by Steve Bellhouse
I can picture it clearly. I was sitting next to the beer barrel at the CUCC squash, talking to a gorgeous lady with long blonde hair who kept filling my glass. That was when I first heard of expo. At the time it was an enigma, a garbled mass of nonsensical phrases. "Potato hut", "Gösser" and "Wadders" were concepts completely alien to me. Now, over a year later, I know that the beautiful young lady is in fact a man called Petel, and the institution known as expo has also become clearer to me, although many mysteries still remain. This is the tale of my expo enlightenment. (How I found out Petel was a man is another, more sordid story.)
Halfway through my first term, the entire club decided it was intensely amusing to shout "Whose car am I going to expo in?" at a nice little man called Nick. Nick had been nobbled as 'Expo Leader', and this apparently made him a complete mug. What kind of sucker would volunteer for a job like that? At the time, I was blissfully unaware of the true extent of the horrific ordeal facing him, but alas no more, as this year's mug is me. The trials and tribulations of expo leadership are also another story, though.
By this time it was clear that expo would be happening and that I would be going. Easter term and exams flashed by me largely unnoticed as my life became intertwined with the whirlwind of drama, comedy and romance that is expo. A month climbing in the Alps seemed dull and uneventful as I waited impatiently for the big moment. Then it finally arrived. It was time to go to expo, and three weeks of excitement and adventure lay ahead of me, with danger lurking at every turn.
I discovered the Potato Hut a few small seconds before I discovered Gösser, the true drink of the Gods. This utopian nectar has to be disguised as fizzy Austrian lager to stop over-consumption by those unappreciative of its subtleties. I, however, was very appreciative, and I over-consumed accordingly.
Next, I discovered the expo dinner, which I had cunningly arrived just in time for. The singing of 'Wild Caver' was more raucous and less tuneful than ever before, a girl stole my heart away by eating ten chocolate puddings, and only one person had to go to hospital. I woke up next morning with a massive hangover, thinking that expo was great. Then I had to go caving.
Twenty minutes drive up a chunderous toll road, an hour's walk to top camp and another hour to the cave, all carting caving gear, left me knackered before even going caving. However, once I was there I suddenly became keen, and that first trip turned out to be the best of my expo. We whizzed down France, past the legendary free-hanging rebelay in Algeria, one more pitch, up a mud slope, bang a quick spit in, and...
...CAVE! Fat wads of stonking great new passageway in both directions. We stomped off happily, I found a pitch and got to dangle precariously and put a spit in, whilst the others did some surveying. Altogether we were underground for thirteen hours, and we got back to top camp just as the sun was coming up. Next day we headed back to base camp to drink beer and spread wild rumours about how our find would link KH to Stellerweg and make our cave one of the finest in the world. Our dreams of international fame and fortune were soon shattered by Olly's computer that showed us our sense of direction underground was about average ie. non-existent. It was still an important find, though, and I was still happy.
A few days later expo changed my life for ever, when I met Robert the Wonder Caver, a dashing Austrian policeman who caves like a demon, drinks like a fish and is quite possibly hung like a grand-national winner. No man could have a finer rôle-model. This man splits his time between heroically fighting crime on the violent, vice-filled Austrian streets, and pushing back the boundaries of human exploration in relentless subterranean sorties. The time he spends bombing round in his car whilst tanked up on Schnapps is minimal and excusable, especially as he's so hard.
More caving, more Gösser, more sunshine, more rain (oh how fondly I remember the chirpy tuneful pitter-patter of Austrian raindrops), more lies and exaggerations, expo flowed over and around me like the water in a Swildons duck. I was never entirely sure if I would survive.
Time passed and the end of expo drew inexorably closer. Everyone tried not to think about the massive piles of assorted caving shit at top camp and the cave entrance that would soon have to be brought down. People coped with the stress of the impending Carries of Doom in different ways. Some frantically ticked off Gössers in the bier book, hoping not to wake up until it was all over. Others lay on their backs on lilos on the lake, staring blankly up at the sky and murmuring "Wibble" very quietly. The car battery up there which was completely unused all expo, and the 16lb tub of syrup which had seemed like a good idea at the time, were not going to walk down the hill on their own. I discovered the problems of owning a rucksack which was widely regarded as infinite, but slowly, surely, the end drew near. The bubbling metropolis of top camp became a simple field once more, and Kaninchenhöhle was allowed to sleep. She's not a beautiful cave, a little tiresome at times and slightly muddy in places, but we all love her and she deserves her rest. Expo was over.
The gear fitted in the car for the journey home, then we remembered that I had to fit in somewhere as well. Hours passed in a half waking nightmare of sleeping bags and radio equipment falling from the sky, and finally I arrived home. Next year I shall return a hardened veteran, and novices will gaze at me in awe and wonder, and I won't reveal to them the tale of my past, when I too first tried to make sense of the CUCC annual expedition. I now know the secret. You don't try to understand it. You just go there and do it.