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Barlangs in Budapest and Under Aggtelek

Egeszsegedre!  The bottles clink and we pass around the local Bulls Blood and Unicum. It is great to be back again in Budapest, the “city of caves” with our Hungarian caving friends.  There are eleven of us from different UK caving clubs and two of our Lebanese friends, here to enjoy a short city caving break before heading to the 11th International Cave Rescue Conference to be hosted in Aggtelek, north-eastern Hungary.

Hungary has a rich speleological history, and its scientists were the pioneers of speleotherapy, still practised in Hungary today.  There are three main caving areas, in the north both the Bukk and Aggtelek are typical Karst areas with stream caves and in the capital, the Buda Hills which make Budapest unique, by having the highest density of thermal caves anywhere in the world


The Team:

From BEC: John Christie, Mike Wilson and Emma Porter (GCRG/MCRO)

Others: John Allonby (CPC), Jo Campbell (SMCC), Mike Clayton (CPC/GCRG/MCRO), Firas Fayad (Speleo Club du Liban), Pete Gray (CPC), Tony Harrison (Moldywarps Speleological Group/Swaledale MRT), Chris “Zot” Harvey, Hadi Kaassamani (Speleo Club du Liban), Neville Lucus (CPC), Mike Peters (CPC), Steve Tomalin (GSS/GCRG) and Deanne Wilkins (Dudley CC)

(this blurring of this photo summed up the weekend)

Em and Dea with Mendip's finest - photo by Mike Clayton

After arriving into Budapest airport on the morning of Saturday 12 May 2007, we were greeted by our friend Marci and swiftly transported to our accommodation for the next three days, a small caving club hut in the “Beverley Hills” part of Budapest, nestling between foreign embassies and millionaires’ pads.  It is a very precious piece of land as far as cavers in Hungary are concerned, the equivalent of an SSSI, hosting stunning views overlooking the Danube and the city. But what makes this land so special is that hidden beneath the surface lies a mini Lechuguilla, called Jozsef-Hegyi Barlang.

Like many caves in Budapest, Jozsef-Hegyi was discovered by workers excavating the land to develop and build houses.  The small cave entrance was found in 1984 and excavation work had to cease whilst the cavers were given a set time period upon which to dig, extend and explore the cave.  The cavers were fortunate to soon break through into some large chambers full of gypsum and due to the importance of the find the builders were not permitted to continue with their works.  Whilst this important and unique cave has in the short time been saved, due to the cave being positioned in such an exclusive part of Budapest, the cavers have at times had to fight to keep the land from being developed and hence access is very restricted, even to cavers.

After a short rest in the sun from travelling, we were led into the 5.5km long and 103m deep cave by our good friend Csaba “Mr Dyson” Koblos, entering a 20ft shaft via a metal ladder, the alternative route via the cellar of the caving hut was unfortunately locked.  We carefully descended the entrance series via rope climbs and boulder chokes until several large chambers were reached, the largest chamber being 70m long by 20m wide.  Once through the entrance series, the cave is an abundance of gypsum crystals and flowers, aragonite needles reaching 5-10cm in length and the amazing Christmas tree features, formed it is believed, by the result of calcite flakes precipitating on the former water surface and being deposited on top of each other.  We had a steady paced trip in order to keep cool and had ample opportunity to admire the underground delights.  It was a real privilege to be able to venture into the gypsum wonderland but almost a relief reach the surface away from the fragility and pristine nature of the beautiful cave.

The following day, we ventured to the nearby show cave of Pal Volgyi discovered in 1904.  Here, large quarrying activities in the Szep Valley revealed a number of underground labyrinths and now Pal Volgyi is part show cave after being opened to the public in 1927.  In 1994, the cave was already the second longest in Hungary and the longest in Budapest and by the end of 2001, a connection was created between the 13.3km long Pal Volgyi and the 5.4 km long Matyas-hegyi Barlang that opens in the opposite quarry. 

Like the majority of the Budapest caves, access is restricted and we were fortunate to have a guide pre-arranged.  After originally being split into two parties, we quickly merged into one large group, as the route finding on the round trip became more complicated and Zot discovered his chest girth was not quite conducive to some of the squeezes (or maybe it was just an excuse to be rescued by Szilvia, one of the female cavers in the group!).  The route gave us a good insight into the nature of the cave, with its maze-like routes and bizarre rock formations that resembled exploring the holes in a large piece of cheese.  Further into the system, in the western part, it is said to be particularly pretty, although time and our group size prevented us from going this far.

On our way back to the caving hut, as on previous trips, we climbed the steps above the show cave of Szemlohegyi Barlang to a small memorial garden to cavers who have died in the pursuit of exploration, to pay our respects.  It is a beautiful setting with a piece of limestone and plaque for each caver overlooking the city – a poignant reminder of the risks of our passion.

Deanne Wilkins in Baradla Barlang, Hungary - photo by Emma Porter

The last day of our short city caving break was spent exploring the “Pearl of the Danube” with all its interesting architecture, lively streets, sprawling over both sides of the river.  Budapest is perhaps most well known for being a spa city with its alleged medicinal waters and so a drink of the sulphur water at Lukacs Medicinal Baths was in order (which cured Jo’s knee pain!) followed by a trip to enjoy the thermal pools in the architecturally elegant surroundings of the Gellert Spa with its Art Nouveau furnishings, artistic mosaics and stained glass windows.  Our day in the centre of the city ended in an “eat and drink as much as you want” for £10, which saw the group making the most of the latter before staggering back to the hut to grab their possessions to meet the coach at Szemlohegyi Barlang.  Upon our arrival at the show cave, we were given a quick tour around the show cave before Mike Wilson, Zot and Firas headed back to the UK, and for the rest of us, a beer was thrust in our hands to ease the four hour journey to Aggtelek.

The Aggtelek National Park is dominated by extensive Karst plateaus with an average altitude of 600m, and together with the neighbouring Slovak Karst, the caves feature on the World Heritage list.  The venue of the 11th International Cave Rescue Conference was in the heart of the National Park in north-eastern Hungary, between the two villages of Aggtelek and Josvafo and saw cavers converging from Mexico, Scandinavia, Lebanon, across Europe and the largest group, apart from the hosts, being the Brits.

During the journey, we met up with the other delegates of the Conference, including two more from the UK, Pete Allwright (CRO) and Roy Holmes (CRO).  Despite the beers, it seemed a long journey to Aggtelek and we arrived in the early hours of the morning of Tuesday 15 May.  We were soon guided to three cosy wooden cottages by our friend Moha and crashed out, making sure we were ready for some serious partying when the conference started.

Registration at the conference commenced later that morning and we were shortly planning some underground excursions.  With Pete Allwright, Roy Holmes and Tony Harrison providing the British representation at the conference lectures, our Hungarian caving friends had a whole schedule of trips planned for us during the week and we were soon heading to Rakoczi Barlang, to a cave that was discovered through mining.  The cave was accessed via an abandoned tunnel, which was constructed in the 1920s and the miners came across the cave whilst digging new side passages in their search for iron ore.  Unfortunately, not realising the significance of their discovery, one of the lakes was filled with thousands of tonnes of spoil.  Today, this cave is now protected and a series of fixed metal ladders leads visitors around some beautiful formations to a lake.  With the cave only being 650m in length, we managed to put in an appearance at the opening ceremony of the conference before giving one of our team, who was heading home to Beirut that evening, a traditional send off!  Several beers and Unicums later, we carried him from the pub back to meet his lift to Budapest airport and we joined the rest of the British contingent for the Gulyas Party, and enjoyed some goulash and local beverages. 

On Wednesday, we headed off to Slovakia, the border being all of 1 mile away, with Gustav from Meander to explore Buzgo Cave, following a series of wire traverses to the end.  In the afternoon, we joined all the conference participants for the excursion to the cave baths of Miskolctapolca, a popular tourist attraction. The cave baths were formed by thermal waters and a building was constructed in the 1930s around the cave and made suitable for bathing in 1959.  There are several artificial extensions to swim through interspersed with natural cave passage and small pools, Jacuzzis and several large outdoor pools.

Formations in Ochtinsha Aragonite Cave, Slovakia - photo by Emma Porter

The following day, we visited three show caves in Slovakia and saw the stunning aragonite formations in Ochtinsha Aragonite Cave.  Whilst only 300 m long, this cave was protected in the World Heritage List in 1995 due to its unique aragonite needles and phenomenal helictites. We then visited the long straws of Gombasecka cave in Slovakia before returning to Hungary to then party in only a way the British can in the famous Baradala Barlang to the Miskolc Dixie Band.  A superb feast was enjoyed by all, with plenty of drinking, singing and the Brits introducing the other cavers to the Hokey Cokey!

Of course, we could not be in Aggtelek without completing a traverse of Baradla Barlang from Aggtelek to Josvafo.  The total length of the system is 26km with a quarter lying in Slovakia, known as Domica Cave.  The traverse is an underground hike through massive chambers, some extremely well-decorated.  At the picnic tables, we shared some food and drinks before deviating down the Radish Branch to admire the Mother in Law’s Tongue. 

Whilst some of our group were flying back to the UK, the final day of the trip saw a smaller Anglo-Hungarian contingent entering Domica Cave by a lesser-known entrance.  The trip was perhaps the highlight of the week, as we followed the beautiful stream passages, skirted round gour pools and crossed the underground border post.  Our Hungarian friends pointed out the remnants of the metal gates that had once divided the cave and the two countries, and advised us that this has been their “Berlin Wall”.

A very big thanks must go to our Hungarian friends and hosts of the conference for looking after us so well as usual.  And in return? Whilst we may not have attended many lectures, we explored underground in both Hungary and Slovakia and kept the party going every night!! Egeszsegedre!! 


Craven Pothole Club The Record, No 52, July 1998, pp40-44, “Pestera in Padis, Barlangs in Budapest”, Porter, E

Craven Pothole Club The Record, No 42, April 1996, pp19-21, “A Winter Expedition to Hungary”, Thompson, T

Descent magazine, No 198, Oct/Nov 2007, pp32-34

Slovakia Show Caves 2003 Bella, P DTP studio GRAFON ISBN 80-89130-09-7

Ochtinska Aragonite Cave 2001 Pavel, P DTP studio GRAFON ISBN 80-968414-7-5

A similar article appeared in Craven Pothole Club The Record, No 90, April 2008.

By Emma Porter