When I began my time at Oxford, I saw myself punting down the Isis in glorious sunshine, playing croquet while enjoying Pimm’s on immaculate lawns, and, of course, whiling away hours in grandiose libraries. What I didn’t picture was spending two or three weekends a term grubbing around in dark wet holes wearing what is best described as a heavy-duty boiler suit. No, student debts haven’t reduced me to sewage maintenance work (yet): I’ve taken up caving.
Not being a particularly co-ordinated person, sports were not high on my list of priorities at the Fresher’s Fair. Nonetheless, when a guy wearing a helmet and headlamp brandishing pictures of stalactites and subterranean waterfalls and waxing lyrical on the “underground adventure playground” that is a cave, I got hooked. My first weekend with Oxford University Caving Club (OUCC) was a trip to South Wales at the end of second week. We gathered at the caving hut, each decked out with a bizarre combination of equipment (wellies, washing up gloves, a fleece onesie, a heavy-duty onesie, a belt, etc) and piled into a minibus to go.
The caves were epic: in one sense vast but with miniscule squeezes you had to wriggle on your belly to get through, full of steep climbs with jagged footholds you could just about stick your foot on, and littered with boulder strewn passages where scrambling on knees or sliding on bums was required to make progress. Beautiful rock formations, seen by fewer than a hundred people in the world ever, clung to the walls and thunderous waterfalls crashed past your ears.
Yes, caving is mostly dark, sometimes a bit tight, usually cold and wet, not at all competitive, and often leaves you spending a lot of time staring at the butt of the guy in front, but it’s also incredibly exciting. It’s not to most people’s taste and in fact most people shudder at the thought of launching themselves into a small damp hole, but for me, every cave is an adventure. Underground is one of the few frontiers on Earth that still has potential for exploration, and it blows my mind that every year cavers stumble across cathedral-sized caverns, bottomless shafts, and fossilised passages previously unseen by any man.
Caving is an unusual sport, but for unusual people like me, it’s perfect.I’ve done the punting, the croquet, even a little work, and I do love it all, but caving is the one thing I can’t imagine university life without. While not what I looked for at Fresher’s Fair, I’m glad I found caving, because ironically for a sport which mostly involves going down, it gives me a high I can’t find anywhere else.