By the time I made it back to the hostel at 9pm my sickness was truly in full swing from the long day of physical exertion – hiking, mountain climbing, and cycling as fast as I could. But the only 24hr pharmacy in town, where I’d planned to pickup a pack of emergency vitamin C, had a massive line so I decided to just wait it out. By total luck I’d made it home just in time for the hostel’s Monday night BBQ – 5 euro for all you can eat meat – so in virtually no time I was in bed and resting up for yet another long day in Slovenia.
The problem was that since I’d waited so long for the rain to subside in Budapest, I was starting to feel quite pressed for time. I had little choice but to start cutting cities and compressing multiple stops into single days. The next such day would include two particularly spectacular caves, the first of which has been described as a scene straight out of Journey to the Center of the Earth. If time permitted, I also hoped to visit a nearby castle (which coincidentally looks like it’s growing out of a cave – see here).
The difficulty in trying to do all three in a day, I learned, is that both caves can only be visited on guided tours – which only happen at fixed times – and these times jive rather poorly with the bus and train schedules. Furthermore, since they’re located in the outskirts of their respective towns it meant I’d have to do some pretty fast walking at each stop of the day.
I sure hope 6 hours of sleep is enough.
First up: Divača, gateway to the Skocjan caves, the farther of the two. For most of the hour long bus ride I tried to continue resting, opening my eyes just moments before my arrival to see yet another lush, green town. It was blisteringly hot when I jumped off and started a brisk jog down an empty road that seemed to lead nowhere. All I could do was hope that the 30-40 minute prediction was correct, as I had exactly 30 minutes until the first tour of the day – and the next wouldn’t be until three hours later. If I missed it, my schedule would suddenly be in serious jeopardy.
Walking and walking, running and running, no signs indicating distance. Then a girl pulled up next to me in a small car and opened the passenger door: “You must be going to the caves. Need a ride?”
She turned out to be one of the tour guides, and told me that every morning she sees people rushing down that barren highway from Divača to the remote entrance of the caves. Though most visitors come by big tour bus, there are always a few independent travelers struggling to make their way there by public transport; she gives at least one such traveler a ride almost every day. How nice of her 🙂
I made it there by 9:45. The tour went something like this:
First we were led down a small path into the woods where we gathered at the entrance to the 6km-long underground tunnel. Here the rules were explained to us. The only one I remember: no photos or videos.
I hate that. That rule pisses me off so much.
Then we were split into smaller subgroups, each with its own guide who handled two different languages: There was an English and Chinese group, a German and Italian group, and an English and Slovenian group.
In all honesty, it was exactly the kind of tour I hate. Aside from the fact that the price was ludicrously high (15 euros, more than the cost of going up the Eiffel tower or into the Louvre or than any museum or landmark I’d visited for that matter), there really wasn’t any reason to have a tour guide in the first place. It felt like she was just there to babysit, nothing more – the small amount of information she provided could’ve easily been printed on a handout leaflet, saving everyone loads of time. And despite the high fee paid, we didn’t even get a tour unique to our language – so we had to spend half the time just standing around listening to something we couldn’t understand. As if this wasn’t enough, we spent even more time repeatedly stopping and waiting for the group to catch up and gather. Why not just let us go at our own pace and read about things as we get to them? The whole thing took nearly two hours, but could’ve easily been done in half that long, including leisurely photo-taking (if it had been allowed).
Maybe I’m just jaded because I have seen spectacular Karst caves in China, where I could roam around as I pleased – without paying nearly $20 to be led like a lost child. In truth the Skocjan caves really were quite amazing – some huuuuuuge underground chasms absolutely covered with stalagmites and stalactites of every size and shape. The biggest one, over quarter of a million years old, was probably 20 times bigger than the biggest I’d ever seen – the chamber containing it more than 30m high and 100m long. I was just getting so fedup with constantly standing around waiting for the fifty other tourists that I couldn’t appreciate it as much as I probably should have. I’ve got my own flashlight, I don’t need to stand around with my hands in my pockets waiting for yours!
By about halfway through the tour, I was fully intending to classify it as “not worth a visit.” That is, until we reached the second part: the wet caves.
Oh My God. AMAZING.
An underground canyon with a river at its base, over 100m deep and 3km long. Now that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, EASILY 500 times larger than the second largest cave I’ve been to – and believe me I’ve been to quite a few. At times it felt like I could’ve been walking along the Colorado River in the base of the Grand Canyon at night, as the walls were so high that you could only see blackness like a night sky overhead. It truly was something straight out of Journey to the Center of the Earth – an entire underground world.
Wow. That section alone made all the tour-guided BS that led up to it worthwhile.
Screw them for not letting me take photos though. Seriously.
We emerged from the underground world through an opening that had to be ten stories high, leading to an outdoors canyon that looked just like a tropical rainforest from Jurassic Park – with a misty waterfall and impossibly high cliffs on either side. I hiked my way back up and out, happening by a family of travelers from Melbourne who I’d met at the bus stop in Bled the day before.
I guess they liked the idea of Skocjan, as they hadn’t heard of it when I mentioned it to them – but here they were the very next day 🙂
After just a brief chat I began the 4km trek back to Divača station; this time I took a pedestrian-only route that led first through the forest (where I almost stepped on a snake) and then a small town (yes, even smaller than Divača). I had no idea when the next bus or train would come; only that the faster I went, the more likely I’d be of making it in time to get onboard.
It turned out that the next train wasn’t for over an hour. Bah. With that kind of time I could’ve just waited 45 minutes for the free shuttle, avoiding the walk altogether
Next stop: Postojna, for Cave Number Two!
…where once again the next shuttle wasn’t scheduled for an hour! Geez, what’s with these poorly-thought-out schedules? Time to start walking, again…
Fortunately this time the caves were just a few kilometers away, and very well marked, so getting there was more or less a breeze.
The price tag here was even more of a scam than Skocjan: 20EUR. I think that maybe double the highest price I’ve seen for any tourist attraction on this trip, outside of Slovenia. Apparently the Postojna caves are the number one attraction in the country, as evidenced by the huge parking lot full of tourbusses, dozens of souvenir shops and eateries at the entrance, and hundreds of five-foot-tall Japanese grandmas and grandpas with cameras dangling around their necks.
By the time I bought my ticket and arrived at the gate there was exactly ONE minute to spare before the start of the hourly tour. That was lucky 🙂
Postojna cave was very very different from Skocjan.
The trip commenced on a small train that whisked us through the first 2km of passages, actually quite fast, weaving in and out of the stalactites and stalagmites just like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Apparently the full length of the cave is a mind-bending 20km.
At the end of the train we gathered our ENORMOUS tour group – many times the size of that at Skocjan – and were again informed that photos and videos are strictly forbidden. Walking in front of the group, I asked the guide why they made such a dumb rule. He tried to convince me that it’s universal of caves throughout the world, that they’re all like that. Um, no buddy, sorry.
Apparently the rationale is that if you allow people to take photos, it’ll be impossible to keep the group together and you end up spending even more time waiting for stragglers. My reply was that you shouldn’t be requiring tours in the first place, just let people walk at their own pace and enjoy themselves. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around that one.
Still, the caves were again quite spectacular – and different from the previous. Although both did have some amazing-looking chambers of super detailed stalactites and stalagmites, this place was truly on a scale of its own – it seemed to just keep going and going, each chamber larger than the next, each with zillions of twisting, turning, dripping, craggy, colorful, unusual rock formations. It really is astonishing that nature can create such interesting and varying shapes – especially when you consider the fact that it takes a hundred years for a stalactite to grow just one centimeter. The Postojna caves are estimated to be about ten million years old.
Thankfully, despite the enormous tour group the pace here was much better than at Skocjan. They were clearly equipped to crank through the visitors en masse, and each spot where the guide stopped to give information provided a microphone and loudspeakers – so he could start talking immediately, not having to wait for slow walkers off in the distance. Less standing around waiting = a much better experience.
As an added bonus, the tour included a glance at the Humanfish, a rare species of salamander that only lives in underground rivers, only in this very small part of the world (Slovenia, Bosnia, and Northern Croatia). Although they’re only a few centimeters long, apparently they live for around 100 years and can easily survive for up to five years without eating anything at all. Man, and I thought camels were resilient creatures.
After the cave tour ended I was presented with a dilemma. Originally I’d hoped to finish the day by visiting Predjama Castle, just 9 kilometers down the road – but due to the poor transit schedules, buses were no longer running. Plus I was pretty exhausted, and the closing time was less than 45 minutes away. I did think pretty seriously about hitchhiking there just to get some exterior photos, but chickened out in the end – partially because I was afraid I wouldn’t make it to the station in time to catch a train back to Ljubljana.
Besides, I still wasn’t quite healthy and figured a couple hours of just sitting around couldn’t hurt. So I walked back to the station and caught the next train home.