Wonders of Dalmatian karst

Dalmatian landscape is made up of mostly limestone. Karst, as it is a scientific name for it, is by a definition a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves.

So there are A LOT of caves in Croatia! Many known for millenia and explored but still hundreds all over the country that have not been discovered.

We had a great opportunity last month to visit two very special caves in Dalmatian hinterland. One, Velika Ćulumova pećina, is near Kijevo and Vrlika and is well known for its massive bat colony.

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Dinara mountain in the distance
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Velika Ćulumova pećina is clearly marked

This cave is easy to visit – with permits! – as it does not have drops and serious differences in heights. The initial descent is some 7 meters difference from the entrance and then it is fairly flat all 360 meters of its length. But it is also very decorated and considered to be one of the most beautiful caves in this part of the country.

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The colony of bats inside is several thousand strong and the sound of them squeaking above your head may not be the most pleasant sound you ever heard. We tried not to disturb them and I even turned off my strong helmet light. I have a custom helmet light that makes all of modern helmet lights shamefully weak so I turned it off in the big hall with bats. Bats are not blind, contrary to general opinion. We also kept as quiet as possible.

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All over the cave, mud like leyer of bat dung is found. The guano does not smell nice and there is a LOT of it! Some places even knee deep so we all had boots on. It is that black matter on the ground.

We continued exploring and finally reached the last hall. Evidence of human devastation is very present as many of the ornaments have been broken and taken away… There are even graffiti from 1930s in the last hall. Sad.

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I do think the entrance should be closed by some sort of iron gates like on other protected caves in order to preserve the cave and its bats. Not everyone is responsible and loves nature…

Next stop was a very special treat!

There are caves and pits that have been used as places of worship, shelters and even storage facilities but very few as wells. One of them – and it is simply a marvel of traditional architecture – is cave near Kistanje in Bukovica region of Dalmatia.

One can reach it by taking a main trail though the fields near the village of Bezbradice.

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This traditional dirt road is work of perfection with all these flat rocks making up a massive wall leading to the actual well and deeper in the fields.

It was about 34 Celsius (93 F) and there was no place to hide from the hot sun. But then we reached the well. It is basically a combination of a man made structure and a cave that, long time ago, someone thought to be an excellent source of fresh water for most of the year.

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In order to get to the water, locals build a structure with several steps all the way down to the actual well. The water can get awfully high as seen from the marks it left on much higher level of the well.

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The water is so still that I thought there was nothing there till we threw a small rock. We did not have any vessel to get water from below as it was quite lower than the last step but I will return.

According to local legends, the water from this cave is part of a large, underground river Marica. This water has healing powers and healed fertility issues with one local girl long time ago. Just legends or…? In any case, this is one of most wonderful spots I have seen in a while! It looks almost as entrance to the underworld. Maybe it is…

Wonderful world of Dalmatian karst does not stop to surprise!

 

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Vrdovo plateau and Vodena peća cave

I have never been to Vrdovo before. This part of hinterland I am not very familiar with and I am enjoying every opportunity to explore it. Few days before Christmas, we were invited to go searching for some newly discovered caves. This is a relative term as most of the caves have been “discovered” a while back but most of them were known only to the local cattle herders and never explored. There is one very interesting story in development focusing on one of the pits on Vrdovo but more on it when it happens.

Kamešnica mountain seen from Vrdovo
Kamešnica mountain seen from Vrdovo

In short, Vrdovo is a mountain plateau between Kamešnica and Dinara and just below Vještića  hill (Witches’ hill) in Hercegovina. Very barren and rocky, it was always serving just as a pasture with few patches of fertile land. Numerous old stone huts still serve as evidence of once difficult life as most of the cattle herders are now gone…

“Here – There” sign

As our search for caves was not producing any results, we decided to visit a well known and explored Vodena peća cave closer to Sinj. Passing the “Here – There ” sign, we continued driving through the hillside on the well maintained dirt road. From the west, the fist signs of now infamous storm “Ines” were approaching with temperature dropping fast…

The storm approaching with sunset
The storm approaching with sunset

Even though the forecast was quite bad and with numerous warnings, the next day, a group of friends decided to visit Vrdovo in the snow not taking the warnings seriously. It almost costed them their lives as the rescue team had serious difficulty reaching them. Nature is not to be taken lightly…

And we soon reached Vodena peća cave.  Another well hidden entrance!

Vodena peća entrance
Vodena peća entrance

The name implies it is full of water but we did not encounter anything serious. However, the cave is just beautiful masterpiece of water!

Inside the cave
Inside the cave

The main canal is fairly long – about 100 or so meters. It is big and spacious for nearly the entire length and it filled with both stalactites and stalagmites and all sorts of decorations.

Colors of the underground
Colors of the underground
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“Raining”
The grand interior of the main canal
The grand interior of the main canal

And there is another canal of the this beautiful cave. Not as attractive for general public as it is one scary, 80 meters deep straight pit! We entered the first section of the second canal just to see what it looks like but it is much demanding than the main canal. The second canal is for serious cavers only!

And for bats.

Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum)
Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum)

There are only few sleeping through the winter hanging from the cave ceiling. I think this is Veliki potkovnjak or Greater horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) in English but please correct me if I am wrong. Out of nearly 1150 different species of bats in the World, there are 52 in Croatia and 35 are under strict protection. There are 5000 + species of mammals on planet Earthy and one fifth are bats! While in the past, the house that was visited by a bat was a blessed one, recently, due to modern day education and influence of vampire movies, bats are considered “scary and dangerous”. Far from that, they are one of the very important parts of every eco system.
One of the greatest threat to these fragile creatures is posed by the wind turbines and it is estimated, in Germany, that in the past 10 years, over 2 mil bats have been killed …

Hibernating ...
Hibernating …

Nature should just be admired and left alone.

In search of an elusive olm

The olm (Proteus anguinus) was always one of the animals I wanted to see. It lives only in this part of the world but it is rarely seen by people as it lives underground. It can only be found in the karst caves starting from Soča near Trieste all the way to Hercegovina. It rarely gets out of the caves and only if the floods bring it out. In appearance, it is a strange, almost lizard like animal and, because of it’s skin color that resembles the color of the human skin, it is also known in these areas as a “human fish”.  It was first mentioned in 1689 by a local naturalist Valvasor describing that after heavy rains, the olms were washed up from the underground and made locals believe they saw a cave dragons’ offspring.

Olm - photo from the internet
Olm – photo from the internet

So, being a member of “Špiljar” Caving club from Split, I asked Mr. Tonči Rađa if it would be possible to see the olm. Luckily, olm lives only few miles from Split. In Dugopolje.
One August afternoon, we all got together, got the equipment and headed north to Đuderina jama cave. The cave is nothing special but has one very narrow section and the olm is usually hidden way deep. In a small, natural lake. The olm was first found here in 1979.

Nata entering the cave
Nata entering the cave

The cave is not too deep – only few meters at the entrance and then few more to get to the lower level. We used ropes and 100 years old rope ladder that belonged to Split’s first cavers! Since some of us were not experienced cavers, that ladder came in quite handy!

The 100 years old wire rope ladder
The 100 years old wire rope ladder

The cave is nothing special – very few cave decorations can be seen.

Going in...
Going in…

We had to get on our knees and then slide through some muddy sections to get to the part of the cave with the olm. But before that, we had to slide through a very narrow section, In some parts, it was so narrow the helmet could barely go through…

Getting through a narrow section
Getting through a narrow section

After all this, we finally reached the part of the cave where olm lives. It is a narrow passage – just for one person – all the way to the small lake. But, we were not lucky to see it… Despite all the rain this summer, the small lake in the cave was almost dry- The olm has retreated deeper to the underground, to the narrow streams and rivers where it normally hides.

So, it was time to go back and hope that some other time we will be more lucky and finally see it. It is quite common in the caves in this area so it should not be too long before we get o see it in real life.

Also, important notice – caving is only for people with permits and with experienced, licensed members of local caving clubs. And don’t forget, the olm is a protected animal!