I was seriously disappointed with our morning. We were heading for the Postojna cave, which is one of very few homes to Olms (Proteus anguinus), fully aquatic, blind, pink, cave salamanders existing only on the Dalmatian coast. Their colour leads to these bizarre little animals also being referred to as the ‘human fish’. On the surface on it, that sounded quite exciting and I had been looking forward. Slowly, however, the horrible truth began to sink in. What I had not realized or been prepared for was:
The Postojna cave is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the best known cave in the World. A fantastic web of tunnels, passages, galleries and halls, the astonishing diversity of Karst features as well as easy access are certainly the main reasons for such popularity of the cave and a large number of visitors, which has already reached 35 million in 200 years.
Perhaps naïvely, I’d been expecting a small, insignificant cave in the countryside with just our group in it.The distressing truth became abundantly apparent as we drove into a huge car park equipped with special spaces for large coaches, one of which was borrowed by our small minibus. It was seething with people of all races, who, after purchasing their 25€ tickets for their timed entrance slot – shades of the Alhambra Palace, here – assembled under flags representing their nation to be guided in their tongue. Milan bought our tickets – grateful for small mercies – and we eventually joined our time slot. Naturally, English was by far the largest group.
OK, the clattering electric train ride was moderately enjoyable but, honestly, once you’ve seen one stalactite/stalagmite, you’ve seen ‘em all. The guide did a reasonable job as we were led around seemingly endless parades of chambers featuring yet more stalac/g-thingies but the plain truth is that I find matters geological stultifyingly boring. All I really wanted to see was the Olms. Finally we got to the end of our underground tour and, just to add insult to injury, a few Olms were on display in a modestly sized, very dark aquarium, for Darwin’s sake. Each side of the square aquarium could accommodate about 6 people at a time and there were about 100 of us. This is not what I call wildlife.
We clattered back out before lunch time, much to my relief.
The morning thus wasted, our main event of the day would begin at about 4:00 PM. That gave us time to revisit yesterday’s karst lake in today’s sunshine. Better, there are reportedly 30 species of Odo there, after all. I began to recover.
We arrived in what was, indeed, much better weather conditions. This is what it really should look like. The dragonflies and butterflies thought so, too, and activity was brisk. At last I saw a few species that I couldn’t see back at home, the most cooperative of which was a White-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum albistylum). Less cooperative were Lesser Emperors (Anax parthenope), which did not pose for the paparazzi, and a Green-eyed Hawker, a.k.a. Norfolk Hawker (Aeshna isoceles) which did but only for an id shot.
And so to the potentially main event of the day, possibly the trip: Brown Bears (Ursos arctos). Our group had booked an optional extra evening visit to a forest where these magnificent creatures live in the wild. These are not in a reserve, they live in the woods. The guy who ran our guest house has several hides erected in various parts of the forest and puts food out to attract the bears. All fine and dandy except that, I was told that I would have to sit still and silently in a hide for five hours. Yikes, that’s 300 minutes! I can’t sit still for five minutes, far less 300. I was concerned. I was so concerned that I very nearly dipped out, not just for my own comfort but I didn’t want to be responsible for spoiling it for any companions. I was, in this respect, not looking forward to it. Sense prevailed, though; I couldn’t pass up this opportunity of a lifetime; I girded my loins and clambered into the car. The car was a Nissan pickup with its back filled with boxes of tripe and corn. Tripe is, I was told, cheap and irresistible to bears.
Francine and I had volunteered to go to a hide that required climbing into up a 5m ladder. Our companions were taken to various other areas. After climbing up the ladder to our hide with gusto and pole-axing myself on the top of the door frame at the top, we took our seats and settled down. Camera ports, complete with bean bags were provided. Blankets were also provided, as was a pillow. Our host scattered corn for the bears. After about 30 minutes of watching a family of Jays (Garrulus glandarius), five strong, scavenging the bear food. A young Greater-spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) joined in. After about 30 minutes of no further activity, Mr. Fidgety assumed the foetal position and put the pillow to good use.
A hand shook my drowsy shoulder while an accompanying voice whispered the unbelievable phrase, “there’s two cubs”.Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring! I arose as gently as I could and we stared out of the window of the hide. Sure enough, a mother bear had arrived at our feeding station with her two cubs in tow and they were an absolute delight. We scrambled as quietly as we could to focal length, now we could gauge the size of the target, and adjust bean bags so we could bring cameras to bear on them [pun intended – chortle]. As a swift précis, the mother and cubs moved around three scatterings of food and entertained us for 90 minutes. We couldn’t believe our luck. Eventually she led her cubs away but seemed to stare at our hide as she passed; we’re sure she knew we were there.
Well, surely that was that. No, it wasn’t. I was about to assume the position once again for the remaining couple of hours or so, when a larger, presumably male bear arrived He began chomping and we resumed clicking. A fifth approached from another direction but seemed to be further down the pecking order and beat a relatively swift retreat. Finally a sixth bear turned up and began to confront the fourth, which was still in front of our hide. Growls ensued and we thought we were in for some fireworks but they seemed to work it out and settle down sharing the space together. This last bear looked effectively bald on his lower half – curious.
Bears #4 and #6 were still there when, at 9:00 PM, we heard a knock on our hide door. Yikes, another bear has climbed the ladder! Nah, we were just being rescued. Francine, who had been taking notes, opened the door to greet our host and explain all that had happened as his face lit up. The two remaining, very large bears scarpered.
What an evening! That was about the shortest five hours I’ve ever spent, I think. Our host was almost as excited as we were when we reported our luck; the previous time this hide had been used, nothing turned up. One set of our companions had seen two bears but the others regrettably had seen nothing; we put this down to the constant buzzing of a chainsaw nearby. Duh! We, however, had very unusually it the jackpot. At our late dinner – we were starving – our host was anxious to see our pictures, occasionally muttering, “wow”.