The most beautiful cave I ever visited

In the first week of July this year, I applied for a “Little school of speleology” which included a week of evening classes and an excursion on a Saturday. I did finish my speleology school in 2018, but I wanted to brush up on my knowledge, meet new people, and, naturally, visit a cave. Since at the time Croatia was under certain COVID restrictions, all classes were held online; the excursion was allowed under the condition of following all the guidelines and restrictions (which we, naturally, did).

At first, I thought the classes might be a little bit boring; these kind of topics sometimes have a tendency to drag out or be repetitive. However, I was very satisfied with with the range of covered topics which included speleology & caving basics, geology and geomorphology, orientation, biospeleology, bioarcheology, and first aid. The presenters were engaging and to the point, and I enjoyed listening to them. I was happy that I already knew quite a lot, but also that I learned quite a lot as well!

After that week of classes was done, Saturday followed, which was reserved for the previously mentioned one-day excursion. I prepared my back-pack the night before, filling it with small snacks, extra clothes, and my waterproof camera, which I was trying out for the first time. I usually take photos with my DSLR, but I wanted to be more focused on the experience itself, than worrying if too much moisture is getting in my NIKON. Our destination was Modrič cave, near Maslenica bridge, 30 kilometres away from Zadar. This cave is a part of Nature Park Velebit and is also open to tourists under the guided tours (previous caving experience not necessary!).

First, however, we needed to reach it. Our trip started in Zagreb, during quite a hot morning. I sat alone in the half-empty bus, mostly listening to music and starring out the window. From the time to time, I would talk with people around me; some also have had previous caving experience, some were to visit a cave for the first time.
I like watching out the window, especially when I’m travelling by bus or train. It feels homely, rewarding. The first part of our path is quite familiar to me, as I travel through these parts often. The highway goes directly through the forest, coniferous trees as far as you can see, covering the mountains, with sparse settlements, sometimes only houses, on the clearance. What I love the most is that often, you’re seeing it all from the above, as the bus is carrying you on the overpass.

On this particular trip, I was, however, most impressed by what came after this. Still in the bus, I barely noticed when environment around us started to change. Mountains increased, by they started to go bare, exposing its layers and layers. Rays of sun were reflecting of the karst, those grey, barren rocks that I so strongly disliked as a child, and learned to love during past couple of years. I wondered, how many beautiful vipers are hiding in its crevices, how many lizards are catching the midday sun near scarce bushes, on these stones that seem so empty, but are actually brimming with life? I was in awe, almost like I’ve been seeing this place for the first time ever and wondered how many other people out on the road that day were appreciating the sights around them. As we were driving through the Sveti Rok Tunnel, the second longest tunnel in Croatia (5.6 kilometres), I couldn’t believe that we actually dared to drill through the mountain.

After reaching our initial destination, we still needed to take a short hike to the cave itself. Short, but exhausting, at least for me, because the sun was at its highest. When we finally entered the cave, it was literally a breath of fresh air, except it was that distinctive, earthy smell which never fails to put a big smile on my face. The whole visit lasted for approximately two hours, during which, under the expert guidance, we learned a lot about it. Some parts of the cave were off-limit, because scientist are using those particular spaces to study paleo climate, general cave conditions, geological processes… To be completely honest, I didn’t remember too much of it, because I was so taken aback by the beauty of it.

Stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, straws, pearls, flowstones… Wherever I looked, the light from our lamps illuminated another wonder, right next to me or high above me. I tried to take some photos, but believe me, when I say, none of those do justice to what I actually saw. In all sincerity, this was the most beautiful cave I’ve ever visited; just standing there, experiencing something so ancient, made me feel so fulfilled and so relaxed at the same time. I felt like I was witnessing something profound, like standing in the museum in front of a priceless painting. Words, truthfully, can’t really describe that feeling, although I hope my photos can at least offer you a glimpse into it.

The events that happened after we exited the cave were interesting as well (small-talk at lunch, participating in the speleology workshops at the beach), but in my mind, they were still overshadowed by the experience in the cave. Not even on the drive back home, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. A part of that magic eventually passed, and it wasn’t reignited to the fullest even as I was writing this, but if I’m sure of one thing, it’s that I will be returning to that cave again, one day.

RTŠB 2019 – biospeleology field trip – PART 1

Finally, I write about this astonishing field trip which has taken part from 17th to 27th July this year in Ivančna Gorica, a small town south of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Me and Bruno were part of biospeleology group, and my friend Paula, who was the only other participant from Croatia, was a part of reptile group. Paula has a nice Instagram page about biology as well.
This camp, organized by student’s biology group from Ljubljana is very popular with students from the ex-YU countries, and this year there were also colleagues from France. Also, being a biology student is not a must, we had humanities student as well.

A detail from one of the caves

How does the camp work?

First, you have to apply; you can choose between three groups (my choices: biospeleology, reptiles, botany) and with the application you pay the 93€ fee that includes breakfast and dinner every day and driving around during the camp. When there, we sleep in our sleeping bag in the gym of the nearby school. Breakfast is every day 7-8.30am, and dinner was usually 4pm+. There was also one rest day (during which us three went to Ljubljana) and one day when couple of us were on duty – we were cleaning and cooking for that day.
One group usually consisted of 5 members, and every day we went out to field, trying to find caves or catch some cave dwelling insect.

Our place in the school gym

We travelled, you guessed it, by train. I have already mentioned 9€ one-way-ticket from Zagreb to Ljubljana, and then we went to Ivančna Gorica, that ticket was around 3€. The way back was almost the same, with the difference we went by bus to Ljubljana, since there were no trains at that part of the day.

How was my experience?

Honestly, I would really like to go again next year, but honestly I don’t know how I made it. I was not in a shape I should have been, I had migraines, I got stuck, I had very suspicious bruises and I strongly disliked walking around under sun.

How many caves I visited?

Number of caves: 9
Total number of cave visits: 11
Number of water springs visited: 4
I also spent one evening with bat group & one day with amphibians group.

Me, before first cave visit, unaware what was waiting for me

A short summary of my days in Slovenia

Day 1

We  met other members of the group: Ester, group leader, Tjaša and Eva. Anja was also part of our group, but she joined us couple of days later. Apart from going to the field, every evening we were supposed to try and determine our specimens we collected in caves, label them, and fill out special documents about our visit (who, when, why, where, what was collected and how).
We also prepared live traps for small insects. The traps we made consisted of putting tuna fish with gorgonzola in small tubes and closing them off with cotton pads.  The insect we were trying to catch was Leptodirus hochenwartii, member of Coleoptera, the only beetle that lives in the caves. This species is endemic to Slovenian, Croatian, and Italian caves. For other creatures we had prepared small tubes filled with 70% ethanol which we held in the pockets of our overalls, together with pincers.

One live trap, buried in the ground – it also needs to be covered with a big rock.

Day 2

Frist cave we visited was Velka jama nad Trebnjem. The way up to the cave was steep and exhausting; it was very hot & moist in the forest. However, I took my camera with me, and took many pictures. I was surprised how many invertebrates live there, since Croatian caves I visited were almost completely empty. However, these animals are not usually found in the caves, here they are living kind of opportunistically, since the cave was also filled with garbage. We set up the traps for Leptodirus, and went back. We had a small lunch next to our car, and then went to the cave number two, called Rojska jama 2. We had GPS coordinates, but Ester was sure they are wrong (they were), so we asked a local villager for help. He kindly led us to the cave entrance, where we suited up, and in we went. The cave was quite interesting, we spent an hour or so inside. After we returned, mr. villager welcomed us back with home-baked strudels and soda. It was honestly, very nice. We also visited two water springs, and went back to the school. After dinner, Ester taught us how to fill out the papers I mentioned, and we tried to the best of our ability, determine all the specimens. The most important we had to discern were small freshwater crabs called Niphargus and Gammarus. The main difference is that Gammarus have eyes, and we really wanted to collect the other one.

Caves were usually full of these grasshoppers, and they were scary huge!

Day 3

During day three, we visited one cave, Pekel pri Kopanju. We did find some cool animals, like Colembolas, but our trip was short, since main channel was full of tree branches and garbage. We tried visited the cave number two, but soon realized that we would need a 40m rope to climb down, so we gave up on that. We also visited two water springs, and headed back earlier, since one of the mentors had a lecture about global warming. After that, back to determination. We found some Niphargus (yay!), Gammarus (fine), and rat-tailed maggots. What are those, you wonder? Those are the larvae of certain species of hoverflies. What are hoverflies, you wonder? Those are flies that pretend to be wasps.

The great pretender

Day 4

This day was tough for me, we walked 5-6km on the trails and through the woods, but we also visited three caves! First two (Dolnja vodena jama & Antokov skedenj) were close one to another and extremely spacious inside. I roamed around with my action cam (results were so-so, not enough light) and Bruno and me found a bunch of Niphargus in one puddle. I also saw some fox bones, and Ester was kind enough to fetch them for me! The third cave (Rivčja jama) was the one we visited three times all together and was really interesting. The walk towards it is around 1km on the forest trail, next to beautiful river Krka. The entrance to the cave is enormous – I would use the phrase “you need to be blind not to see it”, but that’s incorrect – even from the trail you can feel temperature drop and the specific smell of cave air.And this cave had bats. Bunch of bats (Myotis myotis), and they were loud, much louder than people would expect. We climbed up, on mountains of their poop, in order to take pictures, and the temperature soared at least 10 degrees there. Afterwards, we went through a narrow passage (here I took neat footage) and tried to catch some Proteus anguinus, the olm (I wrote about them here!). These traps were different, since they live in the water. We also tried to lure them with pet cookies (can’t remember if it was cat or dog food, sorry!).
After all this, we went swimming in Krka, water was around 15 degrees, but it was so nice and relaxing. The river is truly beautiful, and I would like for everyone to experience this kind of nature at least once in their life.

The only not-blurry photo of me in the cave

End of part 1

I hope you liked this not-so-short overview of my time in this summer camp, part two will be up soon. Please tell me what you liked the most and about what would you like me to write more! I would like to thank all of you who read this, thank you for time and attention!

All of us; photo by Ester Premate