Written by Carolyn Ward
(A highly commended entry in the Travel & Water Writing Competition.)
Beneath the sunny beaches of Porto Cristo on the island of Mallorca, hide the mysterious Caves of Drach (Cuevas del Drach). They are fascinating caverns of stalactites and stalagmites of all colours and shapes, and if you get an opportunity to visit, don’t let the chance slip away.
The queues may look long, but they dissipate swiftly as people flow into the caves and down the paths through the formations, deeper and deeper. It is like visiting another planet, strange and beautiful, peaceful yet enlivening to the senses.
At the bottom, almost 1200 metres down, lies the serene and mysterious underground Lake Martel, which at 170 metres long, is one of the largest subterranean lakes in the world. It is a beautiful black silken pool of immense size, reflecting the colours of the rock andcasting patterns in the light.
Around the lake is a natural amphitheatre, with seats upon the rock floor. Relax, for there is much to look at, with discreet twinkling lights and areas of striking shadow. Then, the lights dim, and everyone is filled with a twist of disquiet, for in this strange and eerie landscape, what is to happen?
Upon the lake, a candlelit boat floats gently toward the audience, filled with a string quartet playing ghostly music which echoes around the caverns like music from another dimension. The audience is transported by the sensations, the breath-taking sounds and sights. At the concert end, the boat floats away on the water, cleverly lit back into the darkness, before the subterranean tour continues.
The concerts have been filling the caves with the song of the violins since 1935, and are scheduled year-round.
On the cave site, at the east of the island, is a friendly restaurant and souvenir shop. The facilities are fantastic, with free parking, bus stops and picnic sites. The thoughtful design of these surroundings mean that a trip to the caves can be enjoyed to the full. Porto Cristo is 500 metres away, with a large range of shops and bars.
The first written record of the caves dates back to 1338 – in the Middle Ages. The first map was created in 1880, by a caver and cartographer MF Will. For over 650 years, man has marveled at the beauty that lies beneath. In 1895, Jules Verne himself wrote about the caves, and the lake was discovered by EA Martel in 1896.
The caves weren’t fully illuminated until 1935, when an engineer from Catalan also created a sunrise effect over the lake to further astound visitors.
The tour takes around an hour, with a walk of 1.2 km, and includes an optional boat trip across lake Martel, or an extra walk across a footbridge. Visitors need to prepare for the temperature of the underworld, which is 21 degrees, with 80% humidity.
Flash photography is not allowed, as it disturbs the viewing of the subtle light effects for other visitors. Each group has a guide leading them into the caves, and is required to assemble at the entry point ten minutes before its allotted tour time.
Historically, the caves were formed during the Miocene period, approximately 23-5 million years ago, and were shaped by trickling water carrying minerals and calcium carbonate through cracks in the ground. Deep inside the caves, stalactites formed from above, and stalagmites grew upwards from the ground. There are even columns and walls all formed by dripping water.
The concept of eternity and the timelessness of our planet are the kinds of philosophical musings that the caves provoke.
Best of all, perhaps is the fact that the stalactites are still growing, at approximately 1cm every 100 years. The caves will delight and amaze for centuries after we are gone, and that thought is immensely humbling.
I visited the caves as a young girl, in 1993. It is an experience that has both haunted me and provided wonderful memories.
A fictional book was written about the caves called ‘The Caves of Drach,’ by Hugh Walters. It is out of print and very difficult to get hold of, but is an excellent accompaniment to the trip should you happen to find a rare copy. It manages to make the caves even more awesome and inspiring, as it tells of a team of explorers who discover that the caves have a secret way through to the centre of the earth.
If you do get to visit, you will see that their very strangeness makes you entertain such thoughts, inspiring you to squint hard into every dark corner… just in case.
POSTED 1st SEPTEMBER 2016 by STE Web Editor STEVE HANSON on behalf of CAROLYN WARD. The photographs were supplied by STE Photo Editor, JOHN ESSER.