In April 2001 while most people were banned from going caving due to the outbreak of Foot and Mouth 6 members of Westminster Spelaeological Group and 1 person from the Wessex Caving Club flew out to Havana to continue the exploration of the Sierra Derrumbada in the Pindar Del Rio province in Western Cuba with the Martel Group. This time of year was chosen, as it is the end of the dry season so water levels are low and the temperature is on average about 29 Celsius. One of the changes from the earlier expeditions was that the WSG had to apply for a scientific visa to explore the area as it was now a National Park .We also had 200m of 9 mm static rope and other vertical equipment thanks to the Ghar Parau Foundation. The aim of the expedition was to continue the exploration of the vertical entrances discovered in 1999. So with two weeks to go before the main body of the expedition arrived Bob Wilkins flew out to Havana to make all the last minute arrangements such as getting food and transport. On arrival in the immigration hall of the airport Bob was searched and his GPS and maps of the caves were discovered. These were all confiscated as a danger to national security and permission for the spelaeological expedition was withdrawn by the military. So as the main group flew out from Paris we still did not know for certain if we had permission to go caving and we faced the prospect of a long delay in Havana or just touristing the Santa Tomas System outside of the National Park. Luckily for us one of our Cuban contacts, Antonio Castineyra persuaded the authorities that we would not use GPS, and that we were just cavers. Heading off from Havana in a small people carrier type taxi crammed with people and gear, we at last had an expedition if only a day late. En route we called into a military base to pick up the essential piece of paper our permit.
The first aim of the expedition was Cueva Titanic which had been left at nearly - 150m and been pushed in 1999 on a shoestring approach. This time we hoped that masses of equipment would get us deeper. The route up to the cave consisted of a heavy slog up and down severe grade scrambles on razor sharp karren for over two hours through enclosed valleys or hoyos full of coffee trees, vines and orchids. Once in a while we would stop and pick some fruit from the trees or off the ground. To avoid the worst of the heat the expedition was having alpine starts so the walk would be when the temperature was in the low twenties. The Titanic shaft opens out into a chamber full of bats; dropping down the shaft onto a deep pile of guano at least guaranteed a soft if unpleasant landing. From the chamber there were ways to both to the left and the right. Evelio Balado, Martell Linsdell, Angel "Coco" Miranda, and Tim Wright descended the right hand shaft which had been left untouched in 1999. This lead bottomed out in a mud-choked chamber with a stal gate, The Gateway to Nowhere, and there seemed no obvious way on.
Meanwhile David Cooke, Simon Froude, and Martin Mc Gowan had rigged the cave to the bottom to find an intimidating vertical squeeze with a howling draught coming from it. Unfortunately the team had ran out of time, as we had planned to be out by four in the afternoon in case there was any rain plus we still had a two hour walk down. So returning the next day with Martell Martin and Cookie pushed the squeeze, while Simon took some photographs. Despite being slim Martin had to remove his helmet just to squirm and wiggle his way through the downhill Z bend. He could feel the darkness opening up around him, then he touched water, "A sump?". Pushing on he landed waist deep in water and once his light had been fed down to him on a line, he could see a passage heading off into the hill. As Cookie came down Martin pushed the passage to a stal blockage with a freezing draught coming out of a 15cm high crawl closing down to minimal airspace, but even the Mendip caver turned away from this challenge. So like two trapped lobsters they tried to clamber back up the squeeze, sending up the SRT kits on the rope and pushing their lights in front of them. After nearly forty minutes of thructhing and contorting of limbs the first person was out the 2 m climb. Throughout this whole time one repressed any thoughts about the repercussions of being trapped at -150m in the middle of nowhere. Overall the howling draught was due to the low water level and the bottom of the cave has the feeling that it is normally sumped. Titanic was dead.
The other cave from the previous expedition was Cueva Alfredo. This was over 3 hours from the campsite, although only a mere 400m from the campsite, so it had received minimal attention. The first assault was by Martin and Tim, who decided to spend the night on top under mosquito nets so an early start could be made. As they were spending a night away from the camp they had to have written permission in case some one reported an the fact that mad English and Irish potholers were aimlessly wandering around the mogote, so on the back of a piece of cardboard the details of our plan was written out. Hopefully they don't shoot first and ask questions later. Palms and Thermarests made a luxury bed while the jungle's night chorus of tree frogs, cricket and other crawling forms of life started. In the morning they were woken by wild pigs snuffling and rooting around in the undergrowth. Soon after they were joined by Coco who had rushed in a mere 45 minutes compared to the 3 hours it taken Tim & Martin to slog up, heading down the cascades towards Alfredo. Despite the lack of a common language between the team apart from a few words of caving Spanish the group pushed the cave to just above a third pitch. The main problem was time, so leaving the One Step Beyond Pitch for the others, they headed back for a beer. On the return route Coco shown them an alternative shorter route which involved swinging on precariously perched creaking trees, hacking down anything that stood in the way, once even pushing over a finely balanced boulder into the jungle below and traversing on fine ledges over the top of the Hoyo de los Platanos.
The following day it was decided to attack the problem from both the top and the bottom, Elisa Bernal, Martell, and Bob went into Chiquita to see where a possible connection could come in whilst Cookie, Simon and Coco continued to push Alfredo, leaving Martin and Tim to survey the discoveries they had made the previous day. While they were surveying it soon became clear that Alfredo was doing it best not to connect with Chiquita near the Classroom as the cave doubled back on itself after the first pitch heading East when we wanted it to head West. So when Tim and Martin reached the bottom of the third pitch all they could see was 3 SRT kits sitting on a rock, the cave was like the Marie Celeste. Despite shouting, hollering and crawling into many a nook and cranny no contact was made with the other teams. All there was were these strange fluffy white mould stalactite formations surrounding the rotting flood debris that was dripping with glistening globules of a deep amber liquid. So running very low on light both decided to head out the known exit instead of continuing the search for the 'elusive' lower exit.
Whilst the main group were tackling the top entrance the valley based group ambled over to the Chiquita entrance, and soon reached the Classroom. Just after this chamber Bob noticed an inlet, previously overlooked because it was heading down. It was assumed that it was a drain for the flow between China and Chiquita. The three of them pushed this sandy hands and knees crawl until they came to a point where the sand nearly blocked the tube. A quick bit of digging by, Elisa, Martell, and Bob got them past the dry bend of the sump and up into a long hand and knees crawl. They just arrived at the bottom of a pitch as Cookie, Simon, and Coco was rigging a descent. It was perfect timing. So they all exited for a beer, although they did leave some in the cave for the two surveyors. Unfortunately by the time the surveyors had arrived back in camp by the hacking and trashing through the jungle on the overland route the team had got a bit concerned so sent Cookie and Simon back into the cave to have a look for them. Eventually as darkness fell everyone was reunited, and the empty beer bottles had been taken out of the cave. That night we gorged on the pig that had been prepared by Hermogenes and Leonardo, a true feast of beer, meat, deep-fried malanga and potato chips.
Once Alfredo was derigged the expedition's attention in earnest turned to pushing surface sites looking for new leads for the next expedition. Chiquita also got a bit of attention since we previous missed or paid very little attention to some area of the cave due to them being very small. So late on the penultimate evening Bob and Martin went to check out a small tube off the unprincipled crawl that Bob had found. Going through the crawl it was discovered that the duck from 1999 expedition was just a muddy depression. Into the chambers we went down a sandy hands and knees passage which soon turned into a ferret hole of a crawl. At the crux squeeze hypodermic needles formations and a sharp dogleg prevented the taller member of the team from going on. Heading back they noted an alternative route over the top, although still tight it was smooth. The last day saw some surveying of the large chambers, noting some ways on at the top if you wanted dodgy climbing, but more importantly a bolting hammer was applied to the squeeze. Once it been opened up enough Tim, Martin, and Cookie pushed through, unfortunately Evelio had to admit defeat as he was too tall to bend his legs round the corner. Up a few climbs, over and under some false floor, and they had wandered into a new chamber. There the trio sat for the compulsory photograph, with massive Cheshire Cat grins. Beyond the first chamber was another, which was a massive lead for the next expedition.
Throughout expeditions WSG has been building up a picture of the geology of the area. The two major resurgences, Chiquita and Grande, are formed along an East to West axis. These caves are formed in limestone which is horizontally bedded. Both of the East - West passages have and old high level fossil series and an active stream or river level. The sump of Cueva Grande has been pushed and no way on has been found. Whilst Cueva Alfredo and China are of a different nature, they have no formations which is not surprising considering they are at the bottom of two large enclosed valleys. The China entrance was blocked in 1999 and 2001 by trees, while in 1997 there was a log wedged in the roof of the exit crawl. This shows that in the wet season these caves take a significant flow of water, but also a large amount of sand and organic material. Unfortunately there is not a constant flow so when the water table drops in the dry season the passages become blocked with sand. This will mean that future expeditions are going to have to dig their way through the connections. Interestingly the last find in the Chiquita was a large chamber which showed signs of secondary and tertiary deposits. False floors had been laid down only for a trench to be carve through the deposited material. So this part of the cave is quite unlike either China or Alfredo. There is also the problem of where did the water come from, as the China and Alfredo canyons are only a few hundred metres apart and no one, not even the local, knew of a hoyo between the two entrances which funnel the flow into another entrance.
Overall the geology of this particular section of the mogote presents itself as four distinct bands extending from south-west to north-east. To the south-east is an area of igneous and metamorphic rocks which acts as the collector for the various streams. The remaining three bands are all limestone. Progressing from the south-east the second band is characterised by gently descending streambeds. When you reach the third band of steeply bedded limestone (60-700) the streams abruptly descend cascades into steeply descending canyon-like hoyos or ploje. The only cave found so far on the boundary of the second and third band is Cueva Titanic. It rapidly descend to nearly -150m and then goes horizontal before stal growth blocks the passage. The horizontal distance between Titanic and the edge of the mogote is about 200m with about a 10m height difference. The streams sink into caves at the lower end of these hoyos, where the fourth band of horizontally bedded limestone is reached. This final band extends to the edge of the mogote. It also seems to be increasing in thickness eastward across the mogote as Cueva China is 38m above the Chiquita entrance, while Alfredo is 72m above the entrance and the highest point in the Chiquita nearly 100m above the valley.
Heading back to Havana was not an easy task. There was saying goodbye to Alfredo and his family, who have always helped WSG over all the years that they have being going to Pan De Azcur, so with group pictures, coffee, farewells all over with Bob finally headed off in the jeep whilst the rest waited for the taxi to turn up. They waited, and waited, thinking it will come. Two weeks in Cuba had taught most people to have a "Maņana Maņana" attitude, but after a long lunch there was still no sign of a taxi coming up the dust track. Slowly a small cloud of dust appears behind the houses and a heavy thud of an old diesel engine could be heard. Down the track turned this old blue American truck, with Antonio sitting in it. Quickly the gear was piled into the back and we gave it a push start, as it had no starter motor. Standing in the back was like being a turkey in a basting tray, the Sun was merciless, but there was amazing view of the mogote with several very visible cave entrances. Of course most were untouched as the Cubans did not have the resources at the moment to mount an expedition. In Viņales we found the replacement taxi waiting for us. The other thing to enliven the trip to Havana was the taxi driver's standard of driving. Just outside of Havana we had our first drop of rain. Within seconds we were aquaplaning over the motorway on a torrent of water and spray was coming up to the tops of the windows. Never the less our driver kept his foot firmly on the accelerator hitting the horn when he wanted to overtake some Soviet or American banger wandering down the motorway. In Havana we decided to forgo the pleasure of the Hotel Florida and stayed in a Casa Particular (a private house). We had all the basics and you could get a really good breakfast in the Hotel Inglaterra. That night we danced to the salsa beat, drank cocktails, and enjoyed the delights of the Cuban nightlife at the Arab Union or the Oasis.