Inspired by a recent trip with the London European Club, I revisited Canyon Matka near Skopje, Macedonia. It has been an area near my hometown which always fascinated me, but it is only now that I recognise how truly amazing this place is. George Moore said “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it”.
This brings a home truth, although I am a woman and it is not that I need caves, I just simply adore them. In years past I would hike from the top of mountain Vodno, along its ridge to enjoy the fantastic views on the way down to Matka. It is a challenging hike, but worth every step of the way.
Our guide Meti was waiting for us and told us again the almost unbelievable story that the cave called Beautiful is not yet opened to the public because of lack of funds, just like the other 8 caves in Canyon Matka. Only one, called Vrelo is open to visitors, and is lit by a petrol-run generator which often ceases to work. But this is the Balkans and lack of funds are a chronic obstacle to everything, starting from improving the roads to building tunnels to connecting the Balkan countries…..
But those who are prepared to come are rewarded with the stunning beauty of places not yet fully discovered. And I am pleased that there is progress. Compared to a decade ago, things have hugely improved. For one, you can actually visit Vrelo cave, a home to two species of bats. You can also walk safely 8 km along the canyon to see the stunning views and enjoy the nature, because metal rails and steel ropes have been installed. And you can sit in the lovely restaurant also called Canyon Matka which even has accommodation if you want to stay longer. You can go around the length of the canyon by boat or paddle in a kayak. Most of these things were impossible 10 years ago. Why? That is a subject for another post.
But back to the caves, 10 of them in total and only one possible to visit. Vrelo cave is not just an ordinary cave, it is still the subject of international exploration and its full size is not yet known. At the moment it is listed as the second largest cave in Europe with an incredible 430 metres in length and 218 metres in height. It is also one of the five largest caves in the world.
An international team of divers and speleologists are coming to Matka every August to continue their research because August is the time when it is easiest to access the underwater parts of the cave.
Vrelo’s entrance is hidden along the Matka canyon (which is comprised of the Matka lake and the Treska river). The entrance lies about 1.5km from the Matka Dam. Inside the cave are two lakes; the smaller being 8 metres long (26.2 feet) at its longest point and 15 metres (49.2 feet) in depth at its deepest point.
Matka Canyon boasts 1,000 plant species, 20% of which are endemic, as well as various butterfly species not found anywhere else in Europe. The canyon is also home to vultures, and occasionally bald eagles, which are protected by law to save them from extinction. There are three couples, Meti says and sometimes when the wind is strong you can see them, because they are large and they need wind to spread their wings.
We finished the adventure by having some snacks after spending more than an hour inside Beautiful cave. I could have stayed another hour inside, there is more to see, but we only had head torches. And Meti is not just a guide he also runs the boats and the tourists are waiting.
I want to go back there again and again.