Yesterday we visited an incredible cave – Gouffre de Padirac. We descended into an open pit, walked through a tunnel filled with stalactites, and then took a small boat along a subterranean river. We had heard of underground rivers but never imagined crystal-clear water in enormous, vaulted chambers. The ceiling of the Grand Dome in Padirac is over 300 ft above an underground lake, due to erosion over millions of years.
Padirac was first explored in 1898 with rope ladders and a collapsible canvas boat called the “Crocodile”, which once capsized and plunged the explorers into total darkness in the depths of the cave. Luckily one match survived which allowed them to light a candle and find their way out. We were glad to go on a tour and see the cave illuminated with electric light – a tourist attraction in itself when it was installed in 1900. The early explorers could not see the height of the chambers with their lanterns so they raised a small paper balloon on a string to measure the height of the Grand Dome. They also used dye to map the river; it is now known that it flows underground for 20 km before joining the Dordogne River.
Before we left Les Eyzies we had another stunning cave experience only a few kilometres from home: historic sites have reopened after the lockdown and we finally saw the prehistoric etchings and paintings in the caves of Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume. Group size was limited to 4 people due to Covid so it was just our family and our friend, Agnès, who had previously worked in the caves and is passionate about prehistory. We felt incredibly lucky to have a “private” tour.
The term “Cro-Magnon” comes from a location just down the road from us (by Hôtel Le Cro-Magnon!) where Homo sapiens skeletons were discovered during the construction of the railroad. The Cro-Magnon people in the area lived in rock shelters (open cliff overhangs) but they painted and carved the walls of many immense caves. The caves go back thousands of feet – it is amazing to think of people crawling and wiggling through low, narrow tunnels with only early animal-fat oil lamps and yet they still managed to etch and paint the deepest parts.
When we visited Combarelles, we looked at the walls and saw nothing but scratches. Then the guide traced a shape with a light, and suddenly an etched animal leapt out at us. The etchings in Combarelles and the paintings in Font-de-Gaume show mammoths, cave bears, woolly rhinos, reindeer, horses, bison, and even lions (can you see the lion to the left?) – we found it incredible to think of these animals living in France. We could see the contours of muscles, shading of fur, animal expressions, etc. – incredibly life-like and detailed though they were made about 11,000 to 17,000 years ago. The shape of the walls was used to make the animals more 3D and, in some cases, as a trick of the flickering light, they appeared to move…we saw a reindeer running!
Amazing experiences, and incredible caves, which gave us a glimpse of the scale of geological time and human history.