Jan 292010
Photo by Dave Bunnell of a caver traversing a ...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve never really understood the attraction of intentionally putting yourself into a damp, cold, dark place to defy death in pursuit of fun and discovery.

Call me boring, but I can get all the damp, cold and dark that I’m likely to need in a lifetime on a typical winter’s day down in West Cork. The prospect of gearing up from head-to-toe in an array of protective clobber, donning a headlamp and descending into the bowels of the earth for the privilege doesn’t exactly fill me with glee. But it does some people, evidently… like the members of the Speleological Union of Ireland (SUI), or cavers to you and me. These are people who routinely give up their weekends to go pottering about underground… voluntarily… for enjoyment.

On their very impressive website (www.caving.ie) they court potential recruits with this enticing opening gambit:

Caving is the exploration of natural underground spaces. It is an adventure sport with inherent risks; many caves are cold or wet or muddy, or all three.

Sorry, you haven’t managed to grab me there… try again.

Technically potholes are caves that include vertical drops and therefore require the use of ropes and or ladders…

Nope… sorry, still not really getting it.

Potholing, then, is a more dangerous, more uncomfortable, and even less appealing branch of the "adventure-sport" more widely known as caving, and involves the use of climbing gear to descend (and, presumably ascend again, all being well) into gaping holes in the earth, in the dark. Sounds lovely.

Luckily for the Cork members of the Speleological Union of Ireland, who probably get excited about such things, there are now a multitude of fresh pot-holes for them to explore, they need look no further than some of the county’s main roads. Some of the chasms that have appeared in them over the last couple of weeks are big enough to swallow several Land Rovers whole… in fact they probably already have. We encountered some pretty spectacular ones on our recent trip back from Scotland. Taking the entire drive from home to the Scottish Highlands and back again into account, including all the the snow, ice, rain, wind and temperatures that (in Scotland at least) plummeted to a numbing -20C, the scariest road conditions we faced were on the N71 westbound as we headed for home. Negotiating the potholes in the dark was terrifying.

The deterioration of the road surfaces in West Cork (and probably elsewhere around the county) is nothing short of a disgrace. The county council and the national roads authority can bleat all they want about the flooding, the big freeze, global warming and whatever other excuses they care to come up with, but all any of those things have done is highlight the underlying problem. The truth is that conditions in other places are much, much worse than they ever get in West Cork — rural Scotland is a prime example… more snow, lower temperatures, and at least as much rainfall as we ever get here, and yet their roads remain pristine. Why? Proper construction, proper maintenance and no cutting corners, that’s why.

Yes we’ve had appalling weather conditions, but the roads didn’t disintegrate because of the bad weather… they disintegrated because they were poorly laid and poorly maintained. For that I lay the blame firmly at the doors of the National Roads Authority (for National routes, like the aforementioned N71), and Cork County Council. In a county where "fixing" the road involves a man walking behind a council truck and chucking a shovel full of loose tarmac into any potholes he sees what do they expect to happen when conditions deteriorate. They don’t, of course… because they never think that far ahead!  We pay ludicrously high motor tax in this country for the privilege of driving on the worst roads I’ve encountered anywhere in Europe. When is that going to change? Judging from current fiasco I certainly won’t be holding my breath.

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