Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Visitors 4 – Caving in

On the Wednesday I had booked for us to go the Grotte de Niaux. This is one of the most famous prehistoric caves in the region. It has cave paintings from 12 -13,000 years ago and is one of the few such caves which people can still visit. The humidity / carbon dioxide levels are carefully monitored and the number of visitors per day is limited, with a maximum of 20 visitors per group. This is why booking ahead is usually necessary.

I had got us on to a tour with an English speaking guide. although J and I both speak some French.
We arrived early so that we could take some photos of the entrance to the cave and of the village of Niaux, nestling below us in the valley.
Halfway up the twisty road to the caves, we found the road blocked by a locked gate.
We hung around as did the occupants of the VW camper van behind us.
I soon got bored and started to walk up the road. Of course as soon as I did this, a staff member drove up in her car.
We drove up to the car park, the car dwarfed by the height of the cliff. The village was shrouded with whisps of mist, which the sun had not yet burned off, despite being 10am.

Before setting off we were issued with flashlights and footwear was checked. All the notices said that due to the nature of the terrain, sensible, enclosed shoes should be worn. Of course there always has to be someone who turns up in flip=flops (thongs for any USA or Aussie readers (ah those were the days)).
“Do you have any proper shoes to put on?” asked our guide. No, she had lived in flip-flops for the whole of the year and would be perfectly okay. If I had been the guide, I would have told her to piss off, but, she was allowed to continue. Lord knows what would have happened if she had slipped and injured herself.
We set off down a manmade tunnel and through a door, into the first bit of our cave trip.
The floor of the cave was very smooth and in places wet and slippery, with small stumps of rock beginning their ascent towards the cave roof (give them 100,000 years).
As we walked along, following as near as possible the path taken by the guide, we passed lots of names and initials daubed onto the rocks. Most of these were dated from the mid 1600’s.
We slipped and slid our way through caverns and eventually came to the black chamber. Before entering we all had to switch off our lights. The guide kept hers on and we followed her into a large chamber and over to the beginning of the metal railing. The maximum time of our visit in this part of the cave system was 25 minutes and we could see the electrical monitoring equipment flickering away.When we were all assembled, she trained her light on the cave wall in front of us and there was a collective “Ooh!” as we got our first look at an animal that was painted over 12,000 years ago.
As we moved from one part of the wall to the next, we saw bison, horses, antelope?.
It is thought that this chamber was used for special ceremonies, with dancing. Only one portion of the wall of the chamber was painted on, as was often the case in caves with paintings.
There were other paintings in a long gallery that was not accessible to us, but the greater percentage of the drawings in the caves was there for us to see.
Like the underground river that I visited recently, the caves are a no photography zone Niaux cave art taken from the internet.



We were told that the bison always had the same short spear like marks painted on them, but that they were not spears or arrows.
Over the years, some of the drawings have been all but destroyed by moisture seeping into the cave, numpties had also graffitied some of the paintings (probably those 17th century vandals.
We were surprised to learn that the caves, although vast, were never lived in. They probably lived in the entrance of the main cave. This cave was obviously a very important site, as the artwork was added over a period of at least 1,000 years, before being abandoned. Some of the drawings were done using charcoal and this has enabled carbon dating to be carried out. The other paintings were made using specially prepared paints. The only colour that I saw apart from black, was red.
Our guide also told us about the drawing of a weasel that had been found elsewhere in the cave system, of which they were very proud as no other cave in the area had a picture of such an animal. We did not  see the weasel, nor was there a picture of the drawing anywhere to be found, so again, thanks to the internet, here is the famous weasel.


Our time was up and we left the chamber, switched on our lights and headed back the way that we had come. There was a pit which had been excavated showing how much the floor level of the cave had risen since the drawings were done.
Definitely somewhere to visit, before it too is closed to the public, as will surely happen someday.
The whole visit took about an hour and a half, so you can work out that we had to walk quite some way to get to the main cave. We were not allowed to dawdle en route either, and our guide kept up a very brisk pace.
Since our visit, I have learned that the school project, being prehistoric man, means that classes will be visiting Niaux and the Parc de le prehistoire. Looking back at the speed of our walk and the slipperiness of the route, I wondered to the headmistress just how the children would manage it. “Yes one must walk very fast, but we have taken a class of 4 to 5 year olds there a few years ago.....”
One more out in the sunshine, we handed in our lamps and wandered about, taking more photos of the views out over the valley, and anything else moving or not. Here are some of them.

early Canadian troglodytes
smokeless zone

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