Francesco Sauro is a modern day cave man, a daring speleologist who is never happier than when he’s deep underground exploring a new cave system. Francesco spoke to Euronews Explorers about his passion for the dark underbelly of planet Earth, and his upcoming expeditions to Brazil and Venezuela.
This summer Francesco Sauro is busy getting ready to explore the caves of the Serro do Aracà, one of the Tepui ‘table-top’ mountains that are scattered across Venezuela and Brazil, and in so doing he will be setting foot in places that no human has ever been before. The expedition begins with a reconnaissance mission in November in which he and his team from the Italian Association La Venta and Brazilian caving club Bambuì will fly by helicopter over the Aracà, taking photographs and gathering information. Then “we decide which entrances are the most interesting, and then we will put camps on the mountain”.
The meticulous planning is because this is true exploration. “Nobody has explored the high plateau of the mountain. The indigenous people have never been there, so the only way to get there is by helicopter. The caves are a completely new environment,” Sauro tells Euronews.
However, even the best explorers can only plan so much when there’s a limited amount of information on offer. There are no detailed maps of the Aracà, a 300 square kilometer plateau, which the locals call the ‘house of the Gods’. Those documents that do exist were made from satellite images, which aren’t perfectly clear: “Like all the Tepuis there is a lot of cloud coverage, so the satellite images have 60% clouds,” he says.
Creatures of the dark
So what will Sauro see on this expedition? “Around the plateau it’s heavily forested, while on the top it’s less forested because it’s high, around 1,800 metres,” he explains. “There are a lot of carnivorous plants, with swamps, and peat bogs.”
It sounds like an environment from a Lord of the Rings movie, and that’s before you start to go underground. Sauro really doesn’t know what he and his 15-strong team are likely to find at Aracà. His only comparison are five previous expeditions to other Tepuis in Venezuela: “There we found mostly insects, like water crickets specialized in cave life, to live in the dark, you find scorpions adapted to live in the dark, and we found a type of blind fish, a community that had probably been in there for hundreds of thousands of years.” One of the ugliest and largest critters they’re likely to encounter are scolopendras, a type of centipede that can grow up to 50 centimeters long and can give a very painful bite.
The Tepuis are made from sedimentary layers of quartzite, “It’s very hard, low solubility, it’s a very old landscape, it’s about 1.6 billion years old, so it’s one of the oldest rocks on Earth,” Sauro says. “Those are very beautiful caves, with the pinkish quartzite sculptured by water surrounded by crystal clear pools.”
“It’s dangerous, for two main reasons,” says Sauro. “To reach the plateau you have to use helicopters, and it’s not easy to fly on those areas because of the clouds, it’s foggy almost all the time. The second issue is that you stay there for two or three weeks, and nobody can come and rescue you there, so you need to have a very good logistics, you need everything with you. Then if something happens in the cave, a rock could fall, there could be a flood, or a bite from a scorpion, and you have to manage the emergency there.”
Most of the team from Italy and Brazil are well trained in mountain rescue, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel fear entering an unexplored environment. “When you explore a cave in Europe you mainly know what you will find, in the Tepuis it is new, the rocks are different, the biology is different, so of course when you enter you are a bit scared,” Sauro tells Euronews.
“We won’t find dinosaurs or aliens, but you have bacterial communities which are not yet studied, and you don’t know if they are dangerous, if there could be some dangerous fungi for example.”
Sauro’s skill in exploring the underworld has earned him several high profile backers – he is a recipient of a Rolex Award for Enterprise, and he assists the European Space Agency in training astronauts. The CAVES expeditions, which were initially proposed by Loredana Bessone, a speleologist at ESA, involve the young spacemen and spacewomen setting off into unexplored caves in Sardinia. “Cave exploration is a good analogue to space exploration, you have real safety protocols and logistics issues,” says Sauro. The astronauts have to push deep underground, map and document where they are going. “They follow a schedule, all the procedures, and experiments, just like a space mission. The cave is a real environment, and it can be really dangerous, so it’s a real mission, not a simulation,” Sauro stresses.
Sauro’s motivations for exploring caves are in many ways analogous to space exploration too. “The most fascinating thing for me is that those caves are very ancient, so actually millions and millions of years old, so they are a witness of the past, and entering into this environment which is untouched for millions of years, and all the information which was captured by the cave is still there, it’s like a gigantic library where you can find information about your ancestors, about life in the past,” he says.
Sauro was selected from 1,800 applicants for the Rolex awards, aimed at helping under-30s who want to improve the well-being of the community and environment, or advance scientific knowledge. Here are is a list of the 2014 laureates:
Neeti Kailas, 28, India – aims to vastly increase screening of newborn babies for hearing loss, through an inexpensive, easy-to-use device, and to set up an associated network of health-care professionals in India who can diagnose or treat deafness.
Olivier Nsengimana, 30, Rwanda – is promoting breeding programmes and the release of Rwanda’s captive, endangered grey crowned-cranes. The iconic bird, a symbol of wealth and longevity in Rwanda, is a victim of its own beauty, and is often kept as a pet.
Francesco Sauro, 29, Italy – is exploring the vast quartzite caves of South America’s fabled tabletop mountains on the border of Venezuela and Brazil, making discoveries of unique worlds that have evolved in isolation over millennia.
Arthur Zang, 26, Cameroon – has invented what is believed to be Africa’s first medical tablet, which will allow health-care workers in rural areas to send the results of cardiac tests to heart specialists via a mobile-phone connection.
Hosam Zowawi, 29, Saudi Arabia – is developing rapid tests to detect the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria, now considered a global threat to human health. He also plans a regional public campaign warning of the dangers of the overuse and misuse of antibiotics.