Underworld Boating in Krizna Jama
Exploring Europe’s Most Beautiful Cave
If you don’t mind the dark and are looking for an adventure with a real difference then head to Križna Jama cave in Southern Slovenia’s Karst region, said to be the most beautiful cave in Europe. Here you can take a four hour tour of the underworld and learn more about Karst caves and phenomena. Stalactites and stalagmites emerging from a series of underground lakes form the backdrop to an underworld boating trip where silence, darkness and creatures with no eyes rule…
Blinded by the light?
We shine a light on a translucent creature about the size of an earwig. It has probably never experienced light before. And probably never will again. If it actually has eyes it will feel blinded. We speak in hushed voices, the air heavy with humidity, the way forward unknown. Pitch black and loaded with possibility.
We are under the earth
We go deeper and deeper into the earth on a series of rafts that bob about on some 9 km of cave network. Once we leave the entrance to the Križna Jama cave, situated on the east side of Cerknica Lake, the only light comes from the torches on our heads. When we switch them off we are in total darkness. None of us wants to think about what would happen if the batteries died en-masse. Check out this video and you’ll see what I mean.
Silently into the darkness
We climb silently into each raft and paddle off. Sometimes we only travel for a few yards before disembarking and changing raft, or the guide carries the raft with us over the calcareous sinter barriers. At first we launch into a series of small caves; then into wider passages with little green pools that soon become as deep as 6 metres, and except for a few tiny shrimps and water creatures, devoid of life and light.
Shining a light on wonderland
And then out of seemingly nowhere, these deep, dark places flower. Walls of sheer rock throw forth stalagmites and stalactites. Formed as if by magic, but in reality over many thousands of years. Not small pillars but huge columns and curtains and tongues and overhangs. Some sit on the water inviting you to swim beneath if you are brave enough. Some have fallen and look like they are growing under it. Some protrude out of it as if by supernatural force. Our oars splash as we contemplate this natural world that grows up without human intervention or help. Nature’s art, formed in total darkness, from the simple act of rain finding a way into the centre of the earth through porous limestone.
Not for the casual or the claustrophobic
This trip isn’t for the claustrophobic. It’s a serious adventure that you have to commit to both mentally and physically. Yet it’s a relaxing, gentle tour requiring neither skills nor your own equipment. The tours are run daily by local guides when water levels allow. (If there’s no rain the lakes become too low to get the boat across.) They only take four people in at once, so as not to compromise either the environment or the experience, although our guide made an exception for us and allowed our whole family of five to make the expedition.
The only way out is the way you come in; and you are under the earth for a minimum of four hours. Which means that at the furthest point, getting back to the surface from the underworld can be a two hour paddle or more. But if you do commit, it’s worth it. I guarantee you will never experience anything like this again.
Paying the ferryman
In this dark underworld, as our oars splash in the blackness beneath and the thick walls absorb the sound, I wonder if this is what it’s like when you die and pass on to the other side. Could our guide be the famous ferryman? But then, we’re not ready for that yet. We have three children with quite a bit of life in them, which they demonstrate by starting a fight in the boat. They’re the only kids I know who can still have a scrap on a raft under the earth in the dark!
Alojz Troha, our guide, is full of life too; in his own quiet way. Despite the fact he’s been doing this since 1978, he is a child in a rather unconventional sweet shop, delighted to show us the tiny creatures that dwell here, and pointing out numerous formations for us to photograph. He orders Stuart out of the boat when there is a photo opportunity he can’t get on board, and he runs his oar across a curtain that falls like organ pipes to give us an impromptu and very literal rock concert. It’s the only sound for miles. We’ve probably now deafened the locals as well as blinding them.
The lesser known of the famous show caves
The Križna Jama cave is just one of Slovenia’s famous show caves, and an important part of the Karst region. But this state owned network of underground caves and rivers is much less commercialised than its neighbours the Postojna Cave and the Škocjan Caves. There is no gift shop, toilet block or café on site; just a simple car park and hut where you can select boots or caving outfits, depending on the tour you are taking.
And you don’t need to take the full on four hour adventure tour; a one hour group tour will give you a taste of one of the underground lakes, as well as showing you the skull of the extinct cave bear and the tracks of typical visitors like the dormice that come looking for food.
Or you can do what we did and navigate 13 lakes in some of the eight kilometres of cave system.
Bank of treasures
The last cave, known as Calvary, is without a doubt a reward for the effort. Here the formations are so numerous that they have formed a bank of treasure. It’s here we find that those fragile looking stalagmites and stalactites aren’t quite so delicate as they appear. Our guide encourages us to explore them and we wander amongst them.
“I want to be an explorer when I grow up,” Hannah whispers, snapping her torch light off so she can really feel the dark as we climb back into the boat to begin the long cold float back to the earth. She’s a braver woman than I, this creature of the night. Perhaps in another life she was a bat.
It is possible, with notice, to visit the Križna Jama cave all year round. In July and August, you can attend one without prior arrangement at 11am, 1pm, 3pm, and 5pm, and in September: at 11am, 1pm and 3pm.
The longer tours are bookable in advance only. They also run year round in theory although in peak summer they may be cancelled due to low levels of water so phone a couple of days before setting out. In winter you can have an even longer tour of seven hours that takes you to the very end of the cave system and allows you to see the final gallery known as the Crystal Mountain.
Check with the cave for prices and times. The four hour tour costs significantly more than the one hour large group tour but in our opinion is totally worth it for the quality of experiences. Overalls, wellington boots, helmets and head torches are all provided. Minimum age for children is ten, but guides are willing to talk with parents about whether an adventurous younger child can go the distance, but that is entirely at their discretion.