Hundreds of thousands of people visit Slovenia’s Postojna Cave Park every year, but only a lucky few get to explore the underground passageways beyond the popular train tour and beneath Predjama Castle. Watch the video trailer for this epic caving adventure and read on for the details:
In the Footsteps of Luka Čeč
The small group adventure tours described on the park’s website are only available by advance reservation at certain times of the year. We signed up for the Luka Čeč tour, named for the local lamplighter who discovered the vast underground wonderland in 1818 and toiled in poverty for decades before getting the credit he deserved. Fortunately, caving gear has improved a lot since then. The park provides boots, oversuits and helmets with headlamps included in the ticket price. But the best part of the experience was our confident and well-informed guide, biologist Primož Gnezda.
After suiting up, Primož and our family of three active adults traveled several kilometers in a van to the popular campground outside the entrance to Pivka Cave (pronounced pee-ew-ka). We descended an iron staircase to reach a staging area at the mouth of the cave. There, we learned how to rig an acetylene torch on one of the helmets. This meant that our son, Andrew, would do the entire hike with a live flame burning on his head and carrying a hot canister to generate the fuel for the warm glow. The other helmets had battery-powered lights.
Small group caving adventures are a popular corporate team-building exercise. Apparently the employees get a kick out of problem-solving while seeing each other — and their boss — slip and slide in the mud. We tried solving a puzzle that required us to balance an explorer’s boat with the right number of objects found underground.
At one point we turned out all the lights to experience total darkness and eerie silence. My thoughts traveled to the 2018 news story about the young soccer players stranded for days in a cave in Thailand and the terror they must have endured.
Our helmet lights spotlighted the cave formations and tunnels as we made our way to the point where Primož rigged us into harnesses for the rope descent to the water. Fortunately, our level of skill was not as important as trusting our guide to man the safety line as we fell to the ground below.
Four people was just the right number for the inflatable boat that we paddled around a peaceful underground lake. We climbed back up the rocks to continue the walk. Our mud-splattered boots made loud sucking sounds as we tramped along the slippery path.
A Brave Biologist and his Baby Dragons
In addition to his caving skills and great sense of humor, Primož might have the world’s coolest job. He tends the baby olms who attracted worldwide attention when the eggs were discovered in Postojna Cave in 2016. Also known as proteus and promoted to park visitors as “baby dragons,” these cave-dwellers can live up to 100 years. During wartime, researchers had to abondon some olms in a tank. They returned later to learn that the aquatic invertebrates had been able to live without food for several years.
Primož led us down a muddy slide and knew right where to find a plump adult olm in the water. He also pointed out translucent white shrimp, another of the 150 species that live in the caves. Getting a close-up look at the “dragon” in the wild was an extraordinary experience, but nowhere near as challenging as scrambling back up to the path through the slippery mud. At this point, I should probably mention that my son, still carrying an open flame on his head, really dislikes mud. However, he was a good sport about it.
More than two hours had passed by the time we reached the cave exit. We climbed another staircase to return to the starting point, passing by a monument to the caver who enabled World War II fighters to burn aviation fuel the Nazis had stored in Postojna Cave.
Predjama Castle’s Windy Hole — and Bats!
We were hungry for a lunch break at Gostilna Požar, with a picture postcard view of Predjama Castle from the terrace. My husband and son opted for long-sleeved sweatshirts and long pants on this part of the adventure, but I attracted stares from the tour groups in my oversized orange cave suit, which looks like a cross between NASA Astronaut and Ghostbusters.
After a short walk through a meadow, Primož unlocked a door to another underground world. We had signed up for the guided visit to the Cave under Predjama Castle, part of Slovenia’s second largest show cave. We entered an area once used as a stable. The relatively pleasant temperature makes it a haven for hibernating bats, and tours are only allowed from May to September when the bats are awake. Vampire bats are not among the 14 species found here, but they can be badass critters for other reasons. Read more here.
The easy trail led to the Wind Hole, where we braved the strong draft to climb a ladder to other connected chambers. Experienced climbers can scale Erazem’s Passage, which enabled castle inhabitants to bring in food from the outside world and withstand a siege from the Holy Roman Emperor’s army for a year. Read more about the fascinating history in this post.
And yes, we saw plenty of bats hanging around. During hibernation, the ceilings are covered with thousands of bats. Climbing yet another set of stairs, we emerged from behind the higher levels of the castle, tired but with a new appreciation of Slovenia’s unique cave fortress.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Getting there or staying there: Postojna Cave Park is an easy day trip from Ljubljana. We drove there in a rented car in 45 minutes, although we ran into a road construction traffic jam that made the drive much longer on the way back. There’s a wide choice of hotels in Ljubljana, and the city has embraced AirBnb. To get started by setting up an account on Airbnb with a discount, click here.
The Hotel Jama in the park offers guests a discount on park activities. Gostilna Požar in Predjama offers rooms near the castle. Camping Pivka Jama is a popular choice for those wanting more time in “the nature.”
Fitness Level Required: No caving experience was needed for the Luka Čeč tour, but you have to be okay with climbing up and down the equivalent of a 50-story building. I recorded more than 13-thousand steps on my Fitbit Blaze.
Some of the adrenalin tours require more advanced skills, but the Windy Hole walk under the castle is suitable for kids as young as 6. You need to be comfortable in dark, enclosed spaces. If you have mobility or fitness issues, the Postojna Cave train provides an accessible adventure for everyone, as described in this post.
Nearby, the UNESCO-protected Škočjan Cave offers a guided underground hike with options for longer walks in the surrounding karst region.
What to bring: Underground temperatures are typically around 8 to 10 degrees celsius (about 48 Fahrenheit), even in the hottest days of summer. Bring a long sleeved sweatshirt and long pants. The over suits and rubber boots will protect you from the mud. We wished we had brought caving gloves as well. After more than two hours down under, my hands were nearly frozen.
My trusty Panasonic Lumix camera with Leica lens ordinarily takes amazing pictures in lowlight conditions and allows me to travel light on active adventures. It fit securely in the velcro pocket of my cave suit, leaving my hands free to grab ropes and muddy rocks. I worried about losing my rings as my hands got colder, so I’d also leave the fine jewelry at home. Once it’s in the mud, it’s gone.
Buying your tickets: Adventure tours must be reserved at least three days in advance on the park’s website. At the time of our visit in 2018, the Luka Čeč tour was 150 euros per person and the Windy Hole walk under the castle was 24 euros per person. Considering that the price includes all of the needed equipment, plus an experienced guide for your small group of up to 5 people, it’s a good value. I’d compare it to the cost of lift tickets, equipment rental and a ski lesson for a day on the slopes. Memorable experience in one of the world’s unique destinations? Priceless.
Disclosure: Postojna Cave Park sponsored this post by discounting our tour. Post reflects the experience and cost for typical visitors at the time of my visit. Research and opinions, as always, are my own. Photos are mine, except the rappelling shot in the video that is courtesy of Postojna Cave Park.
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