A weekend in nature, with a sprinkle of cave!

Speleology adventure continues, if just for a little bit! Last weekend in March, as a part of this year’s speleology school, I visited a cave in Tounj, that is actually part of a quarry. And yes, for all of you wondering, my curse did strike again, and I fell. Again. And I hurt myself. Again. I guess this is the time where I realize this is some kind of a message from the Universe?

I would like to specially thank to two amazing women in science, that are still attending university, but are amazing scientists already! They helped me with the determination of the wildlife photos I took – Iva studies Environmental Sciences, is an expert spider lover and extremely talented artist! Petra Vizec determined all the plant species; she studies Botany and can determine every plant in Croatia and surrounding area 😊

Anyway, in the Saturday morning, we started our excursion, from Zagreb to Tounj. The car ride lasted for around two hours, and after a communal breakfast, we put up the bivouac, for five people. During the school, tents are now allowed, as I already mentioned, so we are basically improvising one with two tarpaulins. The Saturday was really interesting for students, because they were learning the basics of using rope. It was interesting for me as well, because I decided to try out my phone lenses and shoot wildlife. Honestly, the results were better than expected! Many plants, many spiders, some insects, and even a lizard. I honestly wasn’t sure it was warm enough for reptiles, but even snakes have been spotted in the area. This part of the day is not really interesting to write about, so I will let the pictures do the talking 😊

During the evening, we lit a nice fire for dinner, and socialized a bit, and then of course, went to sleep. I can say I had a really cozy night, since just before the excursion, I bought new sleeping bag (more about this in another post AND YouTube video!). In the Sunday morning, students had some additional lectures, and around noon we finally set for the Tounj quarry cave. Part of the cave is also underwater, and during this particular excursion, one of the speleo-divers from my association dived down and proved that two caves, Tounj and Tounjčica are in fact, connected. I have to admit I had quite a big problem with walking to the cave entrance – we went at the noon, with the Sun high up, and the light reflected so hard from the rocks around us, I could barely see. However, my attitude changed the moment I entered the cave. This one was just “walking”, without any ropes or anything similar. Of course, when I use verb walking, I don’t mean old fashioned walking on the streets – this involved a bit of light uphill climbing, crawling, wriggling… And a lot of strength and flexibility and rolling a bit in the mud. At least my new overalls proved quite water-resistant! Tounj cave is, at least to me, very similar to Veternica – if someone put me there in the middle of the night (or day, really), I wouldn’t be able to distinguish between two, just that Tounj seemed to be a tad more spacious, at least when compared to the part of Veternica I visited. We saw only one ne bat and a lot of stalactites – I even brought some that have broken off back with me. Almost end of the story, right? Doesn’t seem too impressive, not even with the anecdote of me somehow slipping and hitting my right arm so hard I stopped feeling my fingers for couple of minutes.

The thing is, to experience the cave, you should visit the cave. More experienced speleologists could probably describe the visit much better, but for me, entering the cave is something so profoundly special I lose all my words. All of a sudden, I enter a part of this world that always exist in total darkness, where moisture seems to mean almost the opposite thing, where water drops are as loud as my heart beats, and after I turn on my head-light, everything is in calming, monochrome beige colour. Everything stops, it’s just me and the cave, absorbing my surrounding and focusing intensely on walking forward, until I see the sunlight again.

Left picture: exhausted, after trying to actually catch some lizards
Right picture: exhausted, after spending half my day in the cave; also sunburned!

Would you like to know more about plant and animal species I found? If yes, please let me know in the comments!

Pisaura sp; nursery web spider

Down the pit, I go…

About a month after I successfully completed my speleology training it was time for my first big excursion! And so, in May of 2018, with about 15 of my colleagues from SO Velebit, I went to a Norvežanka (Norvegian woman) pit, located near Risnjak mountain. Later it turned out that this was to be my only excursion that year, and in retrospect, I can say I’m really happy it was precisely this speleological object! I was very excited, and also a bit scared – the whole dynamic seemed different to me and I had a bunch of questions on my mind… What if I freeze? I have never been that deep down, 150 meters! How exactly does it look like? Is it just straight the way down? How narrow it is?  Will the harness I borrowed suit me? Well, after 2-hour car ride and quick camp set-up, I got all of my answers… I didn’t freeze, not mentally or physically. The pit is just amazing, it’s a combination of climbing down and walking straight through some parts, and it’s also quite spacious for a cave. The harness wasn’t the best fit, when I was walking in it, it seemed too tight, when I was on the rope, it seemed a bit too loose… And end of the today’s post, right? 😊 Wrong.

Picture 1. Me trying to conceal my excitement and the area around the camp.

I wouldn’t be me without something happening, so due to my inexperience, I slipped on the entryway (already on the rope), and got swung into the wall, hard. I hit it with my back, the point of impact was just few centimeters right of my spine. Yes, again the ribs, and again the right side! Honestly, it didn’t hurt that much, but I had a feeling like the air was completely gone from my lungs, and when I tried to say something, there was this very weird sound coming out. Five minutes later, I was already navigating a narrow part of the pit, very determined to get all the way down, without further injuries. I can readily admit I was probably more nervous than I realized, a bit insecure, and completely in awe of the place where I was. Entering such object is to me, like entering a different dimension, a world where you can be completely yourself and not at all at the same time. Of course, I wasn’t actually alone, there was many people ahead and as many behind me, and I was almost constantly talking to one of my speleology school colleagues, who is an experienced diver and wants to be a speleology-diver as well!

Picture 2. My and my colleagues entering the Norvežanka; that’s me just before starting the descend

Down on the bottom, it was cold, even more as I was sweaty. The way back up wasn’t available (we had to wait for everyone to climb down, before starting the ascend) and most people were, admittedly or not, tired (I was, because I’m chronically out of shape). And on the way back, well… I had a situation that scared me so much – at one part, the rope was very wet and very muddy, so muddy actually that my croll, the device that’s supposed to hold me tight on the said rope, didn’t “bite.” Or perhaps, it just slipped open, I didn’t really notice what happened, I just started falling down. However, I reacted without thinking and stood up in my blocker, which was biting just as it should. I continued, but cautiously, and kept checking that croll – it never opened again, but I was feeling a bit uneasy. Two-thirds out of the pit, I was tired and slow. Walking across the traverse (not even the real one) seemed like the hardest thing I ever did in my life. When I got out, it was night-time, and awfully dark. I didn’t have a watch with me, but waiting for 2 cavers, alone in the middle of the wood, with snow still in front, was so surreal. There are so many sounds coming from all directions, I was trying to guess the species, but I can surely say I heard an owl. After that, the regular, going back to the camp, getting lost, finding our way, eating around the fire, talking, laughing, and going to sleep at the bivouac. Then, day two!

On the second day, I’ve decided I want to try reconnaissance and finding new perspective caves and objects. I didn’t have an opportunity to do that during the school, and it sounded quite interesting – maybe I discover something new! I didn’t think that really, and my true intention was to spend up all the film (yes, film!) I had on my single-use camera. Apparently, everyone else thought this was a boring thing to do, so it ended up being just me and one older instructor. He explained what we are doing, where are going to look around (deeper in the forest), how to use GPS, what word to yell when we get separated (helop), and how to check for caves. We didn’t find any. I tired to catch some lizards and hoped so hard I will see a snake sunbathing, but I was unlucky. When I was alone, however, I finally comprehended how easy is to get disoriented and lost – things are not how you remembered them to be, the sun is high up, cacophony, trees cracking loudly, and no cell-phone signal… Let’s just say, if there were an Old (Man) Willow in that forest, I would make sure to be far away from it! 😉

Picture 3. Photos of the forest I took with my single-use camera

Picture 4. More photos; does anyone know what’s that on the right picture?

We returned home that same day, talking about different experiences in the car, planning our exams and next excursions… Hopefully, this year I will be able to explore more caves and pits, and gain more experience while doing it. I would also like to be able to film both inside and outside of pits and explore the wildlife a bit (mainly arthropods). There is so much to see and discover, and I’m looking forward to it so much 😊

Who’s going caving with me? Is there something more you would like to know about Norvežanka pit?

Speleology school

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with this concept, but in Croatia, many Mountaineering and Caving Associations organize Speleology schools. Ever since I’ve enrolled into my Bachelor’s degree in Biology, it was my dream to explore caves. I often talked about with my friend Mia – we tried to imagine how would it be deep in a cave, talked it all over numerous times with our colleagues, and, most important of it all – debated which school to choose?! In that, we had a help of my very dear then-friend who recommended the Association he was a part of – Mountaineering Association Velebit. If that name rings a bell, it’s is because Velebit is the largest mountain range in Croatia, and tourists often get lost on it during summer hikes. Velebit is also a home to two Croatian National Parks (Paklenica and Northern Velebit) and one Strict Reserve (Hajdučki i Rožanski kukovi). The yellow colour flowered plant, Degenia velebitica, is endemic species in the region, which is blossoming with flora and fauna. Also, largest and deepest caves in Croatia are located on (in) Velebit, so the name is more than appropriate.

Honestly, it’s a bit difficult to write this, because during those two months, I’ve experienced extreme difficulties and changes in my personal and professional life, and when I look back, I still get very emotional about certain aspects of my life. Also, I’ve written twice about it already (both articles in Croatian) – for In Vivo, student journal I’m editor-in-chief of, and for Velebiten, official magazine of Mountaineering Association Velebit.

The duration of the school was something less than two months, due to Easter holidays break. Our excursion happened over 5 weekends, apart from the first one, which one only Saturday. One very special rule of our school is that we don’t sleep in tents – we are improvising them using tarpaulins 😊 School consists of 20 students, and approximately the same number of instructors, both seasoned speleologists and the ones who finished the school previous year. First excursion, I was so excited and couldn’t wait to get in the cave, but almost gave up the whole school, because I had difficulties walking a steep hiking trail. However, thanks to support to one of my friends, I successfully made it and entered Veternica, a famous cave in Zagreb. Veternica is part of Medvednica (Bear mountain), with its highest peak at 1035 meters being Sljeme. Despite its name, there are no bears here! Veternica is a very long and highly complex cave – it is more than 7000 meters long. Tourists can view around 400 meters of this, while the rest is reserved for cavers and explorers. Geologically, Veternica is made of limestones, and harbours large evolutionary heritage. Remains of Neanderthals have been found in the cave, which have been worshippers of the cult of a bear. Cave bear, to be precise (Ursus speleus), and a fossil of a large lower-jaw was found in the cave as well. Today’s most famous cave dwellers are, naturally, bats, and more than 10 species call Veternica their home.

The whole experience was simply breath-taking and overwhelming – figuratively and literally, because I managed to break and bruise somewhere around five ribs. The event is probably more dramatic in my head – during the way back from a small “room” called The Beach, I was feeling a bit tired, after walking around 2 kilometres through mud, cave rivers, climbing all around, and trying not to fall. Veternica (and most of the caves) are not as you seen them in movies, huge and vast. This cave is wide enough for people to walk almost without squeezing through, but it requires using all four of your limbs, sometimes jumping from one side to another, no-gear climbing, and one particular part, called “Ramses’ passage” required us to walk on all fours, almost in a push-up position. At that time of the year (March), Veternica was full of water, so we were quite wet, and the rocks were slippery. Anyway, the part where I slipped is a bit difficult to describe, but I had to walk over a small canyon, one foot in front of other. To the right, fall down the canyon, but through the crack. When I slipped I hit the opposite wall and leaned on it hard, still standing on the initial path. I started slipping down; heard some soft bone cracking in the middle of loud water hums. I wasn’t scared, just in a sudden pain that didn’t leave me enough time to think, when a voice said, “I got you!” from below, paired with the feeling of someone supporting me. It was one of the experienced instructors, Luka, whom I didn’t even notice was close to me. He checked on me immediately, and asked if I wanted to take a break, which I immediately refused, explaining that since I’m in an adrenaline rush, and stopped feeling any kind of pain, I’d love to continue. Luka was with me for half the way, with one of my friends (also a highly experienced caver) taking over.

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Picture 1. Me, during various stages of school

Somehow, this accident only motivated me even more for my next task – to climb up and down 30 meters tall rock. There are no words to precisely describe the descend, when you are experiencing this for the first time. It’s scary how small people look like, even from that height! This particular rock is called Gorsko zrcalo (“Mountain mirror”) and is also part of Medvednica, but on the opposite end of it. It can be found in the middle of the forest, along the popular hiking trailer, and, on the first look, it doesn’t seem scary. At least when you don’t look down! This was my first time using the gear outside the training area (which we visited a day earlier), and I didn’t really trust it. I feared that I will fall out of my harness or that I will fail to properly secure my stop-descender. However, I climbed with one of the calmest instructors, so I forgot all about this – my only problem was un-securing the aforementioned stop-descender.

Picture 2. A view of Gorsko zrcalo; climbing up; my instructor calming me down before descend (Photo 2: Marko Rakovac, Photo 3: Darko Jeras)

zrcalo (2)Picture 3. Happy that I climbed up, trying not to scream in a slight rib-pain (Photo: Darko Jeras)

All three other weekends were proper excursions to Gorski Kotar, where we would stay overnight, eating dinner around camp fire, the only warm place miles around. We were always tired, but happy and satisfied, because we managed to move our boundaries, get to know something new, meet new people and develop acquaintances.

Getting to know each other isn’t just a pleasantry – it could be life-saving. It’s crucial to know on whom you can rely when things go wrong and your life depends on someone. This might sound a bit grim, but it’s quite realistic (just remember my broken ribs – if one of the instructors wasn’t there to catch me, I would probably end up with punctured lung, 2 kilometres deep in a cave). Panic is also common, and it’s rewarding to know person well enough to calm them down when climbing back up 150-meter-deep pit.

During those three weekends, we visited four different caves, although to me, a novice caver, most of those experiences merged into one. However, I’m not implying those caves are that similar, but I was rather focused on successful descends and ascends, using my equipment correctly, and passing some tricky passages. Also, there is no a simple “rope down the pit” way – the rope is “broken” to anchorages, and there is a particular set of procedures to pass it. What I really love about caving, is that you don’t think of anything else. There are no worries, or planning (apart maybe what to eat when you get out); you are present in the given moment, focusing only on task at hand. And by that, I mean rope. You are focusing on the rope.

Picture 4. In the cave, in the pit… (All photos: Dalibor Paar)

There is not much life in the caves, most what you hear are voices of your colleagues, and water dripping, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a waterfall. Lamps are a necessity (with the rest of the gear!). But the cave walls are stunning, all the number of shapes and how they sparkle under the head-lamp, it’s mesmerizing. Exiting the pit is almost an experience on its own – there is that almost euphoric feeling of being truly overwhelmed, by the mixture of outside light, colours and sounds, with the scent of nature intertwining with the moisture of inside…

bocina (1)Picture 5.  A misty morning

The whole of speleology is actually rewarding. It’s not just the school and people you meet, it’s more than simple climbing down and up. Caves are a new world, full of new situations and experiences. And it’s all worth it, if for nothing more, to push yourselves a bit more. I would recommend speleology school to everyone, even if you might not want to repeat this kind of event ever again.

Longest climb: 80 meters down and up
Degree of freezing in my sleeping bag during the nights: 6/10
Best experience: first real climb (30 meters, Gorsko zrcalo), with broken ribs
Favourite memory: climbing out of “Devil’s pit” (70 meters deep) with almost no assistance
Special thanks: Mia, Irena, Luka, Zvonimir (cavers); Bruno, my mom, Rudolf, Sara (outside support)

Do you think caving is a bit scary? Are you going to try speleology? Are you perhaps a caver already? Feel free to comment and let me know!

National Park – Plitvice Lakes

Since it is winter and exam season is closing in, I am not spending a lot of time in the lab (or anywhere interesting). Because of that, I wanted to write a short throwback post about last time I visited one Croatian National Park. Despite being a very small country, Croatia is rich in intact nature and preserved areas. The most famous of those areas are National Parks, and Croatia has eight! I also must mention, that in spite of popular belief, there are two areas more protected than National Parks – “strict reserves.”

The National Park I’ve paid a visit more than a year ago (November 2017) is called Plitvice Lakes, or simply Plitvice. The area is a National Park since 1949 and it’s Croatia’s biggest and oldest Park. It consists of 16 lakes that are connected by many waterfalls and cascades. The specificity of the Park is tufa – yes, I checked, that’s the word! 🙂 Tufa is a calcareous rock (meaning it is mostly made of calcium carbonate) and is porous. It is generated by precipitation of carbonate minerals out of water, and generally this type of rock is very sensitive to changes in pH. Why is it so special? Tufa forms barriers between the lakes! Those barriers are the reason why Plitvice are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Picture 1. A famous view on Plitvice Lakes

dsc_0040_Picture 2. Amazing waterfall in Plitvice

For the Chemistry lovers, here is a chemical formula of tufa formation:

Ca2+ +2HCO3 ↔CO2 + H2O + CaCO3

Apart from environmental factors, small organisms play very important role in the formation as well. There are bacteria, small multi-cellular organisms, blue-green algae (not algae at all) and diatoms (actual algae). Mosses are part of this ecosystem as well, together with many other smaller organisms, both animals and plants.

As I already mentioned, there are several factors important for the formation of tufa rocks, and pH of the water is the one you have probably heard about. The reason why is it almost exclusively mentioned is pollution that changes pH of the lakes. One of the main problems? Tourism. Yes, tourism. I won’t get in the detail about not-so-well-made sewer system in the whole area, but Plitvice are one of the most famous places in Croatia, and as such, receptible to huge numbers of visitors every summer. And sometimes, that people don’t follow basic rules of spending their time in nature, so a lot of littering and wild-life disturbance occurs. Don’t get me wrong, this National Park is open to the public and meant to be enjoyed, but sometimes it seems more emphasis is put on money, rather on educations. Because of that, I would sincerely like to ask all of you, to take care of our environment, especially when visiting a foreign country.

dsc_0068_Picture 3. Calm lake and some rocks. And trees.

dsc_0109_Picture 4.  View of a lake, before the boat drive

Anyway, back to my excursion! I was part of the group from my Department, as a part of the field trip for subject “National Parks.” It was a one-day trip, and we walked approximately 10 km around the lakes. The biggest lake is called Kozjak, and it is also a deepest lake. All lakes are beautiful blue-green colour and surrounded with walking paths and breath-taking views. The weather was a bit cold-ish, since it was November, but enough to walk around in a jacket and winter hat. And a camera of course! I tried to picture most of the nature and wildlife around me, but we didn’t see as much (again, because it was almost winter). However, Plitvice are rich in both flora and fauna – its symbol is a brown bear! Grey wolves and lynxes are also natural to the habitat, as well as many bird species – I’ve seen robins (Erithacus rubecula), some sparrows (Passer domesticus), and mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), but falcons (Falco peregrinus) and pygmy owls (Glaucidium passerinum) are regularly sighted. From other flying creatures, the Parks is full of butterflies (Phengaris alcon), bees (Apis mellifera), and similar (Calopteryx virgo), as well as bats (Barbastella barbastellus; there are also many caves in the Park!). There are many salamanders (Salamandra atra), otters (Lutra lutra; that I very sadly haven’t spotted), and fish. A lot of fish. I would also like to mention, that an endemic species was found in this area, in one of the caves – a small bug, Machaerites udrzali, which belongs in order Coleoptera. Forest(s) around the Lakes are full of common beech (Fagus sylvatica), but there are also firs (Abies alba), pines (Pinus sylvestris), and Ostryas. In fact, when it comes to flora, there are more than one thousand registered plant species, including dead-nettles and orchids. Mushrooms also have an important presence in Croatian forests, and Plitvice forest is famous for being a home to another rare species – saprophytic fungi Camarops tubulina.

dsc_0080_Picture 5. Mallards humbly asking for bread

So, what do you think? Did you know that this National Park is so full of life? Because I honestly didn’t, despite living in Croatia, well, my whole life. Of course, we were taught about some general facts during our schooling, but I was really surprised to learn how many different species live here.
Apart from such an important biological aspect, Plitvice Lakes are important in Croatian history as well, but I might talk about that next time!

Did you visit Plitvice, what were your experiences? How about some other Croatian National Park? Which one should I visit&write about next? 🙂

P.s. Yes, the header picture of my blog was also taken during this trip!