After a five hour trip from OFD1 to Top entrance the day before to ‘warm us up’, we were in the mood today for a proper adventure into the magnificent Ogof Draenen. I have previously done the round trip, been to the Dogleg Series, The Geryon, and War of the Worlds, but Big Country had not yet crossed my mind; until a few people recently recommended it. It certainly looks big on the survey, so we hoped we’d be in for a treat.
We did a little pre-trip research the week before, mostly thanks to Tarquin’s excellent online descriptions. This excellent resource has seen all our former trips into Draenen be successful, so we had high hopes. We were not disappointed; the route to Big Country was well described, including from the point where it departs the ‘main route’ to the Snowball near Big Beauty junction, all the way through the Three Amigos and onto Big Country itself (and beyond; but that will have to wait until next time).
With descriptions and copies of the survey we set off at 9:30am on Saturday morning from SWCC to Pwll Du, to meet an enthusiastic and enormous crowd of cavers embarking on conservation/taping work, videoing missions (including our very own Pete) and others on a trip to Yellow Van Passage too. We decided to allow half an hour for the procession to get through the entrance passages before heading down there to avoid too much congestion.
The entrance was its usual grotty self, but from experience I know all the tricks to avoid getting a waterfall down your neck; oversuit zipped up with neckstrap firmly done up; and suit over the top of the wellies. Maintaining dry feet in Draenen is one of life’s little pleasures. Down the wet slot in the stream, I was pleased to be still dry under my oversuit, and we made quick progress to Cairn Junction, without sight of the others ahead of us; they must move fast!
Through Beer Challenge (a low crawl which continues beyond the start of Wonderbra, which bypasses Tea Junction and a lot of boulder hopping) and up into Lamb and Fox chamber, we then made quick progress through Indiana Highway, Megadrive and into Nunnery Passage. Here, I found myself with the usual debate; is it the first or second right; after a quick consultation of the map we remembered that it is the second (the first is Going Square, the second is Perserverence II, the best way, the third, confusingly, is Perserverence I). Along the easy crawl of Perserverence II, and the first key junction was reached; straight on only 30m to the Arms Park pitch and the start of the round trip, but sharp right towards Rift Chambers and our way onwards.
A quick water top-up in Rift Chambers and we were on into Eliptic Passage. This was all easy navigation, as I had done this so many times before; it felt like second nature now. Eventually, Eliptic Passage degenerated at a cobble choke, and the crawls on the left too us through Lucky Thirteen, and then to the very obvious T-junction, Big Beauty, where we met Prof. Talling and his team.
Going left, about 50m down the passage we quickly found the alcove leading to Big Country. This started as an immediate steep slope up into a small chamber, with a small passage leading off, with ramps up and down for a short while. Tarquin’s description for the route to Big Country (via the Three Amigos) was absolutely excellent, a mixture of all sizes of passage and chambers, and very varied. No chance of getting bored on this route! Ian, being a relatively new caver, expressed his joy at being the first up into the passages after Big Beauty Junction, so I handed him the survey and description and retired lazily to the back of the group. He navigated faultlessly.
The final section before Big Country is a painful flat out crawl in a knobbly tube for about 60m, with a narrowing (The Canyon) half way along. This proved quite a struggle for Chuck, who despite being perfectly average middle-aged (sorry Chuck) male build, really did need all the available space to fit. The trick is to either stay high, or start low and then switch to high a metre in. The tight bit is no more than 3m long and returns to painful crawling, before popping spectacularly out into the enormity of Big Country. Wow!
Right, the Big Country stream was soon intercepted, and we followed this downstream in huge, impressive passage with ample blackness ahead, despite a number of rather high power lights in the team. The stream coming in from Blorenge entered on the left; we had a quick poke up there, and it continued in fine stream passage (for a long way according to the survey) but we didn’t have time. This was just to be a recce trip to see whether the Big Country was a worthwhile destination. Instead we continued downstream, and the stream narrowed into a channel in the mud, surrounded by tall and slippery mudbanks which had clearly been recently ‘reformatted’ by flooding; not a footprint anywhere but wet and slippery water carved mud. I’m not sure what conditions cause Big Country to flood to at least 2m deep but I don’t fancy being there when it happens!
Continuing downstream, the excellent passage continued, rising up above the stream before a ramp down blocks on the right dropped us back to the stream in a wide and impressively proportioned mud chamber. Downstream further, the passage narrowed more, became more mud choked, with the water having cut a deep and narrow channel, and then eventually a sump-like feature was reached. Time to go home! On return to the ramp, we noticed the possibility of not such good air here, as we were all notably out of breath, despite this being the easiest section of cave we had encountered yet.
Big Country did not disappoint; a dramatic passage easily comparable to War of the Worlds and MS&D; maybe not quite as large but still very enjoyable and a worthwhile destination.
The outward journey was extremely efficient. On return to Big Beauty junction we encountered another group of three, who had been to War of the Worlds. These characters were exiting from the unauthorised third entrance near to Eliptic Passage, and had possibly entered via the illegal new entrance Twll Du which was dug, without permission, illegally, on a scheduled ancient monument. The selfishness of some cavers never ceases to amaze me. I am proud to have used (and to have always used) the authorised entrance, and having enjoyed one of the key things Draenen offers; adventure, journey and remoteness. If people want to do short through-trips in multiple-entrance big systems then please go to Ease Gill or OFD and stop selfishly digging more and more entrances to a cave that many enjoy BECAUSE it has (had) only one entrance. Unfortunately, there seems to be many in South Wales who seem not to respect the democratic wishes of the caving community to support one entrance, in favour of their own selfish actions. A sad state of affairs; I love this sport, and the caving community, but unfortunately all communities have their bad eggs. I rest assured that these are in a minority and most cavers show greater respect to the efforts that have gone on over the last 20 years to conserve Draenen and mediate access in a democratic way.
On return to Cairn Junction we were caught by the Yellow Van team, who must have been extremely quick and efficient. Out by 9:30pm and back at SWCC by 10:45pm for a well-earned beer and some great company. Splendid trip in one of my favourite caves.
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