Show Caves of Belgium
The Caves of Han and Rochefort
by Anne Court
The cave of Rochefort is rather overshadowed by the fame of the cave of Han, which is a mere four miles away. However, both caves are of considerable interest in their own way, Han with the river and beautiful stalactite formations, and Rochefort with attractions which are of a more rugged and majestic nature, incorporating narrow corridors and large boulder-strewn chambers. Possibly the most memorable feature of Rochefort are the 1,100 steps traversed by the visitor, or perhaps it is the enormous "Hall of the Sabbath", the largest chamber in the cave. In this vast cavity the visitor can sit in a natural subterranean amphitheatre and watch as the guide lights the flame in a hot air balloon which slowly ascends into the roof to a height of 300 feet. Visitors to the village of Han, intending to visit the Show cave, the second largest in Europe, will perhaps be surprised at the lack of signs, indicating the entrance to the famous show place. Unlike most show caves, where one purchases a ticket at the barrier and then passes into the cave, at Han, the tickets are sold at the palacial offices of the Societe Anonyme, in the market square of Han, whilst the cave is a few miles further up the hillside.
A great clanking across the road from the offices announces the arrival of the tram, which ferries visitors to a point above the cave entrance. The trams are very picturesque, and, by British standards, more like something out of the Wild West, with the conductor leaping from coach to coach whilst the tram is in motion, to collect the fares.
The drive up the mountainside lasts about ten minutes, passing the river exit from the caves on the way. The tracks wind through quiet woodland and suddenly, as if in the middle of nowhere, the tram grinds to a halt. The passengers, who are met by the guide, alight and begin a leisurely walk down a steeply sloping path, through the woods to the cave entrance.
The entrance to the cave is very unimposing. At first glance it would appear to be only a rock shelter. It is said that in days gone by, saltpetre was extracted from the entrance chamber by the local inhabitants.
A blast of cold air hits one upon stepping through the entrance into a large passage. Several very tight passages lead off, but these, are for cavers only and not visited by the public.
Excavations were carried out in the first three chambers of the cave by Edouard de Pierpont in 1902-1904, but unfortunately most of his finds and writings were destroyed during the war. The bones of cave bear were amongst the earlier deposits, and other remains included Neolithic, Bronze Age and Belgo-Roman artifacts. Today the cave contains the usual troglobitic flora and fauna. Ferns and mosses grow in the light of electric lamps and small animals feed on the visitors' refuse and hide under the rocks and in small pools.
Descending a rocky staircase, past the narrow entrance of the Gallery of Adventures, one enters the Hall of the Beetles. This chamber takes its name from the remains of the millions of beetles which fed on the carrion left by the foxes. The next chamber is the Hall of the Foxes, where many generations of foxes lived and died. The guide speaks of it in far more romantic terms: "Here the foxes had their Council Chamber".
Passages Named After Discoverers
Many of the passages and chambers are named after the people who discovered them, and accordingly the next chamber is known as the Room of Vigneron, after the guide who discovered it in 1828. It is well decorated and contains a massive boulder ruckle which looks most unstable. During the wet weather this chamber is liable to flooding. The work of exploration in these caves never ceases, and as recently as 1962 there was a breakthrough into a new series which is already open to the public. It is obvious at once that one is entering into the new portion of the cave as the formations radiate with sparkling whiteness. The first chamber in the new series is known as the Hall of Cataclysms. In years gone by the boulder piles have shifted and consequently some of the formations have become broken and reformed into fantastic shapes.
Walking on, one enters a section of the cave known as The Forest. Here a route has been made under a veritable forest of stalagmites, thus preserving their beauty. The Forest is brought to light most realistically when viewed from the correct angle in a small pool of water. The formations become more and more lavish, one passes a tall crystalline "Waterfall" and then a most spectacular cluster of columns, averaging 16ft. in height and sparkling white. There, is a vast formation 15ft. in height called the Minaret, with a small facsimile beside it. The roof towers above and the next chamber "The Hanging Gardens" really lives up to its name, for the ceiling is draped with stalactites and stalactite curtains, their voluptuous dimensions lost in the vastness of their surroundings. The most beautiful chamber in the cave is called "The Eastern Gardens", where the rock walls are hidden under varying shapes of dripstone formations.
Now the path re-joins the old cave in the Hall of Wonders. This really consists of three chambers merged into one. The dimensions are vast and the more notable formations include The Popes Tiara, The Mosque and the Alhambra Colonnade.
Suddenly, upon turning a corner one meets the River Lesse, poetically called The Styx. It takes sixteen hours to reach this point from the swallet of Belvaux, and a further eight hours to resurge near the tram track. When the snow melts, the river has been known to rise as much as 50ft. making parts of the cave impassable.
Walking along the riverside, one enters the chamber containing The Trophy. This is the largest formation in the cave, being 15ft. high and 45ft. wide. The whole arrangement has been likened to the interior of a church, with the Trophy forming the Altar.
The party then steps from under a low arch into a vast chamber, 210ft. long. In the centre is a restaurant which can seat 500 people. Having been walking for about one hour, most people are glad of an opportunity to sit down and partake of a little light refreshment. It also gives one a chance to inspect the chamber at leisure, with the River Styx flowing silently by at one end. It is indeed a novelty to sit in comfort and be served quickly by pretty waitresses 520ft. under the earth.
Twenty minutes later the guide gathers his flock and the party passes on to the next chamber, the Cathedral Gallery, where even more surprises are in store. This is the largest hall with a ruckle of boulders against one wall stretching nearly to the roof. From the top of this boulder pile known as the Throne of Pluto, an assistant guide with a flaming torch leaps down from rock to rock. Only then does one fully appreciate the immense dimensions.
Passing on from the Cathedral Chamber, it is possible to glance down into the Embarkation Hall, and soon the party reaches this point to set out on the river for the last part of the trip.
The large, flat bottomed boats which carry about thirty people, progress in convoy down the silent river. Soon daylight begins to cast a blue haze on the water. Then comes the Piece de Resistance of this place of wonders. There is an ear-shattering roar as a cannon explodes at the entrance and the echoes boom into the distance to be replaced by a sharp twittering from above. This is made by a colony of bats hanging about 15ft. above, the water a few yards before the wide, arched water exit where the boat glides out into reality once again.
Reprinted from The Speleologist, Vol 2, No 14, Winter 1968, pp 8-9. By kind permission of the author.
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