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Ogof Daren Cilau - Hard Rock Cafe (Day 1)

Sunday March 20th 2022

Members present: Jean-luc Heath,  Paulina Poterlowicz,  Rosie Marshall,  Viki Smyth

Report by Jean-luc Heath

It’s worth noting that a large chunk of this report has been written in December 2022, quite a while after the events of this report. Therefore the exact order of events, or the people involved maybe a little muddled around, and gaps filled with narrative that seems to make sense. Hopefully it still gives a good feel of this tremendous adventure

"Thirty five hours? Was it intentional?" Exclaims Mat, my supervisor.

This is the most common reply when people hear my answer to the question of "so what did you do with your week off?"

Caving is a primarily pointless undertaking. Rescues, expeditions and research aside, there is very little reason to go caving other than the mild satisfaction gained from the trip eventually ending. I suspect this explains the caver's eternal hunt for novelty, seeking out disgusting ducks to anonymous avens, paddling bathtubs across flooded chambers, and bottoming 300m long pitches to nowhere. It is of little surprise that somewhere along the line it gets decided that camping in Daren Cilau for no reason other than to just come back out again (and get away from the noisy hut) is a worthy way to spend a few days. This is the story of our trip to the hardest Hard Rock Cafe in Wales.

I first came across the idea of camping in Daren Cilau on a late night scroll through the photos on the club website and finding images of Ade, Andy V, and some-other-person-I've-not-met, having a jolly old time at Hard Rock Cafe. The idea then wriggled away at the back of my mind for a few years, and was about to surface when covid struck and fucked things up a bit. This meant that when I heard Rosie, Viki, and Paulina discussing a camp at Hard Rock, I had no choice but to try and buy my way in by mentioning that I own a very compact gas stove. This seemed to work. After a few weeks of planning (or in my case, neglecting to plan) we found ourselves in Wales with the necessary equipment:
4 tacklesacks, 4 drybags for sleeping bags, 4 daren drums for food and thermals, not quite enough food, Ade's stove, and some other bits. You notice I omit rolemats? Paulina had used her presidential guile and gravitas to negotiate use of the ones insitu at Hard Rock. Without this, the trip wouldn't be feasible as too much stuff would be required.

Many thoughts passed my mind as I crammed my sleeping bag into a drybag, which was itself on top of a duct taped tupperware full of pasta sauce, which in turn lay upon a daren drum containing the stove, gas, hot chocolate, Miso soup (yes, miso soup), and spare batteries. The first was whether this untested drybag would keep my ancient down sleeping bag dry. The second was whether this was really the best trip for getting back into caving after an over three month hiatus. As is best in these situations, caution was thrown to the wind, and rigorous sleeping bag stuffing resumed. By some miracle, we managed to pack the gear into 4 bags, plus my 10litre belt bag. This orange 10litre pouch would soon become my most hated possession.

We got up at 0730. Some other packing happened. Some breakfast was eaten. Five water bottles were filled. Four metal SIG style, and one 500ml irn bru bottle. This was all hurled into the car and we set off for the hour drive to the car park near the quarry in which Daren Cilau dwells. After a relaxed change in the sunny weather, we headed up the hill to the quarry. Here the drama starts. We're not particularly sure where the entrance is. It is eventually located on the righthand end of the quarry. With very little ceremony we head underground. I happily scurry underground reassured by the knowledge I'll be seeing the sun again sometime the following day.

Daren Cilau's entrance crawl is apparently 517m long. That's over half a kilometre. 5,744.44 KitKats. 2,721.05 pencils. Quite a long way. Running at 100m world record pace Usain Bolt would bash this out in around 49.52 seconds. We took 2 hours. That's a measly 47.87 KitKats per minute. The story of those two hours follows.
Very shortly after entering the crawl we reach "the vice" this is famously the smallest part of the crawl and is a bit of a squeeze - though nothing of the likes of Pippikin. This squeeze did however ram home just how annoying the bags would become. For the vast majority of the entrance crawl, bags would need to be either pushed in front, or unhooked by the caver following, thus greatly reducing the speed with which this crawl can be tackled. Added to the usual tacklesack woes, I found myself lumbered with my orange belt bag, containing a few bits and bobs, such as my irn bru bottle. Which reminds me. Soon after we had all passed the vice I heard a familiar caving noise: a SIG bottle unscrewing itself and emptying its contents. One down. More crawling occurred and little of note happened, though for a good while I decided to convince myself that we were in the Berger - I'm uncertain as to why this would help. We came across a "caution runners" sign and decided this must mean the crawl is about to end. It didn't. It kept going. On the upside, it isn't actually all crawling, there's lots of sideways stooped walking too. Along the course of this varied and stimulating passage another 2 SIG bottles unscrew themselves. Excellent. Irn Bru bottle still going strong. We eventually reach an inlet on the right, this marks the end of the crawl and soon we'll be in big walking passage. The crawl keeps going for a while. Then another while. Then a while more. I'd got excited by the wrong inlet, we were just over halfway. This was confirmed by some stal squeezes, aptly named "The Stal Squeezes". These were passed with little drama and we were soon into Jigsaw passage, a nice easy walking passage with a flat mud floor. For some reason, I'd neglected to read about the trip ahead of time and basically assumed this passage was representative of the rest of the trip, with the addition of the funky ladder, and massive passage in Time Machine. This dream was abruptly shattered by some Easegill style crawling through boulders, though this soon returned to walking height passage. Before too long we were in a pretty big chamber, nowhere near the entrance. This was called "Big chamber Nowhere Near The Entrance". Here we consumed the first feast of the trip, chilli cheese wraps, with a dessert of peanut butter and nutella wraps. Upon their retrieval from the tacklesacks, it was found that there had been a slight chocolatey peanut buttery haemorrhage. This coated one of the chilli cheese wraps. It was fed to Paulina. Most contestants in the “Daren Cilau Wrap Eating Competition” succeeded in scranning one cheese and one dessert wrap. Special mention to Rosie for improving on her previous effort in Easegill. Viki opted to save somewhere between one half and one quarter of a dessert wrap for later. A dangerous option when you never know if later will ever arrive. The passage after here involved a MASSIVE SLOPE, and a load of crawling called eggy lewis or some welsh nonsense. This eventually spat use out in a nice big passage which soon led to the notorious Daren ladder climb.

Now dear reader, some of you may know that I don’t like ladders. This ladder has been described by some as a work of art. A completely custom design that perfectly contours to the sexy natural curves of the cave. It can also be described as an overhanging, free hanging nightmare. Good thing it has an insitu belay line of mud encrusted static rope. The stiffness of this rope means that in order to do anything other than a body belay, you’d either need a massive belay plate or to use a munter hitch. I opted to munter hitch using Paulina’s famously massive carabiner. This saw everyone up the ladder safe, with me belaying some people from the bottom, then Paulina belaying me, then me belaying Paulina from the top (or something along those lines). So actually climbing this ladder… it’s in two sections, split by a slight traverse, or step sideways on a sloping ledge halfway up. The first section I found to be okay. Terrifying and awkward. But okay. The ledge however, was anything but okay. It is smooth polished rock, coated in a slippery film of clayey-silt. It feels about as secure as a domestic airline pre-2001. The second section of the ladder is somehow overhanging, I’m not entirely sure how this happens but it does, and the beautifully fabricated smooth steel rungs maintain the same slippery coating as the ledge. Ideal climbing conditions. Worth also adding that belaying a whole team up the ladder on such a stiff rope really really kills your forearms, making for a perfect storm of overhanging, slippery, fatigued climbing. I was very very very pleased to be at the top.

Shortly after the ladder climb, there’s a traverse over a pretty significant hole in the floor, this was soon managed (much grumbling from me) and we were on with our next obstacle. Now dear reader, I beg that you recall all the effort and terror that was put into gaining these heady heights we now traversed. Now imagine my reaction when I find we must now immediately abandon all this height gain through a series of downclimbs. The first of which I was distinctly unhappy about, though the others seemed happy enough so down we went. Having minorly shat myself, I was incredibly glad to hear Rosie reach the next climb and announce that “this is fine” in a way that can only ever be interpreted as meaning “this is absolutely not fine, JL is going to sustain a life changing injury, and it’s all going to be very cold and embarrassing and its really gonna hurt and cave rescue are gonna be Welsh and what if they just leave him there and he’s not even got good underwear on, and it’s full of poo from the previous climbs anyway and frankly its all just going to be fucking terrible”. Upon doing the climb I found out it was actually pretty fine.

This climb did have other upsides: we landed up in white passage, a large passage which exists solely for the purpose of making you think you’re in time machine, so that when you reach time machine very shortly after, it seems even bigger. Yes dear reader, at this point in our janky narrative we find ourselves in Time Machine. Time Machine is really rather huge, and quite long, very similar to some of the massive passages you find in some of the Berger, or Sardinia (sorry not sorry). There’s a bit of boulder hopping, but nothing like easegill, it's more like following a goat track along a scree slope. Along this track are placed various reflectors presumably stolen from local roads, and signs helpfully reminding us not to trespass on the railway. This passage is indeed, like a railway, providing relatively swift and painless passage, a great relief considering the previous few hours. The increase in speed and lack of crawling makes it a good place to get at least the top of your oversuit off, to start getting dry ahead of camp.

Now, a lot of things happen in Time Machine. Firstly we spend a lot of time discussing why it’s called time machine, the following responses are recorded:
“Because it’s old”
“Because it is the time machine”
“Because they lost track of time”
“Because time vortex”
“Because it takes ages to get there”
Other notable events include Viki dropping one of Ade’s SIG bottles down a gap between some boulders and then attempting to retrieve it (or at least I think that’s what happens and it’ll help the flow of the narrative). She got stuck, but was eventually retrieved, alongside the SIG bottle. They are not to be trusted. This is a good time to cast our minds back to how we lost pretty much all our water in the entrance crawl. This bottle droppage lost a bit more. We were now incredibly thirsty. Thirsty beyond all belief. Sips from the reliable Irn Bru bottle were shared, all thankful for its magnificently robust, yet flexible, Scottish frame. It was probably around this time that a crucial question was raised: did we actually have anything to light the stove with? It seemed no one remembered packing anything, so we prayed Ade had done it for us… Otherwise tea would be cold pasta sauce, in cold packet rice. A lovely thought that boosted morale tremendously as we forced ourselves down a massive boulder slope towards Bonsai Streamway. This is when a tremendous question was asked: “Why is it called Rat Piss Streamway?”

Bonsai Streamway was a very very welcome sight, best described as being a bit like the leck fell streamway. It is however adorned with FANTASTIC helictites both in terms of quantity and quality, as well as generally fascinating shiny walls. This briefly distracted us from being INCREDBILY THIRSTY, though in hindsight, this thirst was probably useful in preventing us from realising that we were also very hungry. This is a great time to note that doing this trip with chunky tacklesacks makes it far far harder than if you were just equipped for a day trip. Meaning that quite ironically, the main thing making a camp necessary for visiting Hard Rock was the camping gear we’d brought to camp at Hard Rock. Without it, you could probably do Hard Rock and back as a long, but not completely silly day trip. Having stomped down the streamway we were soon at a large junction, with the famous Daren Cilau Services sign, which noted that Hard Rock Cafe was 2/3 away. Yes, just 2/3. 2/3 of what though, we do not know. A kilometre? A minute? An hour? Perhaps a lifetime? I’m still uncertain. We knew that from here we need to take the fork that didn’t head to Hard Rock, in order to get to the legendary water pipe, where we would collect and fill the in situ water containers to take with us to camp. Whilst also taking a moment to directly in the stream of water and drinking it, almost like the kind of mid 2010’s shampoo advert that sees a person getting drenched in a tropical waterfall. We jovially trotted up stream and eventually found the pipe. It was an oasis. Before hunting for water containers we filled up all our water bottles and immediately drank them, several times. Water never tasted so good. Que the hunt for water containers. We found none, despite literal minutes of concerted effort we found nothing. This was to be a ball ache. We decided they might be at camp, so we should take what water we could in our bottles and head to Hard Rock and resume our search there.

The journey to camp was pretty painless, however as we jovially trundled along the streamway we kept hearing a very ominous gurgling or rasping noise. I think it is best described as a slightly damp sounding Darth Vader. This sprouted a number of theories as to the origin of this noise, some suggested it could be a kind of mutated dinosaur, or a zombie, or maybe even just what Welsh cavers sound like in the wild - or when producing more Welsh cavers… Much to our surprise we found it was a hosepipe sticking out the wall and periodically spurting out some water, then sucking air back in. We discussed whether this might also be a suggested water source, but we weren’t certain so didn’t drink the suspicious wall water. In very little time at all we had managed to reach Hard Rock Cafe, a very interesting artefact of prolonged human interaction with the cave environment - more on this later. We quickly went about trying to find some water containers, we came up with a few petrol cans, all full of paraffin… and some 2 litre soft drinks bottles, all filled with suspicious liquids, most of them alcoholic, also not viable options. After some deliberation we decided we could unpack the daren drums, and use them as water containers, with the smallest holding a full 6 litres it was a pretty good idea. Before doing this it was decided we needed some energy and warmth so would have some out the soups. This began with the lighter hunt. Having unpacked everything it became quite apparent that we had no lighter, this is a bit of a cockup, as a large portion of our calories (pasta) needed to be cooked to be eaten. I therefore offered some kind of reward to the first person to find a lighter amongst the general junk of Hard Rock. No sooner had this offer been made, than had a lighter been found. Marvellous. This meant we were soon all sipping away at some nice warm soup, putting off the water trundle. It was decided that I would go with some people (I can’t remember which ones) to get water, whilst some others stayed behind and set up camp (or at least I think this is how it happened? I have a memory of returning to the sleeping area having been sorted, and a report about sleeping bag wetness). We therefore set off back to the water source with the cleanest of our now empty daren drums. Once nearly at the water source from this ever so slightly different angle, we happened upon a massive stack of water containers stashed by a huge boulder. Thus the mystery of the missing containers was solved. Much discussion of how much water to collect ensued, and we collected what turned out to be far too much (likely driven by a now near obsession with water).

Water collected we used the last of our energy to stop back to camp and begin all the camp admin. Once back at camp we found the ones left behind had set up the sleeping area, and unpacked sleeping bags. I was informed that mine was mostly dry, a great relief as it was down, so i’d be fucked if it was wet… One or two others were less lucky and had damp or wet bags. It was around this time we removed our oversuits and hung them up to ‘dry’ whilst continuing to wear our damp undersuits in order to dry them off using body heat. Cooking tea now ensued. We rummaged around hardrock and found a good size cooking pot and some utensils. Into the pot we emptied our container of pasta sauce, and the orzo pasta, aiming to cook the pasta in the sauce for efficiency(?). This worked fairly well, but the uneven and thin base of the cooking pot did result in a lot of orzo getting stuck to the base.. Removing it would provide us with hours of entertainment. Dinner successfully scranned, we made some pre-bedtime hot chocolate, and set some casio watch alarms for around 8-9 hours. We soon settled down for what would be an interesting night of sleep.

I’d never slept in a cave before, at least not beyond a quick pitch head nap, so being wrapped up semi-warm in my sleeping bag whilst underground was a very novel experience. I don’t tend to sleep too well in new settings, so I was waking up fairly often, on one particular occasion I was quite alarmed by the fact I could definitely see something. Yes, that’s right, in the complete, absolute, total darkness I could definitely see. It turned out to be a glow in the dark emergency exit sign that was very very dimly glowing. Quite a relief really, for I definitely didn’t want to be seeing things in the night. Which is exactly what happened when I next awoke. Off in the distance I could see a light and hear movement… Was it some other cavers? That would be a strange interaction… Was it perhaps some kind of beast coming to eat us all? Or was it simply Paulina who was up for an early morning wander? It was of course the latter. From here I returned to a deeper sleep than before, deep enough that I managed to sleep through my own alarm, and any of the others. Which takes us through to the morning of day 2. A tale likely to be told by one of my companions.