Popular opinion places Daren Cilau at the head of the list of things to experience only once, but popular opinion is not always right.
The reason for Daren Cilau’s dark reputation is that it is hard work. The lengthy entrance passage requires sustained crawling and sidling through restricted spaces for close to an hour if you are average – less if you are remarkable but a good deal longer if you are not on top form. Getting out again would weigh on your mind in any cave, but in Daren Cilau the going continues to be exhausting. Things start all right with a stomp along a big passage, where the only issue is that it is rather a long way. Then come more squeezes and crawls, a climb up a twenty metre ladder followed soon after by a descent of twenty metres involving two strenuous climbs aided by knotted ropes, and an hour or two staggering through slippery boulders. You will not be reaching the far confines of the cave, because to do so takes so long that it is usual to camp underground for at least one night, but wherever you decide to turn back, you have to repeat all the boulder hopping, climbing, and crawling until you finally surface. Since it is almost always dark by the time you do that, you may not easily be convinced that you really are out.
So what draws GOC Caving Group back to Daren Cilau, which we visited again on 3rd October? For a start, the big passages that you find really are big and impressive. The route through the boulders in the passage called the Time Machine is now marked with reflective catseyes and seeing them fading into the distance you realise how long it is. Then there are the formations. They are sparse in Daren Cilau but the ones that are there are remarkable. In Bonsai Passage, for example, you find groups of helictites looking just like miniature trees. Rather less sparse are extensive patches of selenite crystals shining white in the light of your lamp. On our recent trip we made an erroneous turn on the way out and found ourselves in Crystal Oxbow, with colourful flowstone on the walls and floor. But perhaps the strongest reason for returning is the pleasure and satisfaction in dealing with the physical and navigational challenges to reach some of the remotest spots in Britain.
Sunday dawned gloriously sunny and we set off on one of those short walks that gets longer as the day develops, just because you really do not want it to end. We dallied to eat quantities of wild blackberries, remarkably sweet wild damsons, and an occasional sour sloe. We stopped to admire a field of happy free-range hens, who galloped over to admire us. We lunched in Abergavenny and strolled back beside the river to our campsite.
Yes, we were tired and bruised from the caving, but some of us were planning another visit to Daren Cilau even as we drove home.