Go to Caves of Diros they said. It’s un-miss-able!
So we did….
They were right!
Located down near the southernmost tip of the Mani Peninsula on the Peloponnese, it was inevitable that as we tracked our way around the coast, we would eventually come across Diros. Provided that we didn’t cut east across Mani just before arriving in Areopoli.
Arriving late in the afternoon we decided to explore the Caves the next morning. This gave us the opportunity to spend the night on a quiet, idyllic bay beside Diros with a large expanse of beach and land occupied only by us (and the rumbling pebbles being washed by the gentle waves).
The thought of visiting caves took me back to the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand, with their stunning displays of glowworms. While Diros lacks the glowworms, it more than made up for it with the shear extent of the cave system and the amazing and varied stalagmite and stalactite formations.
I didn’t know, without a bit of research, that the glowworms found in the Waitomo caves are the larvae of a species of gnat called Arachnocampa luminosa, which is unique to New Zealand. Well that explains why there are none here in Greece!
Although Diros caves have been formed over the last 1.5 million years, the current locals have only known about their existence since the early 1900’s. That amazes me considering that this region has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years.
The caves were not explored to any degree until 1949 and to date about 15 kilometres of the labyrinth has been charted. The majority of the cave system is actually below sea level with a maximum explored depth of 80 metres and stalactites discovered at a staggering depth of 71 metres. This wonderland was formed at a time when the sea was much lower than it is today.
After navigating our way down the stairs through the small cave entrance, we emerged into a large open area lit with colourful lights and leading down to a line up of small boats on the still water. There now exists just one small accessible entrance to the cave network as all others have become submerged or have naturally closed up. Showing their high regard for safety, the officials have hung a buoy from one of the lowest hanging stalactites so we wouldn’t bang our head on it. Life jackets were handed out before being escorted onto a very small boat, if you could call it that – more like a raft with little sides (maybe that’s why they felt they needed to give us life jackets?).
The impossibly narrow cave entrance
Don’t hit your head on this stalactite
Adorned with lifejackets!
We were grateful to be here on a quiet day in the low season as the boats were set up to hold up to eight punters, which would have been a real squeeze, and I am sure that the boat would have been practically submerged. As it was, any movement by the passengers resulted in some serious rocking and listing and a stern warning from the boatman to stay still.
Joining us were Eirini and Stavros, a young Greek couple from Athens who we had just met in the cave. Eirini is a lawyer working for a private shipping company, and Stavros a paramedic working in the private sector. They both spoke very good English, which was a nice relief, as in our experience, it is hard to find English speaking people around Greece.
So with just four of us plus the boatman aboard, we were off to explore 1,200 metres of the watery cave known as the tourist route. The lighting in the caves is strategically positioned to capture the multitude of colours, shapes, and sizes of the elaborate limestone structures painstakingly fabricated by mother nature. The bedrock itself has its own range of colours changing from a dull green, to a slime coloured green, to greys, and then brownish reds. The largest and oldest stalagmites had discoloured to a brownish fawn shade, however, the newer ones were a lovely pale cream that glistened with moisture in the soft lighting.
The still, crystal clear waters gave amazingly true reflections of the wonders above. Later, as we reviewed the photos we had taken, this played havoc with our eyes as we tried to reconcile which way was up.
The still water with our boat awaiting on arrival
The mirror-like reflection projected perfectly in the crystal clear waters
We came across masses of delicate thin stalactites hanging down like shards of glass congregated in a family circle. We were blessed with huge stalagmites as thick as ancient trees and spanning from the roof to the floor, standing proudly and stoutly as if they owned the place, which they probably did as we were told they were over a million years old. Then there were sheets of limestone, some that looked like thick large curtains – solid and stable, while others appeared to be frail sheets of paper.
The caves were eerily still and quiet, at times opening out into large chambers with up to 17 metres of water below us then just as quickly shrinking down to a narrow crack with barely enough water to float the boat and a roof so low that even the shorter crew members had to duck.
On closer inspection, and using one’s imagination, we could make out faces in the formations. A couple of the structures had been given names with one prominent rock known as the ‘lioness’, due to the strong likeness to the head of a lion without its mane.
Can you make out the head of the lioness?
Amazing cave structures
Check out the size of this!
Explorers and archeologists here have discovered the fossilized bones of panthers, hyenas, lions, deer, ferrets and the largest collection of hippopotamus bones in Europe. Remnants of pottery found at one of the old entrances points to occupation by early man thousands of years ago. Obviously this knowledge wasn’t successfully passed down through the generations.
The chilly 14C water in the cave is brackish and apparently very hard, and the air temperature inside the cave ranges around a brisk 16-19 degrees centigrade.
We were grateful to have chosen this particular day, 5th February 2018, for our visit as the previous day’s tours through the caves apparently lasted all of five minutes. This was due to the very low water levels, making most of the route impassable. It wasn’t clear what caused the change in water level as there had been no appreciable rain overnight and the tides around here are minimal anyway.
We were treated to a forty minute journey through the caves, enjoying both wide spacious areas large enough to walk through or even kick a ball around, then we were ducking our heads to ensure we could get through. Next minute we were bracing ourselves for the bumps and bangs of our vessel as the boatman manouvered us around a tight 90 degree corner.
In places we could see where some of the most ancient stalagmites and stalactites had joined hands making a solid column that appeared to be holding back the earth above us.
The areas of deepest water in the caves were marked with orange/red floatation devices attached to each other with ropes and then to the cave walls.
Finally the stalagmites and stalactites join up!
This one is the size of a massive tree trunk
Newly formed white stalactites
Once the boat journey finished, we were free to step off and continue our cave exploration on foot. The lights once again were positioned to show mother nature’s handiwork in all its glory, as well as where we should be placing our feet safely.
I couldn’t help but wonder about all those thousands of years these caves stood undiscovered, without being appreciated or enjoyed and it made me wonder how many more ‘Diros’ caves there are still waiting to be revealed.
We have truly been blessed by the local Greek people whenever we have had interactions with them. They seem to love engaging with us, asking where we are from and showing their surprise at us traveling so far to visit their country.
Sadly our experience at Caves of Diros also revealed another less endearing side to modern Greek culture where we experienced indifference and lack of consideration from our boatman. These guides are purported to have a guaranteed job for life and are very highly paid, by local standards, to provide the best experience for tourists. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be the case from our guide.
Although he could speak reasonable English he spoke virtually the entire commentary in Greek and offered no translation other than the odd word or phrase. While we understand that we are in Greece and can’t expect everyone to speak English for us, the other couple spoke good English and asked the boatman to speak in English so we could all understand. “It’s not my job” was apparently his answer. When Eirini then started to tell us in English what we were seeing, she was told to stop translating!
After the boat tour ended, Eirini and Stavros were highly apologetic and embarrassed by what had transpired. They saw this as symptomatic of a deep problem in Greece today where many people are too lazy to do a good job and tourists are just seen as walking dollars (or Euros). They took it upon themselves to say sorry on behalf of the boatman and they were visibly ashamed about how we were treated. If Eirini and Stavros are typical examples of the young people growing up in Greece today then the country has a strong future, provided it can offer them enough incentive to stay rather than reap higher rewards for their labour elsewhere in the EU.
Given this was one of the more expensive tours, at a cost of €26 (NZ$44) for two, the boatman’s behaviour and attitude was disappointing.
However, one person having a bad day wasn’t enough to overshadow the great joy of experiencing this amazing and unexpected natural phenomenon and we highly recommend a visit to Diros Caves if you find yourself in this region.