Clare - 5 th and 6 th October 2002
Report by Colm Carroll, photos by Jan Evetts
The alarm rang at 4:30, it felt like we'd only just gone to bed. Slowly dragging ourselves awake, we munched on toast courtesy of Darryl's flatmate, Down to the taxi, and whistling along the M4, we got to Heathrow in plenty of time for our 6:50 flight to Shannon. I was still half asleep as we negotiated passport control in Shannon:
"Are you Irish?"
"Fine, off you go."
and only really woke up halfway along the drive to Doolin - and I was doing the driving! The glorious sunshine and lack of rain in the previous weeks meant we could do our choice of cave - with the flood-prone Coolagh River Cave at the top of the list. A quick deviation to the surfing town of Lahinch to hire a wetsuit, we arrived in Doolin a little after 10am - just as the village was beginning to wake.
That weekend there was a Cave Rescue exercise in the area, so we were keen to avoid being press-ganged into hauling stretchers out of holes. We quickly drove along the empty Burren lanes to the entrance - an innocuous looking field. It seemed rude to go underground, with the magnificent sun warming our backs I nearly suggested we go rock climbing instead, but we were here for caving, so that's what we did.
The Coolagh River Cave has 4 entrances, and we were planning to do a through trip between two of them. We descended through the red mud of Polldonough North into a tight rift. I followed to high level tube for about 30m before the way on got tighter, and tighter, and tighter. Clearly we'd gone wrong. I managed to squeeze down the 5m to the stream, and the going was easier straight away. We followed this passage, described as 'aquatic' in the guidebook, but couldn't figure out where we were in the cave. According to the survey, we were supposed to meet a small waterfall early on, but after an hour and a half in the cave, there was no sign of it. We pressed onwards, crawling in passages half filled with water, descending a series of pristine cascades, before we reached a junction. It was only then that I realised what had happened. The survey we were using was the original map drawn by Bristol when the cave was first explored, and the entrance we used hadn't been discovered then, so we only joined the survey after 1.5 hours of hard caving!
Now that we knew where we were, everything went swimmingly. We entered the big Lower Main Drain passage, a fantastic bit of streamway. After visiting the end of the caves, we headed back up to exit the Polldonough South entrance. We raced up the fine passage. While I was exploring a side passage up a rope, I heard laughter from the front. Darryl had fallen into the infamous Balcome's Pot - a 5m deep pool of water. Luckily for us, this meant we'd just passed our junction, so while the others clambered up the climb to a high level passage, I swam across the Pot to see what was beyond. Up a 2m climb into more stream passage - it just kept going. I returned to others, taking a flying leap into the deep water, completely submerging myself, with my light disappearing from view. I emerged with a broad grin,
"That was fun, I think I'm going to do it again"
I was wearing a 5mm wetsuit, so didn't feel any of the cold as I jumped and slid into the Pot again and again. After a good dunking, it was time to go. We were now in what looked like fossil passage (ie no stream), but we knew the whole cave filled with water in floods. After another small section of crawling, we emerged into the middle of another Field to a herd of cows wondering what these mad people were doing.
Before returning to the hostel, we visited the spectacular Cliffs of Moher, very impressive sea cliffs just down the coast. Our amazing chef prepared fine food with only slight hindrance from the others, then it was time for McGann's, one of the three pubs in this small village. The pub was full of cavers. With the rescue practice, and one of the Dublin university clubs being down, we nearly out-numbered the German tourists! With the accompaniment of a traditional band, and the pints flowing fast and furious, I was touched by a stroke of genius.
"Who fancies a look down Fisherstreet Pot?"
Fisherstreet Pot was just across the road from the pub, and is an easy entrance to the large Doolin River Cave system. I texted Brian, from Trinity College, Dublin, and despite it being past midnight, the trip was on. Jan had already gone to bed, and Helen was too tired, so it'd just be the five of us.
Putting on wet clothes on the Sunday is one of the worst things about caving, so I'd packed spare dry clothes. We quickly put them on outside our hostel, and wandered over to the entrance, a clump of trees. Brian and John joined us, and I belayed them all down the ladder - just long enough. Through the deep water, we entered the train tunnel sized passage. This was fine streamway, and very enjoyable. After the ten minutes I thought we'd be in the cave, we reached the junction with the Aran View passage, a route to another entrance.
"Who wants to go on?", asked Brian. "It's a bit squalid, but should only take an hour."
We hadn't a hope.
We followed Brian up the passage, still big and well-decorated, bit gradually getting tighter and tighter.
"You told me we wouldn't need knee-pads", moaned Darryl.
"I thought we were only going to be in for 10 minutes", I replied.
The going was getting tougher, and it began to seem like this wasn't such a good idea after all. Then, suddenly, the air became fresher - we were nearly there. Just one last obstacle, the farmer had blocked the exit with a wooden pallet. Desperation took hold as Brian found some super-human strength. We were outside.
Back at the hostel at 3am, we stumbled to bed. Jan turning over in his sleep thought:
"3am, that must have been some session in the pub!"
Amazingly enough, we woke at a reasonable time on Sunday. A large greasy breakfast, eaten al fresco (I know it's hard to believe, sun, in Clare, in October!). Brian and John joined us and we set off on the trip to Poll na gColm. Jan rigged the exit pothole, a 30m shaft, while the rest of us got changed at the entrance. Before long, we were all squirming through the muddy links series to reach Branch Passage Gallery, a high level passage that drops into the main streamway later on. The water levels were quite low, so we didn't have to traverse to avoid the canals - instead we ploughed straight through. We abseiled the 8m drop, pulling the rope through behind us, continued past the main junction where we joined the streamway. The passage began to get wider, and smaller, and we were soon crawling again. The water disappeared on the right, indicating the maze was coming up. This notorious bit of passage has claimed several victims, necessitating the calling of the cave rescue on one occasion. However, we had Brian and John with us, the guided us through Craven Canyon, over climbs, along the crawls, 'til eventually daylight could be seen. We were at the base of Poll Elva, the 30m pot. Jan's rope dangled just in front of us. Darryl started up as the rest of us took a shower where Upper Poll Elva streamway cascaded into the cave.
Soon we were all out, and motoring back to Shannon, stopping at Lahinch to drop off the wettie, and for a bit of seaside food. Flight left on time, arriving in Heathrow just in time to catch the last tube. An excellent trip, no doubt to be repeated.
Clare 5th and 6th October 2002
All underground photos were taken in the Coolagh River Cave (Polldonough North) and are copyright Colm Carroll 2002.