The train from Roma Termini only took an hour to reach Terracina, a town situated on the coast between Rome and Naples. The climb up to the cave started at the base of the small mountain that slopes upwards from the town. One of the beautiful things about living in Rome is that these short expeditions are entirely possible. The fares are cheap (e6 to get to Terracina), and the trains normally run on time. The air was fresh and the stress and noise of the city already felt a million kilometres away.

This particular cave is horizontal and small, so there was no need to bring ropes or any climbing equipment, just a helmet with a light, and some fairly warm clothes. Marco De Antonis of Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) is an expert in the caves and has undertaken explorations in Italy, Yugoslavia and Mexico. He has been a member of the Gruppo Speleologico (G.S.) of Rome for over eight years and has discovered previously unexplored areas, been to depths of 690 m and once, during an exploration, stayed in a cave for over 30 hours. De Antonis is also on the rescue team for Rome; in case of an emergency in the caves, the team is dispatched quickly to the scene. He speaks about the caves and mountains with respect and enthusiasm.

When I am inside the mountain I dont think of anything but the cave, it takes away all the normal everyday stress. It is the closest I have ever come to feeling part of nature and not just an observer. He went on to say that there are around 10,000 caves in Italy both big and small. The biggest is Corchia, in the Apuan Alps in Tuscany. It is actually an empty mountain, with many different galleries and wells. Caves can be deep, shallow, horizontal or vertical; all are unique. There are caves all over the world and De Antonis says that in the future he would like to begin exploring in India and also to see the Mammoth Cave in the United States, which is 300 km long and the biggest in the world.

Although certainly not the Mammoth Cave, this little grotto was beautiful, even to the untrained eye. There were giant stalagmites and stalactites that joined each other to form ancient pillars in the centre of the cavern. There were baby stalactites dotting the ceiling which glistened in the glow from the helmets. Strange crystal formations hung off the walls, bright white and twinkling. Two bats fluttered about sleepily for a few seconds. There was absolute silence inside, not one tiny sound from the outside world could be heard. It was like being on another planet, or walking through the backdrop of a fairytale. Even the air changed. If this is one of the least impressive, what extraordinary caves there must be out there.

The Rome G.S runs courses for newcomers to the caving world for e50 (in addition to the CAI membership which is also e50). The course includes six theory lessons on consecutive Friday nights (at the G.S. base in Testaccio) and four practice expeditions on Sundays with one two-day expedition at the end. The price covers the lessons, insurance, instruction on the expeditions, and also the use of equipment. The course is run in Italian, so a reasonable command of the language is necessary. What might seem at first a claustrophobic and lonely activity, is in fact just the opposite. After the course, there is the opportunity to attend weekly G.S. gatherings. These are usually weekend expeditions, both day and overnight trips. Caving can be dangerous if not performed with knowledge and care. It is certainly not for tourists and should not be attempted alone, but in groups with at least one experienced person present. De Antonis says the golden rule is that when an expedition sets out, others must always know where it is heading, and a club member should always stay above ground for safety reasons.

There is a course running at the moment and the groups enthusiasm for it is catching. For the members of G.S., caving is a passion and like De Antonis, they hope more people will get to know and love the underground world as they do.

Caving adds a whole new dimension to the countryside. So next time you are out of Rome and walking in the mountains, just think that what looks like a big badger hole to the inexperienced eye, may well be the entrance to a cave stretching the entirety of the mountain you are standing on.

For information about CAI in Rome see www.cairoma.it.

For information about G.S. caving courses in Rome email, deanoc76@hotmail.com