Call it a natural tunnel if you like. Or better yet, a testimony to the power of water, stubbornly making its way, piercing mountains if need be. A speck of light in the distance lets us know we’re getting close to the cave exit. As we head towards it, the stream we saw disappearing earlier resurfaces, getting wider and deeper until we find ourselves forced to take off our shoes and walk barefooted in crystal-clear cold water. We hear voices and the sound of a boat engine. Suddenly, the water gets warmer and cloudy. We stepped out of the darkness and into the light…
A series of galleries on two levels, summing up more than 1,600 meters (5,200 feet) in length, form one of Romania’s most interesting and, quite surprisingly, lesser-known caves. Ponicova Cave has three entrances. The main one can be reached by foot, with a second one higher above it on the vertical limestone wall, accessible by rappelling from the forest above. The third one is both an entrance and exit, depending on how you look at things, opening its wide mouth on the left bank of the Danube’s Great Boiler.
What’s with the strange name, you ask? The narrowest passage along the Danube separates southwestern Romania from Serbia, forming a gorge known as the Iron Gates. Before the namesake power-plant and dam were built in the 1960s, flooding the area, the boilers were the most treacherous part of the Danube, a series of deathtraps for unfortunate sailors. The narrowest and deadliest was Cazanele Mari, the Great Boiler, or cauldron in Romanian. Picture water boiling in a huge pot. Now imagine trying to sail it. This was the Great Boiler in its heyday. Nowadays, the Boilers are tranquil, emerald lakes just waiting to be sailed. The gorges offer plenty of attractions, from the rock sculpture of Dacian ruler Decebalus Rex to world-class rock climbing in the nearby Băile Herculane, and a stunning natural landscape both on the surface and underground.
Inside the cave
The main gallery does not boast spectacular cave formations, but is pretty impressive in its own right due to its sheer size and imposing dark walls. About 400 meters (1,300 feet) long and up to 26 meters (85 feet) high, it leads straight to the Danube where, as if there to greet us, a small boat filled with curious tourists was waiting, its silhouette finely sketched on the sunny background. We lingered for a while. Boats were coming in and out, surprised to find us sitting there on the last narrow strip of rock, as if somehow stranded.
We turned our backs to the light and ventured into the darkness once again. We knew we had one more place to visit, the cherry on the cake.
A short climb up a muddy slope leads to a series of labyrinthine galleries and chambers filled with delicately chiseled cave formations.
It has everything cave-lovers hope to see – huge stalactites and stalagmites, columns, narrow tunnels, mouse holes, chandeliers, flowstones, cave pearls and terraced cave pools. Plenty of bats too.
How to get there
Managed to get your attention? Then the only thing left to do is to visit it yourself. Ponicova Cave’s exit to the Danube is a major attraction in the area, and most boat tours take their passengers to its mouth. But that’s as far as they get, not even stepping one foot inside.
To explore all its secrets, you can reach the main entrance from DN57, the national road along the Boilers. Going from Orşova, after the small town of Dubova, park the car near the bridge, where you’ll see an old abandoned quarry. Grab your headlamps and head down into the valley, follow the stream downward until the slopes close in, leading to a seemingly dead end. A short section of boulder hopping, with a couple of ladders to spice things up a bit, will take you to the mighty entrance, a large hole at the bottom of a tall, vertical cliff.
After heavy rainfall, you might find the exit to the Danube flooded and impossible to reach. Best time to visit is after an extended period of dry weather. Make sure you watch your step, it can be quite slippery, and be prepared to ditch those shoes. Let the adventure begin!
During the communist era, Ponicova Cave was seen as the gateway to freedom, the place where those wishing to escape prosecution would hide oxygen tanks and wait for optimum water levels to flee the country and swim their way to the free world across the Danube. Legend has it some made it, while others were gunned down. Just try to imagine what this cave witnessed throughout the millennia, from cave bears and the Hallstatt culture, to fugitives and us visitors, all so different from one another.