Canyoning in Sardinia

Saturday 27th: Grotta Donini

More photos

Our final day of canyoning, and it was the canyon many of us had been waiting for. Because this canyon is a really a cave: Grotta (Luigi) Donini. Susan and Kevin decided to stay in Cala Gonone so that Susan could get some more of her diving certification done, so we were just four in a single car driving the very familiar road to the parking lot.

Knowing that there were many cavers in Urzulei just down the road, we set off quite early, but still not early enough. We tailed a Sardinian cave rescue vehicle down the road, vaguely wondering if a rescue was already in progress. Before we could get to the usual parking place, we were halted by the increasingly ubiquitous green clad Sardinian foresters, who were casually burning some twigs to justify their existence. Using a combination of their complete lack of English and our complete lack of Italian, we negotiated that we would park here and walk the final 2 km on foot. Fortunately after only a few hundred metres a landrover lurched to a halt and we all jumped in the back for a ride to a very busy parking spot.

We saw another group changing and rushed to beat them into the cave. We did not need to hurry. When we arrived, one old lad was slowly putting on his wetsuit. By the time we left, fully changed, he was still struggling to get into it. Clearly the wetsuits shrink just as badly as the caving suits after the owner has had a few pies.

Alex perched on a gour pool. These ones are quite deep!

We knew the way by now, and were quickly down the pre-rigged pitch. After a few low grovelly bits, we came to some well decorated gour pools, which we had to crawl over to make progress. They were really stunning, and an early indication that this was going to be a great trip.

Mr jack stands still enough to be photo composited. This is the big pitch down to the master streamway.

After a few of these, we came to a big split pitch down into the main streamway. A rebelay, eh? A bit tricky on a pirana, where hard locking isn’t too easy. Rhys went down first, and talked Alex through it (presumably Mr Jack was fine). The group of older cavers caught up with us whilst I waited at the top and I had a nice chat with one, who knew some British cavers and had been to Meghalaya. I messed up the rebelay in the fine style and only just managed to save myself by brute upper body strength.

In the master streamway. I love this photo, it captures the cave so well.

The main streamway was deep and cold. Many sections required you to swim for a long time, without anywhere to stop and stand. We all responded in different ways – Rhys seemed calm and in control, Alex sang a lot of Flanders and Swann, Mr Jack thrashed desperately forwards in short bursts and I was at the back, trying to swim slowly and calmly but finding it all a bit tough with a big bag of rope.

Mr Jack watches Alex abseil down into the streamway where Rhys paddles.

After a while of swimming the river dropped away through some boulders and we had to go find it via an abseil. This lead through another mess of boulders (evocatively called a “chaos” in French) to the Salle Grande, or big room for those who are not cog-knee-chen-tea of the French language. This was indeed a big room, though it was not as spectacular as some other areas of this cave so we did not pause for long. At this point Alex decided to remove his glasses due to condensation, and sadly they were crushed in his SRT bag, leaving him slightly less able to see. This became apparent when we encountered the bloated, almost spherical corpse of a bat floating in the water – Alex saw it first and decided it couldn’t be that, but closer inspection showed it very much was. RIP bat ur wid da angels now.

Rhys and Jack swim into the sunshine.

After a bit more swimming we encounter a group of cavers heading up a fixed rope out of the upper exit to the cave. They try to talk to Rhys in Italian. Rhys responds “Inglese?”. They sigh heavily, bitterly disappointed at Rhys. They ask if we have the rope for the 55 m abseil. We do! They are surprised at how prepared we are. We are too.

Well, it’s a jump for some! Mr Jack demonstrates excellent technique.

We swim a bit further into the sunshine, to a 3 m pitch above a deep pool. Well, clearly this is a jump. We all head down, Alex wisely abseiling and meet a nice Italian caver who is waiting for the rest of her group to go down. Turns out she was in Bacu sa Figu the day after us, and she can’t believe we walked up. We swell with pride, but then shrink somewhat in the chilly draft blowing up from below.

Looking out into daylight. That’s the top of the 55m pitch. The only obstacle left is a 3m pitch. Or is it a jump?

Finally it’s our turn to go down. Rhys generously offers to derig, as I have ended up derigging all the big pitches on this trip through chance. Fine by me, it’s freezing up here. There are two pieces of tat rigged around a boulder wedged above the pitch head. I pick the one with the visible core. It’s a long way down. The rope doesn’t want to get thrown clear, so I resolve to sort that out once I get down there.

Did I mention it’s a long way down? It is. The rope gets caught round a rock and twangs free with an impressive amount of noise when I’m about 20 m down. I briefly consider that the rope has failed and I’m about to plummet, but fortunately I am wrong. The rest of the abseil is uneventful, though managing rope rub on such a pitch requires impressive aerial acrobatics. 55 m – that’s an 18 storey building for reference. It’s a long way.

Alex near the bottom of the 55 m abseil oiut of the cave. you can trace the orange rope all the way up to the cave entrance – it’s a long way!

Alex comes down, and has the same rope twang. Mr Jack comes down with the same result. Rhys impressively avoids it and glides down smoothly. Bastard. We traverse round to Orbisi, and follow the path back up to the parking place. Along the way we run into a full blown festival, with incredible “canto a tenore” Sardinian folk singing and a bar. Some guys in Sardinian Cave Rescue jackets come over for a chat, ask where we’ve been, and explain that there are over fifty cavers in Donini right now! The boss looks very worried.

No ride back to our car this time, and it’s quite a long walk. But eventually we get there, change and drive smoothly back home. Kevin and Susan are done, Susan having got her certificate, and we get some ice cream. What a lovely day!

Sunday 28th: Bue Marino

Only a few more photos

Our final day in Sardinia. Sad. But we found a way to cheer ourselves up – a cave! Susan and Kevin did all the leg work and booked us on a boat to a show cave called Grotto Bue Marino, the cave of the sea lions. We cleaned the house and left before ten, and ran down to the habour to catch our boat.

Pulling into Bue Marino, Cala Gonone visible in shadow across the bay.

It was a glorious sunny day and the boat ride was excellent. After about twenty minutes we glid/glided/glode into the habour of the cave, and walked along a walk way to the entrance. No photography was allowed inside, so allow me to paint a picture in your mind using the power of the written word.

The entrance to the show cave, before we got to the no cameras sign.

It’s a really good show cave. About 1 km long, the path follows a river deep into the cliff. The sea comes so far into the cave before the fresh river water takes over. The cave is tastefully lit with warm white lighting, which is sparse to cast wonderful shadows. The space is very large, and the formations are excellent – it’s easily possible to get the dreaded “stal-poisoning” (see so many stalagmites that you get sick of them) within ten minutes. The guide was informative and had lots of good stories, and the tour was a good length. I was pleasantly surprised.

Heading back, the incredibly popular Cala Luna in the background and lots of enticing sea caves along the cliffs.

On the way back, Rhys got utterly soaked when our boat started kicking up a load of spray in the strong Mistral wind. We grabbed some gelato and a pizza, then drove back to Olbia for our flight home.


Sardinia is an excellent place to visit, and April is a good time to go. We didn’t do much hiking, other than what it took to get to the canyons, but it was clear there was loads of trails around. The canyons were varied – I could’ve done without the ones with stagnant water (Cordula Orbisi) even though some of them were stunning. The highlights were clearly Badde Pentumas, for its dry but awesome scale, Bacu sa Figu for approximating a proper wet Alpine canyon, but with the twist of the gloriously warm pink granite, and Grotta Donini for being a stunning cave with an excellent final abseil. The rest I would not go back to.

Canyoning frog hopped around Mr Jack for a bit before deciding to chill out here.

Which leaves a bit of a dilemma, because there aren’t many canyons left in the guidebook that I actually want to do. There are a few more books which cover a few more canyons, so they might be worth looking at. What’s clear from talking to Rhys and Mr Jack is that the quality of the caving is also very high, and so combining the two sports may be a good way to find enough stuff to do for a week.

As for what we did right and wrong. We probably stayed too far north. Cala Gonone was great, but we drove south every day, and the extra 15 minutes of hairpins up the cliff every day wasn’t really that much fun when tired. Urzulei is a far better location, though it is harder to find accommodation there. I would also consider paying more for a car with better clearance, because some of the roads are really quite bad, and the canyons always seem to be a the end of these. Other than that, it was a great week!

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