Saturday, October 20, 2007

beneath you

I'm not exactly sure why Slovenia is as it is, instead of just a collapsed pit south of Austria. The ground is riddled with massive cave systems that extend for kilometers. These aren't just caves with little tunnels that you need to wriggle through, these are caves with colossal caverns with ceilings that soar 100 meters up. The word that keeps cropping up is karst, which, if I understand correctly, is referring the geological makeup of the terrain - soluble limestone that has been shaped over the eons by rainwater and running water. Karst also refers to the region in southwest Slovenia where many of these caves are found. And all that water dripping over the thousands of years has deposited calcium carbonate, creating an astonishing variety of stalactites, stalagmites, and other structures that decorate the caves. The growth rate is approximately one centimeter per one hundred years. New discoveries are continually being made as speleologists and spelunkers continue to explore the caves, going where no one, at least not recently, has gone before.

The two most famous caves are at Postojna and Škocjan, neither of which require any special equipment to tour. I took in the Postojna caves tour. They ask that pictures not be taken inside, which I chose to respect. The environment is so humid that prolonged and repeated light causes algae to form over surfaces, and they need to take care to turn off all lights as soon as they are not necessary. Even so, you can still see patches of green on the roofs of some of the caverns. Strange beings live in the cold, dark, subterranean waters, including the Proteus anguinus, the Human Fish. It's actually a salamander, and the "human" part of the name is derived from the fact that they have a similar lifespan — up to 100 years. Unlike humans, they can go for years without eating, a fact that has befuddled scientists. A tank of them is on display during the tour, but like the caves themselves, they are sensitive to light, and the tank specimens are changed every couple of months to prevent damage or trauma to their sensitive skin and eyes. They do have eyes, even though they don't use them. They are also featured on the Postojna city seal. Any city that has a blind salamander with bright red ears on its seal is all right by me.

There are many more caves that require an advance booking or special arrangement to visit, and on a whim I managed to get signed up for a tour of Križna Cave, which can only be visited with a guide. It's not much more expensive to do this than visit the showpiece caves, but since there isn't any public transport there, at least not in the off season, I paid through the nose to be driven there in a taxi. Suited up in hard hats, headlamps, battery packs, rubber boots, three pairs of socks (the interior temperature is a constant 8° centigrade), and bright red overalls, me and three Aussies walked underground with our guide, Milo. Natural light is gone almost immediately, and with headlamps off it's pitch black. Good for the bats we saw hanging around. Many remains of cave bears have been found, so apparently they don't need light either. I guess when you're the biggest thing going bump in the dark, it's up to everything else to get out of your way.

Humans have been visiting for several hundred years as well, and there's a bunch of signatures and dates near the entrance. I'm pretty sure I picked out a date from the 1800s, but evidently there are others elsewhere in the cave that go back even further. Križna is a water cave, made up of a string of lakes separated by calcium carbonate barriers, which usually had water flowing over them from one lake to the next. Paddling a small inflatable boat, we made our way to approximately the midpoint, a cavern named Calvary. At each barrier we had to hop out of the boat, Milo would carry it to the next, and we would hop back in. Traversing the barriers on foot we had to take care to step only on the hard surfaces, and not into the soft depressions. For the smaller barriers, which basically amounted to a speed bump in the water, he only asked half of us to get out, and dragged the remaining two into the next lake. The depth of each varies up to several meters, and as clear as the water was, we were told it can be even more so.

Depending on whether the water drips from above, runs down ridges, burbles up from below, flows in a river, or however else it moves, it slowly by surely creates crazy structures and textures. I'm tempted to describe them as otherworldly, but they are very much of the world. Just not as we usually see it. They're kind of a visual representation of infinity, or as close to infinity as my Proteus anguinus lifespan brain is comfortably going to grasp, that something as fleeting as a drip of water contributes to something so tangible.

Upon reaching the Calvary cavern, we spent some time nosing around before paddling back to the entrance, and emerged into bright sunlight and relatively warmer weather. Milo gave us each a shot of some sort of home brewed rocket fuel to warm us up; Slovenia is giving my liver a workout. And my grizzled taxi driver was waiting to take me back to Postojna. He even had a bag of assorted cookies for me. He didn't speak too much English, but asked "Beautiful?" Yes. it sure is.

I felt like I left Slovenia sooner than I should have; the country is full of peachy things that I didn't get around to seeing. But it would have been like eating the entire triple chocolate frosted cake all at once. Too much too fast. Like all that Renaissance art. Too many lovely lakes and monumental caves and they stop being memorable. Plus, a few museums I wanted to see were closed, not only the forging museum, but also the Dormouse Hunting Museum at Snežnik Castle, which was completely shut up for renovations. Traveling in the off season has the benefits of fewer tourist clogs, but occassionally the disadvantage of seasonal closures. I figure it's just an excuse to come back again later.


Cybele said...

what weapon does one use against dormice? a heavy shoe? tabby cat? toothpick?

cheese skipper said...

another pressing, and unanswered question - how many dormice skins does it take to line a cap? i mean, they ain't that big. john tenniel totally had his proportions wrong in those alice in wonderland illustrations. darn you, Snežnik Castle, for being closed!