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Budapest was my light at the end of the tunnel. And a very dark, freezing and damp one at that. The monotony in Central Europe had gotten so bad after a few weeks, that I found myself cursing the continent and my decision to travel here at every turn. I was so uninspired by the neatness and prettiness of it all, the endless concrete of the big cities and the absolute lack of anything fun to do, that I even got writers block on top of it all.
I seem to be all about complaining lately. Seriously, if you open a dictionary, “is grouchy because of too many pretty buildings” is probably the definition of the spoiled first world traveller. And I admit, I’m a bit embarrassed about being way too ill-tempered. I swear, I’m usually not that pathetic, I’m just generally not a big fan of Europe and the quiet, boring travel that comes with it.
Universe if you hear me, I need some adrenalin once in a while!
Then, along comes Budapest and I get a respite from angrily glaring at puddles, alternatively cursing the wind, the rain or the cold and kicking pinecones for fun. Apart from a wonderfully relaxing trip to the Széchenyi thermal baths and soaking in hot and steamy water for a while, we also find out, that you can go caving under Budapest. In the caves, that were once formed by said thermal water.
Exactly, caving under a big city! It’s not something you get to do every day. And it isn’t just the average standing-in-a-big-cave-and-looking-at-stalactites-for-a-few-minutes type of caving. It is the kind, where you come out dirty, bruised and exhausted a few hours later and are limping from a busted knee, but want to do it all over again.
Time to get down and dirty again, dear readers!
Pick up point is at the Nyugati Square in the middle of downtown, where we meet up with our guide. I can see how the meeting point is in the center of the city and not at the caves themselves. Most people would have trouble navigating the bus system, which is obviously all in Hungarian and seems to require some kind of inside-knowledge. We take two busses and arrive at the caves, just as the sky is beginning to darken.
A few raindrops begin to fall from the sky and we are split up into smaller groups and are ushered inside. There we are equipped with an overall, a helmet and a headlamp. Since everyone in our group is young and athletic, our guide decides that we get to do the fun stuff.
Cool. I’m not one to say no to some extra fun.
It starts out easy. With a warning, not to panic if the battery of our headlamp runs out (he’s joking, right?), we scamper down a long iron ladder that leads into the blackness of the cave system.
The caves are damp and within minutes, I find my hands covered in claylike dirt. The ground is slick and more often than not, I have to move on all fours to stop myself from slipping and banging my head on some rocks. Sometimes we even sit down and slide down the mud on our butts. We visit some of the bigger chambers until we stop in front of a wall with a crack.
The opening isn’t much bigger than a human body and at first glance, I can’t see, how anyone could possibly fit through there. For once, I am glad to be a tiny girl. I am able to slip through easily and let gravity do the rest. Judging by the grunting and occasional swear-words coming out of the darkness, crawling through the tiny cracks isn’t such a piece of cake for some of the bigger men in the group.
Also, it is good to know, that I’m apparently not claustrophobic.
As the hours progress, the openings get smaller and smaller. The one from the beginning, that seemed small to me at first, suddenly appears huge in comparison to the tiny cracks we have to dive through later. Head-first, moving our toes in small increments, arms outstretched awkwardly, just to inch forward a few centimeters at a time. Sometimes it takes a while to move a few meters through a tunnel and once in a while, I think of our guides first statement, the one about batteries running out of juice down here.
I bet staying calm, while being stuck in a narrow tunnel, in complete darkness, would not be easy. Luckily, my headlamp powers through without so much as a flicker.
It is hot. Sweat is beading on foreheads and I feel like I’m getting baked alive in my synthetic overall. Still, I’m glad to have the garment. I’m covered from head to toe in dirt and I feel like my normal clothes would have been ripped to shreds by the sharp rocks long ago.
Talking of sharp rocks: I hit my knee pretty hard and have to continue on limping.
But, I haven’t had this much fun in ages, not since I raced down a sand dune with 72km/h in Namibia or almost drowned while river rafting in Zambia. Our guide cracks jokes constantly, probably to nip any sparks of fear in the bud.
However, it is very safe and the guides are incredibly knowledgeable. Only once I think I would get stuck and I even imagine my skeleton serving as both attraction and warning for future tourists. But of course, I manage to crawl away unscathed. Apparently even –ahem– heavier people can do it – honestly though, I don’t really see how, apart from taking really easy routes.
If you are in Budapest, go caving. It is amazing.
- Bring sturdy and ugly shoes. I mean it, not your light summer sneakers and not any shoe you ever plan to wear again in a nice setting. I brought my hiking boots and I was glad for having them. They got slathered in mud and dragged over sharp stones and afterwards, I looked like I had just come out of a long shift in a mine. Everyone who brought their pretty shoes probably regretted it. A lot.
- Wear just a t-shirt under your overall. The caves are a constant 10°C and you get really hot from the work out down there.
- Consider leaving your phone and camera behind. If you read the above, you will know why.