22 July 2011

The Water Cave

Križna Jama is unlike any place we've ever been - it's beautiful and enchanting, but the experience is much more than just passages and caverns. It's a water cave - the longest in the world - and very difficult to visit. Navigating the deep lakes and streams, floating on still, glass-clear lakes and surrounded by utter silence, we slipped into a kind of trance.
There's an open, dry section near the entrance, where it's possible to take a one hour tour that culminates in a short boat ride. If you book in advance, it's possible to visit thirteen of the fifty lakes that stretch back along the current. This longer tour takes about four hours, and was more than worth the effort and time. Coming back along the route, the first few caverns seemed over-traveled and somewhat boring; after the wonders of the lakes, the earthen caves seemed like dirty holes, covered in footprints.
The way into the far reaches is dark and clean, without any electric lights and with barely any mark of humanity. Because these waterways are so special, the Slovene government has limited the number of visitors to four per day - on the day that we went, there would be only the two of us and Alojz Troha, our guide. In between the waters, we walked along carefully pointed out paths, where the rock was hard enough underfoot. In deeper pools and small puddles, crystals have formed over the millennia, which can be destroyed if touched or stepped on.
It's cold in the cave, with a constant air temperature of about 45° and colder water to slog through. In the dry section of Križna, visitors on the short tour are given galoshes and powerful flashlights. For the extended tour we wore jumpsuits and sweaters, rubber boots and three pairs of socks, helmets and bright headlights. Neither of us were cold, except for our feet - walking through near-freezing water between spells of sitting motionless in a boat was too much even with so much insulation. We lost feeling after about the first hour, and felt our toes for the first time after we'd already gotten in the car.
Most of the lakes are separated from one another only by a thin strip of stone or by a small hump of sandy rock. Alojz carried the boat over these obstacles and we walked, being very careful to step in the right place. When we were in the water, the gurgling of the small rapids often died away completely. The silence was punctuated only by the sluicing sound of Alojz's paddle, and by our own voices. Sometimes a drop from above made ripples on the surface, occasionally a spring made a faint gurgle as it surged up from below. Alojz has been coming into the caves since 1978 (he grew up in the nearby village and his family owns the woods surrounding Križna Jama), and he told us old stories about early explorers and the old times.
Alojz was excited about my camera and was enthusiastic about having me take pictures. A photographer himself, he had a number of vantage points already planned. He was fond of leaving me on a shore (usually a narrow ledge, half in the water) so that he could paddle out and give the photo some sense of scale. Also, he liked to push Rebecca out alone in the boat, telling her where to paddle and where the best places to pose were. Lighting was very difficult given the darkness. The three of us cooperated, shining our headlights in different directions, illuminating different parts of the wall and water. Before I left, he told me that I should come back with a tripod - "not to take as many pictures," he said, "but to take a few very good ones."
We saw a number of cave fauna as we went - little black moths on rocks, tiny shrimp and invertebrates in tiny pools, wormlike things making trails in shallow silt. One nearly transparent thing with a pellet of bat guano on it's back swam in strange figures in an eddy - Alojz became very animated about this and told us that we had struck the jackpot. Even though all of what we saw was tiny, its assortment was amazing. Križna Jama is the fourth most bio-diverse cave in the world, according to some estimates.
At one point, our guide rescued a small white thing from the water. "This is our mistake," he said. "The boat washes animals from the walls, where they wait for food in the water." He initially thought the little thing was dead, but then it moved in his hand. "Ah," he said, "it is not too late." He carefully deposited it on a low ledge beside the surface and we moved on.
The end of the tour is a giant, stalagmite and stalactite-filled hall where two currents converge in the darkness. We got out here and lingered for a little while, looking at the amazing dripstones and mineral curtains. It had taken us about three hours to make it to this point, though we had been moving slowly and stopping often. Here, we felt as though the world didn't exist beyond this chamber - the sun and the breeze ceased to be realities, like in the deepest corner of a dream. We stared at the dripping features while Alojz looked under rocks for centipedes.
The journey back took only an hour. We didn't stop and our guide paddled much faster. Emerging from the cave, I was surprised by something. The transition from dark to light wasn't especially striking - our headlights had been bright. The sense that suddenly became overstimulated was that of smell. The air inside the cave is sterile and still; the scent of woods and life was overwhelming as we walked out from the entrance. For a few moments, it seemed that I could smell an exact snapshot of Slovenian summer, but it was fleeting.
If you would like to go on the short tour, it costs 7€ and lasts about an hour. The longer tour costs 130€ per boat - the maximum number of people per day is (again) four. Advance booking is necessary: you can call 00-386-41-632-153, or e-mail at krizna_jama@yahoo.com. A one hour tour is possible without any advance booking, and leaves four or five times a day from the little shack near the entrance.

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