The Italian explorer training astronauts

Earlier this week, Francesco Sauro won a €41,000 grant from the Swiss luxury watch maker, Rolex, to explore caves in South America. He speaks to The Local about how his childhood adventures in Italy led to expeditions to some of the world's most ancient caves.

The Italian explorer training astronauts
Francesco Sauro has been exploring caves since the age of 11. Photo: Rolex Awards/Stefan Walter

An air of adventure surrounded Sauro’s childhood in Padua, northern Italy, where he would hear tales from his father and uncle about exploring caves in the 1960s.

“When I was very young, about 11, I started thinking about how nice it was to have a place to explore very close to home. I started to go and search for new caves,” he tells The Local.

The young geologist, now 29, upped his interest at 16 by taking a course, and just three years later was exploring the caves of Mexico.

“I was fascinated by the topic and thought that if I wanted to visit and explore caves, geology was the closest field to transform this into work. Not only to explore the caves but also to bring back new information,” he says.

Sauro took the academic route – an undergraduate degree, masters and then PhD in geology – to form a solid basis for his work in the field.

His efforts have paid off, with Rolex this week granting the Italian 50,000 Swiss francs (€41,000) to continue and develop his work in Latin America. Specifically, he will be furthering his work on the caves in the Amazonas region of Brazil and Venezuela.

READ MORE: Italian explorer wins €41k Rolex prize

What he has already discovered, in caves carved into the table-top mountains close to the countries’ border, is a far cry from his boyhood trips in Italy.

“The mountains are completely different from every other environment in the world; the rock is about 1.6 billion years old. The mountains rose up after the opening of the Atlantic Ocean.

“These are probably the oldest caves in the world,” he says.

Getting to grips with such an environment may be a challenge for the average person, but there is one group who can relate to Sauro: astronauts.

The geologist has been brought in by the European Space Agency (ESA) to train astronauts, due to the similarities between space and the caves he explores.

In the caves there is “no day and no night”, Sauro says, matter-of-factly, of the eternal darkness he endures.

“This is what happens if you go to space; the time is not controlled by night-time and daytime.”

Whereas caves have the gravity which space lacks, Sauro says his work helps astronauts get to grips with their future surroundings.

“Caves are three-dimensional features inside the mountains. You have to move in a three-dimensional way, on different gallery levels and at different depths. It’s much more complicated that at the surface,” he explains.

As an expedition leader, Sauro also helps them with safety training, preparing them for work outside the International Space Station: “They have to be rigged to the station otherwise they will fly away.”

But despite getting international recognition for his work, Sauro relies largely on sponsorship and has no financial help from the Italian government.

“The government has basically no money at the moment. Sometimes they don’t understand the importance of these kinds of discoveries,” he laments, saying Italy should instead be proud of its “long history and tradition of scientific expeditions.”

Although Sauro will be heading back to Latin America by the end of the year, he is full of praise for the landscape he leaves behind.

“Italy has more than 35,000 caves. There are a lot still in exploration; in the Dolomites there are some over 1,000 metres deep. All around the Alps and in Tuscany too,” he says.

“It’s not easy to say where the best place is,” says Sauro, rolling off a lengthy list of Italian regions just waiting to be explored.  

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Fresh chaos as Italian border town sees new migrant influx

Authorities in the Italian-France border town of Ventimiglia are struggling to find accommodation for migrants after a spike in arrivals over the last seven days.

Fresh chaos as Italian border town sees new migrant influx
The Italian border town of Ventimiglia has seen more than 300 migrants arrive in the last week. Photo: Valerie Hache/AFP

More than 300 people arrived in the Ligurian town after making their way up from southern Italy after a week that saw 13,000 rescued at sea.

The spike comes a year after Italy and France became embroiled in a standoff after hundreds of migrants were stranded in Ventimiglia because they were refused entry into France.

With the border still being stringently monitored, just 20 of the 300 migrants who arrived in Ventimiglia have attempted to cross, with the majority now housed in the town’s main refugee centre, run by the parish church of San Antonio, where numbers have swelled to over 600.

“The situation has become unsustainable,” parish priest Father Rito Alvarez told San Remo news.

Volunteers at the centre are now preparing 700 meals a day.

“We're trying to welcome everyone, but there are so many and the number keeps growing,” Maurizio Marma, a volunteer from Caritias, the church-run charity, told Ansa.

“Many of them are now sleeping on the floor outside; we are looking for another solution.”

The problems are not just logistical. The spike in arrivals is also creating a headache for guards at the French border.

Although the majority of the arrivals have been identified in Italy and therefore must stay, some have been caught trying to cross the border into France, with a reported 20 migrants being removed from France-bound trains on Monday morning alone.

The sudden influx has also caused sanitation problems inside the refugee centre.

An outbreak of chickenpox last week saw four refugees hospitalized and a further 80 given vaccinations against the disease.

Ventimiglia Mayor Enrico Ioculano is set to meet with religious leaders on Monday in the hope that more Church structures can be freed up for use as welcome centres.

In June last year around 250 migrants camped out in Ventimiglia for four days, protesting that they should be allowed to enter France on their way to their desired destinations in northern Europe.

Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano described the dramatic scenes as “a punch in the face of all European countries that want to close their eyes”. The migrants were eventually forcibly moved.

Migrants in Ventimiglia last June. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP