Croatian Adventures Part 2 – Njemica cave

November 4th marked the beginning of the Croatian expedition: Kita was waiting! 12 participants departed heroically: Papi, Dancheto, Ivo (Sogniezdo), Kiro, Anton, Mimo, Tina, Dok, Koleto, Ani, yours truly (Raya) and Joan, this year’s course graduate. Mishur(Vankata) was waiting for us in Gračac. 

Our homeland gave us a proper waterlogged send-off, but Croatia didn’t disappoint either. Arriving at the gazebo, we were able to light a fire, eat and have a nice rain sound background for falling asleep. Come morning, however, Croatia showed its true colors. We all huddled under the gazebo, some more awake than others, hoping to stay dry but alas, that wasn’t in the cards either. We could hear the horizontal rain of Velebit say triumphantly, “checkmate”. One thing was clear: Kita would mean drowning. 

But what now? 

Our ray of sunshine appeared, as the beaming Tseka showed up with the words, “In principle, there is a Plan B. ” Soaked to our souls, with wet sleeping bags, clothes and shoes, we made our decision in silence.  Alongside Tsekata, our friends speleologists Marin and Boris joined as well. All together, we set off, visiting the local geological research center for the Velebit area, as well as some tourist caves, eventually making a stop at a nearby pub for beans and sausage.

Next stop? 

Njemica is a wholly vertical cave, situated in the Biokovo Nature Park, next to the seaside city of Makarska. It has a depth of -971m, with the last explored 41m being in a sump. Tsekata had arranged for us to stay at a newly-built mountain shelter that served as the headquarters of the local mountain rescue service (CMRS-Makarska). We were greeted by the very head of the service, a giant straight out of a Brothers Grimm tale, a true guardian of the mountain. He welcomed us like a true host, with warmth and food, later belting out tunes and tinkling the piano keys. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun.

During the lavish dinner, there was also a discussion about whether we could enter, what we could do in terms of work and what food to take. The plan was the following: we would go in on Monday and then get out on Thursday or Friday. In the morning, we packed our bags, had scrambled eggs with truffles for breakfast and headed to a place where we left the cars. From that point, we had a 40-minute walk to the cave’s entrance, where we slipped into our clean coveralls and the descent began. Papi was first, having entered before, with Tsekata in the middle and Mishur, our only remaining Croatian participant, at the back.

Big pit, small pit, narrow pit, diagonal pit. Pretty much everything had to do with pits, which was quite impressive, especially the last one – a sheer 60-meter bell that entered a gigantic chamber. You could easily get the tingles, if you ask me. I had just warmed up when we reached the camp at –400m. We set it up quickly, after which Papi found himself something to climb. As opposed to our most recent experience, the cave was dry. There was just one place where we got ourselves a bit wet, which according to Tsekata, was a rare occurrence. The cave had been like gunpowder; you couldn’t see water in it.

We had a delicious meal, after which it was time to discuss the plan for the next few days. We were going to split into three teams, in order to check out three different areas. The most important reason why we had to split up was that the next section of the cave was a sheer 160-meter pit that started with a scree and whatever you pushed was going straight down. We decided on a 3-hour interval between the groups, in order to make sure there wouldn’t be rocks falling from the sky. All teams would go down to the bottom. The first group (Tsekata, Koleto, Dancheto, Mimo and Tina) would check the area at -670m. The second group (Papi, Kiro, Doc and Anton) would check out a certain section and climb to -600m. The third group (I, Ani, Mishur and Joan) would survey and check out the area close to the bottom, spending the night at the lower camp at -930m.

At 2 p.m. the next day, it was time for our third group to depart. Ivo sent us off, as he had decided to guard the camp that day. It felt like being in an elevator, only on a rope, as most of the time, we were not on solid ground. Four hours later, we caught up with the first group, as they were surveying a certain blockage that I had gotten lost in previously and can confirm that it is indeed a good idea to have a map. They said the bottom was really cool. Dancheto shared that yesterday there had been more water. Well, ladies and gentlemen, these words stuck with me for a long time, especially after the first waterfall, in which we plunged shortly after this meeting. We took quite the shower. Mishur and Joan dived into a detour, in order to check for a continuation. The hypothermia reached us, as I and Ani stayed at -850m, in order to survey whatever there was to survey  and to derig the bottom pit.  For the last 50 meters, it felt like someone had turned on the fire hose – a cascade on the left, a cascade on the right, above us, even below us. I found out in time that my right booth was leaky, but at that moment, I didn’t consider it a problem, quite the opposite. I was glad that the collecting water had a way of draining away, unlike the one in my left booth. As I was freeing myself from the last rope, I couldn’t see Ani very well from the water mist. She was walking, following notes that said “Bivak natam”, left by Mishur and Joan, which I personally was very glad about. 

There was a new mission. The water level was rising fast. How did we know? You mean, besides the very obvious signs? The camp was located on the bank of the river, not far from the water. Upon arrival, Mishur had placed a spoon in the sand, indicating the current water level. He had also placed a second spoon, higher up than the first, that would act as a marker, meaning that if the water reached the second spoon, it would be time to leave, as we wouldn’t be able to pass through the last waterfalls. Shortly before our arrival at midnight, the water had started to rise. Ani and I arrived grinning from all the action; with our wet hair, the sand and the tent, only the sunscreen was missing. We cooked ourselves gnocchi with tomato sauce with our last remaining spoon. Ani was all set and ready for leaving and going back up, should the need arise. We were lucky, as the water level began to gradually decrease. We managed to get a bit of sleep, all soaked, while Mishur was periodically checking the spoons. 

At 9 in the morning we all woke up, collected our spoons and set off. We agreed that we wouldn’t ascend the 160-meter pit before 3 p.m. in case the others had decided to go down again. The water level had dropped significantly, yet it didn’t fail to refresh us during the first verticals up. We had the task to check out a narrow passage, located in a deviation at -760m. I and Mishur were the first to reach it and started digging around. At one point, Mishur called me, as he was experiencing some difficulties with a certain narrow spot. And you know what they say, there isn’t a tight enough spot for a Bulgarian, so I removed my harness and I thrust myself stubbornly into the small alcove. Upon entering, I saw a scree which ended with a direct drop. I threw a rock, then another. Thud…thud…baam! Ani and Joan appeared, and they heard it as well, 50 meters, at the very least. However, we had all been sitting still for the last 30 minutes and as Mishur said that it was going to take at least 5 hours of work, we decided to leave this for next time’s to-do list. 

As soon as we set off, the place transformed. Rivers started flowing from all the walls. Even the small dry spots that we had managed to conquer with the primus the previous night, were all soaked again. The most agonizing part, however, was left for dessert. As I previously mentioned, there was a specific procedure involved in overcoming the last vertical. Before tackling the last 40 meters, we all had to gather at an intermediate traverse. That meant that the first one, Mishur, in this case, had to wait for the other three – a true act of heroism. Joan was after him, followed by me and Ani. After gathering all together, and as I and Ani were talking about the warm tea in the camp that was just a few pumps up the rope, Mishur set off and then it was Joan’s turn. We must not forget the fact that we had been pumping up the ropes side by side with the cascades for the past five hours. We waited and waited for Joan to say “Rope free!” We spent around 40 minutes waiting on this traverse. Ani was lucky to have a brand new Cordura that wasn’t letting in so much water, but I had already exhausted all of my bouncy steps and was slowly going crazy with cold. It became painfully apparent that someone had forgotten about us. 

Already at the camp, we were drinking our tea, telling each other sweet tales, all the while imagining that we were dry. The other teams had not found anything noteworthy. It turned out that the water had reached everyone, including the tent. Koleto had demonstrated the proper way of drying oneself at the primus, while Tsekata was proving that the foil blanket of another warms the sweetest.

Thursday: a day for coming out. We split up again. Papi and Tsekata joined our group, which was the last one. Papi was first to ascend, followed by me. I did mention a diagonal vertical at the beginning of the story, right? Well, as a cherry on top, it was also quite narrow. As a result, I experienced quite a bit of difficulty with the bag that was usually meant for Kita, and not surprisingly so. Well, somehow I managed to pull the barrel up to the surface. Papi greeted me, as the others had already departed. I took off my wet clothes with great joy and found myself a meadow, where I took a nap, embodying a lizard basking in the sun. An hour later, the rest of the gang emerged. Joan had struggled quite a bit on the way up; it is indeed rare that one’s first expedition is at -930m, after all. Ani, however, had not cut him any slack, as she had to get even for the both of us. Warm and sunny weather accompanied us on the way to the cars and by 5 p.m. we were already at the mountain shelter.

In conclusion, I would say that the cave was very pleasant and interesting. I am very glad that I had the chance to visit it, and I thank Mishur for the cheerful company and Croatian lessons.

The evening continued with the appearance of several Croatian friends, who gifted us all a set of soap and hand cream. Dinner was Asian noodles with ginger and tender beef. The breakfast on the following day did not disappoint either – warm pancakes with chocolate.

Over the next three days, it became even clearer that our adventure would go down in the books as a thoroughly aquatic experience. The weather was quite wet and humid, but to be honest, it didn’t make such an impression, as we were all genuinely happy and satisfied. We engaged in culinary tourism, walking around and partying in the familiar Split. 

We thank our warm hosts and our beloved Chairman, Tsekata, for always having a plan and not refusing to invite us back again each year. 

Well, that’s it. And how was your vacation?

Text: Raya Lakova
Photo: Papi, Tsvetan, Koleto, Joan

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