Ireland - Fermanagh

Soho to Boho

Colm Carroll describes Imperial College Caving Club's weekend trip to Fermanagh

It all began with a quick email on Tuesday afternoon: "I'm going to Fermanagh this weekend. Do you want to come?", asked Hugh Penney, an IC3 member currently studying in Glasgow. I quickly checked all flight options, and booked myself onto the 5:30 to Dublin, where Jerry, an ex-IC student now working in Dublin, would pick me up en route to Fermanagh. I packed my helmet, light, wetsuit, and 45m of rope; and off I went. Jerry was waiting outside the airport when I arrived, and we were soon zooming north through the Meath countryside - the slight delay in leaving Heathrow making sure we missed the Friday evening rush.

We arrived in the village of Boho, roughly 10 miles outside Enniskillen at around 10pm, just as Hugh and his flatmate Dave pulled up in their hire-car. Our contact, Seán was already in the local, McKenzie's, so we joined him for some of the best Guinness you're likely to taste. It wasn't until many hours later that we managed the five minute stroll to our accommodation in the luxurious Boho community centre. Caving huts are rarely plush, some are barely habitable, in contrast, this place was a veritable mansion.

Next morning, we woke to an overcast sky -- good weather in these parts. After a big greasy cavers' breakfast we set off to our first cave, Marble Arch. Marble Arch caves are tourist show-caves on the edge of Cuilcagh Mountain. Our plan was to explore beyond the show cave, and hopefully make it to a beautiful passage called Legnabrocky Way. It took us a few attempts to locate the correct entrance, Seán then led us through an easy squeeze to the gated cavers' route to the tourist section of the cave. The show cave is only open to the public during the summer months, so we were free to explore it ourselves, however, our only light came from our head-torches. At the end of the show-cave, a tall, wide passage filled with ever deepening water leads to a sump that is only passable by divers. We waded across the stream to enter the sump bypass. I was glad of my wetsuit at this point, but as soon as we started squeezing uphill into the bypass passage I slowly started to steam. The tight passage involved much scrambling over and under rocks until we eventually broke back into the main streamway, this time upstream of the sump. I was glad of the opportunity to cool down, wallowing around in deep water again, while the others marvelled at the amazing marble passage wall.

This massive stream passage ended in another sump, this time without a dry bypass. We turned off into a smaller tributary passage containing a trickle of water. This section of cave, Legnabrocky Way, is well known for containing beautiful stalactites and mud formations. The passage is big enough to walk along easily, even 6'6" Jerry not having to stoop. We soon came across an area of mud formations taped off by the Speleological Union of Ireland as a conservation measure. Unfortunately, someone had trampled over the area and destroyed much of the passage. However, there were still pristine white straw stalactites in the roof, and a small amazing chamber covered in flowstone and stalagmites. We proceeded onwards through the wet wriggle, a flat-out crawl in a bit of water - wetsuit territory. Luckily, this wriggle was only 1 metre long, and we were back tramping up the passage in no time. We ended up in a small chamber where a climb leads to a dig where local cavers are trying to extend the system. Bands of deposited mud on the wall map the climate going back thousands of years, a black band of carbon showing when the land had been cleared for farming by prehistoric man burning trees.

At this point we were about 2 hours from the entrance and it was time to turn around. The journey back seemed quicker, even the wet wriggle appeared easier. Back at the main tourist cave again, I wasn't quite ready to leave. Those of you who have been to Marble Arch caves will know that the entrance involves a boat ride along a canal before dry land is reached. I couldn't resist the opportunity to have a nice long swim in this canal, with only Hugh in his surfing wetsuit daring to come with me.

On the surface, we changed into our dry clothes quickly as a light drizzle began to fall. Although the cave and the hut were in the North, the quickest route between them involved a brief visit to the South. We took advantage of this to stock up on petrol and ciggies, followed by a quick visit to Frank Eddie's pub before heading home for a massive chilli. Needless to say, another night was spent sampling Ireland's finest in McKenzie's.

Sunday morning brought much better weather -- the sun actually shone! After a rather lazy breakfast, we quickly changed into our gear for a visit to Boho caves -- just across the road from the hut. Boho caves are a complex labyrinth of passages in a thin bedding of limestone. We following the Main Drain, a large dry passage that quickly fills to the roof in flood. Our intended route went north to the smaller Formation Chamber, but we found that the connecting passage had been filled to the roof with mud by a previous flood. Instead we explored the short Virgin Circuit, before heading over to Coolarkin cave in the back of Seán's van.

Coolarkin cave enters the hillside at the bottom of a 15m shakehole. A small stream enters the shakehole via a waterfall, and then flows through the cave. The entrance is a massive train-tunnel sized passage -- proper Sunday caving. We followed this for about 200m to where an impassable collapse had occurred. Various people had tried to dig their way through, but failed. The water from the cave emerges after 2km -- a potentially huge system. We suggested to Seán that he bring a JCB down to clear the choke -- the cave is certainly big enough!

After these two brief trips, it was back to the hut to tidy up, then up to Seán's house where his wife had prepared soup for us. We were on the road by 4:30, reaching Dublin in time for my 7:30 flight to London. With great caving, and even better hospitality, I'm sure we'll be back in Fermanagh soon.