Canyoning in Sardinia

Sunday 21st: Reconnaissance

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ [canyoning] gods

King Lear Act 4, scene 1, 32–37

We had grand plans to do the Gole Gorroppu, a huge deep canyon that cuts through a ridge of limestone and allows the Riu Flumineddu to escape to the sea. Although not a long canyon, it is difficult to hike to the top from the bottom (the aforementioned limestone ridge gets in the way) so we decided to do it as a shuttle. We knew the road to the top of the canyon would be poor, but we wanted to try it out anyway – four of the mostly highly rated canyons (Oribisi, Donini, Flumineddu and Gorroppu) all started near the same point, so we wanted to do the drive at some point.

The day started cold and misty. It was a long drive already by the time we turned off the main road between Dorgali and Urzulei and onto a deteriorating track. The first section, where the cliff drops sharply to the south, was at least relatively well paved and with a high crash barrier. After this is got much worse.

I haven’t driven much on dirt tracks, so it took me a while to gain any confidence. Both cars crept slowly along (the Renault Clio is not known for its high clearance) and we made it to Campos Bargios, a small farm/hut before we paused to take stock of the situation. Given how long it had taken us to drive already, we’d need at least another two hours to set up the shuttle, and maybe three to sort everything out at the end. No way were we getting through Gorroppu before darkness.

Sea daffodils were everywhere, with huge flowers.

Still, we were almost there now, so why not scout out the rest of the road and the approaches and exits to the canyon? We arrived at a little parking place at the end of a long, narrow road paved with fragments of limestone, and set off towards the bottom of the canyon. Some lovely Italian ladies stopped us to patiently explain that the yew tree they were photographing looked like a musical organ. Better informed, we continued on and down into the Flumineddu/Orbisi valley.

Jack, Susan and Kevin climb down to the slimy pool at the bottom of Cordula Orbisi.

We followed a cairned path to the right which lead us along and then steeply down to the base of Orbisi. Using Alex’s binoculars, we scouted out the bolts, and the two possible routes down, above and below ground. We then went to find the bottom of Grotta Donini, the underground route which parallels Cordula Orbisi.

A pitcher plant growing between the rocks of the canyon.

It’s a wild and weird place, with lots of exciting fauna and flora. It’s a bit of a rough drive to get there, but well worth a visit. The drive back was much less intimidating, and with the help of some excellent Italian radio we made it home at a reasonable time. Susan made the most incredible baked dakos.

From the next day: the canyon finishes in the Flumineddu gorge, which is stunning – look at all the banding of the rock! Just lovely.

Monday 22nd: Cordula Orbisi

More photos

So now we knew where to go and how to get there, and it was time to tackle our first proper canyon of the trip: Cordula Orbisi. This is a mostly dry canyon with some stagnant pools and then a choice between an overground section or a short cave section, which the guidebook says is “not to be missed under any circumstances”. Well, what can you do when confronted with a statement like that? You go underground.

The drive felt much easier today, and we were soon at the parking spot, changing. Another group of canyoners showed up, claiming to be doing Donini, but then wandered off in the wrong direction. We saw them much later on, so presumably they eventually found the way.

Rhys at the first abseil. Note the beautiful setup releasable traverse on his right (I did that. Me.).

We strode down the dry canyon, past the entrance to Grotta Donini and then through increasingly large boulders to the first pitch. The bolts themselves were well out over the drop, but there was some backup bolts. After some quick consultation we tried to assemble a half remembered removable traverse line, passing the rope through the bolts and attaching it to the harness then rigging the descender on the other side. At the pitch head, we attached the rope to the pitch bolts on both sides, making a doubled up traverse line and rigged the pitch.

The water is kinda brown, but everyone is still smiling.

The pool at the bottom was stagnant and required chest deep immersion. Lovely. Another short pitch rigged by Rhys and we arrived at the Piscina Urtaddala, a huge natural ampitheatre with a massive lake at the bottom. Well, we were committed now, and the only way was down. So I tried to show no fear as a I rigged another releasable traverse along a narrow ledge with a 35 m drop (that’s more than ten floors) below.

Susan prepares to descend 35 m into the Piscina Urtaddala. Rhys waits, almost invisible at the bottom, on the far side of the lake. It’s a huge space (“une vaste porche”).

Suitably convinced by my unwarranted bravado, the others plunged down the rope. Fools. All that was left was for me to derig. I sincerely dislike being the last person down. You can see all your friends safe and happy, if slightly impatient, at the bottom, as you check and recheck your kit, well aware that no one is near enough to spot any mistakes. Because of all of this I didn’t really have time to appreciate the rappel into the vast space below, but I am assured by everyone else that it’s just stunning.

Kevin on the abseil. The rope goes down another 10 m below the others. Rhys has rigged the rope tight so you don’t have to descend and ascend. It was unclear whether this actually helped, but it was sure was fun to listen to from the top.

We could escape the canyon here, but we pressed on through the chaos of boulders until we reached a couple of short, dry rappels. One had an escape cairn built at the bottom of it, but the next one landed in a huge pool (stagnant, of course) and Rhys had to climb up the in situ tat to escape. So scarred was he by this experience that he tied the end of the pitch rope in and the followers abseiled down and swung across.

Mr Jack coming down the dry abseil with the climb up at the bottom.

Mr Jack was derigging the pitch, and headed down confidently. At the bottom he had two ropes in his hands. Unfortunately, he let go of the wrong one. It swung away, dangling temptingly over the smelly pool. I tried a forlorn tug on the other end, but clearly this was the pitch rope and not the pull rope. After rigging something stupid, trying to descend and ending up thoroughly hung up, I eventually made it to the bottom, waded through the pool and retrieved the rope. We shouted down to Kevin who had enthusiastically done the next abseil and was now very cold at the bottom.

The next pitch gets properly wet. After pulling the rope, Alex and Rhys swim through the deep pool. The rift is hading at an angle of about 20 degrees from vertical.

We abseiled into the long, deep pool to join him and swam to the other side. It was very cold. Here, under the Grand Arch, we had a choice – the surface route, or the cave. Well, the guide book did say that “the hypogeous section is not to be missed under any circumstances” so we did not miss it.

Took a while to get the flash working, but this is quite a nice photo for all that effort!

The cave was wet, deep and spectacular. Although some people got quite cold waiting for me to photograph it, I think everyone agreed it was worthwhile, and it made the sweet abseil into the sunshine all the more welcome. Mr Jack went first, and soon after came up the immortal words that were to haunt him for the rest of the trip. “I’m stuck in a tree. I’m so embarrassed”. So he was, and so he was. Overcoming both he made it to the bottom, having learned some valuable lessons. If it seems like I’m being too rude to Mr Jack here, I will point out this was his second canyon ever and he had just derigged and lead two long and difficult pitches, so he does deserve a lot of credit.

Canyoners getting ready for a group photo (this short is much better than the group photo itself!)

We gathered for a group photo, and then headed out along the route we had scouted the day before. Along the way we encountered some semi wild cows and a distinctly wild looking bunch of pigs, who excitedly crossed our path at high speed.

We came across a family of wildish pigs as we left the canyon. Does anyone farm them? Are they simply free?

The road out of the car park was by this time slick with rain, and it turns out wet limestone is a poor surface. Slightly shaken, but unharmed, we managed to get the cars up and out. We returned home for Alex’s famous gnocchi with mushroom sauce, which the rest of us defiled with Gorgonzola, as is our tradition.

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