Easter: the classic ICCC time for fun in the sun, easy caving and Mediterranean villa action. But no - that would not be enough for this year, the yearn for the blank space on the map and the land beyond being too much of a pull. Jana attracted our attention to Croatia - far more savaged in the Yugoslav wars than our home-from-home in Slovenia, the country had a limestone backbone as thick and unpenetratable as the Byzantine bureacracy that protected it from external probing.
However, with a bit of judicious emailing, and Croatian language skills from Jana we found some extremely hospitable hosts who worked the official machinery and constructed a most wonderful week of caving for us.
Having exhausted most of the possible locations in the Mediterranean, it was hard to think of an exotic place to cave, which was near enough for us to go on Easter tour to. Back in December I started thinking about Croatia: We used to live in one country (Jugoslavija – Yugoslavia) and now it is the next door neighbour to Slovenia, yet I had never been caving there. Organisation was difficult - with our hosts being a thousand miles away, the situation complex to explain and the fact that no English cavers had been there in over twenty years.
The night before it had seemed like a brilliant idea. Sleep in stores, thereby avoiding the danger of people missing the 6am wakeout, and thereby punish the group by failing to bring a necessary bit of equipment. Waking up in the drafty and really rather cold concrete corridor was not so pleasent. The night before had seen a whole evening of packing, trying to compress the bulky caving kit into the fascist Ryanair baggage allowances. In order to go straight to the cave, we had to pack enough food and equipment for everyone to wild camp and cave for three days.
Stumble out by the Albert hall and drift to Victoria, sagging and swaying under our obscene loads, bulky as snow men with our layers of fleece. As we wait for the Easybus the first flakes begin to fall, setting the scene for the first few days in Croatia.
Baggage check in was the usual excitement - having to take our enormous bags to oversize luggage being rather useful. Disaster then struck - Dan was sweetly told by the checkout lady that his passport had expired. One more month and all would have been fine, as it was we simply split his communual kit amongst ourselves and send him back to London with a rather sad face.
The drive from Trieste to Sveti Rok was long and either boring or too exciting (e.g. why does the van not turn when the wheel turns?). After 7 hours of arse sitting we finally met our hosts for the week: Darko Bakšić and Igor Jelinić. We went to slept in a luxurious community centre, had a few drinks and some sleep.
I and Tetley flew out to Slovenia two days before the Croatian mission. Easter surprise! We land in a snow storm. Instead of an hour and a half drive to Tolmin we spend 4 hours in choosing the mountain pass that we reckon will have the least snow on. We arrived in Tolmin at 1 AM in the morning. Was still not too late for a few members of the JSPDT, waiting for us since 9 PM with all the spirits and snacks. The mission continues in Club Mink, where there was an Iron Maiden night. We somehow end our journey at Kos's house at 5 AM. O, Men – We need sleep!
Tetley had rented a car, so we had our transport down to Croatia. We met with others at the Slovenia/Croatia border, where it had started snowing once more. Here we go again – driving by night on the snowy roads 40 -60 km/h.
We were a bit worried, that the plan A (going to Munižaba) will collapse. I speak with Darko on the phone they were also late, due to rgw snow. It was 10 PM, when we finally met with Darko and Igor. Of course plan A was off, so straight to plan B, which was to stay in a lovely old peoples centre (was empty at the time) and go caving next day to Kite Gašečina.
We woke up in a lovely morning – sunny and white. Early rising, if we want and go to set up a camp in Kita. The plan B was on, until just before the cave entrance we were already stuck with our cars (too much snow on the road, for a safe drive) the it started to snow really heavily. After the discussion we all agreed that going down and camp would be a bad idea - with over a metre of snow forecast. So, there it was plan C, going to see a pretty cave down in the valley. We were a bit sad, because we could not camp in any of those two caves…:( A, well – next time!
The next day I (James) wake up to a beautiful sight: sun is shining and whispy clouds are rolling over the peaks of the Velebit mountains. Inside the snoring of my fellow cavers sounds reassuring. Eventually we manage to pack for the night's camping/surveying/bolting and head towards Kita Gačešina. Unfortunately having gotten to the top of the pit, it had started snowing again and the weather forecast was rather apocalyptic. Faced with the prospect of spending the night underground to find the entrance pit covered in snow and the van locked in snow we decided to back off, even though Darko cooly informed us that -in case of being snowed in- he did not have any personal issue with abbandoning his car there, walking down the mountain and catching a bus to Zagreb.
So the decision was made to drive to Debeljača. This cave consists of a 20 m hang onto a sloping boulder field, which then opens onto the most beautifully decorated passages and avens. Debeljača proved to be a beautiful place to practice some cave photography and provided a suitably varied selection of caving: a little SRT, a bit of climbing, a bit of traverses, beautiful airy passages and most of all some incredible decorations: huge stals, coralloids, transluscent crystals. The cave ends in a chamber with some mud formations. We regrouped and listened to our hosts playing their wind instruments (Darko a proficient harmonica player and Igor a most impressive whistler, one could say he truely controls the air flowing from his body!). At the end of the day we visited a restaurant, ate and drank our weight in pork products and spirits and went back to the community center.
The day proved to be different from the expected hardships of cave exploration, but nevertheless very enjoyable. Most of all we realised that our hosts were likeable, hospitable, friendly and most importantly very proficient and safe cavers.It bodes well for the rest of the week!
The muddiest cave I have ever been to. It was clay, who sticks everywhere. Going back out on rope was quite entertaining – cleaning the rope in front of me, so the jammer had a grip. Beside that, beautiful cave!
The next day we visit Cerovačka cave: two beautiful show caves which are located right under Murižaba: the destination of our original exploration plans. The day consists of an utter stal-overload: how many pretties can my mind cope with? Caves also contain some bits of animal bones here and there: makes you think those animals must have been pretty determined to get to where their bones lie.
In the evening we drive to Zadar. After visiting the water front with its' LED disco floor and sea powered air organ, we meet with our hosts in the Zadar speleological club: Livio and Marko. Tonight we sleep in a youth hostel, to the relaxing sounds of Croatian folk band. Gergely and Rik indulge in sweet company and sour wine 'till the small hours, whilst the rest of the band enjoys a night sleeping under duvets on comfie mattresses.
Today we visit a cave of which the Zadar club have recently resumed exploration. When told that the entrance pitch is a 5m descent, we all knock our head back and laugh. It turns out to be the most absurdly complicated pitch to rig due to the fact that all descent protection is above an overhanging lip. In an effort to avoid the rub point, the pitch is rigged off a distinctly un-BMClike boulder, with a psychological deviation. We all get down fairly well, but struggle on the way out. Inside the cave is rather remarkable: ancient chambers with more stals than you can shake a stick at (smash your helmet into?). Plenty of muddy holes to crawl into (Gergely finds ~50m or so of new passage). Definitely a fun cave: super-warm, beautifully decorated and with potential for horizontal development.
In the evening we drive to Šibenik and meet our next host: Teo from the Šibenik speleological club. We are hosted in the most luxurious caving hut ever: fridge full of beer, comfortable mattresses upstairs and even a bat infested loft! I seem to remember getting ludacrously uber-ge-pissed. Might have done some singing... mhhh (maybe this tune here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55yCQOioTyY ).
If Debeljača was the muddiest, this one is definitely the oldest cave I have ever been to. The stals and other pretties were already in state of decomposition. Here we also explore (croll) around a bit and find places pure and untouchable. A super caving day with our hosts from Zadar.
Teo walked us around the Krka valley, visited two caves and loads of beautiful waterfalls. The first destination we visited was the site of one of the earliest hydro dams built in the world. After having been ignored the armed guard at the entrance we got changed. this Deserves Special Mention, as the cave we visited required no SRT and no scrotting, peeps where therefore to express themselves sartorially: I hope we have some pics of the amazing results. As well as Teo, we were guided by Luka (Teo's son) and Teo's speleo-dog. Visited a rather pretty cavern, devoid of the super-ornate decoration we had previously encountered and ending in a charming lake: almost fell tempted to go for a swim! Our next destination on the Krka valley was an ancient roman fort which looked over a beauteous waterfall. MMHHH! Those lucky chaps in the IX Legion must have had a whale of a time! Our final destination for the day was a small watermill, it had been designed to take advantage of a tufa (flow rock) cave flowing underground there. A short cave, but truely bizarre: all the formations were root shaped and there where the hairs of plants poking through: how weird?!
At the end of the day, back in Šibenik we visited a presentation on the Sv. Mihovil club's (our hosts in Šibenik) trip to Kilimanjaro. Nice music, pretty pictures, seemed like a barrel of fun! They had loads of people sitting at the presentation, apparently the other hiking club in Šibenik are interested in their colleagues travel! Mhhh... I should work less and travel more methinks! Shortly after we enjoyed some pizza and back to our beatiful beds. The details of this evening are more clearly impressed in my mind: dancing to the radio, learning interesting Croatian word (krmemlj means sleep [as in the stuff in your eyes!]).
Our first day of resting. We woke up in a beautiful, almost summer morning. The amount of faf was of course predictable, specially living in a caving hut next to the see. It was already really hot, when we finally move our feet towards Šibenik (15 min walk). Historic town with castle ruins on top of the hill. Walking with ice-cram in our hands threw little narrow alleys it seems like we are on proper holidays.
On the way back we bought some Burek, sit next to see and enjoy the view. We said goodbye to Šibenik and drove back towards Zadar, near Benkovac.
We wake up to a beatiful sunrise: cool air (for now!), the bivvy bags more than comfortable. After a laid back breakfast we pack and start ascending to the entrance of Mamet: a bell shaped open air pit made famous by this mad Austrian basejumper: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=b-VXvA5hSjs.
Our group was pretty large: 5 of us (Jana, Jarv, Gergely, Tim and me ) from ICCC and 6 Croatians (Darko, Igor and two couples Slaven and Tihana and X and Y), Jarv and Jana did not feel like freezing their buttskis at the bottom of the pit and sweat their legsies on the prussic up so decided to go for a walk. It was noon by the time we started descending and positively sweltering. Darko rigged the route, adding a few bolts on the early chossy part of the descent. After Darko Slaven followed suit followed by me. The first 60-70 m are along the narrow part of the bell shaped pit, lots of rebelays, kind of fun getting the descender nice and hot, beautiful sights of the pit: you can see all the way to the bottom. Worringly enough the bottom of the pit always looks the same distance.
At -60m a comfortable ledge is reached full of 10mm rawl bolts placed by the basejump filming crew. I wait here with Slaven while Darko rigs the rest of the route: rebelay under the overhang and a monster 130m single drop off a super-solid looking Y hang on some more industrial size rawl bolts. Eventually Tihana reaches me on the ledge and Slaven starts descending. At some point Darko is shouting to Slaven in Croatian, I look befuddled enough and Tihana translates for me: "Look down, can you see Darko". "Ugh" - I reply - " where????". "Can't you see the light?". Bloody Hell! That ant sized light is at the bottom of the cave? It's miles away!!! Och well... soon enough it's my turn down.
Hanging rebelay above the 130 m hang is rather "interesting", Jeebus the rope gets really small, and look at those tiny winy people! Soon enough the vertigo is suppressed by the ludicrous amount of rope lifting involved in feeding the fat 10.5 mm Marmet rope through the descender. The not pass is negotiated in great style and last 30 m on 10mm rope go pretty fast. At the bottom we wait ~ for everyone to make it down, keep warm by doing laps of the pit, eat lots of nuts, look under boulders etc etc. Soon enough the time to prussick comes: Darko and Slaven ascend as fast as ferrets on speed and Tihana reminds me that she will only see sunlight on the way out if I'm fast. It's pretty embarrassing to prussic with an audience, but I cane it up as fast as I can. As soon as I reach the ledge I holler "ROPE FREE" and start making my way out the next 70 m in more relaxed style.
I am prussicing just in my microfleece and the chest harness ends up digging beautiful scars in my shoulders: Mamet has chopped off my wings! While waiting for the rest of the gang to get out, we start a little fire and pack up. By 8 pm we are all out and ready for the next chapter.
It is a huge hole - 55 x 45 m plus down 206! Hmmm….and there are 11 of us going down and up again. If you add the time plus Darkos re-rigging, then it is better for us two to go walking. We walked and climb around this rocks around Mamet. Plus I manage to use more of my CatCam. Here is a short movie from photos made on CatCam:
The whole area looks very interesting - pretty much it is limestone all around. Definitely must be more caves around. So we start looking for them. Surprisingly there are millions of holes who do not go anywhere. But we manage to find one cave, very close to Mamet. We came back and saw Tim going – down and Igor was still there as well. It is going to be a long waiting! Igor then said: “You know, I would not walked around much, there are still possible mine fields around!” Hmmmmm…What!? So, we just spend 3 hours walking in “possible” mine fields!? Great! It was getting dark and cold and still about 5 peoples to come out. We find a shelter and make fire, to warm ourselves while waiting. It was 9 PM when we start walking all the way back down to the valley.
Teo invite us to his Spelo Camp, just near by. So, we decided to go there and spend the night there. He draw us a map, so it is going to be easier for us to find it. He said we should just follow the painted foothpath sighs. We spend hour looking for those, we were dehydrated and tired. Finally the sound of water and in tents in the distance.
So we get in the van and start driving to Bijele Vode, where the Sv. Mihovil club have a training camp. By the time we reach the car park it's bloody late, we are all hungry and dehydrated. Meandering through the bush is definitely not maximum fun and we have difficulty following the path. Personally I am preparing for sleeping under a stone/driving to a village and getting some water. Eventually we get to a beautiful place: waterfalls, a great bivouac under an overhanging ledge, a big fire, food, drink and human company! WOW! much better than sleeping under a stone! We eat and soon most of us are in bed.
I think we all slept like babies. We would sleep more if Jarv and I would not sleep just below the climbing wall, where keen fresh cavers were already getting ready to start practicing their SRT. Basically that morning we were just relaxing, washing our stinky feet in the river and getting ready for the long, long way to Slovenia – Tolmin.
Arrived at 8 PM quite tired, where Tetely and Rick looked so fresh. We were hoping to do some van cleaning that night, but instead we rather went to a picking place near Soča, where young JSPDT team was waiting for us with freshly caught fishes straight from Soča.
Tetely and Rick left Croatia on Friday. They went caving with JSPDT to Pološka jama.
We had to wake up at 8 AM and start cleaning our super dirty and messy van. Packing and cleaning till 11, when we left Tolmin and finish hour splendid caving holidays.
Speaking on the behalf of ICCC, I would like to thank our most lovely hosts, for the time and knowledge given to us. Special thank to Darko Bakšić for organising this absolutely amazing trip for us. Hope to see you all again for more caving actions!