Visit: 19th July 2015
The Škocjan Caves are located in Slovenia, a short drive over the border from the Italian city of Trieste – where Natalie and I stayed for the first two nights of our summer holiday this year. The site is classified as a natural WHS, making it the first such natural site we have completed together (I have also been to the Dorset and East Devon Coast – but that was with Ross – whilst Natalie has been to the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve in Madagascar – but as part of a college group).
We went there on a Sunday and found the visitor centre thronged with people – mostly Slovenian tourists it seemed. The temperature was blisteringly hot, which made the caves an attractive refuge, no doubt. It cost €16 each for the main tour, making it the most expensive WHS on our trip, but it ended up being well worth it. We were led down to the cave’s entrance in a huge group of at least 70 people, so it was a relief when the guides announced we were going to be split into three groups, by language. We English-speakers were to go around with the Italians, and our guide delivered explanations in both tongues.
The tour set off along a narrow concrete tunnel, which wasn’t very promising. But it quickly opened up into the first cavern: an area of thousands of stalactites and stalagmites millions of years old.
We proceeded into what is known as the Silent Cave, so-called because it has no river rushing through it – unlike the noisier parts of the cave complex that we were to come to later. This is where the rock first opens up and gives you the sense of being in a grand space. As we snaked our way downwards on a beacon-lit path we felt like we were in the Lord of the Rings, journeying into the bowels of Mount Doom.
The caves are located in the northwestern tip of the Italian/Slovenian Karst region, which refers to a geological area of soluble rock. Some of this rock dissolved over time, leaving these wonderful caves, holes and underground rivers that we see today. Our guide told us that the Škocjan Caves had been discovered long ago, and first properly explored and documented in the 19th century. They were inscribed on the World Heritage list relatively early, in 1986 – which is normally a good sign. They were further placed on to a list of Wetlands of International Importance in 1999, where the wetlands referred to at Škocjan are of course subterranean.
The cave opens up into a much larger cavern as the tour proceeds to link up with the underground Reka river (one of the many tautological river names in the world). As we were visiting in the middle of summer the water was at a seasonal low, so it didn’t project the sense of power that one must feel when it is gushing through the caverns at up to 400 cubic metres per second.
The path snakes around the walls of the Great Hall and includes an impressive bridge. As we neared the exit to the caves we began to notice the air becoming warmer before we sensed the any inkling of natural light. It had been a cool 12°C in the dry areas, but as we got closer to the rapids where the Reka sloshes into the caves’ entrance the temperature began to resemble more the outside air of 35°C. Here we encountered bats. Despite it being daytime, they flitted in and out of their nests in the semi-darkness, lending the cave a suitably macabre atmosphere.
The tour ended once we were fully ensconced in daylight at a large cave mouth. The guide offered visitors the option of either taking a funicular up to the high point from which we had descended or of walking up along the park’s trails. We went for the walk, and enjoyed the delights of the park’s surface rivers and woods. It was a sweaty endeavor, of course, but most pursuits are in that kind of climate when you are dressed in a most temperate fashion of jeans and a shirt.
After disappearing into the caves here in Slovenia the Reka flows underground for 34km until it emerges near the Italian town of Monfalcone to before flowing into the Gulf of Trieste.
I have seen caves like these on the TV, perhaps on Attenborough-type nature shows. But never have I been inside on myself, so it was a real first-time experience for me, and one I certainly won’t forget.