Friday, November 13, 2009

Gouffre de Padirac

The Gouffre de Padirac (Padirac Chasm) is a navigable underground river in the Lot départment, east of the Dordogne.  It begins at the bottom of a a 75-metre deep sinkhole, a huge cylindrical shaft which was once a cave before the ceiling fell in eons ago to leave a massive lightwell almost half its height across.  Three separate lifts and a scaffolding of metal stairs have been built against the walls to reach the floor of the chasm.

It was drizzling on the drive there.  It had been raining for days, so we were carrying umbrellas and rain jackets.  By the time we parked the car the rain stopped , but Mai Li asked if we should bring the umbrellas.

"Pff," I mocked. "We're going underground. It doesn't rain underground."

Indeed it does.

After wending us through corridors of limestone on a subterranean passage of water coloured jade with silt, our guide moored the flat-bottomed boat and led us up the corkscrewing ballroom stairway of the enormous Grand Dôme.  Water fell more heavily than the showers outside from the nearly 100-metre ceiling into the Lac de la Pluie, the Lake of Rain, below us, soaking us on the way down.

The 60-metre tall stalactite called the Grande Pendoloque, the Great Pendant, dips down to just two metres above the surface of the lake.  Limestone formations congealed over millennia on the cavern’s tiers look genuinely organic, like broad mushrooms or a Chinese Juniper bonsai, and in the pools that collect on the cascading plateaux smooth natural weirs form, curving so artistically that we debated over whether it was man-made.

The cave complex is vast.  Two journeys by boat, long passages by foot and hundreds of stairs represent only a tiny fraction which is open to the public.

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