Škocjanske Jama

by Jochen Duckeck

Following the road signs, the visitor arrives at the huge parking lot at Matavun. Here is a ticket office and some shops, cafés and restaurants. When you have to wait for your tour, you may consider a short walk to an outlook at the rim of the huge collapse doline. Here you will see the spectacular cave entrance, which was completely inaccessible without climbing gear. There is a huge doline more or less circular, with vertical walls 120 m down to the cave river Reka. On the opposite side of the doline the cave continues underground, and on top of the cave the small village Škocjan was built.

The cave was actually entered from this doline at the end of the 19th centuries, but the early explorers had no climbing gear, so they actually built a trail into the vertical wall. Much of the modern show cave trail originates from this time. Other parst can be seen on the tour, and often they are only wide enough for a single shoe. Sometimes they are like single steps cut into the cave wall.

Dolina Globocak.

The tour starts in front of the ticket office, with a walk of almost 15 minutes to the nearby doline Globocak. In summer this walk is rather strenuous and hot, so a hat and sun protection are a good idea. While the plateau is rather dry and meagre, the doline itself is covered by green grass and bushes. The path goes down to the floor of the large bowl, which was formed by the collapse of a huge chamber of the Škocjanske Jame cave system.

After the accurate survey of the cave the speleologists discovered, that the dry branch to the west called Tiha Jama ended rather close to the floor of the doline Globocak. So a tunnel was dug to create a second entrance to the cave. During the years the tunnel was used both as exit and entrance to the cave. The current direction, entering the cave here is definitely more dramatic.

At the end of the tunnel a voluminous cavern is entered, not exceptional in comparison to other Slovenian caves, but still impressive. But going from chamber to chamber, each one is bigger than the last one. Some are filled with huge formations, stalagmites, stalactites, curtains, and rimstone pools. Others are absolutely bare with enormous deposits of cave clay.

Palm trunk stalagmite in Tiha Jama.

As the caverns get bigger and bigger the stalactites are so far up, they become almost invisible, and the shape of the stalagmites changes completely. When the water falls down from great heights, at least 40 m, the drop splashes on the floor with high energy and atomizes in a certain diameter. This results in a huge and wide stalagmite. When the amount of water changes, the diameter changes also, and during time a Speleothempalm trunk stalagmite or stack-of-plates-stalagmite forms. The last two chambers of this passage are big enough and form those rare speleothems. The tallest stalagmites are in the Velika Dvorana and are up to 25 m high.

The view from the end of Tiha Jama (Silent Cave) down into the gorge of Sumeca Jama.

Tiha Jama (Silent Cave) is the fossil branch of the Škocjanske Jama. It is an upper level, which is older and has no cave river anymore. The river flows about 100 m deeper in Sumeca Jama (Loud Cave), named such because of the roar of the white waters. Tiha Jama is about 500 m long. The end of silence is impressive: turning around a formation some noises can be heard. Walking on, they grow louder and louder, and the air becomes more humid, even a little misty. The passage widens, but this time not only the ceiling goes up, also the floor starts to go down, forming a steep slope into the enormous gorge.

If you are at the end of the group, you can see people walking down in serpentines, along the left wall and across a bridge onto the other side of the gorge. This gorge is one of the largest underground canyons in the world, reaches heights of up to 148 m and in places widths of 100 m. The bridge is 70 m high above the river. Through the mist, with powerful electric lamps all over the huge cavern, which are still not able to light it completely, this situation resembles the descent to hell. This view is obviously one of the most spactacular views inside a cave, all over the world!

Further down you can look to the right, up the gorge towards the entrance near the village Škocjan. Depending on the time of year, there may be a deafening, roaring wild water at the bottom, or a small and probably a little stinky brook. During floods, after snow melt or heavy rain, the gorge fills with water several tens of meters high. In some years the bridge is flooded and the water rises towards Tiha Jama, the levels of the most extraordinary years are marked by plates along the path. The reason for this flooding is the narrowing passage at the end of the cave. If more water than this swallow hole swallows comes down the gorge, the water level rises continually. The longer it takes the higher the level. However, when the level of the polje in front of the cave is reached, the water starts to fill the polje too. In other words, the highest floods include a flood of the polje.

The bridge.

At the bottom of the slope we are still more than 70 m above the river, and the path is built into the wall to the left, going downstream for a short distance to the bridge. Standing on this bridge, we can have a look downstream, into a cave passage which is explored for more than a kilometre, opening various times forming enormous chambers. The end is a syphon, which is extremely dangerous and still unexplored. Because of dye tracing experiments we know, that much of the water reappears in the spring of the Timavo river in Italy.

This bridge was replaced several years ago by a new one. Obviously it was replaced numerous time since the cave was opened as a show cave at the end of the 19th century. However, there are stories by fellow cavers form the time when Slovenia was part of socialist Yugoslavia. In the 1970s many cavers from Germany went to Slovenia for the caves and the cheap food and drink. And they tell the story about one show cave guide at Škocjanske Jama, who offered to walk across the bridge on the railing, if he was payed with a bottle of Sliwowitz. But he wanted the Sliwowitz before the stunt, and he drank it before he started, because otherwise there was the danger of not being able to drink it any more. Then, drunken from a full bottle of booze, he crossed the bridge on the railing. Most visitors were scared shitless. However, the stunt was not as dangerous as most thought. At that time the railing had a massive iron double-T bar on top which was almost 20 cm wide. So it was not like walking on a rope, it was more like walking on a narrow trail. Some guessed, he drank the booze to become fearless.

View back, downstream Sumeca Jama with the ascend to Tiha Jama at the far end.

After the bridge, on the other side of the gorge, the path goes along the vertical wall, on a sort of artificial ledge. Although the direction is upstream, the path descends continually, until it almost reaches the river. There are other paths, older ones, built by various explorations of the cave. Some of them may be visited on special tours, others are only for speleologists.

rimstone pools.

After so much gorge, the path turns left and uphill into a side passage. Huge halls, upper levels of the gorge, formed by the river long ago when it was flowing in this height. Beneath various huge stalactites and stalagmites, there is a true gem. The Speleothemrimstone pools of Škocjan Cave are probably the most famous in the World. Extremely thin walls of calcite, only a few centimeters thick, but up to one metre high, form perfect bows. Dry during summer, some of them fill again during wet season.

There are famous pictures of the rimstone pool, at least 30 years old, which show cave guides standing inside the pools. This gives a good impression of the size, but it is a disaster for the conservation of the speleothems, so it is absolutely forbidden now to enter them.

We are now high above the gorge again, in a side passage branching off to the left, and soon the path descends again into a huge cavern on a very long staircase. This is another dry part of the cave which is open to the huge collapse doline below the village Škocjan. It is called Schmidl-Grotte, after an early cave explorer named Schmidl. This is an impressive spot, at the border between sunlight and darkness, with impressive dimensions and the shape of a huge church, a medieval dome.

Today the path goes along the right wall of the doline, slightly ascending to the lower station of the funicular, the cable car, which brings the visitors uphill. On this way we cross the portal where the Reka flows into Škocjan Cave, although we are not able to see it very well from above. On the ride up the church of Škocjan appears on top of the opposite wall, with the Reka entering the doline right below. But the path to the cable car and from the upper station to the ticket office still requires some work. There is no hurry, and the cable car goes up and down all the time, so take your time and avoid overstraining.

Some decades ago, before the funicular was built, the visitors followed a path on the left side. The path is built along an almost vertical limestone wall, until it reaches the huge Tominz Grotte. This cave has a small fountain inside, named Kraus Brunnen, which was erected in 1889. Then the path reaches the Reka, where you can see that there are actually two huge dolines. They are separated by a last remain of the original cave which forms a sort of natural bridge, right in the middle of the huge doline. The path continues on the north side of the river up to the top of the natural bridge, and you cross the Reka to the south side this way. This ascent was very strenuous, especially as no wind cools the hiker in the pit of the doline. We guess this is the reason why the funicular was built.

The Škocjan Caves are definitely a full day experience. You should also visit the other attractions. First there is a karst trail, which starts at the ticket office. It leads through Matavun, Škocjan, and then back around the doline. There are numerous interesting things on the surface, like dolines, water collectors, cave collapses and of course the lookouts into the huge doline. There are also two rather new museums in Škocjan, one about the daily life in this barren landscape, another one about the caves and their explorations. The church at Škocjan is very nice, and there is an impressive view across the flysh plain to the Sneznik from the church yard.

Text by Jochen Duckeck (2005). With kind permission.