OFD2 has to be the most extreme location I have ever attempted to photograph, physically demanding and mentally challenging, a long walk uphill with heavy kit even before one reaches the cave entrance. Ogof Ffynon Ddu is situated in the mountains near Penwyllt in the Brecon Beacons National Park and is a vast underground system that is very popular with caving enthusiasts of all experiences.
I do Facebook; I like Facebook; it keeps me in contact with various friends, old and new. I’m also in a number of groups in which I participate, some actively, some not so. One of the groups is dedicated to monochrome photography and has been set-up by a Facebook and camera-club friend and, as the title South Wales Monochrome suggests, is for posting non-colour images for appreciation and critique. I like this group, it is definitely my favourite of the photography groups of which I am a member.
Another member of this group, Barry, who was unknown to me at the time, started to post photographs which had been taken underground; I was fascinated with these and had a mad desire to attempt to tackle some myself. After commenting a few times on the photographs he had posted I casually mentioned “I wouldn’t mind having a go at this sort of photography”. Before too long a personal message from the photographer suggested I might like to visit Dinas Silica Mine – “been there, done that”, I replied and then went on to mention that friend Neil and I were considering visiting another mine in the vicinity of Dinas. A reply came back, “I can arrange for you two to visit Ogof Ffynnon Ddu if you’d like?”
And so it was that Neil and myself met up with Barry yesterday and after he had kitted us up with helmets and lamps and arranged keys and timings with the Caving Centre, we set off on the long uphill haul at Penwyllt to the entrance to the caving system. We’d hardly got out of the car-park before I slipped on a muddy slope and fell heavily, jarring myself considerably, not a good start.
The cave entrance was narrow and low through the steel, locked gate, but once inside one could stand upright and after acclimatising ourselves to the darkness set on our adventure through the passages. From the onset it was clear I had underestimated the conditions underfoot and found it fairly hard going. However, it was a new experience and I tackled it with relish thinking that once into the system I’d be taking enough photographs to satisfy myself and to record my achievement. After struggling for about twenty minutes or so we came to the difficult bit; “We’re going up there?” I enquired, all I could see was a steep rock face with a few impossibly tiny footholds, that is, if I could lift my leg high enough to reach them. Well, I did it, Barry in front, and Neil behind to give me encouragement when I struggled a bit. It didn’t end there though, then there was the narrowish passage through a boulder-strewn environment which was punishing to the ankles and feet and tested my leg muscles to the limit.
Eventually though, we reached a large cavern where we spent a lot of time taking photographs using various forms of illumination, but mostly torches and my camping lanterns. I was really out of my comfort zone, it was difficult to manoeuvre in the darkness and setting up the lighting was a trial, needing one hand free to steady myself on the very uneven surface, it was two or three trips from camera bag to positioning each shot and was also very time-consuming. This is probably the best shot I took in this part of the system and was with the canon 5D and 17-40mm lens at its widest setting, illuminated by two camping lanterns.
After about an hour, time was meaningless down there, Neil and Barry left me to go and explore another cavern; I took one look at the way into it and decided it was not for me so slowly packed away my gear before they returned, then it was back through the passage we had just come. Now I may have struggled getting into the cave but the way back out was far worse, one point where I had slid down on my bottom to gain entry I just couldn’t get back up, my strength had been sapped and my leg was trapped in between a rock and the passage face. To make matters worse there was a party trying to come through at the same time from the opposite direction and I was clearly holding up proceedings. Eventually though, after getting Neil to give me a push up I was freed and dropping back down the other side into the waterfall chamber was a breeze by comparison. This photo of me, taken by Neil Holman, is in the waterfall chamber and I’m feeling exhausted, too tired to bother getting my camera out of the bag again so I made do with taking a few shots on the compact G12 Canon camera.
Neil and Barry took a number of photos at the waterfall and then we passed through and into a cavern with stalagmites which just had to be taken, didn’t they? About thirty minutes spent here and then it was a climb back up to the entrance gate and a welcome, for me, view of daylight. Just time for the group-shot, taken on my camera by another caver from a group that had exited immediately behind us.
Will I do it again? probably not, it was a great experience but the physicality of the visit made me realise I’m no longer able to deal with this sort of adventure. Neil, on the other hand, has already arranged another visit with Barry for a caving photography expedition. I’m grateful to Barry for giving me the chance of an experience like this, without his kindness and generosity of time, I’m unlikely ever to have had an adventure such as this. Thanks also to Neil for the use of his photograph of me to use in this blog, and for helping to push me through the tighter squeezes.
More photos on my flickr site.