Show Caves of the Swabian Alb, Germany

Sontheimer Höhle - Laichinger Tiefenhöhle

by Tony Oldham

In the middle of the Swabian Alb, Germany, and only three miles from the Laichinger Tiefenhöhle (Laichingen Deep-Cave), lies Sontheimer Höhle. Whereas the entrance to the Laichinger Tiefenhöhle is situated on the high plateau of the Alb, Sontheimer Höhle is tucked away in Tiefental (Tal=valley) one of the many dry valleys for which the Alb, like all limestone areas, is renowned. The cave is only a short distance from the village of Sontheim in the district of Münsingen. Travelling from Laichingen or Münsingen, the road to the west through the village bears the sign "zum Höhle" (to the cave). After about half a mile, it is necessary to turn right along a stony track across a meadow. This track continues into the pine woods and terminates at the entrance to the cave.

Before the party descends through the wicker fence under the massive rock entrance portals, the guide refers to a plan of the cave on the hut wall, and points out the subterranean journey. A 30 feet flight of steps leads down into the "Entrance Hall" which is 140 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet high. Opposite the entrance, a high chimney runs up out of a small niche called the "Devil Kitchen". One of the characteristics of this cave is the way in which the chambers suddenly close down into small passageways. After passing through a small rock doorway, the "First Hall" is entered. It is about 20 feet high, 40 feet long and 25 feet wide. An even smaller passageway leads into the "Second Hall", which contains three interesting stalactite formations.

A further flight of steps leads into the "Third Hall". Here the two formations most worthy of note are, on the left "The Cave Bear" and near the end of the chamber to the right "The Mushroom or Bell". The Bell is a large, amber-coloured stalagmite boss. This chamber is the deepest and most distant part of the cave, being 125 feet below, and 630 feet from the entrance.

One of the many wonders of this cave are the bats; over two thousand of them spend each winter here. The four most common bats are the Mouse-Eared Bat (Myotis myotis), the Lesser Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros) the Barbastelle (Barbastella barbastellus), and the Long-Eared Bat (Plecotus auritus), out of which the Mouse-Eared Bat represents seventy-five per cent. of the total. The habits of the various species are most interesting, for instance, one species prefers the "Third Hall" because of its almost constant temperature, whilst other species prefer the "First and Second Halls" with their slight fluctuations in temperature during the winter. By attaching small aluminium rings to the bats, it has been possible to ascertain that the bats not only travel frequently in the immediate district, but also have been known to fly up to ninety miles away. Bats have lived in Sontheimer Höhle for thousands of years, as is shown by the many fossilised bat skeletons found in a bed of preglacial breccia.

The cave itself has been known since the fifteenth century, and appears to have been quite popular in the eighteenth century.

A more recently discovered cave is the nearby Laichinger Tiefenhöhle. This cave is unique, because it is the only "pothole type" of cave in the Swabian Alb, and for that matter the whole of Germany, which is open to the public. The cave has been fitted out with iron ladders, concrete paths and electric lights, so that the tourists can see first hand, the karstic phenomena in a "vertical" cave.

Quite by chance in 1892, a sand-digger discovered the cave.

Exploration and improvements to the cave multiplied, only being interrupted by the two world wars. A series of caving huts were built at the cave entrance, each one a little more palatial than the last. The final hut was built in 1959, and it not only serves as a caving club hut for the Höhlen-und-Heimatverein Laichingen (HHVL - Laichinger Caving Club) but also as a museum and restaurant for the tourists.

The cave entrance is pleasantly situated on the grassy downs at a height of 2,500 feet, just outside the village of Laichingen, and only about four miles from the Stuttgart-Ulm Autobahn. The visitor is well catered for, as apart from the restaurant, gaiters are provided to protect trouser turnups from being splashed by walking through puddles. Washing facilities are also available, not that the tourist will get unusually dirty when visiting this cave. An initial descent of 40 feet leads to a platform, from which it is possible to look upwards into Mack's entrance rift, or downwards into a pitch over 65 feet deep, leading into the depths of the cave. The route taken by the visitor by-passes this seemingly bottomless gulf.

The concrete steps lead down to the first chamber, "The Sand Hall". It is here that one can really appreciate the value of caves to the geologist for on the walls of this chamber, one can clearly see the dividing line between two beds of rock. The upper one, a sandy Dolomite is overlying the Delta 4 Series of the White Jurassic lime- stone. A longer descent of 100 feet brings one out into the "Great Hall", the largest chamber in the cave, 50 x 60 feet, and 40 feet high. The floor is formed of gigantic boulders, giving a Cyclopean effect. A descent of 50 feet leads to the "Little Hall" which at a depth of 230 feet is the lowest point in the Show Cave. The chamber contains an interesting and colourful array of stalactite formations. The fissures in the roof bisect the many mushroom-shaped domes which are in turn filled with draperies. In one corner of this chamber, measuring apparatus records temperature and humidity. A short ascent leads to the base of the "Glacier-Mill Shaft", which is unusually rich in pristine white formations. The majority of shafts in this cave are thought to have been formed by the action of stones swirling round and round in flood water, and many rounded stones at the bottom of these shafts are pointed out to visitors. A short horizontal passage leads to a bridge which spans the "100 Metre Shaft" (100 m. - 328ft.) The upper reaches of this shaft nearby open out onto the surface, whilst below it spirals down to the lowest point in the cave, 337 feet below the entrance, ending in a mud choke. Nearby is a second parallel shaft in which one ascends to the "Saxonian Switzerland" passage. The resemblance to Switzerland is probably more noticeable on the return journey to the entrance, when wearily climbing up and down the 750 steps.

Continuing up, there is the "Stalactite Shaft", which contains the show piece of the cave "The Death-Head". This is a most unusual stalactite formation which bears a remarkable resemblance to a human skull. Retracing ones steps a short distance, one descends again, this time to inspect the "Mayclub", a most bizarre stalactite formation in the shape of a bulbous club. A glance at this room shows certain similarities to the "Great Hall", not surprisingly, because it is only separated from this chamber by a ruckle of large boulders. The tour, which has taken the best part of three-quarters of an hour comes to a close and the visitor can justly praise the villagers of Laichingen, whose foresight and ingenuity has opened up this unique cave.

Reprinted from The Speleologist, Vol 1, No 3, June-July 1965. By kind consent of the author.

This "historic" text describes the two caves very well, but two important details have changed since the sixties.

The bat population at the Sontheimer Höhle was almost gone in the seventies, and it took 30 years of protection to increase the number of bats again. Today there are again many bats but different species. Some are gone forever, others moved into this area and replaced them. The road to the cave is paved now, but it ends 200 m before at a new car park.

The Laichinger Tiefenhöhle has a second entrance since the mid-seventies. The part of the tour showing the formations called The Death-Head and Mayclub is not toured any more. Instead, the artificial exit built in 1974 is used to leave the cave. In 2000, a new entrance building was inaugurated, with a new restaurant. It also contains a new Speleological Museum which was inaugurated in 2002.