Greek speleologists and fans of spelunking feel that they inhabit a world of their own, that theirs is a passion overlooked by most people who don’t make the effort to explore any of the thousands of caves that exist all over Greece, many of which are mapped and many more of which are awaiting to be discovered by the broader public.
According to Giorgos Portokaloglou, the head of the Hellenic Speleological & Exploration Club (SPELEO, www.speleo.gr), shepherds are the speleologist’s best friend because they have intimate knowledge of the mountains where they graze their herds.
The 26-year-old cave explorer, who got hooked while in the Boy Scouts, says that there are more than 10,000 charted caves in Greece and thousands that have yet to be explored, with Crete alone boasting 2,000.
“There are caves even in Athens. On Tourkovounia, Penteli and Parnitha there may be as many as 250,” said Portokaloglou.
“Our goal is to discover and chart as many as we can,” the speleologist explained. “We start our missions with a group of at least three people, equipped with helmets, flashlights and reserve batteries. Our biggest fear is to find ourselves trapped in a cave in the dark.”
Portokaloglou warns that novice and even expert cave explorers must make sure to be part of a group and carry the proper equipment. He adds that climbing rope is also a must given that most Greek caves are vertical rather than horizontal, resembling wells or deep pits.
Bold explorers are abundantly rewarded, however. In Aghia Triada in Karystos on the southern tip of Evia, the cave has an impressive waterfall, while in the cave of Aggitis in Drama, it tunnels into the rock for 12 kilometers and has a river to boot.
The most impressive of Greece’s caves, however, is that known as Gourgouthakas on Crete’s White Mountains (Lefka Ori), whose entrance is at an altitude of 1,450 meters and which descends to 1,200 meters.
The Hellenic Speleological & Exploration Club conducts seminars every spring that include theoretical and practical lessons, with excursions to the mountains of Greece. The training is conducted by certified personnel, most of whom specialized in France, where spelunking is especially developed.
Giorgos Karatzimas was 10 years old when his family first took him to visit the Diros Cave in the eastern Peloponnese. He was enchanted. Now aged 35, he is taking classes with SPELEO after also trying his hand at mountain climbing, hiking and diving.
“I really enjoy outdoor sports,” he told Kathimerini. “I love the adrenaline rush.”
Twice a week he attends theoretical classes at SPELEO and joins the group on weekend excursions.
“We explored the Cave of Lord Byron in Keratea, northeastern Attica, which is especially interesting from both a speleological and historical point of view,” Karatzimas said. The following week saw him in the Tourkovounia hills, just northwest of central Athens, and in Varibombi in the north, practicing rope-climbing techniques.
“You have to be in good shape and most people involved in this hobby have certain common traits,” said Karatzimas. “We are enchanted by the unknown, by this deep chasm in the earth, which leads who knows where.”