Pardon Me, Boy, is This the Transylvania Station?

Dave Palmer
photos by the author, except as noted

all photos and text are ©1996,
and may not be used without permission
Main photo page

Photo by Jim Zuber.

OK, I'll admit it right off: I'm no nature boy. I'm a hacker, fer cryinoutloud (read the gory personal details). To me, "experiencing wilderness" means opening the blinds in my office so I can see the vacant lot out in back.

So, in June 1996, when I found myself clawing my way up the side of a mountain in the wilds of Transylvania (in northern Romania), far, far away from my computer, the Net, Jolt Cola, or any other traces of civilization, I couldn't help but pause a moment and ask myself "what the heck am I doing here?" Well, it's the caves, you see. I'll explain...

Genoa's director of R&D, Mike Moldovan, is a native of Romania. While growing up in "the old country," he developed a love of caving, and of photographing caves. A year or so back, I saw Mike's cave photos, and I was hooked. I had to see those caves. Of course, it's not that easy. These aren't tourist caves, with electric lights, concrete walkways and elevators. These are wild, living caves, with dark, bottomless pits, and entrances not designed for humans to navigate.

Nonetheless, Mike promised that there were a few nice caves where my probability of dying would be reasonably low, so we set out on the Great Romanian Expedition. Mike went on ahead the week before to spend some business time at GenRom, Genoa's office in Bucharest. Then, Genoa's president Jim Zuber and I followed, arriving in Bucharest late Saturday night, June 15. It was hot and humid in Bucharest, even at that late hour, but Mike said we'd missed the really bad heat wave. We bunked for the night in the apartment of Mike's mother, and had our last experience of beds, a shower, and a flush toilet for the week.

Way too early the next morning, we started out. Mike, Jim, and I were joined by several of Mike's caving friends. There was Christian Lascu, a geologist and one of the best cave photographers in Romania, his son Andrei, Nicu Terteleac a geologist and photographer, and Mihai Baciu.

Ceaucescu's Big House
We started out of Bucharest, driving past posters urging the election of tennis bad boy Ilie Nastase for mayor (he lost). We made a brief stop to ogle the "House of the People," a huge building (the third-largest in the world) built by the Communist dictator Ceaucescu as a grand imperial state house. The cost of building this spectacularly ugly building drove the nation into near-bankruptcy. Ceaucescu was overthrown and executed shortly after it was completed, and it is now known as "Casa Nebunului" (Madman's House). And you think your house is nothing but trouble...

In no time at all, the concrete canyons of the city gave way to the open plains of Wallachia, one of the three main regions of Romania. Transylvania is in the northwest, and Moldavia is in the northeast.

It took me awhile to adjust to the peculiarities of Romanian driving. When one visits a foreign land, one should expect that certain things, certain concepts, one takes for granted may not exist in the other culture. A concept that apparently has not caught on in Romania is that of the "no passing zone" on the roads. Chugging past an 18-wheeler on a mountain curve seems to be considered fair game, if you can do it without death or injury.

Our first real sightseeing stop was at the 14th-century Cozia Monastery in the Carpathian foothills in northern Wallachia, just south of Transylvania.

The graveyard at Cozia
Since, apparently, no American-written story can mention Transylvania without also mentioning Dracula, it should be noted here that the monastery was completed mainly due to the patronage of one Mircea the Old, who was the grandfather of Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), the 15th century Wallachian (not Transylvanian) ruler on whom Englishman Bram Stoker later based the character of Dracula, mostly due to Vlad's passion for impaling his enemies on wooden stakes. Vlad's father was known as Vlad Dracul (Drac means either "Dragon" or, more frequently, "Devil," depending on who you ask, and Dracul means "The Devil"). "Dracula" means "Son of the Devil." Today, Vlad Tepes is actually a revered figure in Romanian history, remembered as a tough ruler in tough times. There. I feel better.

A monk at Cozia

Roman ruin in the Red Tower Pass.
Further north, and finally into Transylvania, in the Red Tower Pass, we stopped for our first meal, bread, cheese, and the best tomatoes I've ever tasted, washed down with carbonated mineral water (the only bottled water available in Romania) and Coke. Then, we climbed over the ruins of a Roman fortification overlooking the River Olt, where the Romans used to make people pay for travelling through the mountain pass.

Next was a brief stop in the medieval city of Sibiu, the birthplace of Dana Moldovan, Genoa's manager of sustaining engineering. This is not your typical Romanian town. In fact, it's German. The original settlers came mainly from the Rhineland, and walking the streets, it's easy to believe you're somewhere near Nuremberg.

Views of Sibiu

Our last stop anywhere near civilization was in the city of Cluj (Mike's home town), where we picked up some supplies, and the keys to the gate guarding one of the caves. Heading out of Cluj, we suddenly became aware of a potential problem: no gas stations anywhere had any diesel ("motorina" in Romanian), and one of our cars was getting low. Nicu, our driver, been through this sort of thing before, and he had a reserve can that got us through. We later learned that the price of diesel was scheduled to go up later in the week, and some stations were hoarding it.

In Latin, "Transylvania" means "beyond the woods," but it seemed we were heading into the woods instead. We left the paved roads behind and bounced along on a rocky dirt road for hours, climbing into the Carpathians. Night fell, and the trip became just a bumpy ride over the small pool of light cast by our headlights, with the occasional grating sound of a rock tearing out the undercarriage of the car. Finally, around midnight, we reached our destination, a cabin still under construction, high up in the Apuseni mountains, owned by a group of cavers who wanted to keep access to the area clear for cave fanciers. No electricity. "Running water" referred to the stream out front. Restroom facilities were in the trees over the fence (watch where you step). As it turns out, we were not too far from a charming spot named "The Valley of Hell." Yep. Just as I suspected. We had a candle-light dinner, then climbed a rough homemade wooden ladder up to the second floor, where we laid out sleeping bags on an elevated plank. I believe it was about this time I began to whimper.

The cabin in the Carpathians.

Our front yard.

Too early the next morning, I was roused by the incessant hammering of the men building the cabin. It seems that crack-of-dawn workmen is a cultural universal. I groped my way out of "bed" and downladder into the frosty wet Transylvanian morning. Two cavers who had arrived later than us were sleeping out in the field, covered with frost. I began to suspect that living conditions were not going to be what I would consider "plush." Mike had grown up in these surroundings, and Jim is an avid outdoorsman, so they were having a great time. We were at least fortunate in that the cabin had a resident cook, Carmen, who provided us with some nice cooked meals in the couple of days we spent there.

A stream flowing out of a cave.

That day, Mike announced we would be going on "The Easy Hike," which was, in fact, quite first. We hiked along the dirt road next to the stream, occasionally stopping in a meadow or somesuch to do some photography. We passed a cave or two, but were told they weren't worth going into. After several hours and untold kilometers, the road got a bit rougher, then turned into more of a trail, then disappeared entirely. The fun was over. It was time to see The Gorge. Not from the bottom, no. From the top, most of a kilometer or so above our heads.

King of the hill. Whoopie.
Photo by Mike Moldovan

I'm not sure which was the more exciting part of that climb, the muddy, slippery part, or the rocky, "look-out-below" ("Petru! Petru!") part. Predictably, I was bringing up the rear on that part, so I got the full benefit of the lesson in Newton's laws of motion. The view from the top was breathtaking...or maybe it was the climb that did that. Anyway, we soon started down, which turned out to be almost as fun as going up, except this time, I was the one sending rocks down on the people below. Hours later, when we rounded a curve and finally saw the cabin, it looked considerably cozier to me. Guess the workmen must have made some good progress during the day...
A looonnnggg way down.

In the Bear Cave

The next day, we separated the men from the boys....and Jim and I were sent off with the boys. The real cavers went off to Altar cave, which has an entrance known as "the corkscrew," and just isn't for amateurs. Jim and I went to a beginner's cave, led by a troop of boys from the cabin. They bolstered my morale along the way with lines like, "Right here. This is where we saw the bear." When we got there, we found the cave entrance had been covered with mud from the spring rains. A bit of digging, and we had a muddy opening just big enough to squirm through. The cave was not very big, and wasn't terribly spectacular as caves go, but I ended up a happy caver after all that day: first, I didn't get eaten by a bear, and second, it turns out the mud banks in the cave are full of 65,000-year-old cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) bones. One of the few things that does get me outdoors is digging for fossils, so the chance to collect a few specimens of this critter was a treat.

The specks of "silver" are water drops

Squeezing out of a hole in the ground
Photo by Andrei Lascu

Wednesday, we departed from the cabin, and drove down the road to the nearest village, where we stopped and bought several loaves of warm, freshly-baked bread...possibly my second favorite eating experience, after warm donuts. However, the nearest donut shop was probably in Switzerland.

We drove south all day, out of Transylvania and back to Wallachia, where by about 11 p.m., we passed by the Danube and looked over the water into Yugoslavia. About one in the morning we finally pulled up into a field, and began to unload. I gathered up an armload of stuff and asked Mike, "where's the cabin?" "Cabin?" he says, "What Cabin? No. Much better. We're sleeping out under the stars."

Now, as it turns out, I'm an amateur astronomer, and the stars are another thing that gets me outdoors, but I consider the stars for looking at, not sleeping under. Sleeping out in the open was something I'd never done in my life, and I wasn't really ready to start practicing right then and there. I was set to sleep in the car, but somebody had had the foresight to bring a tent. As I was settling down in my little canvas retreat-from-nature, I heard one of the Romanians say to Jim, "by the way, if you feel something slimy against your face, don't move too fast..." My fondness for my shelter increased further at dawn, when all the outdoorsy types got rained on.

Where's room service with my #@!%$ coffee?
Photo by Mike Moldovan.

Jim and Christian head into
Topolnita cave
The field was our base camp for a visit to Topolnita cave, which has a river running through it, and huge entrances on two sides of the mountain. We first hiked over to the entrance where the river enters the cave, then over to the opposite side, where we inflated a couple of rubber boats and paddled upstream into the other entrance. While we were getting our gear together by the river, Nicu showed me his latest find: a container full of scorpions. "Oh, yes," he said. "They're all over. Lift any rock, there they are." I hastily departed the rocks I was lying on.

Heading upstream
Photo by Mike Moldovan

Four of us, Mike, Jim, Christian, and I boarded the boats in a large clearing, and Christian paddled off upstream, towing the other boat. The cliff walls began to close in, and soon we passed through the huge arch of the cave entrance. The walls closed in further, and soon, all traces of daylight vanished. We didn't go far. There were places where the river was too shallow for the boats, so we got out and carried a boat to deeper water. Coming out, we first saw a spark of light, which then grew until there was a large jagged gash of daylight in the darkness.

Jim and Christian navigate the rocks

Jim and Mike

Mike and Christian climbing the walls.

Finally, we emerged into the pale green water of the entrance, and the cliff walls fell away. After Jim and I, the greenhorns, had had our peek, the other cavers took the boats back in to do some real caving. There are galleries and other chambers in Topolnita, but they are reachable only by experienced climbers. Nicu led Jim and I back to the field where the cars were. "Watch where you put your hands," he told me on the way. "The horn vipers like to sleep on the hot rocks here." Swell. Scorpions and horn vipers. What else? Well, as it turns out, fire ants. But that's another story.

We were somewhat relieved to find the cars intact when we returned. There is a local legend that Topolnita cave contains a large stash of stolen gold, and the local villagers are suspicious of anybody poking around the cave. We'd had to leave Andre guarding the cars because, in the past, unattended cars have had their tires slashed, supposedly in an attempt to keep the cavers from making off with the gold. Actually, one of the tires on Nicu's car was flat, but that was because he'd driven over a tree branch on the way in. He keeps two spare tires in the car, for just such eventualities.

Next, we hit the village of Isverna, where we slept in the front yard of the town library. I had my tent once again. Thursday morning, the cavers set out for another cave, while Jim and I were sent off with Nicu and Andrei on "a nice hike." That hike is now forever engraved in my memory as "The Death March."

Up there. that's where we're headed.
While I'll refrain from the gruesome details, basically it was a gruelling hike up a very steep slope to the top of a very high mountain, some wandering around on a picturesque plateau, followed by an equally gruelling climb down the mountain. It didn't help matters that we'd run out of water halfway on the trip. Near the end, we finally found a spring that was safe to drink from.

Towards the end of the March, things began to get a bit tense. It was getting dark, and none of us had thought to bring anything like a flashlight or even matches. And the mountains were full of wild boars, wolves, and bears, oh, my! Earlier in the day, we'd seen the skeletal remains of a horse's foreleg. Nice to know we were sharing the mountain with something nasty enough to attack a horse and rip its leg off...

A shepherd's shack.

Civilization? Nope, you can't get
there from here, young fella.

We finally rounded a bend and saw the village in the distance. Another hour or so of twisty, downhill trails, and we finally emerged onto a flat dirt road outside the town...only to discover we'd come down on the wrong side of the mountain. Fortunately, the hike back to Isverna was on a level road, an no more than a couple of kilometers. All this took about twelve hours, and I was way beyond exhaustion by the time we finally made it back to the car.

The rest of the gang had already packed up and headed off to the next stop, and soon we were on the road again. There was a tense (for Jim and I) moment along the way when the police flagged down the car and demanded to see Nicu's "papers." We thought we were in some nightmarish scene from a cold war movie, and I wondered how to say "please don't shoot me, I'm not a spy" in Romanian. But Nicu did something totally unexpected (for Jim and I): he yelled at the cop. Told him to stop bothering innocent people and let us go about our business. Soon we were on our way again, but with two very astonished Americans. It turns out that Romanians have a very low opinion of local police, an opinion that appears to be somewhat justified. The traffic stop was just a bored cop's way of killing time.

We got to the next village, and met up with the rest of the group. The Death March was only supposed to have been about eight hours, and so they'd decided that we were lost or something, and had set out on a rescue mission. Unfortunately, the car had broken down in the middle of the street, and that's where we found them, tinkering under the hood. When the car finally started, it jumped forward unexpectedly and slammed into Christian, who was knocked into the other car. Fortunately, there were no broken bones...although I would have bet real money that I was in more pain at the time than Christian.

We drove a bit more, and came to a house owned by the geological society in the village of Closani. There was electricity, running water, a shower (which I found out about too late the next day to use)...and even beds. Unfortunately, I was much too far gone from The Death March to fully appreciate this. My bed was about two inches too short, and had metal rails at the foot and head, so I couldn't even hang off the end. But it just didn't seem to matter much at the time.

Closani cave
Saturday was our last full day in Romania. When I woke, I was positively astonished that I could move at all. Apparently, the previous day's ordeal had left little permanent scarring (although, as I write this, in August, skin is still peeling off my feet...but then, that's probably more information than you were looking for). We gathered up our caving gear and made a hasty trip to Closani cave, which was the first real cave Jim and I had seen, and our first chance to make some interesting photos of cave formations. We even got a chance to make a "proper" cave photo, where the camera is fixed on a tripod, the shutter opened, and then various parts of the cave are "painted" with light. Christian did the lighting for us, and the results were nothing short of spectacular. Hmmmm....almost makes me want to take up cave photography....

Closani cave
Lighting by Christian Lascu

Christian backlights a drapery
to show its translucence.

Then, it was back to the cars for the final trek back to Bucharest. The weather had cooled a bit there, but it was still quite warm, and the combination of the heat and a week of roughing it finally caught up with me and did me in. Mama Moldovan cooked us a nice Romanian dinner, but I came just short of passing out face down in the soup.

Sunday morning, we boarded a Swissair flight for a two-hour hop to Zurich (where we had a two-hour layover), and then a 13-hour flight back to LA, arriving Sunday afternoon. Sitting in the too-narrow, almost-padded airline seat, and having a pretty Swiss girl offer me stale, tepid airline food served on tinfoil trays, I realized, "boy, it just doesn't get any better than this!"

When I finally dragged my bags across the transom of home, I turned on the TV, the computer, the microwave oven, the air conditioner, and popped open a Jolt Cola...and promptly fell asleep at the computer, dreaming of the caves of Transylvania. Welllll, OK, so only one out of three caves I visited was actually in Transylvania. But "caves of Wallachia" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

OK, I'll admit it: I'm already planning my next trip to Romania. It seems the total solar eclipse of August 11, 1999 is going to be at its maximum right over central Romania...and solar eclipses are one of the other things that get me outdoors.

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