Helen Rider on the Ressels shallow route.

IT WAS 35°C WHEN WE LEFT THE SURFACE; here my computer reads 14° - a lovely temperature for any Brit. But this is not the attraction.
We assemble at the foot of the entrance slope and what opens before us at 14m depth is a well-sculpted, oval tunnel leading away to the limit of our lights. The Fontaine de Truffe is a gem of a site, a shallow, clean-washed tunnel that meanders gracefully.
I have dived it several times, and while it may not be long or deep (140m or so before you normally have to get out of the water briefly to reach the next flooded section), it is exquisite.
There is next to no silt to disturb, and the outward journey is almost as clear as the dive in. I look back ready to snatch that next photo, and Helens exhalation, illuminated by others following behind, mushrooms into the water like giant glistening blobs of expanding mercury. There is a distinct magic in this place.
Later we sit on the veranda. The night air is warm, the glasses full. Weve had a great day, and along the trestle-table the conversation flows as easily as the wine.
This isnt the Red Sea, Florida or the Caribbean, but it is unbelievably relaxing. Its mid-June in Rocamadour in the south of France, and for a Brit its as good as it gets. No queasy stomachs, no biting insects, no jet-lag - no hassle.
I take a few snaps and reflect. Along the length of this table sits the complete spectrum of the diving world.
Brits, Belgians and French, male and female, young and old, tekkie and novice, wives and girlfriends, all are clearly relishing something special. Its not an unusual event - this is another days end, a chance to swap tales and plan new adventures.
I have been here a few times over the years. Like the world at large, this place and the people I meet have changed.
As a student I passed through here in the 70s. With its vast expanse of limestone and impressive scenery it was, even then, a renowned area at the very forefront of underwater endeavour.
The famous springs hereabouts tempted and tantalised Cousteau, Guy de Lavour and other foremost practitioners of the day. This is an area riddled with spectacular caves, with deep flooded tunnels beckoning the most intrepid. So what has changed
In the 40s, 50s and 60s, the underwater caves of the Dordogne and Lot were places only for the most experienced. The Fontaine de St George and the famous Chartreuse Spring at Cahors were seemingly beyond the abilities of the Brits. They were too deep or too long, or both. The feats undertaken in these golden days of diving inspired some of the stories in my book The Darkness Beckons. Today the events are still unfolding.
At this table sits Rick Stanton, one of the worlds foremost cave-divers. He is that rare being who blends effortlessly the qualities of the caver with under-water activity. Others now set their sights in his wake.
Just a week earlier, this quiet man made yet another landmark exploration; this time at the Oeil de la Doue. With partner John Volanthen, rebreathers, scooters and a weeks hard graft, a further 500m of line was eventually laid, finally to emerge from the water in yet another section of virgin cave.
Few will ever reach this extremely remote place. Today, again, Rick has accomplished yet another unexplored dive, in a cave known as the Briance.
Yesterday I photographed him as he trialled his latest acquisition, a long-range scooter with one previous owner - the erstwhile leading cave-diver from Switzerland, Olivier Isler.
Lying astride this monstrous machine, Rick quietly emerged from the Ressel at 6pm, equipped with his two rebreathers. There was no pomp or ceremony. Few of the other divers on site knew who he was or what he had just done.
Way beyond the normal boundaries of diving, Rick had just been for a day trip to the far side of Sump One. What a far cry this was from the adventure that he and his then partner, Jason Mallinson, undertook here in 1999.
The British pair had been the first to get out of the water and explore beyond this extremely long, deep sump. Another sump here proved no barrier, and the pair eventually pushed on to
a terminal blockage more than 3km from the entrance, achieving what had long been considered impossible.
Working on a shoestring budget, their exploration had been cutting-edge in every way. Using open-circuit equipment and a vast array of stage cylinders, they had been forced to camp beyond the long dive.
In the most Spartan of conditions, in an atmosphere high in CO2, where their simple gas stove would barely function, they had roughed it for two nights before emerging victorious. From that point forward, Stanton set his sights on cave after cave, progressing way beyond the limit set by French explorers.
As I document this current landmark at the Ressel with a few photographs, a German, equipped with the most lavish array of hardware, strides over to enquire about Ricks scooter.
It is more ballistic missile than dive equipment, and in motion leaves the sort of wake a RIB might leave. Even split in half, it requires two people to carry each section. Once his question is answered, the German diver rushes off for his notebook to get an autograph!
We laugh. Passing Sump One will be the next goal for the tekkies, says Rick. For me there are many more kilometres of undiscovered cave in this area waiting to be found. Each time I visit leads to further ideas of new caves to investigate and hopefully explore in the future.
For the tekkies, always looking for something new, this place is perhaps the very best in Europe. Judging by the popularity of places such as the Ressel, Landenouze and St George, word is out.
Finns and Scandinavians, for example, are driving here in fewer than 24 hours, while for Brits (Paris aside), it takes eight hours from the French ports.
From May to October the cave conditions are as reliable as one might wish for, and with gas-filling stations and accommodation to meet all needs, this area takes some beating.
Six years ago, the sight of a rebreather in these caves was rare; now it is commonplace. Rick is helped from the water while the German team begin their evening dive. A team of Finns, all sporting Inspirations, has just set off. This place is busy!
Where the pioneers lead, others will inevitably follow. To Ricks left at the table sits a young Belgian, Jim Warny. This 23-year-old is not a typical tekkie, but another quiet man driven by technological advance.
Clearly dedicated, calm and composed, he represents the next generation. With a normal state-of-the-art scooter and a pair of French custom-built rebreathers, Jim also aspires to the frontier. Unlike me, and several others here this evening, Jim has age on his side, plus all the knowledge, equipment and expertise that his predecessors have generated.
The caves in the Lot provide a perfect training ground for all my future diving because of their easy access, he says.
Opposite Jim sits Frenchman Nadir Lasson, of similar age. Nadir was not diving when we first met six years ago.
Now he too is eager to keep abreast of developments and has made his mark on the exploratory frontier. I muse on how Rick and his partners are making such a huge mark on French territory.
At the other end of the scale, Christine Grosart is on her first visit. Equipped with a pair of 12-litre cylinders, she has had a fabulous time. I have 92 dives logged to date, so I was at about the right stage of training to be able to do some quality dives and clock up some depth and time under water, she tells me.
As a caver, its hard to resist the lure of underwater passages, especially in the stunning visibility the Dordogne generally provides. Emergence de Ressel was a classic dive to the 440 corner, at 47m depth. Nearly half a kilometre from home, with picturesque, deep shafts to glide down, it was a fabulous experience.
Conditions in the Lot and Dordogne are so much better than any Ive seen in the UK. At first sight the resurgence pools look a bit cloudy and grim, so the change to clear water at depth is startling. The Ressel is a classic example. The warm, murky river changes dramatically to a chilly, clear and impressive cave entrance.
I feel privileged to be able to dive such a famous site, says Christine. I feel Ive started cave diving at just the right time. So many sites, often the best, are being closed for insurance and other reasons.
I went out to France hoping to dive everything I could in the two weeks. My best dive was perhaps the Trou Madame, where I did my first kilometre dive to the halfway point of Sump 6. The geology was fantastic, but it was a long swim!
Clive Westlake has been Christines trainer. I come from a caving background and take some persuading to go what I call resurgence-flopping but the quality of the underwater scenery and the overall diving experience soon overcomes such doubts.
One or two of the sites, such as the Emergence Temporaire de Cregols and Trou Madame, see less traffic than the Ressel, maybe because they need a modest effort to access with equipment, or to carry it between sumps, he says, but I find the efforts amply rewarded with inspirational diving in memorable scenery.
Im not sold on technology, which I see as a means to an end, and my end is essentially aesthetic. So I dive open- circuit, with an occasional gesture to mixed gas, and in the company of resolute and valued friends this takes me to places some way beyond the power of words. Ive yet to be convinced that a rebreather would take me anywhere better.
Fine - but what about the aprÃs-dive The preferred wine of the region is supposed to be Cahors, but somehow we seem to find ourselves refuelling with Provence Rose, served several degrees colder than recommended, but never in such quantities as to compromise the next days diving! says Clive.
As an all-round tourist destination, the Lot and Dordogne has always been popular. For cavern and cave-diving, things are just beginning here. And for Europe, this is as good as it gets.

  • The Cave Diving Centre at St Chamarand in Lot offers accommodation in gites (one double/two bunk-beds or one double/four bunk-beds, kitchen, toilet and shower) with meals as required. Full-board costs 270 euros a week. It also supplies technical gases and rental dive gear and has a well-equipped shop. Cavern- and cave-diving courses can be arranged (0033 565 317748, www.cdclot.com). Gas fills are also available from Andre Grimal in Gramat (Grimal.andre@tiscali. fr). For deep background read The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr (Baton Wickes, 2000, www.farrworld.co.uk)

  • Helen
    Helen Rider and Jim Lister at the entrance pool to the Truffe sump.
    left side from front: Nadir Lasson, Charles Reid-Henry, Jim Lister, Jon Beale, Neil Rushton and Rachel. Hobbs. On the right are Jim Warney, Rick Stanton, Christine Grosart, John Taylor, Helen Rider and Clive Westlake.
    Helen Rider in Truffe sump one.
    Fairytale scene at the Fontaine de la Pescalerie. The site was once a mill.
    Belgian diver Jim Warny - driven by technological advance.
    In the Truffe sump one.
    Now thats what we call a scooter - it belongs to Rick Stanton.
    The Cele valley and the entrance to the Ressel (near the parked cars).