OUCC Proceedings 13 (1991)

The English are Shite....

or, "Zen and the Art of Extreme Driving"

Proc. 13 Contents.

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Mike Mead

Eleven pm on Christmas Eve and nine British cavers are driving a yellow minibus in circles around the Belgian town of Namur, searching for the "Bar Speleo'. There isn't a hope of finding it, so a camp is made under a secluded flyover. We'll have to drink the duty frees. Oh dear. A couple of hours, and nobody can talk in sentences anymore. Resort to singing as Christmas Day thinks about dawning. The whiskey is all gone and bottles litter the scene: eight slumbering cavers and Stuart being horribly sick. Beer will tear us apart (again). The Polish Division are Go.

These days they tell me it's easy to drive to Poland, but we had it hard then. Borders, visas, guards, hiding the hard currency, remembering to stop at the sign that says, "STOP"; real hard. Then there was the time Stuart drove up the tram lines by mistake: two trams arrived at once - well they do, don't they? - and we got towed off by a Polish taxi driver, who subsequently had his car driven into by one of the trams. Based on an algorithm owing much to guesswork, we figured the cost as ten dollars, folding money. The man agreed with the sum.

By the end of December we had met our hosts in Gliwice and motored our yellow van south to the skiing and caving resort of Zakopane. Weather cold and bright, Tatra mountains felt like a pretty good place to be. Our accommodation was a farmhouse with rooms heated by pungent coal stoves, and the local place to be a restaurant called the Harnas. Oh, and it was very snowy.

The first caving trip left early to do a thing called Bandzioch (pronounced "Banjo'); reputedly a very beautiful cave, though rather inaccessible. They met their guide, Marek, at the Harnas and set off up the hill at a cracking pace. Dan, Stuart and Jonathan learned a lot about climbing ice-covered mountains that day, but didn't do the cave. Same thing the next day. On the second day of 1989 they made it to the entrance with all the required gear. Marek takes up the story:

"Three times we were going up but we reached in spite of I've forgotten my dress and a danger of avalanche. Polish-British team during of walk in Bandzioch have eaten up about 500kg of chocolate and about 200l of tea and taken out 1000kg of mud on their dresses. Next time, I hope, even more, I promise, that number of food will be lower till 250kg of it and drunk tea no more than 50l."

The epic nature of the climb to the entrance came as a shock to the British Speleos. Nice new plastic mountain boots and borrowed crampons helped, but it was still bloody hard work. The three were glad to have Marek along to take awkward decisions like, "Is this in any sense a good idea?". Dan:

"As we crossed the steep snow field for the third time I told Marek that this beautiful cave had better be worth it. He looked nonplussed and told me that Bandzioch was not at all beautiful, just long and difficult. Somewhere along the line things had become confused."

While all this was going on, other caves were visited. Zimneh and Charna were the easy options. Only a short walk, not too high, and the hours-underground barely hit double figures. Of course there was a hard option for those not headbanging their way down Bandzioch: the lure of the Deepest Cave in Poland couldn't be resisted for long. The system links Szniezna Cave to the higher entrance of Nad Kolina, and was then about 720 metres deep.

The first (crack, Oxford) team to have a go were led by a modest Pole called King. This trip followed the pattern of many: meet at the Harnas in the morning; stay there until mid-afternoon, when it's time to set off into the mountains. This way, most of the walk is done in the dark, and the National Park Rangers won't see you going caving, which is illegal. The caving is done overnight. [Recently overheard in the Hunter's Lodge: "I went night-caving once'. Har har. - Ed.]. Twenty four hours after leaving bed you get back more knackered than Shergar.

Maybe their hearts and souls weren't in it, but the first attempt didn't Bottom The Cave. Never mind, there was plenty else to do.

If a lack of strength and general Hardness was a problem for the Oxford Unfit Cave Club, then drink was a bigger one. Notice I haven't mentioned wodka yet. Take it from me, wodka is VERY IMPORTANT in Poland, so important they put it in tea. This is called Shipyard Tea, because we misunderstood:

"This is the tea that drink the workers of the sheeps".
Fin: "What really? Do they make ships up here in the mountains? How do they get them to the sea?"
Andjez (looking at Fin rather oddly): "On the train. Of course."
Fin: "On the train? How big are they?"
Andjez (looking at Fin even more oddly): "Big, small, medium, all sizes."

Wodka apparently grows on trees. Most nights there would be a gathering of those not caving and our wonderful hosts would make wodka appear. Polish tradition, they tell us, demands that one person is appointed Potchatka (phonetic spelling), the master of ceremonies, whose job it is to get everyone to drink a lot by the simple ruse of standing over you watching while you down it in one. The system works; the stuff disappears in alarming quantities, and an atrocity exhibition follows. All very sordid, but a lot of fun.

New Year was a case in point. A party at the Wroclaw hut saw 1989 being brought in twice, probably because we lost count. At two am the party moved en masse to the Harnas, a mile down the road through a freezing starlit night, for the real party. We carried Viola for the last part:

"Being well brought up Englishmen, Dan and I knock on the door. Viola, on the other hand, tries to kick the window out. Consequently the door opens and a violent argument ensues. I don't understand, but they let us in anyway....

....There are cavers here from Moscow to Oxford. The place is packed and everybody is so totally, unbelievably FRIENDLY. It's bloody paradise...."

Needless to say, the evening ended with a strange conversation about "anti-conception', and Paul crawling under his bed.

There's something in wodka that makes it easier to speak Polish, Russian, or any language other than your own. When taken with a large dose of caving it also screws you up. Ursula:

"I have been in Poland twelve days. I am a mental and physical wreck. I know how to say "Fuck off" and "My duck has hiccups" in Polish. I could really use a beer or perhaps a little wodka."

So our allotted two weeks draws to a close and we begin the journey home. A crazy drive through dark and snow, during which Woitek span his car, wife and baby 360 about the worst axis - "It's OK, the roof is lower" - takes us back to Gliwice and the all-nighter to end them all. Reversing our outward course through eastern, then western europe isn't as much fun as it was on the way out. A two day dash and a brief ferry ride lands us in Dover. All those plans to bring back lots of Polands's Finest have come to nothing; we drank it all. OK, so here's a pub, full of wonderful British beer, but the guy behind the bar is spoiling for a fight and the ale costs more than we have. We've just finished one of those experiences you never forget. In those days it was possible to defect. Fin:

Sell the house, sell the kids, sell everything.
England, and Oxford.
The Horror, The Horror.

I couldn't agree more.


Some of the Gliwice Speleo Club came to Britain for a bit of caving over Easter prior to the 1988#-89 Poland trip. OUCC returned next winter for another two weeks of fun. Eternal thanks to Andzej, Wlodek, Woitek, Violetta, their families and friends, for hospitality beyond the call of duty and wonderful times. Let's continue the Polish-English exchanges for decades.

Information on caves, etc. not included in this article is available from the Editorial address.

The Team 1988
Mike Mead, Urs Mead, Finbar O'Sullivan, Sherry Mayo, Mel Rigby, Graham Naylor, Martin Hicks, Martin Laverty, Paul Brennan, Jonathon Cooper, Stuart Strathdee, Dani, Angie, and Gerhard Niklasch.

The Team 1989
Dave Horsley, Martin Hicks, Katya Riemann, Neil McHugh, Harry Moss, Tony Seddon, Paul Cooper, Jay, William Stead, Paul Mann, and Dirk Vertigan.