05 December 2008

What I did at the 2nd BSRC - VIII - Saturday

Saturday 21 June - Chionotrypa (snow-hole)

On Saturday, we had the opportunity to visit the vertical cave "Hionotrypa" - snow-cave - together with a group of cavers from Bulgaria. While making our visit, some of the team collected samples from various positions in the ice to send it for testing and hopefully to get some climatological information.

"Hionotrypa" is up at an altitude of about 2.000m on Mount Falakro - "the bald mountain" of Drama. The cave begins as a doline with year-round ice at the base and a continuation which extends as a steep chamber branching off the floor of the doline. The descent to the base of the doline is easy as the gradient is shallow and it is possible to have your feet on the wall at all times. After this not-quite-vertical descent of about 50m, the snow starts. To approach the hole which enters the cave through the covering ice one needs to be a little careful as the ice is slippery. To enter the cave itself the hole in the ice is about 60cm wide and leads the caver vertically in between the rock and the ice plug to an ice-slide about 30m long and 50-odd m wide which leads down to the back wall of the cave. There, a further hole in between the ice and the rock has been rigged leading to the lower chamber and the deepest yet explored section of the cave. At various points in the cave, wherever there was a steady drip from the ceiling, deep but narrow shafts have been excavated from the ice which although beautiful, nevertheless pose a danger for the careless visitor.

All week we had heard of a team of Bulgarians who had been going up to Hionotrypa every day to dig at the bottom at a place with plenty of air blowing which would no doubt give the most amazing continuation - but unfortunately, I did not have the chance to see the dig site and left it for another day. The Bulgarians come down frequently for prospecting to Mount Falakro - it's only 3 hours from Sofia and there is no active club on the Greek side of the border prospecting the area. While we were in Hionotrypa, some of our Bulgarian friends had gone off on foot to the north to dig in the base of a dline they had spotted earlier in the week - one of the many on Mount Falakro.

While we were inside the cave, Geroge Lazaridis was with us to collect ice samples from a number of different locations on the ice face, following a very specific methodology. Lambros Makrostergios collected some invertebrates in a film canister but we were there for the ice. The ice samples are to be sent to the lab at Demokritos and it is likely we're (they're) going to learn a lot about long-term climate changes in the region. The relative abundance of two different isotopes of oxygen in the ice cores will tell us (well, them, really) what the air temperature was like when the bubbles were trapped in the ice.

The Entrance from a distance
Annika on the ice before descending into the darkness
The first chamber, looking towards the holes in the ice, above

One thing that struck me as noteworthy about our friends from Bulgaria (in this case a group from Akademik club) was the impression the size of the chamber made on them. They asked whether this sort of size is common in Greece as in Bulgaria there are no such chambers. We talked and shared opinions on a whole bunch of other things as well, like: equipment, training, rescue, etc.

Brief video of our excursion.

The trip to the Hionotrypa was the perfect close to a very full and enjoyable weekend. The next morning we set out for the return, took down the posters from the town and headed for the motorway. We had met a lot of people, we had seen what sort of cavers our neighbours are, we had mixed with them socially, worked with them on the rescue drill and visited caves together.

Next meeting: Turkey 2009!

04 December 2008

What I did at the 2nd BSRC - VII - Friday

Friday 20 June - Alistrati day

On Friday we were to be guided through the Alistrati cave and other sights of the area.

When we arrived at Alistrati, the management informed us that we would not be allowed to take photographs inside the cave. It seems they did not want anyone to be able to see how beautiful the cave really is. That would result in a totally counterproductive influx of visitors, doh!

Then when I think about it, perhaps the ban on photographs was to avoid us showing the world the many instances of poor workmanship which resulted from the attempt to open the cave to tourists. Bad workmanship like the many meters of electric cables visibly running through the cave, or like the complete lack of effort to hide from the eyes of the visitors the large and ugly electric panels which seem to sprout up like monstrous electro-mushrooms every ten yards, or like the use of warm lighting which cave algae just love, or like the tons of soil brought into the cave from outside to make level walkways (and that's not even taking into account the cement used), or like the uprooting of the large colony of bats from the largest chamber in the cave where the guano they had produced still forms a stop on the tour. We did not see the world famous elevator, so whether I had my camera with me or not, I would not have been able to photograph it. I should say a word about our guide: I was very dissatisfied by her lack of general speleo-knowledge. Parrot-fashion learning and repetition of your tour speech is not sufficient to be a proper guide. What benefit is it to repeat dumbly what information we have learned about beetles discovered by Prof. Beron when we don't know the basics about speleobiology or to talk with a confident voice about the eccentrites when we don’t have a clue about the basics of speleogenesis. I left some comments in the visitors book. And signed my name to them.

No photos, no videos

After this disappointment in the show-cave (which was only marginally mitigated by having seen the eccentrites), we set off on our walk down the canoyon of Alistrati, heading for the cave of Megalo Hani and then the Cave of Orpheus, with the very polite and knowledgeable Kostas as our guide.

The whole of the Aggitis river was once underground. When the roof fell in, the canyon was formed and the river was exposed to the elements, but in many places along the banks you can still see hollows and small caves in the rock and occasionally stalagmites sticking up. The Megalo Hani cave is a refuge cave of about 100 sqm area and some small chambers leading off the main area. In the past, from time to time, the locals presumably used it as a refuge - the cave offers protection from the elements and from the eyes of enemies.

From the Neolithic onwards, either as a thank-you to the spirits of the cave which had allowed the visitors to rest in safety, or as messages to other users of the cave, various designs were carved into the rocks in the cave. The designs can be categorized into three groups: zoomorphic, anthropomorphic and geometric. Many different types of animals can be distinguished, in the most part animals of the hunt.

The designs are scratched in quite a shallow way into the rock - only one or two mm deep. To more easily see the designs, it helps if one spills some water onto the rocks.

The Megalo Hani carvings during our visit

A tetrapod scratched into the rock

After Megalo Hani, we went on to the Cave of Orpheus, where we met Nikos from Maara. Nikos had been involved in the archaeological study of the cave and guided us round the cave ad the trenches. The cave has a large area with archaeological finds, mainly from the Neolithic period and other parts with very beautiful speleothems. As the site is still being excavated, there is a locked gate on the entrance which the ephorate had opened for us specially for the camp.

General view of one of the chambers in the Cave of Orpheus

Brief video of our excursion.

What I did at the 2nd BSRC - VI - Thursday

Thursday 19 June - excursion to Maroneia

The planning for Thursday had the largest road trip of the week - to the cave of Maroneia in the Rhodope Prefecture. To get there we passed Philippi with its early Christian basilicas, Kavala, Xanthi, Komotini and we finally approached the cave of Maroneia, just outside the village of the same name. There, we were met by a team from the ministry of culture - ephorate of Palaeontology and Speleology for Northern Greece, together with some representatives of the local government. Markos Vaxevanopoulos of Cheiron Caving Club in Volos was our guide at the cave and explained to us what we would see inside. The cave is situated in nummulitic limestone (that is to say, limestone made up of small snailshells from another time). It has two main routes inside - one of which has archaeological interest and the other geological and biospeleological interest. The cave is home to more than 15 endemic species (not found anywhere else in the world) of which the two are bats. The large number of endemics is probably the result of the high levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen created by the action of bacteria and other microorganisms on the bat guano, which literally forms large piles in the chambers of the cave.

The archaeological finds are also rather significant because they date to the early Neolithic and could therefore throw some light on the whole spread of agriculture / animal husbandry question. We were fortunate enough to be guided round the dig by Anna, one of the archaeologists from the ephorate who is working the site and is on hand every day. The dig is protected, and has been for some years, by a locked door which permits the bats to enter and exit. Without the help pf the ephorate, our visit would not have happened, and all of us who were there are very grateful to the team from the ministry who made the long drive up from Thessaloniki to receive us.

As an epilogue, I have to mention that the municipal authorities wish to give the cave over for tourist development, believeing in this way that they will bring income to the region and thereby improve the lot of the inhabitants. Fortunately, the ephorate is maintaining a very cautious stance because the destruction of this specific cave (it will surely be destroyed by even the most gentle of interventions for development) will constitute a huge crime against the country's natural heritage. The tension I felt this day between the representatives of local self government and the ephorate very clearly shows that there is still a great deal of work to be done by speleological groups to inform local authorities about the significance of the caves in their jurisdiction.

After many hours inside the cave, we went for a swim, ate at a nearby beach tavern and started the long journey for home.

Fossilised snail shell which, on account of its similarity to a small roman coin (nummulus), gives its name to a type of Eocene limestone

One of the chambers with archaeological finds in Maroneia - you can clearly see the wire grid used by the archaeologists to identify the findspot of each find

One of the bat hibernacula in Maroneia. You can also make out the tapes indicating the correct route through the cave to avoid damaging the fragile ecosystem

Brief video of our visit.

03 December 2008

What I did at the 2nd BSRC - V - Wednesday

Wednesday 18 June - excursion to Maaras

And so, on the Wednesday, it came to pass that I should visit the largest karstic system in the country - the cave of the springs of the Aggitis river, otherwise known as Maaras. Our guide on this visit was the caver from SPELEO Caving Club, Nikos Diafas, who lives in the area and has been involved with Maaras for many years. There were representatives from all countries participating in the camp in the team which entered Maara on Wednesday.

Together with Annika, we penetrated the cave to about 4.800 meters before turning back, while some of the group made it close to or beyond 7.000 meters. On the way back we took some photographs with a team from Craiova in Romania. We were fairly lucky to have Nikos with us as a guide as without him, I doubt if we would have recognized the crayfish which live in the cave and which he pointed out to us.

Entering along the tourist route, we leave our gear on a small beach a little across from the tourists and begin our visit. The first parts of the route are on rocky ground, with the water reaching the knee sometimes and only the ankle at other times. After a while the rocks end and the sand which characterises the rest of the route begins. Proceeding from meander to meander and staying as much as possible on one bank before crossing to the other, we quickly reached the renowned "Acropolis" from where the stretcher had set out a few days previously during the cave rescue drill.

The so called "Acropolis" of Maaras - the photo was taken in collaboration with the team from Craiova in Romania

A little after the "Acropolis" we found the first "obstacle" to our progress - a narrow point where the route forms a sump when the water flow is fast and large, but where we were fortunate enough to find an air space of about 20 cm between the water and the ceiling. The "sump" is only a few meters long, but the fact that the whole river passes through this narrow point gives the water a lot of force and speed. At this point, the water is running contrary to the motion of the caver entering the system. At the same time, the water flow creates a rather intense flow of air in the face of the caver, bringing with it drops of water which fly into the cavers face (and glasses). These few but nevertheless dynamic meters of tunnel are a strong reminder that despite the relaxed and languid looking image the river presents, Maaras is still the largest karstic system in the country, with a surveyed length of over 11.500m.

A little after the narrow point, we found the crayfish - Nikos found him actually: even the most observant amongst us would have passed on without noticing the existence of the diminutive cave-dwelling crustacean. He sensed the crayfish from the way its movements sound on the banks of the underground river. Nikos gave us a tour of the crayfish - a boy. The species is quite possibly stygobitic (but the issue needs to be researched). The fact that it has little pigmentation gives it a certain translucence which you can see nicely in the second photo where it has been placed on a cold LED lamp. Further in, a second such crayfish was found.

Close-up shots of the Austropotamobium torrentium crayfish

After 4.800 meters penetration, we turned back with Annika, Nikos and some of the others. The way back was easier as we were moving in the same direction as the flow of the water. The narrows with the blowing wind was more reminiscent of a kiddie play-pool water-slide than the obstacle it had been on the way in. At the entrance, Kostas was waiting for us, and we all went for a meal to regain the calories we had burned on the visit.

Brief video of the visit.

02 December 2008

What I did at the 2nd BSRC - IV - Tuesday

Tuesday 17 June - excursion to Sidhidrokastro

On Tuesday, we made the excursion to the home town of the Mavros Brakhos - Black Rock - Caving Club. This excursion was very much anticipated by the Greek cavers and the number of people coming for the excursion was such that one coach was not enough to transport everyone. In this way, most of the Greek cavers found ourselves with Balkan guests in our cars - something which greatly helped in the "getting to know eachother" department. The coach pulled out in front, setting off for Sidhirokastro and behind it a large caravan of cavers cars followed.

The plan said: Cave of Zesta Nera (hot waters) - a through trip cave of about 400m with a waterfall at the exit and rather rare travertine formations; a visit to an archaeological site and to the Palaeontological Museum of Thermopighi as well as a meal.

Coach full of cavers!

When we reached the cave of Zesta Nera (named for the hot waters which flow through it at 23 degrees centigrade), we prepared ourselves, put on our wetsuits and booties and entered the cave - which is home to a large colony of bats. The bats woke up and filled the cave with their flapping, and at the same time a large log at the upstream entrance was displaced, releasing a torrent of rubbish that had been thrown into the cave entrance in the past. To say that all this made a bad impression on our guests may be an understatement - the cave is now affectionately known as the "Cave with shit". Despite the foul smelling and unexpected problem, everyone left the area with a more definite picture of why cave protection is so important. The upstream entrance served as a dumping ground for rubbish (unknown to the local authorities), thereby polluting the waters flowing through the cave.

Down-stream entrance to the Zesta Nera Cave!

SELAS cavers preparing to enter Zesta Nera

Kostas from SELAS "chasing" the bats

Brief video from Zesta Nera

After the cave and a filling meal offered to us by the Mavros Brachos caving club, we went to the palaeontological museum of Thermopighi, which houses fossils from many geological periods. The Cenozoic mammals steal the show.

SELAS Cavers in the Palaeontological Musum of Thermopighi

Why so long in the tooth? Hipparion fossil in the museum!

The SELAS cavers (Erato, Annika and myself) returned independently of the coach and visited the Mosque (Camii) of Serres, which is in rather bad shape but very interesting indeed - not only architecturally, but also because of the interesting wall paintings still visible inside.

Erato - urban exploration!

What I did at the 2nd BSRC - III - Monday

Monday 16 June

On Monday morning, and while most participants had gone to visit one of the caves nearby, the representatives of the member states of the BSU conducted the General Assembly. Greece is a founder member of the BSU and one of the bureau members is Greek - Nikos Mitsakis is the vice president of the BSU.

On the agenda, amongst other issues, was the accession of Romania to the BSU. Until this time, Romania had only been present as an observer - the motion was passed unanimously. The third Balkan Speleo Reunion Camp was awarded to Turkey - it will be organised by the Turkish Cavers' Union (TCU) either in Antalya or Kastamonu.

Other subjects concerned the annual fees of the members and other administrative matters. The fourth BSRC was awarded to Romania for 2010. Discussions into the issue of further expansion of the union were also made (to the North and East) but without positive results. Today all members are countries which unquestionably have some part of the Balkan peninsula within their borders. Greece is in against expansion beyond the Balkans for fear of losing our focus.

BSU General Assembly held in Drama during the 2nd BSRC