By Clive George
The day dawned bright on a damp campsite. It was the end of the Expo and the Austrian sun was celebrating. Some cavers emerged from various pits, vans, huts, etc. and looked at a campsite. 'What do we do with all this then?', came the by now overused phrase. This time the answer was slightly different - it needed sorting into gear to leave at Hilde's, gear to take back to England and gear necessary for a caving holiday in Slovakia. We had to be 300 miles away at a bus station in an unknown town at 6pm that evening. Swiftly people rushed into action - drying tents out, ferrying trailer loads of crap - with astonishing foresight the gear to be left at Hilde's was put in the trailer and the going back to England pile was put on her garage floor - and general packing ensued. By early afternoon (2-ish) a grubby red van and shiny white car growled out of the campsite and sped off eastwards, proud of their efficiency.
Trundle, zoom they went, loony lorries, tight slip roads, getting lost and the Wien motorway system not daunting the optimistic drivers. Until we arrived at the border. Things had gradually become less Austrian (ie. horribly new cars everywhere) and when we were past the customs man (who ignored us) we realised we were in a different world Becka was volunteered to be richest and sent to get some money from the proudly advertised change office with piles of useless crap for sale - like a duty free place without the booze. The fat man sitting at the table calmly gave her some dirty notes from the piles in front of him, and we were off again.
We panicked our way through Bratislava - like driving in London except less cars, worse roads and incomprehensible signs - and somehow we were flung out onto the correct road, whereupon we pottered along gaily admiring the tower blocks and general eastern-European feel of it all. Having got some fuel (at 2/3 western prices), oil for the poor van (even cheaper) we felt in control, even though it was dusk. Those niggling doubts about bus stations niggled some more.
When we came to the Tatra mountains and some quite big hills the niggles seemed to have got to the van's radiator which leaked more and more until it was deemed quite major and we all stopped near a hopeful looking valley in the mountainside where most people slept while water was gathered in the supply of lemonade bottles the van had sensibly acquired. By now, of course, we were late, so we decided to try and pick up Mike and Tina who we'd sort of told to wait at the bus station in Poprad (naturally, not the one we actually had to go to). A very nice roundabout greeted us to their lovely city set in plains with mountains as a backdrop and clumps of scenic tower blocks. Swiftly we became lost, and realised we were not going to find a bus station here even slightly so we abandoned Mike and Tina (who had not come to Slovakia anyway we subsequently discovered) and turned round. Half an hour later when the poor van was extricated from the track Wookey had grounded it on we were on our way, pausing only to fill up with water (which was visibly gushing out by now) and struggled to Stratena. After driving up this village's high street a couple of times we decided that we had seen it all, and the bus station was the shelter with a couple of timetables pinned to a post nearby. We parked opposite in a convenient road with funny markings on it, and went to sleep. It was 2 in the morning.
Rado the caver/computer programmer (some things are truly international) came and woke us up - we were about 100 yards from their hut where we were due to stay - luxury! (and a miracle of routefinding). We were introduced to his family, shown maps of walks, mountains and showcaves we could amuse ourselves with and generally treated very well, but the beds looked very inviting and festering was done. He did however introduce us to a man who could braze radiators together (there seemed to be a lot more people who could do things like this, unlike England where not even garages would touch it).
Since the Slovak expedition was not due to begin until the next week, we were on holiday for a few days. First we went to Poprad (during the day this time), to get more money and some food. Having avoided being lunch-timed at the Cede (national travel agents and money changers) the search was on for the latter. Well, we didn't expect Sainsburys, but... Find of the day was a small shop (market stall sized) which actually sold fresh veg. It was sillyly cheap, as usual, so we filled a rucksack and set off again. The only other shop that looked hopeful turned out to be a luxuries shop, much like the one on theborder.
Then began our search for showcaves. This took us into the heart of touristland, stuffed full of Germans, Austrians and even the odd English car, obviously come searching for a cheap holiday. Unfortunately the first two didn't open on Mondays, so after some random wandering around we gave up next to a cable car station and some followed the obviously marked path. After what seemed like miles of lovely scenic forest (well it would have been scenic except we were in the middle of it) wondering where all these people had come from we emerged onto some quite pleasant waterfalls and rock pools. It was blazing hot, but the water was still freezing, as we discovered while trying to clean ourselves.
The next day began equally poorly for caving, and we were beginning to feel a little disheartened. All our worries lifted however when we finally got underground. The caves were lovely (I'm saving fantastic for later but compared to Austria...) - stals, organ pipes, the whole array of pretties. The tours were a little boring, being normal touristy things with the added disadvantage of being completely incomprehensible, and we quickly had to learn to cover for Wookey who ran off everywhere you weren't supposed to go taking illegal photos and generally being a pain to the guides. After more zooming round the countryside we caught the last tour of a cave (forgotten the name of course) which went through into the Ukraine. Rado told us it was gated! More concrete floored passageway but still some excellent features.
After all this caving we felt it was time for a change so the recommended gorge walk beckoned. The challenge here seemed to be to do the entire walk not using the ladders provided (and coincidentally avoid the hundreds of other people). The gorge itself was a new experience for me, and very pleasant. Returning the wrong way down another gorge, Andy and Wookey learnt descending-waterfalls-quickly-on-their-bum games ('Waaagh'), and we went home.
Next door to us in the other half of the hut were the tour guides for the Dobsinska ice cave - several girls and their boss. The previous night over some vodka and imitation cognac (3 quid for a bottle of VSOP 3 star seemed silly - it was vodka with some colouring!) we had been invited to spend the night in the wood near the cave. We eventually set off, and then all got into this Russian jeep (about 15 of us) and proceeded up this steep rocky track to the cave entrance where the food was. The journey was made more exciting by the poles holding the roof on this vehicle coming apart with the strain of all the people inside. Round the fire, we were taught 'bubblinki' which meant you had to get five bubbles in the bottle of home-made red wine and then pass it on. This was all too much for me, so my last memory after the do-it-yourself dripping (take some fat on a stick, hold in the fire and spread on bread) was being helped into the hay loft and going drunkenly to sleep.
We really are ouigees - the next day when we left for some breakfast before going caving they were really confused. The rest of the day was stunning though. First we were taken on the standard English language tour of the cave which was very impressive cave with 60m deep ice in it. Then the boss took us on his tour. While nobody was about we were taken off the walkway to look at some little holes one where the roof was covered in inch long ice flakes - ten years growth - which looked like snow except on a much larger scale, and another with some lovely ice curtains. Next stop was a little tunnel off the side of the path where a lamp had been put, causing it to dome upwards. Apart from the odd crack and bubble the ice was really clear - you could see some light from the cave lighting, five metres away. Then our guide demonstrated his ability to walk on ice in trainers like he had crampons on. While we slithered round, desperate for a little bit of sawdust to give some grip he strode along being vaguely amused by our efforts. We were shown the collapsed link of this cave to Stratenska cave - a large boulder slope (diggers wouid love it), the ice where they played football and went tobogganing on at Christmas, the hollow ice stal which you normally are told about but can't see, and we generally spent the time running around hiding from the tourists. One tip - don't wear shorts, since they will almost certainly enlarge their rips to obscene size, but goose-pimpled knees give surprisingly good grip.
Trying to do normal holiday things was hard. We went to a restaurant outside the ice cave in the hope that it would be slightly touristy. Unfortunately they do not seem to have heard of vegetarians there so that put two of our party out. The food was cheap but not very inspiring. We didn't try again. Our attempt to go to the bar in Stratena failed too - it looked promising with beer at 16p a pint, but they had none left, and we could only have soft drinks, so we had to give up and feed a whimpering Tony Gösser instead. When a crate was bought from the nearby shop after this fiasco we discovered the beer was so cheap we would have almost made a profit by exporting the empties to Austria.
On our last day of touristdom we split up, half going to walk in the Tatra mountains, which they said was very nice, and the other half going to see Ochtinskß Aragonitovß Jaskya. This cave is kind of unique, as all the formations are aragonite rather than calcite. To quote the English translation of the guide:
'The cave was discovered by pure chance by two miners from Jelsava, M. Cangar and J. Prosek, while blasting a geological survey gallery in 1954. It was made accessible to the public in 1972. The cave was formed in the lens of white to blue-grey crystalline limestones of the Cambro-Silurian epoch through the chemical action of atmospheric waters. The subterranean hollows occurred at the intersection of lines of tectonic breaks and geological strata. Gradually, limestone became transformed with the formation of anchorite. Later anchorite weathered, ochres were washed out and underground hollows were formed, in which aragonite decorations of manifold shapes and patterns were created - in the form of rosettes, tufts of grass and clusters of crystals branching off in all directions.'
These slender, delicate formations looked even more improbable than helictites, and were almost organic in shape - like tree roots coming through the ceiling. (Having paid for a photo permit we really annoyed the guide this time by taking photos caving style and being horribly slow!)
Did you notice the scientific pretensions of the guide? All for the tourists, you might think but we saw an inch thick hardback book describing all the science possible for the cave we were to go down the next week (once again making CUCC surveys look like nursery school pictures). One of the good aspects of the old government was that they gave the cavers money for exploration and research, and they seem to have made good use of it.
After watching a brief bit of rallying (lots of Skodas going far too fast) it became time to go real caving agaln. We were bundled with gear into another 4WD van and taken to their campsite, a few miles up the hill from the hut, Quickiy admiring the gear tent (four freshly cut wooden poles supporting it) we were taken caving immediately. They don't seem to believe in hanging around.
The caving was in Stratenska Janskyna, the other half of the system with Dobsinska ice cave, and a nearby newer discovery. It is fantastic, mainly horizontal stomping passage and chambers. Well, it would be stomping but it is still fairly unspoiled. Like the showcaves there are acres of pretties, except more, and it is so calcited that bolts would be useless, so all the fixed ladders are rigged off stals (and feel a little more dodgy than lawyer ridden England). On the more rickety ones we were even told to go one at a time! It had a muddy 'siphon' which was sufficiently near the end to be a little gratuitous, squeezes to avoid untouched bits, slightly blue crystal pools, bottles collecting drips to fill carbides with, some Welsh style taped off areas and a handstring. This was on a flowstone bridge next to one of the pools, with a seemingly perfect row of stals to hang on to - we thought the line (tatty 3mm string) was just for marking. There were a couple of stals that had been slightly muddied by hands, so it seemed the first people used them, and those of us later on in the party thought those were the official handholds, and were duly shouted at by Olga on the way back. 'But I don't like that string!'
The newer cave had a blocked entrance where bears used to live, with ladders against the passage walls so you didn't touch the mud, and another gated entrance. Once inside, Tony and Andy were taken to take photos of all the calcited bear skeletons which had been pushed there by their descendants. Wookey followed, and was mildly shouted at, since only about 20 people had ever been there and they were trying to keep it that way.
The average trip only lasted around 4 hours, so it was not all hard caving (maybe it wasn't any hard caving...). The obligatory gear comparison was performed - when Tony produced his SRT gear he was given a disappointed 'Oh, Petzl'. Theirs was a little more interesting - a varied array including some home-made stops and jammers, titanium screwgates (£3 new - we bought some) and what seemed like a good idea - carbide generators with a pump for the water, but we were told they were shit as well.
After caving came soup, which had been cooking over the fire all afternoon in a huge pot. No Vesta for them. On being asked if we wanted food (ie. supper and coffee) provided, we were initially shocked by the price until we realised it came to £12 for all of us for a week. Maybe we should buy food there before Expo next year...
When the rum was passed round the camp fire in little glasses, some of us were shamed by saying 'Thanks' and proceeding to sip at it! Funny looks were given - this is Eastern Europe, and the rule is 'down in one'.
On the last day another party was taken to Ochtinska Jaskyna by one of the cavers this time, and then on to visit the local castle. While waiting for our tour, we heard a strange noise emanating from the village. It was the loudspeakers we had seen in all the villages, reading the afternoon news. Once again we were reminded quite a lot is different here.
It was all too soon time to go home again. Tony had racked up 5 consecutive caving trips, most of the party had gone digging (which seemed to consist of either standing around on the surface having sand thrown at you or going underground and the local digger declaring he didn't really want to but you were welcome to try), the film was running out (too much nice cave) and the ferries were waiting. Having discovered the Wookmobile would make it to the campsite we were independent, so we quietly bid our farewells, especially to Olga and Rado (don't call him radio like we did otherwise he won't say your name properly either) who organised the holiday for us.
Going home, punctuated by visiting another showcave, and trying to spend all our Slovak money, was the opposite feeling to arriving, with the roads getting better and buildings getting posher (no more tower blocks). It was a return to civilisation for me - as home is bound to be, but there are many things that are better there. Be jealous - it was a fantastic holiday.
Present: AndyA, Becka, Clive, Oily, Tony, Wookey.
P.S. - Rado is available to program anything in C++, and would love some western money. He is also very cheap.