Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Visit to the Black Caves

Looking in
I am not what you would consider an outdoorsy type of person; while I appreciate Mother Nature and all of her beauty, my fear of reptiles, bugs, and the like limits how adventurous I am when picking outdoor activities.  After a trip to Theth earlier this summer I had pretty much decided that future hiking adventures would not be a part of my travel plans for the remainder of our time in Albania.  So it was with a bit of trepidation (and after I had been assured numerous times by our guide that we would not encounter any snakes) that I set off on a short hike to Pellumbus Caves with a group of people from the Embassy.  Like so many of the other things I have been hesitant to do, I am so glad that I took the plunge and did it.

Pellumbus Caves, the Black Caves of Pellumbus, or Shpelle e Zeze are located a short distance outside of Tirana yet feel like they are a world away.  Considered to be one of Albania’s great archaeological treasures, the earliest residents of the caves were prehistoric bears whose skeletal remains were found to date back as far as 400,000 years. Later the caves were inhabited by humans and were one of the earliest pre-historic settlements in the region.  Archaeologists have uncovered numerous artifacts dating from the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Yes, this area puts a whole new meaning on the term old.

The view along the way
After a bumpy ride on a rickety furgon, we trekked up the mountain towards the cave. Under the able leadership of our guide-- who also carried a picnic lunch for our entire group of thirty himself-- we walked out of the village of Pellumbus, past a small farm, and up into the hills.  Over the course of the two kilometer climb to the caves we encountered a variety of terrains.  At various times the path was hard packed dirt, then boulders, and even wooden steps with a handrail.  Thanks to the efforts of Outdoor Albania, the entire trail was well maintained with a smattering of benches and signage in both Albanian and English reminding us not to litter.  The higher we climbed, the more impressive the views.  With the Erzen River Canyon below us we climbed a total of 350 meters in elevation before reaching the caves.  And the caves were so cool.

Unlike the commercialized caves I have visited in the past- those with well lit walkways, handrails,  and narrated guideposts, these caves were just that.  Caves.  They measure approximately 360 meters in length and range between 10 to 15 meters in width and 15 to 45 meters in height.  And they are dark. So dark that even our thirty flashlights barely illuminated the ground in front of us.  Following our guide's instructions of where to walk (on misstep could land you in a hole or a slick pool of mud) we travelled through a series of "hallways" and "rooms" with each one being larger than the last.  Stalactites and stalagmites filled the floors and ceilings of the caves with the eerie sound of bats and our own voices echoing off of the walls.  Did I mention that it was dark?  At one point we all stood still and turned off our flashlights and listened as the dark silence (and squeaking bats) enveloped us.

Looking out
My words, and pictures, do not adequately describe my experience.  It was just such a cool experience.  Even when the mud literally sucked the shoes off of my feet (I had stood still too long in one spot), I just laughed and chalked it up to the experience.  Glenn wasn't able to join us for the trip and now he wants me to take him back.  I'd actually be game to do it again but would want to go in a group. After all, if thirty flashlights cast such a small pool of light I don't even want to think about how little illumination would come out of only two.

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