High in the broccoli-hued forest foothills of the Nizke Tatry (Low Tatras) – Slovakia’s great unsung mountain range – hidden between the lofty pine trees of the lower slopes and the element-stunted trees of the kosodrevina above, there is a small mountain cottage. The residence of some recluse, the unknowing passerby might think, some remote holiday house. But traipse up on the one-hour hike from the nearest road and, as you will see, the cottage marks the entrance to Slovakia’s highest, most extensive cave system – and a definite candidate for one of the strangest.
The nearest access point by road is the parking lot above the ailing Hotel Trangoška, alongside a newer, shinier penzión clearly trying to outdo its older rival, on the long twisting road up from the village of Bystrá. Opposite the car park a wide track (which narrows to a path after passing a couple of mountain cabins) ascends through the woods for 45 minutes before arriving at the signed path to the cave – which now lies a steep 15-minute clamber above you.
Sweltering from the ascent on a sticky August day when even temperatures up here at over 1300m are well into the twenties, we fantasised about the possibility of a cafe being incorporated into this remote spot but never really expected the cold beer or piping hot mountain herb tea that the cave guides – who live in the dinky cottage built around the cave entrance for days at a time – offered us on arrival. Descending into a tricky-to-negotiate cave system after a cold Pilsner or two doesn’t seem on paper like the best idea but in the moment it felt right. And chatting to the friendly team of cave guides over a drink is part of the experience: trapped up here with just each other’s company for lengthy periods, they have some colourful stories at the ready which whet your curiosity prior to going underground.
The typical cave tour (8 Euros per person) lasts about an hour. This is not a showcave, with wide paths and neat steps and guide rails. The guides at the Dead Bats’ Cave decided widening the tunnels sufficiently to meet showcave requirements would involve hacking away too much at the rock formations, so they prefer to offer a more adventurous tour, with a couple more heart-in-mouth ledges and slippery ladders thrown in – and simply ask you to sign a form saying that whatever happens to you in “the descent” is entirely at your own risk. Fair enough. Game on.
The tour commences with a descent down to around 20 metres below the surface, and a series of memorial plaques to famous cavers who discovered and charted the passageways here. In common with other high altitude cave systems, formations in this 22km network of tunnels are relatively few, but a striking series of chasms over which you walk, either on creaking bridges or strapped on to iron bars in the tunnel wall, keep you awed. The tour isn’t fleshed out with a lot of over-exaggerated nonsense about likenesses of rocks to various animals, either: this is an hour spent exploring – and “explorer” you really do feel as the tunnel you follow makes a sharp kink down and into a narrow section of bubbled rock passageways with the walls and roof of the cave pressing closely on all sides (Indiana Jones eat your heart out).
It’s around this point that the guide explains the master plan of the Dead Bats Cave – connecting the current system of tunnels up with another still-greater series of canyons – one of which is the size of a football stadium. The connection has almost been made – but the final few metres are proving difficult. Due to the presence of water, digging has to be restricted to when the water is frozen and won’t bust out to flood the cavers: something that happens for perhaps a month each year and even then, only for a few hours daily because it becomes too difficult to breathe. Watch this cold, dark space, therefore, for when the attractions of the Dead Bats’ Cave to visitors multiply after these caverns start featuring in the tour!
And finally, on a rock shelf at the side of the tunnel leading back to the surface, the origins of the cave’s moniker become apparent. Yes, indeed, the minuscule pencil-like bones of an abnormally high quantity of dead bats (some of which have lain here thousands of years). Many more, it appears, than the average for subterranean systems. Why? Well one theory put forward is that the bats – the poor blind things – find their way into the caves come late autumn and then, because their access holes become frozen over, can’t find a way out again. The second theory is just that bats – much of the area’s bat population, no less – has decided on mass that these underground labyrinths are a fitting place to die.
The Dead Bats’ Cave holds many more delights. The standard tour touches upon only one of three levels of caves open to wannabe troglodytes – and more hardcore adrenalin-pulsing squeezes and scrambles await with the more in-depth tours that explore all three (costing around 24 Euros).
Walk On! Beyond the cave, and returning back down to the signed entrance on the main green trail from Trangoška, you can carry on 45 minutes up through the forest onto the ridge at the mountain house of Chata MR Štefanika (at which point you join our recommended three-day Low Tatras ridge hike) and from where it is a further 1.5 hour hike to the summit of the highest peak in the Low Tatras, Ďumbier. Doing even a portion of this ridge hike – a truly glorious one – is an astounding “add-on” to a cave visit.
But – and few people, it seems, know this – the hike to the Dead Bats’ Cave does not have to be the out-and-back route it appears from Trangoška. As you come back down on the green trail (that’s turning left on the main path if coming from the cave) you’ll pass piles of wood left for transporting up to Chata MR Štefanika, with a rather touching request to hikers to take a log and receive a free Ďumbier herb tea (a special sweet herb tea just found in these hills!) for their pains if they carry it all the way! And just below a narrow, rarely-used yellow trail which runs up to the Hotel Kosodrevina/cable car – a point half-way up to the ridge between Hotel Srdiečko (another hotel at the end of the road on which Trangoška lies) and Chopok (the second-highest summit in the Low Tatras). This trail initially seems overgrown but it’s not – and rises through wild forest up onto moorland rich in blueberries and raspberries (boy did we have a feast). After about an hour the path – narrow and yet distinct curves up to join the wider blue trail which runs between Chata MR Štefanika and Hotel Kosodrevina. From here you can take the chair lift down to Hotel Srdiečko and walk down the road to where you parked your car – or carry on up to the top of the ridge via cable car to Chopok (where you can take another cable car down the other side into Slovakia’s famous ski area, Jasná, and into other articles soon to feature on this site…)
ADMISSION: 8 Euros per adult for the standard tour.
OPENING: Tours available at 10am, 12midday, 2pm and 4pm – daily July/August, March-June and September-December weekends only. Closed January and February (when work on connecting the adjoining cave system gets underway!!)
CAVE WEBSITE: (Slovak only)
WARNING: Temperatures down in the caves are an average of 3 degrees – bring a warm top even if it’s boiling outside!
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Dead Bats’ Cave it’s 90km southwest to Stred Europy (the geographical Centre of Europe!) in Central/South Slovakia.