Claustrophobia is a scary thing. Well, it ought to be it ends in phobia, right? Luckily it hasn’t ever really been something I had to worry about. Granted, I come from Arizona where we’re famous for our wide open spaces. After all “Don’t Fence Me In” could just as easily be about Arizona as Montana. Perhaps it’s no great surprise that cramped into a a tiny hole, deep under ground, in a yellow jumpsuit with a hardhat on,in a foreign country,I finally met my match. But wait! Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s start at the beginning.
I’d arrived in Budapest two days earlier, fresh off a flight from Copenhagen, Denmark. After years of near-misses, I’d finally managed a trip to Hungary’s famed capital. A city known for its beautiful architecture, the Danube, fantastic music, good food, decent beer, an unreal hostel and party scene (There are over 125 hostels in Buda and Pest).
My brother David who authors DavidBerger.net had suggested several ‘must-see’ stops during my stay. One of which was a cryptic suggestion to, “see the caves, they’re incredible!”.
Once settled I asked the hosts at Aboriginal Hostel what caves David might have been talking about. They immediately dug up a great flier for what looked like a fun caving expedition. It sounded great. They jokingly mentioned “I hope you’re not claustrophobic” before suggesting I wear closed-toed shoes and then booking me for the following day. The tour was cheap – less than $30 – and lasted several hours. It also had that authentic “backpacker” type of feel where you know you’re signing up for an adventure but have no clue just what it is you’ve actually signed up for. Not thinking much more about it we dove into several local spirits, some of which were marginally potable, and then headed out on the town for a fun night at a random bar’s theme party.
As you might imagine, the next morning was a bit rough. Not concerned I downed some water and struck off to meet the tour guide for our odd multi-leg public bus trip out to the caves (remember: only the most luxurious tours for me). It turned out the caves were located just outside of (and partially beneath) Budapest in the 20+ km long Pál-völgyi-Mátyás-hegyi cave system. For those interested the cave system is the longest in Hungary and located in the Duna-Ipoly National Park.
At the meeting point I connected with a fun mixture of other travelers. A number of Americans, a few Aussies, a person or two from elsewhere in Europe and no doubt at least one Kiwi. Here it’s worth noting that I was the tallest of the group by a decent margin. I’m 6’4″ (192 cm) and about 200 pounds (91 kilos). Normally not an important fact, right? Well, in retrospect it should have dawned on me that not all cavers are created equal.
Eventually our guide showed up, we caught the next local bus heading across to Buda, and the adventure began. It wasn’t until the hot bus started struggling up that hill that my hangover really set in. It wasn’t terrible, but let’s just say I turned a shade of green and was definitely keeping an eye on the absolute fastest way off the bus, just in case. Luckily, the ride was short and the fresh air left me feeling chipper and human again in short order.
Looking the Part
In quick order we were all given multi-colored full body jumpsuits and hardhats with mounted headlights. Then we were advised to leave valuables (including phones, large or expensive camera equipment) in the lockers. With heavy reservations I decided to only take my Canon G11 with me, figuring I could fit it safely inside my jumpsuit.
In these situations you never know if the nifty outfit is the tour company’s gimmick to make you feel more hardcore or if it’s genuine safety gear, necessary for what you’re about to dive into. I’ll admit, at this point I assumed it was a 50/50 split between the two. Getting into the darn thing was its own side adventure, but before long we all found ourselves suited up and ready to go.
In a last minute change of heart I decided to risk it and ran back in to grab my video camera. I’m a travel blogger after all, what kind of travel blogger would I be if I left my expensive camera equipment in a locker just because it “might” get hurt, right?
Then it was off to the cave’s mouth. A small metal door set into the side of the mountain. We paused for a brief safety brief, figured out how to turn on our headlamps, and then made our way inside. What was waiting for us was a decent sized tunnel about 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide that we were able to shuffle along before pausing in an open room for one last helmet and safety check.
Then it was time to truly start step over the threshold and get the tour kicked into full throttle. In no time we were descending a long stairwell which plunged into the darkness below us. The air was cool, but not unbearably so, and only slightly dusty.
The path from the bottom of the ladder opened up into a small room called the Chapel where German Soldiers had hidden during World War II. We paused briefly to collect ourselves and to take in the mud/sandstone cave walls before diving into what, at the time, seemed like a small tunnel into the next room.
As we slowly wound deeper into the cave system, and each narrow piece of the cave got tighter and tighter, I definitely caught myself smiling appreciatively. The heavy duty jumpsuits we were wearing were 100% utility and not just a gimmick. The same quickly became clear for the helmets, as you could regularly hear the sharp crack and corresponding “ooph” as members of the group misjudged ceiling height, or forgot to keep their head ducked.
Learning the Superman
Eventually we hit our first real challenge. One of the long, and tighter crawlspaces. The guides (both relatively small guys) pulled us into a group and explained that to get through the next space and those like it ahead we would need to go into superman position. Superman position? Yep – one arm forward to pull, one against the body to reduce space, and with our legs pushing, kicking and worming us forward through the tunnel.
Fair enough, right? We were here to do proper caving after all. So, eager to push on but feeling slight trepidation as I dripped sweat from the exertion of getting through the areas we had already covered, I could feel my hungover muscles cry out in protest. I shrugged it off and dove head first into the next hole. It was tight. Really tight. As in, I was temporarily stuck tight. Feet pumping, arm scrambling for hold on the slick clay and smooth sandstone, I inched and wriggled my way forward as the small hole slowly arced forward and then up into the new open space. Luckily the person behind me was able to brace my feet slightly allowing me the traction to push myself the rest of the way through and out. It was fantastic. It was difficult. I was starting to shake a bit.
As we paused on the other side recovering, I looked down to see the yellow of my sleeves along my arms had turned a darker color. The dust in the air quickly turned to a soft layer of mud as it met my face and I panted, recovering from the physical exertion of pulling myself through the hole. But, I wasn’t truly concerned. After all, my brother had done this already, right? He’s my height, has 40 pounds on me, and a more muscular build. If he hadn’t had issues, then it was time to double down and push forward. There’s nothing like a little sibling rivalry to get you to push on in a moment like that.
We continued on through wider chambers, other narrow rooms, and odd spaces that while fairly tight were more challenging because of the way you’d enter them. One required sliding down feet forward, standing up, then turning sideways, squeezing through a narrow area and then semi-falling/semi-lowering oneself into a face-forward push-up position before crawling forward, down and then back up through a hole.
We walked, we slid, we butt-scooted, we crawled and we squirmed our way along until we paused a second time before another tight space. The guides told us we’d have to superman through this one, as with the other ones, but that it was the tightest we’d be doing on the trip. They also mentioned that we’d have to turn our helmets sideways in one part to fit through properly. I could feel my heart beat surge. My muscles were throbbing in protest, threatening to cramp. I was drenched in sweat. David did it. I can do it. It was time to put my game face on.
A Lump in my Throat
We slowly crawled forward, waiting for the person in front of us to squirm forward. All the while being mindful to avoid their flailing feet and offering a head for them to push against as needed. Then it was my turn. The first part was tight, but manageable. I had to be extra careful as I had both my digital camera and video camera strapped to my chest inside my jumpsuit. They made me wider and also meant I couldn’t rest all my weight on my stomach. Just what the largest guy in the group needed, right? In surges of energy I slowly wriggled my way forward, kicking and pulling before resting briefly to catch my breath. Head turned sideways, lamp light offering only a partially illuminated view of the space I crawled forward, and upward. I felt stuck even while moving. The space was too tight. I was too tired. The muscles in my core screamed in protest. Was I stuck? What would I do if I was? Was I going to throw up? Then, finally, I was partially through and could bring my other arm to play. Slowly I dragged myself out of the 10 or so foot long tunnel and out into a larger crawlway.
I was shaking visibly. My mind raced running through how I might get out, my palms were sweaty and muddy as I wiped them on my yellow jumpsuit leaving long streaks. Adrenaline surged through my body. I wanted OUT. Slowly I collected myself, I slowed my breathing, relaxed my muscles, and took control of my thoughts. It had happened, I’d finally experienced and now truly understood claustrophobia.
As we paused and several of the guys tried squeezing through a tiny hole only our guide could manage I waged an internal war. My dignity, my pride, my mind fought the primal urge to get out, to quit and a deep fear that I would get stuck in the next tunnel. It’s that feeling you feel right before riding a massive roller-coaster the first time. It left me shaken. I wasn’t a quiter. People did this all the time. Some had to be bigger than I was and they must have made it without issue. I could do it. I had to do it. What was my other option? Going BACK the way I’d come? Not likely. All the while I tried to figure out just how my brother had made his way through it before me. He was my size after all and far more muscular. Tentatively, hands still shaking slightly I asked the guide if there were any more like the last tight hole ahead of us. “Only the Sandwich” he responded, but that’s optional. Relieved I made the decision to suck it up and to push ahead.
I’m not sure there was really an alternative option, but either way I’m glad I did. Instead of giving in to the fear I mastered and conquered it. I pushed through, fought through a few more tight spaces (though none were as tight as the last) and enjoyed the experience as we paused to look at deep-sea fossils, random rock formations that looked (and had been shaped into faces), and explored larger galleries that felt like lavatubes.
When the time came to split off and to do the “Sandwich” I did opt out. I figured I’d had my fun and there was no sense pushing my luck. As we sat waiting in a small space where the two routes re-connected I remember hearing one of the smallest girls on the trip call out from in the midst of the sandwich. “I’m stuck”. Luckily before long she’d squeezed through and rejoined the rest of us.
The trip was an amazing experience. Despite (or perhaps because of) the hangover, the brush with claustrophobia, and the bucket full of dust I inhaled it was a thrilling adventure. It teased us, challenged us, threatened us, and eventually applauded us for our effort. It was amazing and hands down one of the best adventure tours I’ve been on. It shared some commonalities with the amazing flooded ATM cave tour I had done in Belize, but had its own unique and very different feel.
A few weeks later I had the opportunity to chat with my brother. Apparently there are two caves in Budapest you can do as a tourist. He’d never heard of the cave tour I did. The one he had suggested was heavily stabilized, wide open and naturally beautiful. Oops. When I told him about the spaces I’d squeezed through he physically shivered, chuckled and muttered “I’ll pass, thanks!”.
On returning to the hostel and chatting about the cave, one of the hostel employees mentioned that on his trip a guy with shoulder issues had signed up and gotten stuck/thrown out his shoulder halfway in. They had to bring in a huge cave rescue team to get him out and the tour took several hours beyond the norm.
If you find yourself in Budapest, are in decent shape, think you can brave tight spaces and don’t have any shoulder or knee issues I strongly suggest taking the caving tour. It really was spectacular!