formations on the descending wall which we were wary not to lean against during the descent, landing on a rocky outcrop that sloped down to a constriction where the next pitch began. It was naturally slow going so I took time to explore the supposed joining between the left and right route on the old survey, and found only gigantic boulders. Maybe they had collapsed in the last decade, maybe the old survey had mistakes in it, but either way there was certainly no connection between the two routes there. Nevermind: once past the constriction we dropped into a smaller chamber that similarly fed through an even tighter constriction to the final pitch. Julien had a brief moment of panic as he forgot where he had put the survey station while halfway through the squeeze but managed to resolve everything to keep the survey intact. Once at the bottom we briefly glanced at the very tight constriction that looks like it might possibly continue downwards, but agreed that there was no way any adult human could fit through there without banging it so simply turned around.
Ana was derigging, and although I make a case for derigging the whole cave, the decision was made to keep the short entrance pitch rigged for when we come back. During the drive back we communicate with the other team, who had successfully completed the via ferrata planned and had bought supplies for an excellent Barbeque that evening.
The evening featured many deliciously charred vegetables, various meats and more excellent wine of course. Perry was chief griller, manning the heat with expert control, whilst stylishly smoking a huge cigar. ‘Jamon’ was cooked to such perfection that it sent shivers down my spine, something that had never been triggered by food before. Perry and Ben had bought a gigantic steak which dripped tears of goodness through the metal bars onto the burning coals, vapourising instantly to release the aroma of the gods into the warm evening breeze.
As the evening went on I eventually tried some of Perry’s cigar, which was nicer than expected, and we inspected the local Grindr scene, where we found Jose only a few kilometres away, ‘solo en casa’ and ‘sin complicaciones’. Regretfully we were too far under the influence of happiness to get to know Jose, so settled for human traverse instead. Eventually the evening died down and I chatted to Erica for some hours longer as the night got gradually colder, and eventually I walked down to my favourite spot overlooking Arredondo, during which I realised I was a lot drunker than I had expected, before stumbling back and crashing.
Via Ferrata, translating to Way of Iron, is a unique experience that is appreciably different from rock climbing although both involve scaling the side of a mountain. For via ferrata, you climb the mountain using the iron rungs bolted to the cliffside rather than climbing the rock itself. Ben was hyping this up well before we even left for the trip so I was keen to give it a go.
The via ferrata group consisted of Ben, Perry, Laura, and I, all of whom are capable climbers. As a first-timer, I would go on record and say that via ferrata was more intimidating to do than rock climbing or even caving because it felt like you weren’t attached to anything even though you were. The reason being that you don’t want to load your via ferrata rope because it is designed to break your fall only once, meaning you don’t want to accidentally trigger the fall-breaking mechanism. As a backup, we took our cowstails with us, which you can clip and load without any issue.
We ended up doing two separate routes in two different locations. The first one we did was situated near a farm, surrounded by thin trees, underneath what one could call a waterfall (more of a drizzle, really). Around the area, there were donkeys, hens, and one magnificent looking rooster endowed in such vibrant colours that we had to crack a few jokes that I won’t explicitly write here. The route itself was fairly easy besides one loose rung that rotated around its axis, a diagonal section with far too little footholds that demanded some strength, a few overhang sections, and a cheeky wire-bridge. We posed for some dynamic photos whilst hanging precariously by the cliffside to use for internet clout (thank you Perry) and enjoyed the overarching view of the farm town in the breeze.
Post topping-off and hiking down, we were feeling a bit peckish so we decided to grab a nice lunch near the town where the 2nd route was located. When we arrived, it was impossible to miss advertisements plastered all over town about cave-drawings left by, presumably, one of our ancestors. We found out that this cave was located near where the 2nd via ferrata route was and hoped to run into it at some point.
For lunch itself though, we walked into some random cafe after some loitering around the town a little bit. I ended up ordering fries with eel(!) and prawns at the suggestion of others. It was actually quite nice. What was bad though, was the foie-gras that was in Laura’s burger that she left out for us to try. Never having had it before, I enthusiastically forked a good chunk of it and vacuum sucked it into my mouth, only to immediately and involuntarily make the worst noise known to mankind as soon as it touched my tongue. The closest noise I can think of at the moment is “a donkey choking on a pinecone while being stung by nettles”. Mind you, I wasn’t choking; there was just something about the mixture of the liver-y taste and the texture of pure mushy fat that triggered some primal chundering instincts as it disintegrated in my mouth. At least the others found the whole ordeal hilarious.
The second route was located around a mountain range that was home to many caves and climbing routes. A prominent feature of the area was a mountain in the exact shape of a toblerone (the chocolate), which was pleasing to the eye. It was even more pleasing when viewed by the cliffside; seeing the clouds part around the peak to let sunlight through in a very chic way, compounded with the rise and fall of green valleys with huts sprinkled around all over in just the right amounts, gave me strong impressions of Ghibli movies, specifically, Castle in the Sky/The Wind Rises.
The route itself had less overhangs than the first one but was longer in length. Near the end, we had to climb the side of this sketchy-looking pillar that was all jagged and broken which branched into two possible ways to top-off: a wire-bridge towards the other side and a ladder to the top of the pillar. Perry had already gone over the wire-bridge and encouraged me to take the other route. I carefully treaded up the side, making sure the rocks weren’t loose, only to climb it back down as I wasn’t sure where it led. I was hyper-focused during the down climb since it had an overhang and it was difficult to see the foot holds whilst also hanging on for dear life trying not to load the via ferrata rope.
On the hike down, we came across an enormous cave entrance on the side of a perfectly sheared cliff of grey and bronze. I decided to see if we could make our way over there and found a path. When I arrived, there happened to be 2 spanish cavers who had just finished their round trip sitting near the entrance. I went up to them and conversed in broken spanish, asking for their survey and the lengths of rope required for the round trip, which they happily provided. Ben eventually came over and took a picture of their survey and confirmed what I interpreted. The survey was quite weird because it was pictorially detailed but not necessarily easy to interpret nor did it list any rope lengths. Meanwhile this was happening, Perry was obsessed over a pair of hawks nesting by the cliffside, coaxing them to come out. He rambled, in typical Perry fashion, about how his grandpa loved birds and would be able to tell exactly what kind of hawks they were.
As a side note, I’ve been befriending a local cat/stray that would occasionally come visit us throughout the day. On this day, after dinner, I walked into my room and sat down on my bed, only to be pleasantly startled to hear a cat meow beside me. I don’t know how I didn’t notice it but much petting ensued and we ended up cuddling the nights together until I had to leave Socueva (sad). I can’t say I slept very well because it was constantly walking over me during the night and kneading my stomach but it’s the price you pay for that sweet sweet serotonin.
Day 6: Saturday 1st
Cuevamur: Ben Richards, James Perry, Matti Mitropoulos, Julien Jean, Laura Temple, Kevin Sohn
As we begin our final caving day in beautiful Spain, Ana announces she’d like to go back to El Suto but – no-one else does. A plan is gradually formed around a trip exploring a gaping hole in a cliff which Ben had spotted during the via ferrata trip the day before. We eventually managed to identify its name with some help from Juan, and found a crap survey alongside an interestingly translated description, featuring an abysmal chicken getting laminated whilst practicing pottery or something. Dave, Ana and Erica weren’t inspired by the abysmal chicken’s motivating words, instead desiring a chill day in the surrounding villages. We get to the car park at around 2pm and decide that because of the pissing weather we should change in the cave entrance rather than at the cars. Unfortunately Julien had decided that the optimal method of transportation for his kit was a shit bin bag that ripped in half as soon as he sneezed near it, so we all stood in the rain while he very slowly got changed.
‘What knot dyou reckon I should tie to secure my knife to my krab…?’
Bamboleo was on my lips for most of the day.
Naturally as soon as we get to the cave entrance, the sun showed itself and we were bathed in a comforting blanket of sunshine as we stripped off sopping clothes, overlooking the sparkling valley. No matter, dry-ish furries were put on and we were crawling through the iron quadrilateral marking the entrance before long. Immediately greeted by some solid-looking in-situ, we took a minute to read the info page and were informed that this was a cave free to be entered by anyone, as long as they kept to the marked paths. More than happy to comply, I traversed around the outside of the huge entrance chamber, gradually trusting my weight onto the in-situ more and more and decreasing the proportion I put on the slightly feeble formations. The floor was a soft sand that was quite pleasant to navigate – not sticky or wet, but comfortable to crawl on. Once the other side of the chamber we reached the revered ‘laminator’ and fed ourselves graciously into it. It wasn’t actually that bad, just a fairly long flat-out crawl, but I did almost push my tackle sack straight out of the other end without realising, straight down a steep slope leading into a titanic cavern.
This was what Ben had been tempted by when scanning the survey, and it did indeed live up to the hype; The ceiling was covered in extraordinarily large helictites, gnarled and twisted spikes coating vast areas. Our lights weren’t quite strong enough to properly illuminate the chamber, but the reverberations gave us an indication of the order of magnitude we were dealing with.
The in-situ traverselines led us round a quarter or so of the perimeter until a walking passage led us away from the ledge, where much graffiti had been etched into the soft mud and moon milk on the ceiling and walls. Various names, slogans and symbols led us through stooping passages through the enigmatically named ‘glove passage’ to the very obviously named and staggering crystal chamber. Tiny intricate fractals of white, grey and purple covered every surface as we carefully treaded the worn path through the middle of it all. Perry taught me some words to Sospan Fach, and we headed back out before the long arduous crawling began.
Fairly near the entrance we came across three Spanish cavers – one instructor and two ‘customers(?)’, who were doing the full round trip including the arduous crawling. By now it was around half 6, and the description recommended 5 hours for the round trip, so it appeared they’d be looking at quite a late night, but it was Spanish time, so everything was shifted back by about 4 hours. Just before we parted he mentioned he had left his dog by the entrance.
Lo and behold – by the entrance, waiting patiently at the top of a steep and quite dangerous slope, was the cutest, friendliest dog ever to walk the earth. It was so chill; literally almost fell down the slope while we were stroking it, and was never pushy but always appreciative of strokes. After spending far more time than we should have with the dog, we said our farewells and got changed in the sweet breeze. We were at the car park 45 minutes earlier than our expected arrival time so Dave’s car was still nowhere to be seen, but there were more than sufficient views and radio tunes to keep us occupied while we waited.
Once back at the hut it was my turn to cook – my risqué beany stew/chilli/slop with rice. The beans had been soaking for the best part of 4 days now and had tripled in size, bulking out the meal quite substantially. Despite my fears, shitloads of salt and paprika carried me to safety and it was an overall success – even Perry’s hatred of beans couldn’t stop himself from trying a bit.
Day 7: Sunday 2nd
El Suto: Dave Kirkpatrick, Ana Teck
Comellantes: James Perry, Julien Jean, Laura Temple, Erica Keung, Kevin Sohn
This was a designated relaxation/faff day, since we had to upload all of the info gathered to the expedition log before we left. Ana and Dave head off early like the crazy people they are to derig the El Suto entrance pitch (‘no-one could have possibly foreseen this needing to happen’ – Dave), while the rest of us prepped some dinner food and planned the rest of the day’s work. Perry wanted to go back to the bat-riddled cave with the horseshit approach so expertly equipped a batshit collection squad with the necessary kit. Dave and Ana get back, and we head to Matienzo together, where Ben and I do the paperwork, photo uploading and description writing with Juan while Perry’s gang photograph a bat gang without blinding them too much, while Ana and Dave wash kit in the river.
Just as we start to collect our things to leave some familiar faces from the Yorkshire cavers emerge and a brief chat with them occurs while I utilise the printer to cater to RyanAir’s annoying rules.
Back at the hut Kevin announced he had managed to forget the rice in the freezer so it would have to defrost before he starts cooking – no matter, there was time. He actually managed to steam it quite efficiently back to life, and produced a superlative egg fried rice meal to cap the trip off. The necessary faff of cleaning ensued, halfway during which the water completely dropped out. The hut owners didn’t think there was much we could do, and didn’t seem to care that we couldn’t do the dishes or mop the floor as a result, so naturally we diverted our attention to Perry’s whiskey. A late night of controversial topics was discussed between a few of us, with topics ranging from the purpose of religion in modern society to the nature of debates. A brilliant picture of Laura next to the voodoo doll provided the light relief during the evening, until we finished up in the early hours of the morning.
Day 8: Monday 3rd
The night before we had agreed: leave at 8am. Therefore I went round at 6:45 blasting Bamboleo to get people moving, which everyone appreciated greatly. The whiskey from the night before was making me feel quite shit but we managed to get the hut cleaned as best as we could without water, leaving at 8am on the dot, impressively.
Most of the journey was a blur; Through the comically small airport we meander, wandering why we don’t fly to smaller airports more often, and boarded the little plane. I get the best seat on the plane – 01A – right by the window with 2m of leg room. This did mean I was staring out of the window for most of it rather than catching up on much-needed sleep; I did however sleep on the coach to Victoria. Back at stores various covers of Bamboleo got us through the speedy unpacking, and we said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways. I cycled home on my shit bike, still having not fixed the brake since I broke it 3 weeks ago (and 3 weeks on when I write this its still not fixed…)
Huge thanks to Ben for doing lots of the organising, and thanks to Dave and Perry for driving everywhere. And thanks to everyone for making it a great trip!
A Bamboleo of a tour indeed. Throughout the trip I had been working on a photography series titled "Matti: Flatti" which depicts the adventures of a perculiarly long caver and his horizontal adventures around Cantabria. This interpretive and groundbreaking piece could arguably be the whole trip report in itself, but is instead dumped below for your viewing pleasure.