Go Below – Western Ukraine’s Underground Adventures

  • Go Below – Western Ukraine’s Underground Adventures
Issue 81, July 2015.

Go Below – Western Ukraine’s Underground Adventures

There is always something new to discover about our country; we never stop learning and exploring new wonders of nature. There are endless opportunities for adventure travel in Ukraine, for people of all ages and fitness levels as local  adventure travel companies offer tourists numerous fun-filled activities from hiking to rafting, to skiing and horseback riding. Adventure travel in Ukraine provides you with a unique way of seeing this beautiful country.

Above ground, the mountains, rivers, animals and birds keep us mesmerized, but what few know is that there is a world underground that is worth exploring and studying. Speleology is the study of caves and other underground karsts. What interests speleologists is the history, physical structures and the life forms that are found in these underground realms. Speleology and caving go hand in hand, becoming an attraction in Ukraine and an activity that many enjoy.

As you enter a cave you are transported to an alien world with its own climate, plant and animal life. A variety of sport non-equipped caves can be investigated along with the tour operator's experienced instructors. The amazing underground formations of stalagmites and stalactites with leave you breathless.

Western Ukraine: A Caver’s Paradise

Generally speaking, it is Crimea that  is known as the birthplace of speleology in Ukraine, however Western Ukraine  is still the most popular location for cavers and speleologists. With more than a hundred caves to explore, visitors to the country are encouraged to take on the challenge of caving and explore a dark world that is filled with beauty and unexpected surprises. Most of the caves in Western Ukraine  are categorized as small, while some caves fall into the category of big ones. To describe a  cave as big, the cave generally has a length of more than five hundred meters and is a hundred meters and deeper.

Western Ukraine is famous by large amount of gypsum caves. Here, within Ternopil, Chernivtsi, Khmelnytsky regions, can be found enormous gypsum layer spaces of karst origin which hide over 15 caves. Among these caves are horizontal and of labyrinth type, several hundred meters in length and two hundred kilometers, 30-50 meters in depth. Among huge variety of Western Ukraine’s caves several are interesting by its structure: some of them form high galleries and narrow passages, and far in depth they can astonish you with gigantic halls over 10 meters in height.

Optymistychna Cave – The Largest Cave in Eurasia

However,  the most interesting cave  is  without any  doubt,  Optymistychna,   a gypsum cave located near Korolivka village of Ternopil region, which  with its 230 km of mapped passageways is considered to be the fourth-longest cave in the world, (after Mammoth Cave, Jewel Cave and Sistema Ox Bel Ha)  and is the longest cave  in Eurasia.

Optymistychna cave  was discovered by a group of Lviv speleologists led by M. Savchyn in 1966. The story of this discovery is the following. An intensive development of speleological movement begins in early 60’s in Ukraine. In April 1965, a group of Lviv speleologists came across the traces of a big unknown cavity. A small stream that disappeared underground at the bottom of a karst crater in the forest near the village of Korolivka, led deep into the large gypsum solid mass. Strong air draft from a gap above the stream indicated the presence of volumetric cavities in mountain rocks. Entering the cave was done in a year. After two days of excavation on May 8, 1966 at 14.00 a team led by Myron Savchyn first got into an unknown cave and followed its passageways the first hundred meters. It was called Optymistychna. Since then a regular exploration, trailbreaking and mapping of the cave by the expeditions of Lviv speleoclub “Cyclops” began. The cave is horizontal, of a labyrinth type, embedded in 20-25-meter thick layer of gypsum at a depth of 60-80 m. It consists of 10 relatively isolated areas, interconnected by one or more passageways.

The cave is not flooded  despite that there are several small lakes with a relatively constant level. The biggest of them is Aqva vitae with surface area of 82 m2. In addition there are several water sources, subject to regional fluctuations of water level.  During its peak, which can last for several years, "Fresh Water" area and the southwest of the Central area are partially subjected to flooding. The entrance part and a blocked cave entrance can be flooded with seasonal floods for a period of several days up to 1-2 weeks.
Since 1968, the labyrinth research has been carried out from underground based camps located in different parts of the cave near various water sources. Since then great attention has been focused on the creation of freight routes in the cave and their constant improvement, in particular, providing underground based camps with fixed telephone lines.
The system of freight tracks and underground based camps provides chances for research and at the same time is an objective cave protection that supports a balance of ecological system "cave-man" during long term trailbreaking. 

It is Big – But is it Getting Bigger?

Since 1968 apart from Ukrainian speleologists, speleologists of many countries of the world: Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany, France, England, Russia and Byelorussia worked in Lviv expeditions in Optymistychna cave.

In the late 80's there was a change of researchers generations. Cavers of youth club "Motherland" of Lviv Centre of Children and Youth Arts of Halychyna started with simultaneous opening of the cave extension in two directions to the west and east of Anaconda area in January 1988. Inheriting achievements, methods and problems of Optymistychna cave from speleoclub "Cyclops", young cavers continue studies. Expeditions of speleoclub "Batkivshchyna" (Motherland) carried out trailbreaking and mapping of the last 40 km of the labyrinth.

At the time of joint map compiling (January 1997) the total length of all passageways of the cave was 192 km. 

A new discovery of the great extension of Optymistychna cave (in its southeast-western part) was made during the January (1997) by an expedition of a speleoclub "Motherland". According to two research expeditions (in April and July, 1997) the total length of the cave exceeded 200 km. The extension develops towards a significant and very promising, due to geological features, gypsum solid mass, where, according to our forecasts, labyrinths probably exist, exceeding in total length the old part of Optymistychna cave. Trailbreaking continues.

For the present day, there have been more than 50 expeditions since 1970ies, but exploration has slowed significantly in recent years, and very little surveying is currently being done.  As for 2005 the total length of all caves labyrinths is more then 240.5 km and  square is about 2 hectares. It is included in Guinness book as the longest gypsum cave in the world, and in 2008 the cave won the special nomination as the  Natural Wonder  of Ukraine.

In summer, adventure  tour operators in Western Ukraine, often offer visitors the opportunity to explore the mysteries and wonders of the caves. Each party is accompanied by experienced instructors and speleologists, and travel with tents and food supplies as some trips can last for a couple of days, depending on the requirements of visitors. Speleology and caving is an educational adventure that will open the doors to new ecosystems and a world few have the privilege of exploring.

For more information please visit  www.optimisticheskaya.com.ua/