Caving in Budapest

I have a thing for being up high. When I was a kid I climbed every tree in sight and would just hang out there. I also never really liked skiing, but as the Simmons family winter activity of choice, I at least found a love for hopping onto that chairlift and being carried effortlessly to the peak of a mountain over and over. Today, I still hike all the mountains or climb to the top of the tallest towers and buildings I can find, wherever I am. In Budapest, though, I did something a bit different: I climbed under a city to see the views. Last week, I went caving under the Buda Hills. And it was epic.

Preparing for my Spring Break trip, I was just casually reading about the history & culture, highlights & things to do in each of the cities I had tickets to. In my travel forum reading on Budapest I found this:

“Many people visit Hungary’s famous thermal baths, but only a few are aware of the fact that hot water rushing up from deep underground has created something else too. The capital is built on a limestone basis, in which the heated water formed a huge cave system, thought to be more than 120 km long… The 29.1 km long Pál-völgyi cave system – the longest in Hungary – located in the Duna-Ipoly National Park is a real multi-level labyrinth system with most of its chambers under the residential districts of Budapest. This cave system offers two types of tours.”

I continued to read, of course:

“Adventurous climbing-crawling tour for the most courageous. This other section of the cave system is left in its natural state. If you aren’t claustrophobic you can apply for our regularly scheduled cave tours which are guided by qualified caving guides. During the 2.5-3 hrs long tours you will often have to climb on walls and crawl through narrow passages so you have to be prepared for adventure.”

And then I said YES PLEASE, and signed up. Unfortunately, both my friends were too chicken. So when we got to Budapest, I spent a wonderfully relaxing morning at the Turkish thermal baths and in the afternoon headed off for my hike. I found my way to the meeting point at a train station in downtown Pest, hopped on a couple of city buses out to the far hills of Buda where I met my guide, paid my forints, signed some form I didn’t really read, and put on this lovely suit:

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Once we were all geared up, we headed with our guide to the entrance of the cave. Along the way, we heard a lot about the history of the caves – not all of which I remember… They were originally discovered in the early 1900′s and used as a bomb shelter during various wars. The cross on the right is there because the first room we entered was used as a chapel. From there we moved throughout the cave, starting with a pretty small crawling space we went through, a couple climbing passages, and one tight squeeze we had to army crawl through on our bellies. At one point early on, we came to the biggest chamber, what they call “The Theater.” It’s a large open area with a fairly wide and level floor with no massive holes to fall into. So the group, about ten of us, all sat down and our guide told us to shut off our lights. We sat in complete darkness and silence. There is no natural light or background noise down there. Then, in the dark, he sang us a beautiful Hungarian love song so we could hear how beautifully sound echoes in the caves, especially in that open area.

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Sciencey things were also discussed (forgive me my mediocre terminology). The caves were created because of lots of water activity happening under the Buda Hills that just carved out a labyrinth. Where Buda and Pest meet each other at the Danube river, there is actually a fault line that has changed the land of the Buda side over time – that’s why it’s hilly and Pest is flat as a pancake. He also told us that the average thickness of the earth’s crust is between 50 and 60 km in depth, but throughout just Hungary, it’s only 25 to 35km. So there’s a lot going on. Thus, the caves! Photos (left to right): limescale on the roof, crystalization in a little crevice, seashells from a bazillion years ago, and a sea urchin from around the same time.

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By almost the end of it, we had done a lot. We slide down slippery chutes on our butts – very fun. We army crawled on our bellies through tunnels. We crab walked along a slanted wall and jumped over a gap in the rock, where if you miss-stepped and slid down, you were stuck in crevice, hopefully missing that drop into the abyss right there. We scaled up one area and down another, supported really only by how much pressure we pushed our back against a supporting wall and our hands or feet on the opposite. We jumped blind into holes only as wide as our shoulders, with instructions: “Keep your arms up and swerve left. Go right and you’re stuck in a deep hole. You’ll feel the ground in a few seconds. It’s not so far.” Okay, sure. My pictures are awful because I own the oldest digital camera known to man and didn’t want to bring my iPhone down there (I really should have), but here’s a couple shots of the climbs:

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Later on in the tour, after all this, our guide stops and says, “So the next part is a little bit weird. You have to go on your back, arms up and head first and just wiggle, wiggle through. You’ll be in there and your chest and back may touch the rock at the same time. Keep your head turned because it’s too small. Are we up for it?” Clearly lacking some sufficient level of that basic human instinct call fear, I said yup! and went first. After he crawls through and his feet are gone, I hear him in a few seconds as I’m on my back preparing to stick my head into this tunnel: “Take any cameras out of your chest pockets or you may not fit!” So I take mine out and have it in my hand. I go to look backwards at how long this tunnel is, and my head gets stuck cause I turned it too far.. Not helping at all, my guide reached in and took my camera out of my hand. He took this wonderful shot:

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My head, stuck in a cave tunnel.

When I realized from the blinding flash he was taking pictures of me coming out of this thing, and the fact that my head was uncomfortably lodged in there, I of course started laughing so much I couldn’t crawl through for a minute or so. Then I managed.

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It was an epic afternoon. It took us about three hours to make it through the section of the cave we did. In the end, we finished in the same room we started – the chapel. I didn’t get a photo of it, but opposite the cross is a plaque with a Hungarian woman’s name carved into it. She was a friend and co-worker of his and the rest of the cavers who work there. She died in 2010 on a hike in China, but her body was never recovered, so this is where they remember her. She worked in the caves and started a program bringing mentally and physically challenged children into it to do the very same course we had just finished. The program still runs. We were all really surprised, and our guide told us that we really shouldn’t be, that all sorts of people go through these caves, and even the week before us he guided an Olympic athlete who was missing one arm and one leg on the same side through the course. He quietly said, “You can really do anything. Your body can do amazing things. You just have to change your mind,” tapping his temple with his middle finger, “Change the way it thinks.”

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