Going into a cave in Slovakia does not have to mean passively admiring the various shapes of stalactites, stalagmites, and stalagnates.
UPDATE OF THE ARTICLE PUBLISHED ON SEPTEMBER 7, 2015
Some cave staff offer a helmet and a headlamp and turn the visit into a real underground adventure.
Slovakia is rich in caves, with more than 6,200 having already been explored. Twelve of these have been opened to the public by the Slovak Cave Administration (SSJ). A total of six are inscribed on the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List (Domica, Gombasecká, Jasovská, Krásnohorská, Dobšinská Ice and Ochtinská Aragonite).
The unique differences
Caves in Slovakia
Every cave administered by SSJ is unique. The nature of the glaciations in the Dobšinská Ice Cave (eastern Slovakia) makes it one of the most important caves in the world (it was also among the first caves lit electrically) and the rich aragonite formations in the Ochtinská Aragonite Cave (eastern Slovakia) that resemble white flowers are some of the finest in Europe.
The most visited and possibly the most beautiful cave is Demänovská Cave of Liberty (northern Slovakia), with its majestic domes, hundreds of stairs and a roaring stream inside.
“I’ve been in a cave before, but it wasn’t as fabulous as this one,” said Francesca Orr, a tourist from Manchester, Great Britain.
The Demänovská Cave system is 35 kilometres long and also includes the Demänovská Ice Cave, located three kilometres from the Cave of Liberty.
More typical examples of extensive halls decorated with white sinter and huge stalagmites can be found at the Belianska Cave in the High Tatras and the Harmanecká Cave in central Slovakia.
There was an explorer at the beginning
Stories of the caves do not start with modern-day visitors but rather with those who discovered them.
“I was like a victim,” Jarmila Jirmerová said in 2011 of her first experience inside the Bystrianska Cave that she helped discover. She followed a classmate there when she was around 20 and would go on to spend nearly half of her life underground. “We worked for three years to connect the old and the new part of the cave. We worked at night in wet clothes. We had to dry up during the day.”
The Bystrianska Cave, situated in the southern part of the Low Tatras, is one of the smaller accessible caves in Slovakia.
“A girlfriend will not cheat you as much as a cave,” she said. “It seduces you. You are sure there will be a great hall behind that rock – and you’ll find nothing.”
After a few years of exploration Jirmerová found today’s entrance hall to the cave and decided that the public should be able to see it too. The first visitors came to the cave on July 21, 1968 and she recalls the exhausting task of leading 3,000 people through it in a single day.
Walking through the cave takes 45 minutes nowadays and the tour is 580 metres long. It is also the only cave complex in Slovakia that is accessible to wheelchair users.
Besides the beautiful stalagmites, stalactites, and a 20-metre deep abyss, the cave is also renowned for its healing air.
A slightly different experience
In addition to those run by SSJ, there are several privately managed caves in Slovakia that offer visitors a more authentic speleologist’s experience. For example, the Dead Bats’ Cave (central Slovakia), Stanišovská Cave (northern Slovakia), Zlá Diera (Bad Hole – eastern Slovakia) and Krásnohorská Cave (eastern Slovakia) are a world away from the fully-illuminated, well-paved caves operated by SSJ. Instead, visitors must climb or rappel down underground, offering an experience that feels like you are actually exploring the cave.
“The first thing we found here were thousands of small bats’ bones, like nowhere else,” said Milan Štéc, a caretaker of the Dead Bats’ Cave, when explaining its name. This huge mountain cave is situated 13 kilometres from Bystrianska and only one kilometre from Ďumbier, the highest peak of the Low Tatras.
Since 1981, Štéc and his team have discovered the biggest part of what now amounts to 21 kilometres of underground passageway. The cave is not as decorated as others but it hides remarkable chambers and also the second largest underground space in Slovakia. The Bystrický Dóm is the size of a football field and is 40m high.
The Dead Bats’ Cave is not typical. It is situated high in the mountains and the number of visitors is strictly limited; booking in advance is essential. Tour A offers a gentle introduction, an hour-long tour available to anyone older than six. But the more adrenaline-packed tours B and C require that visitors are in good physical and mental condition. As the cave is located in the mountains, it is necessary to take into consideration also about a two-km-long hike to reach it.
You pass through the darkest and deepest places equipped with only a headlamp and a protective suit, relying on your skills when climbing over abysses or crawling in very narrow clefts. You climb on rope ladders and in clambers on wet and cold ground with sleeping bats around your head. A maximum of six people can take the tour together and no children are allowed.
In a speleologist’s shoes
Another site offering a real speleological experience is Krásnohorská Cave in the village of Krásnohorská Dlhá Lúka. Visitors go to the Pension Jozefína where they pay an entrance fee and obtain the necessary gear. The cave itself lies one kilometre outside the village. People must wear a special outfit to protect their clothing as well as a helmet and headlamp. It is also a must to wear heavy boots. It is possible to borrow a pair at the pension.
After entering the tunnel, visitors are guided the whole way. The tour also includes some demanding elements, for example climbing ladders, which require both good physical condition and a sense of caution.
There is no lighting in the cave (except for the Hall of Giants, which is equipped with one spotlight) which makes exploring the cave exciting (and the headlamps essential). Part of the tour leads above an underground river. The most demanding part requires visitors to move on two ropes above a shallow lake, a combination of careful steps above the cold water.
The caves are as close to pristine as possible and the experience all but imitates that of a real potholer’s, which means narrow squeezes, hair-raising obstacles and very grimy hands. For many, this is the principal charm of these particular caves: it is very easy to feel like a daring explorer delving into the unknown.
“I felt like I was in an action movie,” noted one recent visitor after making it through. Parts of the cave are so tight that claustrophobic people might have a difficult time. The absolute highlight is the Hall of Giants with its 34-metre tall dripstone.
Until recently, the Guinness Book of Records listed it as the largest in existence, a 34-metre high chunk of breathtaking natural extravagance with a 12-metre wide base. It grows in volume every year as the relentless drips solidify, but the cavern it occupies is vast and it will be a few thousand years until it becomes too big to accommodate visitors.
According to Jaroslav Stankovič who has been guiding the tours since the cave opened, going into the cave is different each time and the visitors themselves provide the greatest stories. Stankovič particularly cherishes an expedition with a physically disabled Hungarian girl whose father very much wanted her to see a cave. The speleologists found a way to help her navigate the whole trail.
“When we came out, her father was moved to tears that we managed to do it,” Stankovič said.
SSJ contributes to more authentic experiences when it opened for the public in 2016 the Brestovec cave close to the Museum of Orava Village in Zuberec; a hardhat with a headlamp is a natural part of the outfit when entering it. Only people older than age six can visit the cave. The age limit is due to steep stairs which need to be climbed during the visit.
By Lukáš Onderčanin, Martin Majdák and Ján Pallo
12 Smolenice: Driny Cave, www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/8-driny
34 Bystrá: Bystrianska Cave, www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/3-bystrianska-jaskyna
36 Low Tatras: Dead Bats’ Cave, www.jmn.sk
43 Harmanec: Harmanecká Cave, www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/10-harmanecka-jaskyna
6 Tatranská Kotlina: Belianska jaskyňa (cave), www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/2-belianska-jaskyna
18 Slovenský raj: Dobšinská Ice Cave, www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/6-dobsinska-ladova-jaskyna
19 Važec: Važecká jaskyňa (cave), www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/13-vazecka-jaskyna
25 Liptovský Ján: Stanišovská Cave, www.stanisovska.sk
30 Demänovská Dolina: Demänovská Cave of Liberty , www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/4-demanovska-jaskyna-slobody
31 Demänovská Dolina: Demänovská Ice Cave, www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/5-demanovska-ladova-jaskyna
2 Ochtiná: Ochtinská Aragonite Cave, www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/12-ochtinska-aragonitova-jaskyna
10 Slovenský kras: Domica Cave, www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/7-domica
11 Slavec: Gombasecká Cave, www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/9-gombasecka-jaskyna
15 Jasov: Jasovská Cave, www.ssj.sk http://www.ssj.sk/sk/jaskyna/11-jasovska-jaskyna
12 Krásnohorská Dlhá Lúka: Krásnohorská Cave, www.krasnohorskajaskyna.sk
45 Lipovce: Zlá diera (Bad Hole), www.zladiera.sk