OUCC Proceedings 13 (1991)

A Small Discovery in Andalusia

Proc. 13 Contents.

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Tim Guilford

Actually there are other karst areas in Spain. Much of the Costa del Sol is backed by ridges of limestone peaks, containing some of the world's deepest caves, and some of Spain's finest scenery. The Sierra de Lujar is, at under 6,000ft and dwarfed by its inland neighbours in the Sierra Nevada (11,000ft), not the greatest mountain in the region; it still offers impressive karst scenery overlooking perhaps the least developed section of the south coast. There is a military installation on the peak, which restricts access, but in the foothills around the old almond farming community of Gualchos, only 5km from the sea, there are numerous small caves easily reached, but seldom visited. Gualchos does have a local caving group, affiliated to the Grupo de Actividades Espeleologicas Motril, but it is small and usually caves elsewhere along the coast. So why are the caves around Gualchos so rarely visited? These caves, often well decorated, usually dry, have a curious history, for the now peaceful hills between Lujar and the coast were a Republican front line during the Spanish civil war. Trenches line the ridges often incorporating caves as natural bunkers and underground storehouses. Many of the caves still contain unexploded mortar shells, grenades and other ammunition, left abandoned by retreating forces, and never cleared. Perhaps it is fear of being blown up, or a desire to leave a tragic past deeply buried, that deters. But for me, such vivid signs of history just heighten the sense of mystery, and I find caving around Gualchos irresistible.

Bar talk has it that the deepest cave nearby, Cueva de la Campana, connects with the sea more than 1,000ft below its wide domed entrance, but I have never managed to find a way through. Still the mile long trek through the steep spiky garrigue is well rewarded by the long bat-filled entrance hall ending in a large cavern which can be descended from bolts along a narrow rift (where I learnt to displace a dislocated shoulder). The 40m pitch hangs straight over a massive wall of organ pipe formations, and the impression from the far end of the chamber is of looking up into a white forest canopy. There are no straws here, but I did find some elaborate formations. Climbing a 10m calcite tower leads to a grotto draped with lines of huge curtains, surrounding a complex of gour pools and intestine shaped flowstone mounds. Nearby large stalactites hang from the walls, covered in an irregular crystal "fur'. A second pitch of 25m drops from the near end of the main chamber (a space some 100m long) to a boulder strewn floor, but the dusty air and unnerving-looking rusted ammunition boxes are not enticing. Descriptions for this and many other caves nearby can be found in the book Troglokarst - 1: Monografias del G.A.E. Motril 1989, obtainable from the Ayuntamiento de Motril, Delegacion de Educacion y Cultura, Plaza de Espana, Motril (Granada), but although a guide book exists my impression from spending time in the area is that there are still many systems undiscovered here.

Over the last five years I have made trips down many of the known caves in the area, but one morning last spring (1990) I was out looking for bee orchids with my brother Johnny on a piece of hillside we rarely visit when I spotted a small arch-shaped hole part-hidden by bushes. I investigated, as no caver can ever help doing, to find a 4m slot blocked by small boulders. Johnny and I shifted rocks for about an hour before realising not only that there was something beyond but also that it would remain inaccessible by this route for we had removed everything possible and I could get through only as far as my knees. Frustrated, I tried squeezing over a jammed boulder into a too-tight hole. Remarkably the top of the boulder shifted, and it became clear it had been broken all the time, but invisibly cemented by mud. I pushed a three inch slab off the top (to the annoyance of a resident ghecko), and entered a sharp awkward squeeze to drop down 1.5m into a small chamber (The Vestibule) 4m by 1m, nicely decorated by saw-toothed curtain formations. At the end of the chamber the near vertical rift appeared to continue beyond the range of my feeble pen-light. We returned later that day with a rope and head lamps to make the first descent of a 13m pitch into a totally white, crystalline seam. Turning back on ourselves underneath the entrance led to an unstable boulder ruckle (rather characteristic of caves in this area), but forwards we walked the floor of the seam for about 15m before it closed behind a gleaming active calcite flow. I climbed into the well-decorated roof here, but there was no apparent way on , and we decided to leave the place in peace. It is not a large cave as we confirmed when we returned to survey it, but for its sheer percentage cover of spotless calcite it left a lasting impression. We named it "The Cave of the Lost Arch", the first OUCC discovery in the region. We never found the bee orchid.

Easter 1991

Despite lashings of good beer and warm sun we again managed several prospecting trips in the hills above Gualchos. Our first find was at the edge of a new track between Gualchos and Jolucar which had exposed a draughting cavity soon closing down in a small rift after an awkward stal squeeze. The considerable draught persisted steadily from a narrow horizontal bedding, nicely decorated but offering no route on. Anxious to establish whether the draught was merely a local air shunt we searched the nearby hillside to find five more holes, but all draughting outwards in a similar fashion. The most obvious of these was an easy entry to a boulder slope chamber (certainly visited previously) ending in a vertical squeeze into a small rift. Down becomes tight, but may be passable with hammering. The main draught continues from a horizontal slot under a huge boulder which I dug until passable. Beyond, flat-out crawling for several metres will be possible with a little clearing, and the size of the draught convinced me that large passage probably exists somewhere underneath. Worth pursuing.

Johnny had found an obvious cave entrance in an old almond grove in a shallow ravine between Gualchos and Jolucar, and we visited this on our last evening. A sizeable, and obviously visited, sloping entrance chamber appeared to choke, but again a strong draught made me persist until I found a crawl down into a 30DD sloping seam which shortly reached a vertical, free-climbable rift 1-5m wide, perhaps 10m long, and dropping 10 or 15m (past a large curtain which resonated whenever we spoke) until intersected by a bedding plane passage leading west to a much larger parallel rift. The rift extended south for perhaps 10m, but the way on was down through the huge ruckle, past a murderously perched pair of boulders, down a large rock slab to a false floor. Following along the left-hand wall northwards led to a junction and small cross-rift back into the first seam, now at a total depth of an estimated 40 or 50m. Here the seam is several metres wide, and beautifully decorated, with an active stal inlet at the far end, and an area of black crystal and numerous dried-out crystal pools. Back above the ruckle, the rift led north via a short slope down to a finely-decorated, church-sized chamber (Dissolution Hall). Fallen stal blocks made a false floor below which stretched a void which we had no time or gear to push, but which clearly had potential. It may continue in a third parallel rift.

At the time of writing we are still unsure whether what we have called Dissolution Cave is a new discovery. The cave guide to this area (Karst de Calahonda, published by the Ayuntamiento in Motril) is very difficult to obtain. However, there are only two known caves bigger than this in the area, and it is therefore difficult to understand why the entrance is not numbered if it is known, as even many of the less significant ones are. Most suggestive, though, is the complete absence of signs of any previous visitors beyond the entrance chamber. It seems unlikely that a cave of this size would remain unvisited once it had been discovered. I intend to survey it when I revisit next year.

Andrew Read and I visited the Cueva de la Campana and forced a new route between the bottom of the cave and the southern end of Pozo de Medina by free-climbing a 25ft calcite waterfall.