Monday, 20 September 2010

Underground river - Taking the splish

Last year Madame (my rentee from downstairs) told me how she was going to visit the underground river La riviere souterraine de Labouiche, as it was the only local attraction that she had never visited. Her cousin had worked there for many, many years, and still she had never visited. How he would laugh, she said, when he heard that she had visited it at last.
I happened to have picked up a leaflet on the river in the local tourist office, so I loaned it to her, saying that if she did visit it I would like to come too, as S is not keen on visiting caves.
Fast forward to three months ago this year. I was sitting outside, looking at the free guide to local events and attractions published by La Depeche. Madame started telling me all about her cousin, and never having visited the attraction and that she must visit it this year. She would have to find out its opening hours.
I flicked through my guide and showed her their advert.
To cut a long story short. About 3 weeks ago we set off in my car to experience what is billed as the longest publically available underground river, boat ride in Europe.
We parked in the shady, wooded car park and entered the welcome point building.
We were in luck, the next trip was in ten minutes. We spent the time looking at the odd bits and pieces that they had for sale in the glass cases, the old photos, the model of the river etc.
More people trickled in, 4 of them speaking English.
Tickets were checked by a young lady, and we followed her to the entrance. Of course the entrance was nowhere near the building. We crossed the main road, walked alongside the main road, walked down a crumbly, zig-zaggy path and steps, and eventually came to the entrance. Madame having had tendon surgery earlier this year on one leg, I wondered how she was going to manage the reverse trip. I would certainly be struggling in the heat.
Our party was 13 in number. We were left in the hands of our boatman. He was probably a summer student and spoke a few words of English.
One by one we climbed into our metal boat, sitting on the wet metal plank seats.
There was no photography allowed, so I will borrow some photos from their website.
 In the UK the wearing of miner’s helmets would have been compulsory. Often we all had to duck low to avoid the low roof, and also lean in to the centre of the boat to avoid the overhanging rocky sides.

The river was quite narrow, and we often had to park up to let returning boats pass. There were 18 boats on the river at a time, being the high season.

The rock formations were spectacular, with the usual stalactites and stalagmites. There were also stone pillars formed by the twain meeting. There were also formations of wafer thin stone, which looked like sheets of smooth chamois leather. Another feature was lots of little drinking straw sized tubes of stone hanging from the roof, which we were told were hollow down the middle.

There were also names for some of the stone formations, e.g. the mushroom.
The boatman propelled the boat by using rubber coated steel ropes to pull us along. It was far from a silent experience. The metal boats frequently banged into the side and into other passing boats, with eerie sounding bangs and each impact resulted in quite a jarr to the body.
It was far from a comfortable 1.5 km ride and we also had to change boats 3 times as the river is on different levels. Each time climbing or descending slippery steps to reach our new boat. The furthest point of our voyage before turning round was a small cavern which had a waterfall jetting out of the rock into the pool. I suspect some human help due to the shape of the water jet, but who knows.

There are no fish in the river, and in most places the water is about a meter deep or less. In the light of the lamps along the side of the river, the water had a light green / blue tint.

We were told that there was a species of salamander that lived in the caves but they must have been sleeping off the excesses of the night before, and we didn’t spot any.

The whole trip probably took about 45 mins to an hour.

To exit the river, we had to climb a few hundred steep steps, It was here that Madame ground to a halt, and we sat on a convenient bench whilst she got her breath back.

We spiralled up into the light and popped up very near to the entrance building.

Madame was tres hot and fatigue, so we sat in the sunshine and had a drink at the conveniently placed café. A pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

So that’s grotte 1 marked off my long list of “caves to visit in the region”.

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