Oh if only I had a hobbit to join me! Then my caving expedition would have been perfect. It didn't stop me imagining monsters and goblins lurking in the depths or my heart quickening at a strange sound though.
See, when you enter a dark place with dimly lit pathways and feel the vast empty blackness spreading into a cavernous silence around you, it is a spine tingling sensation that I am still not entirely sure I like.
Your heart quickens, you fingers tingle as a little adrenaline hits your system and then you round a bend and the enormity of the cave system stands before you. Well a guard rail followed by emptiness stands before you so you teeter up to the rail and look over as that cold feeling runs down your spine while the 'fight or flight' reflex of self-preservation kicks in.
A drop off. A dark, enormous hole so wide it barely fits into your field of view as your eyes adjust to the low light, is right at your feet. Yes, of course there is a very sturdy safety rail there at Škocjan Caves Park in Slovenia, it is a world famous cave system drawing people into its depths by the thousands from all over the world. But, nonetheless I couldn't help taking a step back. It was my first time in such a strange and wonderfully spine tingling world.
Snaking around one side you see the dimly lit path which is getting brighter and brighter as you eyes adjust to the low light scanning and searching for the sound of that water filling your ears.
It is not a trickle, it is not a drip, it is a flow. An underground river that has carved these enormous caverns over an eon. It's power still present and emanating an eeriness into the otherwise silent cave system you find yourself in and what is responsible for that coolness making goose bumps rise on your skin.
Or is it? Suddenly something stirs near you and unable to clearly see what it is or where it is coming from, your worst imaginings kick in. Monsters and goblins from the Lord of the Ring are suddenly clear as day in your mind and your heart kicks up another notch just waiting to hear the whistle of an arrow fly through the air.
This is why I love my imagination but it can be a curse when you are deep within the earth and desperately wishing for little hobbits courage and company. Well, at that point I was anyway.
It's my own fault. I had moved ahead of the group some distance so others didn't bump into me freaking me out as their eyes adjusted, therefore making me first into the abyss. But when your eyes finally adjust and you look down into that vast drop off, you see the river below and it holds a certain subterraneous beauty.
The tumbling waters flow smoothly as they have for centuries slowly moulding their surroundings to the waters natural course. Everything 'down there' looks polished, slightly glowing with it's own luminescence reflecting back the dim light from above. It is beautiful and you start to notice colour.
Creams, shades of green, grey and earthy tones meet your eyes as you scan the rest of the cave near you. Then...
Does that wall look like it's melting to you? It did to me.
And my mind was off again, racing a million miles a minute thinking of what could be hot enough, and found in the bowls of the earth that could melt stone...yes, you guessed it... a dragon. Dragons breath would surely melt stone and make the walls look like they were marshmallow dissolving into a gooey mess.
Now you can laugh if you want, I do now, but at that point a teeny tiny bat flew past and I swear my heart nearly leapt out of my chest. Or course I thought it was a dragon and got such a fright I half expected to see my heart flopping around on the floor in front of me because I was sure it jumped out of my body. Oh god, my imagination was out of control so now you see why it is both a blessing and a curse.
But thankfully my logical brain kicked in (yes I do have one, contrary to popular belief) and made the argument that centuries of water had whittled it away to a smooth surface and there were in fact no dragons in the vicinity. Well not now anyway. Who knows if one didn't live there centuries ago. After all, this was Europe and dragons are a part of legend and those legends have survived to this day so had to have come from somewhere right?
No, there weren't any signs of dragon habitation, there wasn't any rusty suits of armour with the remnants of brave knights rotting away down there... I looked. But don't worry, my eyes were peeled just in case.
So, for nearly an hour we made our way through the cave system with our guide, stopping at lookouts and learning the history of this enormous cave system, then rounded a bend to find well lit stairs descending into a naturally lit cavern signalling that my journey through middle earth was over. The pathways now looked like blazing trails to the light and everything around was clearly, sharply in focus. Including some of the amazing patterns and natural formations on the walls.
Like this one.
It looked like a weird mushroom formation one minute, then when you move to another angle it kind of looked like a wizened old wizard in a big hooded cloak with a staff... but I will let you stare at it and find in it what you will. Of course, my mind had been on a hobbit quest into middle earth for the last hour so of course Gandalf had to make an appearance.
What do you see in it?
Making your way out, the suns dappled light was almost blinding down in the natural ravine I found myself standing in.
The sunlit greens were vivid, striking and strong. A welcome sight after being in what felt like another world.
That's the funny thing about dark places, you lose track of time. A minute feels like a second so you think you've been in there on a ten minute stroll and it has been nearly an hour. It's bizarre.
This is why such places take a hold of your senses and your imagination runs wild envisioning ghastly beasts, mythical creatures and then you are getting sucked into a adrenaline infused adventure trekking through middle earth.
Sounds fun doesn't it!
Squinting into the dappled light I went, turning to gaze back into this amazing natural wonder whose size still astonishes me. It's eery and exhilarating, so quiet every little noise is amplified making it terrifying and a good old boost to your heart which the adventure lovers will adore.
So, emerging from this wonder, there is another wonder to behold.
Standing there in the dappled light of the sun making it's way down into the deep ravine I found myself standing in, there is a glorious small waterfall on the other side of the cavern quietly tumbling down into a small pool. Serenely beautiful, I didn't want to leave but my grumbling tummy told me it was time to go, it was time for lunch... or was it second breakfast? Maybe I was turning into a hobbit myself.
Then turning around and letting my eyes follow the path, another journey began... the journey out.
Back to the light, back to civilisation and away from dragons, goblins and all other things that lurk in the darkness. You still had to go through smaller caves though which plummeted you right back into the underground realm and when things rustled near you, that finger tingling reappeared adding to the fun my imagination was having with me.
See, now you understand why I would have gladly welcomed Frodo and Sam to accompany me on my adventure. Yes, that would have been perfect. But don't be detered Travel Baggers, if you ever get a chance for a spine tingling quest in the bowls of the earth yourself.. do it!