Going deeper underground
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Going deeper underground

So you've traipsed around the Uffizi, eaten a gelato on the Ponte Vecchio, admired the view of the Tuscan countryside from one of San Gimignano's towers, but have you really seen everything that Italy has to offer? The bel paese may have cornered the market in artistic marvels

Thu 11 Oct 2012 12:00 AM

So you’ve traipsed around the
Uffizi, eaten a gelato on the Ponte Vecchio, admired the view of the Tuscan
countryside from one of San Gimignano’s towers, but have you really seen
everything that Italy has to offer? The bel paese may have cornered the
market in artistic marvels and gastronomic delights, but it has more to offer
than would first appear. Caving-known as ‘potholing’ by the Brits and ‘spelunking’
across the pond-is practised the length and breadth of Italy, from the warm
horizontal caves of Sicily to the great cold abysses of the Veneto. The Italian
peninsula is a land of majestic mountain ranges formed over millions of years
of tectonic activity, making it the perfect place for the enthusiastic caver.
Beneath Italy’s surface are hundreds of miles of cave systems, only a fraction
of which have been explored by man.


Speleology, to call it by its
proper name, is the scientific study of caves. However, those first intrepid
men and women who braved the dark depths and choking passages to map out the
world beneath our feet have given way to an equally fearless bunch who venture
underground for fun. Today, speleology and caving exist side by side. Using
many of the same physical skills, cavers often assist scientists in their
studies, such as attaching temperature sensors, measuring water flow and
monitoring local bat colonies (I have heard of cavers having to navigate
through them, Indiana Jones-style, as they fly out of a cave entrance. Most of
the time, however, the bats keep to themselves and should certainly not be
disturbed during their hibernation months, as to do so can be fatal-for the
bat, not the caver). 


If you’ve ever travelled the
tortuous roads of the Apuan Alps in Northern Tuscany, you have probably noticed
the colourful lycra and rock-solid calf muscles of the area’s cyclists as they
wind their way up the mountains. What you may not have spotted, however, are
the muddy four-wheel drives parked in secluded corners, a sure sign that cavers
are about. Most good-sized Italian towns have a caving group, and Tuscany is no
exception. Every weekend, cavers from Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Versilia, Pistoia
and elsewhere make their way to the Apuan Alps or further afield to teach new
students, map a cave system or explore the depths. Ask them what drives them to
do it and you’ll probably get something along the lines of Rutger Hauer’s
speech at the end of the film, Blade Runner: ‘I’ve seen things you people
wouldn’t believe …’


Cavers are something of a rarefied
bunch, and not without good reason: it takes guts, training and experience to
do what they do. They’re fiercely loyal to their individual groups and a
certain amount of competitiveness goes with the territory. But get them all
together and they’ll happily head up an expedition, followed by the obligatory
feast dalla Piera in Levigliani, affectionately known as ‘la madre
degli speleo’. Italians to the end, the main object of finishing a day’s
hard caving is always the prospect of some decent grub.


So, what does it actually take to
be a caver and what can you expect to see once you venture below ground and
into your first cave? Well, first of all, no caving group in Italy will let you
near a cave without having completed the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) introductory
course. This usually takes about a month, depending on the group, and involves
up to eight theory lessons and eight practical sessions, including cave
outings. The aim of the course is to understand the nature of the territory
into which you’re venturing (fun fact: caves have no natural odour), the
equipment, what to wear (average temperatures are 8 degrees Celsius but can be
cooler), what to eat, and most importantly, how to move in the cave. Cavers
generally wear a sort of waterproof oversuit with thermal layers underneath.
Footwear is sturdy boots, while the most important piece of equipment, aside
from the climbing aids and ropes, is a safety helmet and headlamp.


What might not be obvious about
caving is that it requires a firm head for heights, something which I was
woefully lacking in when I started out. With the walking, crawling and
scrabbling through tight spaces, one might assume that claustrophobia is the
main problem, but the greater part of progression in the cave is done by
rappelling and climbing. Sometimes the drops, or pozzi as they’re known
in Italian, are a couple of metres, sometimes hundreds, so you have to be at
home with the idea of hanging around in the dark (a headlamp and a back-up are de
rigeur, but turn them off and you’ll experience true darkness), dropping
yourself down great heights, and most importantly of all, climbing back up again.
Caving is very much a group activity (for safety reasons as much as social),
but at the end of the day you really do have to take your life in your own
hands and be able to hold your nerve. Speleologists take safety very seriously
and experienced cavers will tell you that a little fear is always a good thing,
if only to help you concentrate on what you’re doing.


That said, what drives them to do
it? Well, apart from the fact that it is extremely fun, there are few other
activities in the world that allow you to explore uncharted territory.
Nevertheless, not all expeditions can be exploratory ones, but there is plenty
to admire in the more well-known caves. The caves of the Apuan Alps and Monte
Pisano also have fantastic names, such as Vavavuma! (exclaimed by the caver who
first discovered it), Belfagor (a Machiavellian demon), and La Buca delle Fate
(literally, Fairy Hole). The cave systems of the Apuan Alps are predominantly
made up of marble and are truly spectacular to behold, both outside and from within:
there are underground lakes as clear as a mountain stream, immense stalagmites
and stalactites, strange insects, sandy beaches, and twinkling crystal walls. Believe
me, this is the closest you’ll get to another world without buying a ticket on
Branson’s space shuttle.


I will let you in on a little
secret. Do you know what the best part of caving is? It’s coming back up to the
surface. There’s nothing like emerging onto the face of the mountain on a dark
winter’s night, the wind whistling through the entrance, the stars above you
and every smell and sound magnified a hundred times. It’s like being reborn.



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