The Neverending Story
The cover is from Larry Ray and Jeff Matthews
This is the tale of our personal exploration of the Campo Braca grotto. The original posts go back about 15 years (around the year 2000) and have been expanded numerous times with new chapters. In the next few days I'll try to tell you about our latest outing with new friends.
Campo Braca. It started about 10 years ago when two old friends of mine—both enthusiasts of trekking and nature hikes—told me about a grotto on the Matese massif, a grotto they had come across on one of their outings of some years earlier. In those days my only real interest was in artificial caves, an interest I had pursued for years in the subsoil of Naples, rich with ancient underground man-made caves, abandoned aqueducts and old air-raid shelters from WWII.
I had seen some small natural grottoes, but my experience in karst caves had been limited to a few near the sea at Palinuro and Sapri; they were practically horizontal and were not well-developed. My first experience, if that's what you can call it, had been on summer holidays. I was by myself and had no particular equipment with me. Given those conditions, everyone had warned me off trying to do too much. But curiosity got the better of me. Thus, when my friends told me that the grotto was open and they were organizing a trip, they didn't have to ask me twice.
A few days later, we set out with our families along for what was was only supposed to be a pleasant hike.
My friends recalled that the entrance to the grotto was in a valley, but given the time that had passed since their last visit, they were no longer even sure of the name—whether it was “Campo Rotondo” or “Campo Braca”. They also recalled that the entrance was an easy slope that gradually took you underground, and that the grotto then spread out horizontally to lead to an underground lake.
That wasn't really too important since the whole thing was just an excuse to spend the day with nature. A little voice had told me, however, to take along harnesses, some rope and a few steel ladders: you never knew what you might find! So we were out bright and early on a lovely spring Sunday—three family-filled cars bounding and winding up the cutbacks to lake Matese.
That's exactly where the first problems started. No one really remembered the way! Between “...maybe that road...” and “...no, it has to be that one...” we wound up on the edge of a sizable plateau, surrounded by mountains, cows, shepherds and their dogs. We asked a few questions and knew we had, indeed, arrived at “Campo Braca”.
The view was out of a fairy tale: in the morning mist the chain of peaks crowned a vast meadow in the center of which was an ancient well with a hand pump—a service station where our four-legged friends could fill up in the morning and at day's end.
We weren't really sure of anything, not even if this was the right valley, so we decided to fan out to cover as much ground as possible. The phantom entrance we were seeking seemed more and more like something out of a Celtic saga. All we needed was for Merlin to pop up before us!
The ladies and kids filtered through the central plateau, while the bold men ventured along the slopes at the base of the great natural wall that crowned the scene. There was, of course, the usual indecision on the part of some who were torn between being “bold” and going over to protect the helpless, as if they were hiking across the Mato Grosso!
It was from the “bold” group that the cry finally went up.
Hey...heeey! We found it! Come up that trail!”
Just like Pamplona. By the devil possessed they charged up towards the ridge and managed to stop just short of... falling into an enormous hole! Quite so, for unlike what those who had been here before so fondly remembered, there was no gentle slope to lead us gently down into the gentle bowels of the mountain. There was a gaping and ugly hole vaguely shaped like a funnel, three or meters across—and who knew how many deep—now standing between us and adventure.
But this isn't it!” were the first words out of the mouths of our would-be guides. At this point, it no longer mattered. As a matter of fact, the surprise had the opposite effect on me. We had found a grotto, a grand black abyss, and no one knew where the other one was, anyway. What better way to start the day?
Finally and for the first time I would be able to use my gear in a real hole, one not dug by the hands of man. It was exciting, almost better than making love... well, maybe I'm reaching a bit, but I was beside myself! We had the ropes, harnesses, ladders—I had brought some for the others. Nothing could stop us now.
I fixed the rope to a large boulder and tied it off again to a nearby tree, fixed safety knots and tossed the coil of rope into the darkness. As soon as a second line fixed to a separate boulder joined the first I would attach the shunt. Two ropes are always better than one and I felt safer. The technique of two ropes was something we used in artificial cavities. Then the ladders went in; I connected three sections, each ten meters in length. I hadn't the vaguest idea how deep the hole was, but I hoped the ladders would be long enough. I tossed in the usual stone and waited for the sound to come back to me; it said that there was at least a landing or shelf about 20 meters down. Then we would see...
The descent on the rope was, in hindsight, not the most orthodox one. In artificial shafts there is one problem that never presents itself: going down, the rope you are on doesn't bump against the sides. It might well be a 60 meter descent, but it's always perfectly vertical and the lines will either hug the wall or won't touch them at all for the entire descent. Here, the situation was different. After the first six or seven meters of sloping wall (remember I said it was a funnel?) the degree of the slope changed abruptly, first going vertical and then back to a mirror slope of the one above. It was like climbing down through an hour-glass. These changes in the degree of slope made the ropes rub against the walls in some parts; not a pretty sight to see, but as the say, “sink or swim”. At that point I wouldn't have turned back even if God Almighty, himself, had come down the rope and told me I really shouldn't be doing this. Maybe it was the new rope, maybe the wall had started to take a liking to me, or maybe it was dumb luck, but the fact that I am telling you all about it means that I made it.
Once through the bottle-neck (in a manner of speaking), I saw that the initial four-meter wide entrance had shrunk at narrowest to two meters; a look down, first, and then at my back revealed a cone-like pile of rubble in a large chamber that disappeared into the darkness. The bottom was ten meters below me, somewhat of a sphere; the surroundings did not appear to be hostile. Down we go! Ten seconds later, my feet were trying to find their balance on the crumbly, uncertain ground. Before freeing myself from the rope, I shone out a powerful light to take stock of the situation. When I saw that there no danger of sliding farther down, I unhooked the descent line and then the shunt of the second line.
(to be continued)...
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