It was in O'Connor's Bar in Doolin during the summer 1990 trip to Ireland that the idea to go to Sardinia first originated. With the rain pouring down on County Clare for the third day running, a group of dejected cavers huddled round their pints of Guinness discussing all the many caving regions of the world where it probably wasn't raining. I suppose Sardinia just seemed like a good bet.
Back in England some research in the BCRA library unearthed a few articles about Sardinia. An Italian reference book listed a large number of caves, but the only reports in English that could be found were those of the Army Caving Club and Shepton Mallet Caving Club, both of which visited Sardinia during the summer of 1989. In June 1990, Shepton Mallet Caving Club published a further report in Descent. Sardinia was their 40th anniversary expedition involving 30 adults and 13 children. This second report also mentioned their intent to produce an English guide to Sardinia. Contact was made with Shepton Mallet Caving Club shortly before we left, but the guide was not complete. However they did send us some rough information including some translations of "Speleologia", the Italian caving periodical.
Sardinia is an Italian island to the south west of Italy, although it is closer to the French island of Corsica to the north. 24,090 sq.km. in area (approximately 3 times the size of Wales), it spans 265km from north to south and 145km from east to west with the heighest point being Punta la Marmora at 1834m. The average temperature in July/August is 25.7C by the coast and 21.8C in the mountains. The mediterranean climate and mountainous relief combine to produce a rather barren island.
The population of Sardinia is approximately 1,600,000. The major city is Cagliari, and the island is divided into four provinces: Sassari in the north, Nuoro in the east, Cagliari in the south, and Oristano in the west. The economy is based on breeding and the extractive industry. Local industry includes Sardinian wine and handicrafts. However, with sea water temperatures of 23C plus, tourism is expanding.
The expedition members were Eric Downer, Helen Hougham, George Pankiewicz, Martyn Pickering and Steve Wray. Four of us drove to Sardinia for 3 weeks (12 July - 4 August) whilst George flew out from Germany for 1 week (21 July - 28 July).
There is only one ferry per week that sails directly from France to Sardinia, although there are several crossings each day between France and Corsica and between Corsica and Sardinia, so our travel plan was a little complex. We actually went from England to France to Sardinia on the way out and from Sardinia to Corsica to France to England on the way back. Taking it in shifts to drive continuously, it took 16 hours to cross France and 6 hours to cross Corsica.
There are many areas of limestone in Sardinia (7 of the 20 longest caves in Italy are on the island), the largest being the south west of Cagliari Province, the north west of Sassari Province and the east coast of Nuoro Province. It was the latter we had most information about and hence became the focus of the expedition. Within this area are a further two distinct areas of limestone: the Codula de Luna which runs along the coast and the Lanaitto Valley a little in land (as shown on the map).
We choose a campsite in St Lucia as our base as it was by the sea but still close to the main road running down the island. Indeed you could stroll from the campsite directly onto the beach. In fact, the minor roads were perfectly adequate and it would probably have been better to have chosen a campsite nearer the caves. It took a good hour to drive to them. However, St Lucia was adequate and not as expensive as many of the other campsites.
The information we had concerning the Codula de Luna proved to be a little inaccurate. For a start none of the grid references from the reports seemed to agree with each other. Also the track to the Codula de Luna did not appear to be marked on our map. Most significant, however, was the Army Caving Club report which gave directions to Su Palu and Su Spiria but quoted the wrong bank of the river!
For the record, therefore, to get to the Codula de Luna, take the SS 125 south from Dorgali towards Baunei. Go over the summit pass at over 1000m above sea level, and about 1km after the turning to Urzulei on the right, take the next metalled road on your left. (It appears to have only been surfaced in the last couple of years.) The road soon becomes single track and you see the towering shape of Monte Oseli directly in front (NK 475411), before the road winds down into the valley for about 10km. Towards the end, landslides and suicidal mountain goats make the going interesting, but eventually you end up at a small car park by a ford in the - 8 - river (NK 479472). A path continues over the ford heading down the valley (towards the caves).
The most suitable maps of the area (1:25000) are by the Istituto Geografico Militare, and are available at the main bookshop/stationer's in Dorgali. Sheets 208 III NO (Urzulei), 208 IV SO (Monte Oddeu) and 208 IV NO (Cantoniera Manasuddas) were the most useful on our expedition. All the maps and reports which we used, including the above, have been placed in the club library.
The details of the Lanaitto Valley were much more complete and we found it easy to follow these directions. Brief descriptions of the caves we visited start with our explorations in the Codula de Luna valley:
About half an hour's walk (45 mins carrying rucksacks) down the Codula de Luna valley from the car park, over two big drops in the valley floor, the entrance to Su Spiria is a 2m x 4m hole in the rock at ground level on the right hand side (NK 488488 - see local area map). It is hidden behind a group of fig trees and is not obvious, even though it's name is printed on the rock beside it in faded red paint. It does however draught well.
A bouldery entrance chamber leads via a short series of squeezes to the head of a 25m pitch. At least 35m of rope is required to rig it properly. A natural belay and rebelay allow access to a very tight pitch. This shortly opens out into a free hang with the aid of a few bolts of dubious condition. The pitch is quickly followed by two more pitches, both 8m deep. The first is bolted and the second can be rigged from natural belays with 2 slings. Both could be described as somewhere between a pitch and a free climb, and are not difficult (compared with the first, which is!).
Walking and stooping sized passage leads after a while into a decorated chamber with a drop down on the right to a short squeeze. Walking passage is resumed, eventually becoming narrower before arriving at a free-climbable 10m drop. A long and tight rift passage is then followed for what seems like an eternity. The route is marked sometimes at floor level, sometimes traversing 10m above, by a series of small blue arrows painted on the rock. Eventually a junction chamber is reached.
This was about as far as we got in Su Spiria. The passage to the right leads to some large muddy chambers, but we could not find a way on. To the left, the passage is narrower but we ran out of time and had to turn back.
According to the descriptions this is probably the "link passage" that leads to the "Grand Halls". Quoting from Speleologia, "The section is wide, abundant with formations and certainly fossil". There are two large halls, "La Verta" and "Foffifurni", a lake, and then a huge chamber, "Cazzinboricauizzengaua", which measures 290m x 100m x 50m. This is followed by "Black Ways", a further 300m extension in "a magnificent gallery", a 50m long lake which requires a wetsuit, and a 50m pitch. Apparently the cave has since been extended further and now connects with Su Palu.
Su Palu is actually easier to find than Su Spiria. About 10 minutes walk down the valley from the car park, directly opposite where the Bacu su Palu river joins the Codula de Luna, a steep gravel slope leads up the right hand side of the valley. The entrance is a small slot in the base of a rock face to the right of the slope about 10m above the valley floor (NK 481478). The cave is gated, although the gate is not locked, and there is a metal sign with the name of the cave.
The entrance leads via a short crawl to a 25m pitch. There are at least 6 bolts to choose from as well as a perfectly placed stal' for a natural. In fact it is more of a 25m slanting rift than a pitch, and a ladder was already rigged on our trip. We decided it was easiest to rig a rope and self line down the ladder.
At the bottom and to the right is a well decorated chamber. A further climb down through boulders leads to a streamway. Following the streamway a "duck" is passed (a 3m crawl on your stomach in water) eventually breaking out into a series of exceptionally well decorated chambers connected by a maze of passages. These continue for some time, gradually increasing in size, until a huge dry stream passage is met. Following the passage downstream some careful climbs down between boulders lead past gower pools and flowstone to the sound of the streamway again.
Although we turned round and photographed our way out at this point, the passage continues to a series of lakes for which a wetsuit is required. By fording the streamways and lakes (the Blue and White Niles), an incredibly decorated section can be gained on the right called Lilliput, perhaps the most beautiful underground passage in Sardinia.
Caving in the Lanaitto Valley is centred around the "Casa", a caving hut in the middle of the area (NK 414565). A path leads directly from the "Casa" (the opposite side to the car - 10 - park) up the hillside. It soon becomes steep and rocky but within 10 minutes reaches the entrance to Su Bentu.
A large entrance chamber provides a good place to change. At the far side of the chamber a climb up leads to an unlocked gate through which a howling gale blows. A short crawl leads to a balcony above the main passage. A careful traverse to the right gives access to a fixed scaffold ladder and hence to the passage below.
The description of Su Bentu was the best one we had. Route finding was easy and the pitches were all in the right places. The only problem was that most of the pitches were rigged for ladders and we had brought rope. Consequently we had to turn around just before the first lake.
The main passage leads to the right and is interrupted by two flowstone barriers. The first is passed by climbing over the top with the aid of a fixed rope and the second by a flat out crawl to the left. A little further the main passage reaches a large drop. The way on is to the left and then first right. This leads to a steep flowstone bank with a large stal' in the middle. A ladder can be belayed to the stal' and an 8m drop reaches another ledge. A passage to the left leads down a slope to a flowstone ramp onto another 20m pitch. This is the pitch that requires a ladder rather than rope.
Immediately after the pitch, the passage slopes towards the first lake. A wetsuit is required for this section of cave although there is a short dry section after the fourth lake! After a further 13 lakes, the nature of the cave changes from large vadose passages to lower wider passages filled with gravel and sand. To quote Shepton Mallet Caving Club, "Su Bentu is a superb cave, well worth a number of trips to explore it all".
In addition to the reports mentioned before, the following visits have also been made to Sardinia by British cavers, although we did not have any details: Pete Harvey of South Wales Caving Club in 1963, Loughborough University Spelaelogical Team in 1975, British Spelaelogical Expedition in 1980 and John Cordingley of the Cave Diving Group in 1981. The last two were concerned with exploration in Su Bentu.
There are a number of show caves in Sardinia including "Grotte del Bue Marino", a sea cave with accompanying cruise, which is well worth a visit. British show caves pale into insignificance when compared with this cave which could give Otter Hole a good run for its money. It could almost be taken straight out of a fairy tale if it wasn't for the name which translates as "Cave of the Sea Oxen".
Also worth a visit is the Civic Museum of Cave Archaeology in Nuoro which is attached to the local caving club's office. The museum keeps odd opening hours and was closed when we were there although the caving club's office was open. However our limited knowledge of the 3 different dialects of Sardinian prevented us obtaining any meaningful information.
Although expensive, Sardinia is a must for a visit at least once during every caver's lifetime. Combining the warm summer climate, good beaches, pizzas and local wine with the beauty, sport and size of the underground world makes Sardinia a place to really savour the world of caving. On the equipment side, it is probably advisable to take both dry and wet kit if possible, with the numbers of lakes and streams that can be encountered underground, even in summer. Similarly, a selection of ladders and SRT rope would be ideal. All of those involved in this year's trip thoroughly enjoyed their stay, so the question is: who wants to go next?
Finally, thanks must go to: the campers of St Lucia for putting up with our dirty washing in their showers; the cave guides of Grotte del Bue Marino for being hassled about the resurgence of the Codula de Luna; the wild pigs for not getting run over by Martyn; and of course the girls of the 'Miss Spiaggia' competition for having Eric as their judge!
- Elenco Catastale Delle Grotte Della Sardegna. (Italian reference book)
- Post Exercise Report, Army Caving Club, August 1989.
- The Subterranean Wonders of Sardinia, Shepton Mallet Caving Club, July 1990.
- Sardinia, Island of Caves, Descent No 94, Shepton Mallet Caving Club, June 1990.
- Su Spiria, Speleologia 4, 1980.
- New Explorations at Su Spiria, Speleologia 6, 1981.
- News Again From The Codula Di Luna, Speleologia.
- The Laniatto Valley, Shepton Mallet Caving Club.