Initial discovery: Nicholas Shum
Reconnaissance and set-up: Steve Waters and Barry Hankey
Descent Team: Nicholas Shum, Barry Hankey, Ejaz Shinwarri
Given that Symi, the ‘Hot Rock’, is made of limestone, there are few caves in comparison to limestone areas in the UK. The main difference is that there is little surface waterflow except in flood conditions, so caves on Symi tend to be ‘fault’ caves, created by seismic movement. Water seeps through the rock leaving calcite deposits but does not ‘cut’ the cave. I have visited a few.
In May 2014 I posted a blog about exploring a cave which a friend had first visited 20 years before.
I have no idea how many had been inside the cave but that people knew about it was clear – rubbish from name-day festivals at the nearby monastery had been thrown down it. Access was simple as it sloped down at about 45o. It was a fairly tight and unstable passage but it didn’t go down very far before it was blocked by fallen rocks. However, as long as you ignored the ecclesiastical rubbish it was great to see the colours and shapes of stalactites and calcite flows.
Then towards the end of June 2019 I took some friends on a walk from Nanou back to the ridge and Horio, spending time on the way to explore the larger Skordhalos Cave marked on the SkaÏ map. It’s a simple walk-in. Climbing up the rock at the back shows no sign of any passages.
A couple of years ago Nicholas stumbled across, but thankfully not into, another cave at the other end of the island. I went to look at it with him at the end of September 2019. It was a vertical drop of indeterminate length and overhanging on all sides. No way into it without much more kit. Potentially a lot more exciting than either of the other two.
Then Covid lockdown got in the way.
Early summer this year I returned to the island with a climbing rope and gear. Steve, a caving friend from home, came to stay in May, bringing a load of caving gear. and we set about the task. With a borrowed cordless hammer drill, we fixed an eye-bolt at the top in the most convenient place for the job. Sadly, Steve fractured his ankle on the path on the way back to the car – so the exploration planned for a couple of days later was deferred.
Early October and everything came together a few days before I was due to return home, having run up against the buffer of my 90 Brexit days. Steve was still crocked, fracture compounded by damaged ligaments/tendons and was stuck in the UK, so the team was me, Nicholas and Ejaz.
We parked the car at a hairpin in The Tarmac and humped the heavy gear in rucksacks up between the rocky mountain-top outcrops of Methystis and Dhafni. We made ‘base camp’ on level ground in the trees where we could sort out the gear and kit-up.
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The approach to the cave is a steep climb up the crag over what is known by geomorphologists in Arizona as ‘tear-pants limestone’: it’s very sharp! There is nowhere at the edge of the cave to lay things out without danger of losing stuff down cracks and gaps in the rocks, hence the need for base camp. Partly chosen for this reason, the rock we had set the eyebolt to abseil from was relatively smooth, so no danger of fraying the rope over the edge. I’m a climber, so averse to abseiling unless absolutely necessary because of the danger from stones dislodged, therefore a bit of ‘cleaning’ was needed.
Caving-rope clipped in to the eyebolt with a screwgate carabiner, we abseiled in using ‘Figures of 8’, one of the earliest belay devices and the simplest with which to abseil. Getting over the lip of the overhang was a bit if a wriggle but from then in it was an easy drop into the void before arriving on terra-firma about 10 metres below.
The floor of the cave was sloping downwards, unstable with a mixture of loose soil and stones green with algae. The second rope we had set as back-up anchored with climbing ‘protection’ devices (a large ‘hex’ and a MOAC) on the opposite side of the entrance hole had landed at exactly the same spot as the abseil rope – the entrance was not central over the cave but very much to one side. The rectangular opening was high above.
The floor sloped downwards towards a high, narrow cleft to which we carefully made our way down and into.
That led to another small but even higher chamber with no opening at the top or visible in the sides.
The cleft continued downwards and onwards but very narrow and becoming narrower. It looked as if became too tight within a short distance and, slim as I am, it didn’t tempt us to go any further. There was no ‘draughting’ to indicate it is other than a dead-end.
The floor had no sign of calcite deposits, let alone stalagmites, but was entirely soil and loose stones. Our guess was that material had been gradually falling in, probably since its inception, so calcite, which takes centuries if not millennia to accrete, would not have developed. It may be that the cave originally went much deeper but was partly blocked by fallen rocks and that loose deposits had built up and blocked it.
However, the walls of the cave were another matter altogether. They were covered completely in multi-coloured calcite formations. Much of it looked like coral but with patches of smooth calcite flows and a few stalactites.
Some was at the edge of cracks and crevices, shadows providing contrast.
There were multicoloured calcite deposits like artists’ mixing palletes on blank walls, some smooth, others textured like mixed oil paints.
Some calcite deposits looked organic rather than mineral. Some were like button mushrooms. One, looking like a gnarled and leathery webbed foot, had a cricket-like creature on it.
The Hot Rock is a harsh environment for animals, with sheep and goat carcases, skeletons and individual bones all over the island. We expected to find some at the bottom of the cave, having fallen in and unable to climb out. Surprisingly there were none, perhaps testament to the difficulty of access to the opening. A single leg bone was all we found, white and desiccated. My guess is that an eagle or raven had dropped it.
We did, however find spiders’ webs hanging down in the main chamber. In the darkest part of the cave were what looked like crickets with antennae three times the length of their bodies, probably an adaptation to living in darkness.
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Being in the cave, knowing that almost certainly we were the first to be there, was deeply moving. With the limited camera capability we had, we took photo after photo, using helmet-torches rather than flash. Not all the photos in this blog post are mine and I’m not claiming credit for them so have indicated which were taken by Nicholas and Ejaz.
Eventually it was time to make our exit. Easier said than done as it involved prusiking back up the rope, which proved to be not without its challenges. But, as Alexander the Great said (in Greek rather than English), “Life is only made worthwhile by challenge”.
At the entrance we cleared the gear and coiled the ropes almost in silence, carried it back to base camp, packed rucksacks, and trekked to the car, brains buzzing. A truly great day.
We plan to return next year with a better idea of how to access and exit the cave, with better cameras and lighting, and will measure and record its dimensions.