Journey To The Centre of The Earth

Since 1986, Škocjanski Jame (The Škocjan Caves) have been a part of UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites and is the largest known underground canyon in the world.  Slovenia’s most popular cave to visit is Postojna, but we chose Škocjan as our destination over Postojna as it is slightly less touristic and features a river swiftly flowing through its canyon, which I was very interested to see.  My visit to Škocjan left an impression on me.  Since we did not have permission to take photos inside the cave, I’ll use a thousand words to portray my perception of Škocjanski Jame.

The cave tour starts with walking a long, gradual descent down a tunnel which terminates with a heavy door.  Passing through the door at the end we enter a large chamber full of stalagmites & stalactites; the drip stone formations on the floor and ceilings of a cave.  The cave is home to colonies of several species of bats, underground crustaceans, beetles, and Proteus anguinus, a blind amphibian cave salamander.  We didn’t see any of these creatures on our tour but at one point our tour guide thought he could hear some bats.  He told us that one bat may eat up to 3000 mosquitos in one night, so they never have a mosquito problem in this part of the land!  Progressing through the chamber, the sound of the rushing river becomes audible.  The Škocjan Caves were formed as the Reka River, flowing from the Snežnik plateau, reached the Karst and deepened the riverbed not only through erosion but also by means of corrosion as the limestone surface of the Karst is dissolved.  The tour takes us from the Dol Globočak through Tiha Jama and Šumeča Jama, exiting at Velika Dolina.  Within the cave the air humidity is 80-100% and the air temperature holds a steady 12°C in the dry areas and a range of 0-20°C in areas with flowing water.  Our guide explained to us that the air inside a cave is very healthy to breath, especially for people suffering from asthma; as long as there is no lack of oxygen.  From the tour path the exit first appears as a point of light in the distance, eventually growing into a wide opening with inviting fresh air and flora.  Being inside the cave is a really cool experience but there’s also a sense of allay when one can see daylight.  The stalagmites and stalactites near the exit all appear twisted due to the effects of the wind flowing into the cave from outside.

Škocjan’s system of cave passages spans approximately six kilometres, extending into several underground chambers.  Martel Hall is the largest of these chambers, 308 metres long, and 146 metres above the bed of the river at its highest point.  It has been calculated that this chamber has a volume of 2.2 million cubic metres.

Inside Šumeča Jama we walked along the pathway to where the entire cave opened up into a magnificent chamber, the roar of the river amplified by the natural acoustics of the cave chamber.  A distance from the tour guide, it becomes difficult to hear his voice over the river, but he uses his flashlight to point out significant formations in the rock and levels on the cave walls to where the river once flowed.  It was only a few weeks prior to our tour when Slovenia received a lot of rain, bringing the level of the river up to a point where they had to close the cave to the public.

The Šumeča chamber is 800,000 cubic metres in volume and features a bridge built across the canyon to allow safe crossing for people touring the cave.  This bridge, called Cerkvenik Bridge, spans 47 metres above the river below.  Our path in the chamber leads us to the left side of the canyon, though previously the path followed the right side of the canyon.  In 1965 a flood destroyed the former bridge, which pieces of can still be seen down below. Lighting has been installed throughout the chambers of the cave, revealing the astounding size of this natural phenomenon.  The routes of former cavers can still be seen on the steep walls within the chamber; certainly a dangerous but exciting job, venturing into the unknown.

Back in the summer of 2006 I read Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre of The Earth.  In this classic story from 1864, Axel and his uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, along with their Danish guide Hans, trace the route of an Icelandic alchemist called Arne Saknussemm on a passage to the centre of the Earth which enters atop Snæfellsjökull in Iceland.  They stumble upon a subterranean river which leads to an ocean and a world deep underground full of strange vegetation, and prehistoric creatures.  It’s a fun story to read, but don’t bother with the lousy film adaptations.

Perhaps it’s the boy in me, fascinated by the great tales created by Jules Verne’s wonderful imagination, which led me to think about how it must have felt for the people who were first discovering these caves in Slovenia during the mid-1800’s.  As I toured the cave I kept imagining how it must have felt for them to come upon such a mysterious place, deep in the earth, where they could see only as far as the light from their burning torch would reach.  Approaching a chamber where they could hear the sound of rushing water growing as they came closer and closer to the dark abyss, eventually reaching the void and becoming so awestruck at what they had found.  For those brave men there was no staircase, guardrail, or bridge.  They held on to the very edge, one slip away from falling into infinite darkness.  I imagine their emotions of pride and fear were trumped by their curiosity; their natural fuel to drive them deeper into the abyss and satisfy their desire to discover.

I have great respect for the people in this world who challenge themselves in this way.  It’s how we truly learn about the world in which we live and the capacity of the human species.