Gouffre de Padirac – Into The Abyss and Back Again

Guffre de PadiracI was visiting the Dordogne valley region in France with a few associates of mine earlier this year. One of the things we had decided to do was to visit what the French call the ‘Devil’s Hole’. This is a natural geological feature that is the largest of its type in the country. The official name is the ‘Gouffre de Padirac’ and in it is hidden many mysterious features and opportunity for adventure.

The village of Padirac is in the Lot department of the Midi-Pyrenees region close to Bretenoux. A long way back in the murky mists of time, a vast chunk of the local limestone terrain just collapsed leaving a large and gaping crater in the ground 33 meters across. The very depths of it were over a hundred meters below the surface and they looked dark, precarious and uninviting. What lay beneath was only explored and discovered 125 years ago. A certain Edouard-Alfred Martel along with his brave collection of followers made the descent at midday on July ninth 1889. They were determined to see for themselves what had remained secret for thousands of years. Mr. Martel was to have said ‘You have to enter fearlessly, not knowing what surprise awaits you there’. I and a group of my friends felt inspired to follow in their tracks.

Arrival at the entranceWe arrived at the cavity and stared into the abyss. The guide was there to meet us, the gate had been locked and there was no going back. Our gradual descent, initially by stairs, but largely in lifts was about to start. Our adventure began by taking a few of the Eiffel inspired steps that we would have to use before our journey was complete. After a fairly brief period of precipitous and cautious legwork, we transferred to the first of two lifts. They would take us deep into the bowels of the earth. The lift door clanged shut, the button was pressed and nothing happened. We glanced bravely at each other as the guide complained of an electrical failure of the mechanism. It was dark outside and the door was firmly resistant to attempts to open it. The guide said that this often happened. He contacted his colleague high up on the surface by telephone. A brief exchange followed, the button was pressed again and down we went, all the way to the eerie limestone and secret, Cathedral like world that lived all by itself in the deep underground.

View from the surfaceThe tour started on foot. We were led along confined and tightly fenced pathways. The natural geology consisted of towering limestone and mammoth like features. There were stalactites and stalagmites of enormous proportion. Natural water dripped onto us from the vast ceiling high above our heads. The route through the rock formations was provided with electric lighting. It would have been pitch black if the power had failed. The guide assured us that two completely separate mains supplies always powered the system. We decided not to worry. The air was damp and strangely mild. The temperature, both day and night, was always constant at 13 degrees centigrade and the humidity constant at 98 per cent.

On either side of the pathways, shallow and natural waterways were flowing. To begin with, they were about 50 centimetres deep and contained primitive life. Rare species of shrimps and snails bobbed along all around us. The limestone pillars above us were home to over 11 species of bat. Three of them were of endangered breeds and lived only in this ‘Devil’s Hole’. I felt as though I were walking on a strange and faraway planet completely divorced from any familiar human experience. After a few hundred meters, we were instructed, the journey would continue by boat.

Centre: Michael White, music criticMoored in the water close to us, there was a collection of punt like metal boats that could each seat 11 people. We all got into the same one and the guide acted as the pole operator from the back end. We proceeded vigorously further and the water got deeper. The stream turned into a lake very soon where the depth was about four meters. This was called the Lac de la Pluie or Rain Lake; a very appropriate description. By now my best blazer was getting quite damp. Very close above us we could see the great and majestic stalactite called the Grande Pendeloque or Pendent. Its nose almost touched the surface of the water in the lake and its bulk stretched to more than 60 meters way up to the ceiling above. It was an extraordinarily impressive natural feature. Its surface just dripped with natural, constantly eroding yet re-sculpturing rainfall dribble.

Further along, we came to the Great Dome. This was a cavernous space of Cathedral proportions rising to a ceiling 94 meters way above our heads. To experience such a spectacle more than 100 meters below the earth’s surface in semi darkness and damp, fetid air is a grandiose experience. I could not help but hope that the wide limestone cap so high above me would not choose this day to collapse.

Start of descentAfter a period of about an hour, our trip was approaching its end. We had travelled quite a lot of distance underground, much of it in a boat. We were being punted back towards the underground moorings. One of our friends on the visit was a distinguished music critic. As I sat next to him, he launched into a perfectly pitched and loud rendition of the Venetian ‘Cornetto’ ice cream song. It was intended to provide humour in the increasingly pallid atmosphere. He sang very loudly in a mock Italian accent. I tried to look the other way but I suspected the French guide thought us all a little mad.

I had not reacted very happily to my underground tour. I really felt as though somehow I had died. I thought it was like being in my grave, under the ground. The sullen, all enveloping and jagged rock formations had blanked any conscious contact with the familiar world still so high above me. I was not claustrophobic but I wanted to return to where my known world was. As we approached the home run, I spied a metal bust of the explorer Martel emerging from the gloomy and watery limestone. Just for a moment I thought it was Saint Peter, glaring at me, barring my passage across the pearly gates. I needed something strong and French to settle my nerves.

Bust of explorer Martel undergroundThe Gouffre de Padirac is open to visitors from the beginning of the spring holidays until late on in the autumn. It is relatively inexpensive to join a tour. Adults are charged just over 10 euros and children about seven euros. The tourist officials have organised expeditions for adults and children alike who wish to learn more about the natural features and life forms.

I personally found that my trip was a strangely profound experience. I really felt that I had briefly walked on a far off and alien planet. I felt almost as if I had experienced a foretaste of my own death and burial under the all embracing limestone structures. I was pleased to return to the real world up top. I am a mere middle aged bloke though, be rest assured that any children amongst you during your visit will simply adore it. Tell them not to forget to take their raincoats and, last year, over 430,000 visitors descended into the ‘Devil’s Hole’ and came back up again.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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