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Why go caving?

As I was driving down to south Wales to spend another weekend ‘digging’ in Daren Cilau, I suddenly had an objective realisation: I’m going to spend a large chunk of my free time moving some sand from one place to another in a hole that perhaps very few people will ever want to see – that’s stupid.

Then I got thinking about caving in general and what a bizarre sport it really is. From a rational perspective, cavers endure all kinds of misery just to crawl round a hole in the dark, and all in the name of fun. They always complain too: about their knees, how cold they are and then too hot, why they wish they were in the pub etc. The list is endless. But what is the base reason we do it, to force ourselves on a frozen roadside to put on wet caving kit? As a nation, we have a history of producing good, keen cavers who end up travelling the world discovering new caves. Perhaps its the British ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality that means we can better endure the suffering, but that doesn’t really explain why people start caving in the first place.

Some friends say they do it to keep fit. This seems a reasonable excuse, but it doesn’t entirely convince me. For all the good exercise it provides, cavers also tend to be borderline alcoholics never turning down an excuse to tap the next barrel of beer. Also, fried breakfasts seem to be the staple of many a caver’s weekend diet. For all the bruises some people acquire after a trip, it seems there are numerous other forms of exercise that are far less hazardous.

I can also see how people can get excited when seeing a whole new underground ‘world’ for the first time. Part of the routine when taking Freshers on their first trips is to show them ‘pretties’ or nice formations, to try and convince them that its not just all about walking around in the dark. I think this novelty wears off pretty quickly though when afterwards they’re forced to change outside in the driving rain and wind (if only the academic year started in summer, I’m sure the drop-out rate would be much lower). Personally, ‘pretties’ rarely enthuse me nowadays, and trips with the sole purpose of visiting a formation are now few and far between. Yet still I go caving.

When the enthusiasm for doing ‘tourist’ trips wears off, people either become armchair cavers, or go digging in search of making new discoveries – to be one of the first to set foot in virgin passage. In Wales alone there are still major cave systems that are proven to exist, yet still waiting to be found. While often very romanticised and talked-up in the pub, the process of digging is often more repetitive and miserable than caving itself. Breakthroughs are rare, and sometimes fruitless. Granted, some like taking on the engineering challenge of stabilising a boulder choke or blowing up rock, but I haven’t met anyone who has confessed to enjoy hauling endless buckets of mud.

If it’s not the attraction of the cave itself, then what drives people underground must be the social aspect. That is the real motivation for me anyway, with the reasons mentioned above merely excuses to have some fun with your mates and have a laugh together. The misery of it all soon disappears when you’re all stuck in, though of course there are limits for those with a claustrophobic disposition etc. It all becomes more apparent when for whatever reason you are by yourself in a cave; the feeling of isolation and gloom soon kicks in when yours is the only light. Without your friends there to urge you onwards, the purpose of caving then requires a very different mind set. Spending the weekend in Daren suddenly didn’t feel so pointless, and it turned out to be a fantastic weekend, despite the lack of major breakthroughs.