Caving Trip – Fermanagh, 22-24 November 2007
"Always Remember: Caving is not a Competitive Sport"

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Author: Patrick McCafferty

Present: James Armstrong, Craig Campbell, Brenda Diamond, Shane Diamond, Aaron Dobson, Aidan Gribbin, Róisín Lindsay, Phil Maxwell, Patrick McCafferty, Conál McCartan, Stephen McCullagh, John McManus, Eoghan Mullan, Stephen Read, Emma Ross, Chris Small, Catherine Telford, Rachel Younger.


On Friday evening, at 7pm, fresh, eager cavers gathered in the union. Most piled into the minibus, driven by Steve Bus, while others headed there by car. In Enniskillen, we continued our systematic sampling programme of Fine Foods of Fermanagh – this time the Chinese and Italian establishments.

After offloading the luggage at the scout hut, we rushed to Blacklion. The poker players in Eamon's Piano Bar made us feel somewhat unwelcome, probably because they suspected we might attack their trays of ham sandwiches, so we went to Frank Eddies. At some indeterminate point, largely due to a desperate look of thirst on Steve Bus's face, we headed back to the hostel. John was waiting, having heated the hostel, so we made ourselves comfortable and settled in to drink the numerous cans and bottles.

Of course, it wasn't long before the squeeze machine was produced. There were some displays of escapology by the leanest, flexiest cavers (especially Róisín, Brenda and Eoghan) who, if they were camels, would comfortably get through the eye of any needle. Then, there was a moment of pure inventive genius from Steve Bus and John McManus. Steve was demonstrating the difficulty of George's Choke and John was holding the frame when he rested his drink on it. In an instant, the humble frame was transformed into a completely new device. The need to maintain secrecy (patent protection, you understand) forbids me from providing any more details, but we were all witnesses to a truly inspirational invention, as important to humanity as the invention of the wheel, the discovery of fire or the first Frisbee.

We finally went to bed about 5 am, planning to get up at 9. Before turning in for the night, I noticed that "Item One" on the instruction sheet for the hostel was "Open the shutters". I also realised that all shutters were, in fact, firmly shut (otherwise they'd be called ‘openers' I suppose). As I went to sleep in the extreme darkness, it struck me that we had recreated the light-free environment of the cave, that perhaps people who like caving don't really like light, and that cavers are possibly a nocturnal sub-species of humanity. I started comparing those around me to bats and other cave dwellers – but then realised that perhaps the most appropriate parallel was not a bat, bear or badger, but a Vampire! Never, ever, go to sleep with such thoughts! What followed was a night of mild terror, as my imagination explored the possibility that I was, in fact, in a room of Vampires.

I tell a lie. Surprisingly I did not feel fear, or the need to escape. Instead, I thought that joining this group and being a caving vampire might be okay – after putting up with having my neck bitten, I would be immortal. How bad is that? Oh, and could this please happen before I turn 40? And, with today's improved sunblock creams, I might even be able to make occasional trips out of doors – and then I realised that those teenage Goths hanging around City Hall on Saturday afternoons were more menacing than I'd ever suspected, and that Belfast possibly already has a large Vampire population.

It's amazing what makes a sort of sense in a drunken haze at 6am. Like vampires, cavers are at their happiest exploring the dark underground. Furthermore, something about the QUB group is suspiciously different: for a start, they keep talking about digging – and it struck me that all this talk of bringing scaffolding into caves was in fact part of a major project to construct a permanent settlement underground. We freshers were being lured underground to become slave-diggers. I realised that even Dracula had his origins here – underneath Dra-Cuilcagh Mountain, and suddenly Róisín's obsession with "Ancient People who Managed to Live in Caves" fitted a sinister picture.

After dreaming of Buffy bursting into the hostel armed with wooden stakes, we all awoke, in total darkness, after 1pm. John made a feeble pretence that his phone battery had gone flat but I knew different – the club had deliberately slept in to avoid the midday sun. We then stayed indoors until after 3pm eating breakfast, and only when it was gloomy did we emerge from the hostel to make our way to the safe darkness of the caves. Rachel, Craig, John and Catherine were led by Aidan and Shane into Marble Arch. Steve Bus led Brenda, Róisín, James, Conál and Emma into Cascades.

Jock led Eoghan, Aaron, Chris and me into Pollarafta. I'm not sure why, but due to a combination of bad dreams, bad drink, bad text (texting while being driven by Jock, smoking in the car) and bad roads, when we got out of the car at Pollarafta, I showed my appreciation to the farmer for use of his land by throwing up on it. If, like me, you are not a skinny caver, a mild case of bulimia makes sense: it prepares your body for the tighter squeezes. The only unfortunate side-affect is that after about 5 hours of activity, you'll be exhausted. Pollarafta presented us freshers with a few new challenges. The traverse was scary, and the gap in the floor seemed infinitely deep – until I realised that it was dangerous only if I could squeeze through a three-inch gap, which anyone looking at me will confirm to be unlikely. I was through the Z-bends before I realised it, and into the chambers beyond. It's a beautiful cave, formed along a geological fault line. There were amazing formations – especially the chickens, which the guidebook had described as ‘slightly obscene', though none of us were perverse enough to see why.

The mudslide was challenging – a sheer wall of mud, which Jock bravely free-climbed to fix a ladder and rope. Like a nun at an orgy, Eoghan urged us to keep ourselves clean. We climbed the ladder with much less dignity than on the PEC wall, and then proceeded to get stuck in, and covered in, mud. The gour pools afterwards were truly amazing and beautiful – a bit like a miniature Pamukkale (look it up, they're cool! –Ed.) in a cave and it was a real privilege to be there. The pools are supposedly home to a rare species of blind white troglodyte shrimp, but some hungry bastard had eaten them all before we got there, so none were to be seen.

After going through the canals, we headed back. I was a bit tired as we made our way quickly through the cave. When we finally reached the last ascent, before the traverse and Z-bend, the repercussions of leaving my stomach above ground became apparent. I was exhausted, and wanted to lie there, switch off my light, and wait for life to expire. We had a mild scare when Aaron slipped while climbing onto the traverse. I couldn't see what happened, but the sound of someone falling, followed by a second of silence and then a groan is not something I want to hear again. Luckily, he was okay. Eoghan encouraged us all to continue, and finally we felt the cool draft that let us know the exit was near. We emerged into the dark (as one might expect from a group of vampire cavers) and went in search of blood, I mean food. I must admit that while trudging along the soggy ground, I found it difficult to stay positive about caving – even though I had enjoyed the cave and the day, I began to question why I was doing this. If anybody ever finds me in such a negative mood again, just feed me.

When I entered the hostel, there was so much mud caked to my face that I was ordered to take a shower to reveal who I was before I'd get fed. After a tasty dinner, we stayed in the hostel rather than going to the pub, for which Steve Bus was grateful. John, Aidan and Jock went foraging to Boho, where the Dublin group was staying in the community hall. Meanwhile, we played charades for quite some time, patiently chaired by Shane. We then tried some table traversing (man, that hurts!). Then, about 2am, John entered, wearing a yellow cave-suit, and regaled us with tales of the night's adventures. His suit had been cleaned by baptism in a flooded Boho cave. He looked at us with real pride – and while reminding us that "caving is not a competitive sport", he contrasted our splendid achievements with those of other beginners. We imagined him sitting in Boho Hall among the Dublin cavers, wearing yellow, drinking his can of beer and telling the others they were wimps, and we knew they must hate us, or pity us.

At 4am most of us headed to bed. We were soon woken by John, who had stripped off, donned a caving suit, and was now leading an expedition to the Hoo. Now, when your club captain goes on a diplomatic mission, finally returns with tales of bravado and of insults exchanged with your more numerous neighbours, and then decides to get the hell out of there and escape to a safe place, you know he must have really angered them – and it's probably a good idea to follow him. But, most of us were too tired to care, so only Conál, Craig, James and Aaron followed John into the night, carrying their sleeping bags, like a cross between the Three Wise Men, Wee Willie Winkie, and Lady Godiva without her horse. Craig followed for about a mile but then returned to the hostel.

Next day, Emma, Róisín and I cleaned up the debris from the night before while Phil cooked breakfast and Steve collected the guys from the Hoo. Somewhere, there's a photo of John lying in the back of the jeep wearing nothing but a caving suit. In case anyone is squeamish about wearing that particular suit, just avoid wearing the large yellow suits on the next trip.

On Sunday, Steve bus and Eoghan led Rachel, Craig and Chris into Pollnathanrees while Shane, Phil and Emma were led by Jock into Pollarafta to retrieve the ladder.

John led Aaron, Aidan, Brenda, Catherine, Conál, Róisín, James and me into White Father's cave. After checking that our exit was clear, we noticed that Dublin cavers had just parked their cars so John hurried us into the river and we followed it underground. It wound its way through an impressive cave, full of formations. As it got deeper, we were forced to wade, and then swim. After reaching the exit, we headed back upstream. Swimming upstream was not easy, but with encouragement, we all made it to the shallow water. We even stopped to clamber onto a large rock and jump into a deep pond – an exhilarating experience. We knew we would soon meet the Dublin group, and John had lined us up to show us off. As we swam in a line behind him, our nine lights bobbing in the water, I could not shake the image of a parent duck proudly showing off his newly hatched clutch of ducklings. But when we met the Dublin group, floating downstream on airbeds and clutching inflatable toys, we all felt a surge of pride and understood why he felt proud. I'm sure they're all great people, and one day we'll get to know them personally and become their cave-buddies, but just at that moment, we felt part of a very different team, made of different stuff.

I drove off to Sligo so I haven't a clue what dinner was like, who cleaned up, or how the other groups enjoyed their day. But, looking back on this weekend, I feel that we all pushed ourselves that bit extra, we worked hard, and played hard. At times we found it tough, and even questioned why we were doing this, but we also had a lot of fun and a real feeling of achievement. Thanks to everyone who helped make this weekend what it was – and thanks to Tony for quietly taking our call-outs and recharging our batteries in the background, without sharing any of the madness.

P.S. I've checked carefully and I have numerous bruises (mainly from table traversing) but there are no bite-marks on my neck! Oh well, maybe next trip...