“Interview” is caving club “Pod RB” initiative dedicated to discussions with cavers from all around the world. What they share about their life above and under the ground, their caving experience, stories, dreams and future plans you can find in the following lines…
Tell us something about yourself in terms of speleological experience.
I have been dealing with speleology since 1983. Until the war broke, I was caving with one of the most fruitful Croatian speleo clubs and namely the speleology section at The Student Mountaineering Society Velebit. This is where I met my wife and we were exploring caves together. Back then we were using mostly trains and bikes as means of transport. We were some of the people who would dedicate to one cave and weekend after weekend we would go there to explore new galleries. Opposed to the majority, back then, who strived for visiting as many as possible caves and pits. Following this approach we managed to survey over 8km of galleries during more than 30 visits in the cave Toun, which is located in a quarry.
A year before we got our family we managed to get to China, where during a period of 7 days, we explored around 10 caves and surveyed over 8km of cave galleries. After the birth of our first two children, my wife, Aida, has completely stopped caving. While I still got my 6 to 7 weekends per year dedicated to caving, then I was mostly cave diving. Then the war started and I moved to Sibenik.
During the war I was often accommodated in karst areas and I would use any break to go exploring caves and pits in the areas of Velebit and the Adriatic coast. Although it was a war period, during the cease fire moments, the Croatian speleologists were still pretty active and during the war, the deepest cave in Croatia, Lukina jama, was explored. I was lucky and got into the final selection of candidates, who had interest in diving the sump at Lukina jama’s bottom. This is how in 1994, Zoran Stipetic and myself, dove the 57 m long, muddy, sifon. Back then the sifon was at depth of 1256 m in the cave, this is measured from the current lower entrance. Little we knew, but we have established a world record for diving on such depth in a cave. The record was kept for 7 and a half years, until the Voronia sifon was passed. The cavers in Voronia pass the same sifon now, using hidro suits.
After our four children grew up a little bit and I found a more balanced work, at the beginning of 2002, I could again join the explorations that would last for a few days. In 2003 we moved to Sibenik, where the speleology was not that well established. This is when the first course for speleologists took place, since then it continuously happens, once per year, for 17 years now. The same year, I officially joined the local cave section at the Croatian Mountaineering Club Sveti Mihovil, where I was a chairman for 2 years and then officially managing the archive. We quickly managed to establish a mountain rescue team here and the same year we found the entrance to what would one day become, the longest cave system in Croatia, Kita Gacesina – Drazenova Puhalka.
I have always liked to deal with cave surveys and the related documentation. Leaving the club, which database was in a state of complete chaos, I was very happy that in Sibenik I could start from scratch.
To present day in the club archive we have well systematised information for about 554 caves and 50 artificial underground caverns on the territory of Sibensko – Kninska county. Also, there are over 800 caves in which a club member took part during exploration in the last 17 years. Based on the records, we keep, I can conclude that until January, this year, I have 460 cave exploration trips during which we surveyed more than 48 km galleries.
Apart from cave exploration trips I really enjoy the cave courses, where I have been to almost all field trips. In these courses, by now, we have over 200 participants, many of whom are now members of the mountain rescue service. Others moved to different countries in Europe and some are still around and practice caving.
When I speak about my role here, I have to mention my wife, Aida, as we are together in everything we do, not only in the caves but also participation in many seminars, courses, exams and meetings. At the moment, she is a chairman of the Speleology Commission at the Croatian Mountaineering Union. The same has 22 cave sections at mountaineering clubs as members, while the other half are members of the Croatian Caving Union. I am a coordinator for the documentation commission surveys database. Last year Aida became a deputy delegate for Croatia at UIS, while I am deputy delegate at FSE. Which means that we are often participating in international seminars and most likely we will soon be in Sofia. We are among the oldest active speleologists in Croatia, also a good case study, which shows that speleology can be a nice as family activity for when you get old.
How you started dealing with speleology and why are you still doing it?
It was the spring of 1983 when, during a mountaineering trip at Medvednica, I came to the entrance of the touristic cave Veternica. There was a guide who took me for a tour inside. The guy later invited me to return again tomorrow and to go even further inside at places that were not intended for tourists.
The next day we came back equipped with a headlamp and a battery torch. We got one kilometer inside the cave, where he took his clothes and dove a short sump just to see what was beyond. The good feeling from passing and squeezing through the mood haven’t changed for the last 35 years.
When somebody asks me why I am caving, I often say that the speleology is like a video game in which you use your whole body. There is water, food, ropes, batteries for the drills, equipment, wet suits, survey equipment, cameras as well as the personal and group fitness levels. And with all these we think about the tactics of how to find new galleries, to make nice pictures… fighting the time, the exhaustion, the equipment… Milliards of people play video games and nobody asks them why.
To which club/organization you feel you belong?
The speleo section at CMC Sveti Mihovil is a cave club with few active speleologists. Apart from the two of us, there is also Goran Urniak – Vietar, who is participating in almost every serious cave exploration in Croatia. He is the editor of the Croatian speleo Bible, the book ‘Speleology’.
The other members are younger and from different generations. On the other hand though, in our mountaineering club there are many members who are active in the mountain and cave rescue activities and should we need more people we can easily gather a bigger team for complex explorations. The main strength our club has is the warm atmosphere and the friendly relations between its members.
Our cave section follows the tradition of the established activity in a mountaineering club. We try to resist, as much as we can, to the new trends and to keep it real, instead of being interested in funds and financing opportunities. We simply love improvising. We tend to measure our strives and ambitions against the funds we have. Of course, if we get any funding even better.
Can you tell us more about your favourite cave and how you chose to dedicate your energy there?
The numbers show that we are very often visiting the cave system Kita Gacesina – Drazenova Puhalka, which we often call simply Kita. I found it by accident in June, 2004, this was after the second cave course we had in Sibenik. We were passing through the north side of Crnopac with direction towards Munizaba, where we had to join the Zagreb cavers in an underground bivouac. During the track we turned from the main path, following bright, handmade, marks on the trees. In our search for a shorter way through the forest I felt cold air current on my feet. I have followed this current through three sinkholes and found the entrance, the beginning of a pit, around which the plant leaves were shaking. Based on the sound from a thrown stone, I have concluded that this is around 100m deep pit. The rest is history. Soon there will be 15 years of exploration there. Today the cave system is 37 km long, 737m deep and at 108th place in the world based on its length. It also has potential for connecting to other big caves in the area. From Kita to the cave Muda Labudova, which is 6 km long, there is a 40 m distance.
I have been over 145 times in Kita, of which 89 were dedicated to exploration. My wife, Aida, was 75 times there, which means that we are often together. We have to keep in mind that an average trip takes 3 days, with 2 overnights in underground bivouac, which makes hundreds of days spent in one and the same cave. For example, last year we had 13 visits there, 11 of which were exploration trips. Last year there were 3km of surveyed galleries and 16 visits, which is a record showing that motivation is not missing.
Most often our trips start on Friday evening, around 6pm we leave Sibenik, we grab a quick coffee and enter around 7pm, around 11pm we are at the bivouac. Followed by long exploration on Saturday and for Sunday is only about making our way out. For exploration of the further areas you need at least 5 to 6 days, otherwise it doesn’t pay off.
Kita has it all. The approach is easy and the pure cave enjoyment starts instantly. New galleries can be found everywhere. We still haven’t swam inside, actually the Bulgarian team did this for the first time last year. We do a lot of climbing here, we do some digging and passage enlarging, one can always find an easier way though. Here were the two most complex cave rescue missions in Croatia. In Croatia we have an unexpectedly high number of efficient cave rescuers and the both missions were very fast. The first one was finished for some 10 hours and the second for 25 hours. In the second one, the injured person had spinal disk trauma, while the incident happened at – 400m and 1 km away from the entrance.
The whole Crnopac is a caving Eldorado, which means that we will have many years full of effort and many exciting news.
What have you learned through dealing with speleology?
When you are caving for so long, there is no segment from the speleology about which you don’t know at least something. This is already a lot when it comes to history, geology, archeology, meteorology, as well as some skills as rope techniques and all the possible details about equipment, diving, photography, cave rescue and even some IT skills for survey software, info databases, drawing… With the time the cavers are becoming very hard working, persistent and working well in a team. Also, with the time you are getting used to some good old traditions from the speleo folklore and the good times with fun people. This is what makes the whole speleo lifestyle even better.
If you have experience with incidents in caves, would you share this with us, so other speleologists can learn from your experience? What would be your advice in case of such incidents?
Every cave incident is unique and requires a special approach toward its solution. The most important is to dedicate more time to prevention and to think about how not to have incidents in the first place. Put in simple words, to look after each other. Don’t let your bad day be an obstacle for recognising somebody else’s bad day. It is good that we don’t get to the edge of our limits during cave trips. Then we don’t have the energy and the means to help somebody else if needed. This is why the caving trips should be well planned and when possible shorter.
What is your approach toward attracting new speleologists in terms of preparation and training (examples, duration and accents of training, etc.)?
Big part of the participants in the cave courses come from mountaineering circles, where somebody from the ex participants recommended it. Sometimes though, there is also a random candidate who saw the ad online and is interested in speleology.
The course is well defined, with attractive places for camping in nature, well known rocks for practicing single rope technique, which we use constantly, so we are concentrated on the participants.
We have some members who give us a hand during the courses and in the other part of the year don’t practice caving. This though, gives us a big number of course assistance. At the courses we often see some of our old members, who already have kids and join us for the campfire only.
The course participants who still have interest in the speleology after the course ends, join the active members for exploration trips. There are no rules though. Simply, some people like it, feel good and stay with us.
Would you like to share something more with us?
I think that at Crnopac there will be soon an international expedition as part of the SPARC project. For me it will be a pleasure to see the Bulgarian speleologists there, with whom we have better and better cooperation every year.
*This is interview was received at 18.04.2019