Updated: Feb 16, 2020
View from 50m depth in the Gourneyras. Image: Joe Hesketh
“You said it was only 5 minutes from the road! Again!” they wailed. Well, it is if you don’t mind a bit of downhill scree-skiing and aren’t carrying a twinset……and stages…..and deco gasses…and drysuits…..and camera gear….
The Gourney-Ras is a stunning site in the Viz gorge. A crystal clear river flows down the impressive valley, cascading over waterfalls and invites canoeists and swimmers to take on the mild rapids and plunge pools.
It is about 30 minutes from the campsite to get to the start of the track, which is perched high up in the midst of the hairpin bends of the cliff. An iron gate (usually open) marks the start of the track. It is only just doable with a van and a small car may struggle a little – ground clearance is helpful. It is slow progress. A sheer drop on the river side of this narrow track makes for some bum-clenching driving and although it is only a few kilometers to the parking spot, it takes another 30 minutes.
Oz and Joe have already gone off me at this stage as my version of ‘only 5 minutes’ is not the same as theirs, so I prefer to tell them very little and allow them an element of surprise and adventure!
I’ve visited the Gourney-Ras once before in 2002, but had never dived it and it was long overdue. The path is mainly scree, which slides off down the very steep slope as you tread on it and the first thing you are faced with is a steep clamber over rock slabs. We tied a rope to a tree and set off down the path using it as a hand-line. Elaine started rigging the next bit and shortly we had a rope pretty much all the way to the water’s edge. The steep descent through the tall trees opened up into a large cirque, with a green and stagnant looking resurgence pool at the foot of the cliffs. The massive boulders in the river bed mark the path the flooding cave takes down to the river Viz, which was flowing noisily by a few hundred yards away.
Tiny fish, pond skaters, huge and colourful dragonflies, butterflies and the occasional snake adorn this neck of the woods. It is a tranquil and pleasant place to be.
It is hot though. Sweat pours down your face and into your eyes and doesn’t let up as you plod up and down, up and down the steep hill, hauling on the hand-line as you go to ferry diving equipment to the sump pool. T-shirts are soaked with sweat within minutes and we get grubbier and bloodier as we go, trees and bushes cutting at your legs, grazes forming as you slip or catch a shin on a rock and mosquitoes and flies enjoy feasting on any bit of you that you can’t swat…..
This is resurgence-flopping Herault style!
Once at the water’s edge, we watched Elaine and Duncan set off into the pool with a pair of 7s each. The Gourney-Ras goes deep quickly, but the best view in the house is reported to be from just down the slope. 7 litre cylinders are fine to get just that view, but we wanted to go further into the 50m section to see the impressive passage beyond the daylight zone.
We kitted up and Oz and Joe set off ahead of us with the video camera. We followed a short while afterwards and dropped our decompression gases off. We continued down-slope at a just off-vertical angle and soon reached 50m depth where we approached a left hand sweeping bend with a white cobbled floor.
We saw Oz and Joe’s light beams swinging towards us around the bend and Oz swam towards me, giving me a slow and exaggerated double ‘OK’ sign over and over….Assuming this was because he’d had such a great dive, we swam on and down the largest cave passage I think I have ever seen. Something in Florida such as Manattee springs may be comparable, but the cave was so dark I couldn’t reach the walls with my torch. Here, the white limestone reflects light brilliantly and there is an azure blue tint to the water which looks to be sparkling in the light.
We dived somewhere between 150m and 200m along the 50m section which was still ongoing at that depth and showed no sign of dropping off deeper yet. We’d planned on a 60m dive but that depth wasn’t achievable with the gas we had so we thumbed it on gas and swam back steadily to the corner.
I was plodding along in my own little dream-world when Rich flashed his light. I looked at him and he pointed at me to look up. I craned my neck back and looked up the slope to see the best view I have ever seen underwater. In the distance above us, was an electric blue shape of the entrance towering above us, with the silhouettes of Oz and Joe decompressing in the middle of it, their torches like pin-pricks of light. I couldn’t take my eyes off it and we had a steady ascent, enjoying the view as we went. I realised then what it was that made Oz give his display of appreciation.
Oz swims down the huge tunnel in the Gourneyras. Image: Joe Hesketh
We had minimal decompression but we almost doubled our stops for several reasons. The effort and amount of sweating involved with getting to and from the sump inevitably leads to divers sweating out more than they can replace, so dehydration is a real issue. The cave is at altitude and the water is only 11 degrees. There is no immediate help and the nearest chamber is 4 hours away. The cave is pretty remote and a bent diver would be disastrous because of access issues, so we were extremely careful. We carry a full ventilation, airway, oxygen and fluid kit with us on trips like this.
We waited some time before attempting to carry gear back up the hill to the vans. This is very much mind over matter as it’s unavoidable that it will be hard physically. You just have to keep going and eventually we got all our gear out as dusk fell.