Up and at ’em, bright and early so we can get to Le Gouffre de Padirac early so we can arrive when it opens. We can beat the crowds that way!

We plug in the address into HereWeGo and make sure it is the right location BEFORE we leave, and then jump in the car to go. The car has a super sensitive sensor for the seatbelts. It doesn’t let you move a millimeter before it goes off if someone, yes anyone in the front or back, is not wearing their seatbelt. The sound has a reverberation to it so it sounds like it is outside and everyone can hear it. “Hey everyone, look at that family! They aren’t wearing their seatbelts!”. Haha.

The roads are packed with geriatric cyclists, most of whom are rightfully wearing high visibility gear, but no helmets (that makes no sense on the narrow windy streets of France). And the streets are winding, and only wide enough to fit two compact cars side by side.

So you can imagine that early in the morning, with cyclists on the road, confused tourists like us, and people trying to get to work all on the road at the same time it is bound to be a challenging drive. Anyways, after white knuckling it the whole way, Deb gets us there safe and sound. There is no line and the lady I spoke to on the phone yesterday was working at the ticket office. Today is already better than yesterday!

When these caves were discovered it was a major tourist attraction, without the lineups or regulations they have now. It was more like “You want to see them? Here is a rope and a candle. Check in when you get back”

Wilson was very nervous about going down into the cave and so are Deb and Lulu. Lulu has already said she wasn’t doing the boat ride as is Deb. And Wilson was torn about coming out of the cave or let me go down by myself. I told him that I didn’t mind because I would be taking pictures and wandering around soaking it all in.

And so some people climbed down the once narrow hole to the bottom

But over time the erosion of water and snow over the thin lid that covered the hole caused it to collapse revealing a 35m wide hole that they had to climb down and now they could lower boats down into so they could navigate and map out the river and cave system.

 

Then it was all candles and paddling after that!

Step-by-step, we all climbed down down the stairs to the bottom of La Gouffre 1ere Etage where there lay the mound of rubble and debris that collapsed many years ago.  Looking up, it was evident that we were pretty far down underground, and the stairs ahead of us showed us that we had further to go.

We descended the second flight of stairs to take us to where the river boats were waiting for us and take us down the 20km long subterranean river. We would only be taking 1km of it as there were a number of portage’s that we would have to do along the way.  Plus, there weren’t any guides to take us further.  Oh well, hop in an inner tube and head off?  Probably not the smartest thing to do…

This is a map of the underground river system that they mapped out when the caves were discovered. It stretches between the communities that lie above them on the sunny side of the world.

When we got to the boats, Wilson said he would come with me, and to my surprise Lulu went as well and that meant Deb had to go too.  The 1km ride down the river was interesting and they gave a lot of interesting facts like:

  • The cavern existed as far back as the 3rd centrury, and actually inhabited people during the 15th and 16th centuries to mine it for potassium nitrate
  • The first of tourists visited the caves in 1898, of which there were 6000 visitors in the first year.  Now there are over 480,000 people who visit every year.
  • The first part of the chasm to the pile of debris is 75m deep, with an eventual depth of 103m.
  • There are a couple of legends that surround La Gouffre:
    • Among the most entrenched of them, the story of flames coming out of the Chasm to defend a treasure hidden by the English at the end of the Hundred Years’ War saw the support of many Lotoises.
    • Another legend is that Satan formed the chasm by stomping his foot into the ground as a way of inviting Saint Martin to jump across the abyss on a donkey to protect against the souls of the damned local peasants he was about to lead to hell … A terrible barter that drove St Martin, guided by his faith, to spur his donkey on (which might have been like Donkey in Shrek… “I’m not jumpin’ no hole for no fire breathin’ monster!”, but alas it made him commit the feat of jumping over the chasm! This prodigious leap, it is said, has the footprint of the donkey’s hoof in the rock, still visible today.  We didn’t see it.  After the donkey lanked, the Satan, vanquished and vexed, disappeared in the depths of the Gouffre

We had a pleasant fact filled ride down the river, but once we got through the dark underground river to the place where you disembark from the boats, Lauchlyn and Deb turned around to go back up to where the sun is shining.

This was one of the portage’s that we would have had to make. Kind of like going over the falls at Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean but no pirates. Or cotton candy. Or Mickey.

Wilson and I then spent the next hour and a half exploring the underground caves which were simply incredible.  The photos don’t capture the three dimensional enormity of these caves.  The first one below is looking straight up from the bottom to the top of the cavern 75m above us.  There was only 8m of stone/dirt between the ceiling and the sunshine.

If anybody ever goes to France they should make the effort to go see this underground natural wonder. It was simply spectacular, and really very well lit and not super enclosed which migh make you feel claustrophopbic.

This formation is called the stack of plates. It sits at the side of a body wood water they call Lac Superieur. One of our favourite lakes back home with amazing rock formations as well in the Agawa region in Ontario!

Some of the stalagmites coming down from the ceiling were over 60 m long and they jutted out into the middle of the underground river, so we had to move around it with our boat.

This massive stalagtite comes down like a sharks tooth from 60m above to the level of the river and the boats have to navigate around it.

There were several incredible rock formations throughout the cave as well as underground lakes, one of which was called Lake superior. The water was as crystal clear as Lake superior is back home.

Wilson was super brave and enjoyed the whole experience and he said that this helped him overcome his fear of being in caves and enclosed spaces.  Awesome opportunity for personal growth for him, and for all of us individually and as a family for that matter.

We reached the bottom of the first descent again where lay the mound of earth that collapse in many years ago. On top of it sits a statue of an angel and there are a lot of ferns and other flora that cover the mound which makes an incredible subterranean garden. Plus, there are no deer down here to destroy it. Haha.

The kids worked on a YouTube video blog to document the adventure as a school project. Take a look and leave them some comments…

After we went back up to the surface, we had a nice little stop in the park which had a playground for the kids to burn off some energy as well as a food stand to buy some overpriced hamburgers but they were pretty good so we didn’t mind.

We knew that we were headed out to the next day so we made our way back to the apartment to pack things up, have “mustgo” for dinner and have a little bit of a relaxing evening before heading out on our next adventure tomorrow to see our good friend Bruno, whom I sat beside on the first leg of our journey from Toronto to Paris. We are really looking forward to seeing him and his wife again.