As the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark prepares to officially open to the public again on St.Patrick's Day next week, The Impartial Reporter took a 'behind the scenes' look at the work staff undertake to ensure Fermanagh's underground attraction is ready for the new season.

Staff at the famous Fermanagh caves are looking forward to a busy season, with a German tour company already arranging to visit the attraction on a regular basis, bringing in excess of 5,000 to 6,000 German tourists to the area alone this year.

Maintenance work on the 1.5km stretch of the show cave is already well underway at this stage, beginning as far back as mid January.

According to senior tour guide, Sean Corrigan, preparing the caves for the public each year is a "mammoth task".

People don't realise just how much work goes into getting the caves ready," he said, "There is a very long process to go through.

"When the caves are closed up at the end of September or mid October, we go through the process of cleaning out the cave. We remove all our health and safety equipment and try to leave the cave the way we found it essentially. We leave in its natural state in so much as we possibly can and allow the water to flow it's natural course.

"But we do keep an eye on the caves," he added, "We do a check twice a week for any damage." At the beginning of the year staff begin their maintenance project, focusing initially on the pathways constructed for visitors to the tourist attraction.

"Our work involves constructing and maintaining the pathways, depending on any damage that has occurred over the winter floods," Sean explained, "This work can take a considerable amount of time in itself because the natural flow of the water over the months that the cave is closed can have a considerable impact.

"Fencing and handrails are the same. The river can sometimes pick up large stones which can crack over the fencing or rails. So we have to ensure that all of that is up to scratch ahead of the official day for opening again." One of the most painstaking maintenance tasks however, is cleaning out the 400 lights which are strategically placed throughout the show cave.

"The lights we use in the caves are IP68s," said Sean, "They are waterproof lighting, but they can still get easily damaged. We have to undergo heavy maintenance to clean out the light fittings from sand and grit, as well as any general maintenance that is required on electrical works down there." According to the senior guide, a new state-of-the-art water level recorder which has been introduced this year makes the work of staff at the Geopark site much easier.

"We have six recorders altogether, three are placed in the mountains and three in the caves," said Sean, "With this equipment we can tell where the water is and where it's coming from. It helps us greatly in our daily work." The three boats used on the tour, Owen Brean, Shruh Croppa and Aghanrawn, named after the three tributary rivers which flow down from Cuilcagh Mountain, are also given some 'TLC' after being left down in caves over the winter.

"They have to be left down there, it would just take too long to bring them out at the end of every season," said Sean, "It took a week just to get one of the boats down there! They have to be winched down.

"We actually deliberately flood areas of the cave by closing off particular areas in order to allow us to get the boats back onto the water." Besides maintenance, from this week on the Marble Arch Caves will be starting to take on part-time staff for the new season.

"On average we take on 50 part-time staff a year," said the senior guide, "Each of them has to go through an induction and learn how to navigate the boats." And with promises of regular German visitors to the site in 2012, staff are also working on tailoring their in-house tourist information video.

Tour guide Leslie Nixon isn't surprised by the interest from the German tour company.

According to him, Fermanagh has a "hidden gem" in the Marble Arch Caves.

"This is a very interesting place to work," he said, "You meet so many different people from so many different places! They come here because there is nothing like this anywhere else. We have tried to keep the cave as authentic and as close to it's natural state as we can. And I think that's what people want." Despite this though, according to a recent survey, only one in 10 people from Fermanagh have actually visited the natural underground wonder, right on their doorstep.

"It's incredible to think there there are so many people in Fermanagh who have never been here," said Sean, "There are probably more people from Belfast who have visited us than there are people from here!"