The Giant Gypsum Caves of the Western Ukraine



In the summer of 1990 a group of 17 British cavers from the Red Rose Expedition Group spent 6 weeks caving in three areas of what was then the Soviet Union. The final part of the 1990 expedition took us from Moscow by train via Kiev to Ternopol in the western part of the Ukraine, a journey of some 22 hours. The objects of our visit were to explore the two longest gypsum caves in the world, as they had hardly been explored by cavers from the West, and continue with the scientific programme and photography.

Location of Caving Area in Ukraine

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The karst area of Dnestrovsko-Pricernomorskij (also known as Podoliya) lies some 100 km south of Ternopol not far from the town of Borshchov and is it an altitude of around 250 km. The two major caves visited were Optimisticeskaja, the second longest cave in the world with 178km of passages (at end of 1990 expedition) and Ozernaja the sixth longest cave (108 km). Both caves are complex joint-controlled maze caves formed in Upper Tertiary gypsum (Neogenic Period). Nowhere do the gypsum beds exceed 20 m in thickness and they are overlain by limestones and clays. This then was basically all we knew before we arrived in the Ukraine.

We were met at Ternopol railway station by members of the Speleoclub Ternopol who have done most of the exploration in the Ozernaja system. After some sight seeing we arrived, late in the afternoon, at our camp near the village of Strilkivtsy on the 23rd August. Here we were to be based for the next eight days. Initial impressions were that we had arrived in an area that seemed devoid of karst features. The bus trundled up a track just outside the village across rolling fields of wheat, maze and kale and slowed down as it passed a large closed depression. This, we were told by our Ukrainian guides, was the entrance to Ozernaja. Our campsite proved to be located in a large wood about 200m from the entrance. There was no local surface water but arrangements were made with a local farmer to supply us with milk churns full of water from a well. All local water is from this source and it tastes dreadful, containing high concentrations of mineral salts


Caving in Ozernaja

Over the next few days there were eight different parties in Ozernaja carrying out radon monitoring and photographic trips to most parts of the system. Although long and complex the cave only covers a surface area of 1 kilometre by 600 metres and is a complex phreatic maze. What follows is not a description of the cave but just some general impressions gained by members of the expedition.


The cave is entered by a climb down an oildrum lined shaft of about 5 metres. A meandering muddy passage soon gives way to a bigger passage and it is immediately obvious that you are in a complex cave as passages can be seen going in several directions. The cave was discovered in 1940 but has been mainly explored since 1963. Exploration was hindered for ten years from 1973 by high groundwater levels which flooded many parts of the cave and there is evidence of this in the entrance series with fresh looking cracked mud floors.

The cave has an interesting history, After its initial exploration in the early 1940's thirty eight Ukrainian jews aged between five months and seventy nine years, hid from the Nazis in the cave for over two years. They escaped detection and some are now believed to be living in Canada. Evidence of their presence in the cave still exists with old shoes and pots and pans near to where some rocks have been arranged into a circle around a stone table. This was their camp. Not far from this spot is the Partisans Camp used by the Ukrainian Partisans for a couple of years from 1946. They were hiding from the KGB and carved a memorial plaque on a rock in a chamber just inside the entrance. The inscription was later defaced by the KGB and is no longer legible. The occupation of the cave in the 1940's lead to a number of the smaller passages in the entrance series having trenches dug out of the floor so that they could be negotiated without having to crawl. This means that caving in the entrance series is fairly easy.

Another interesting place to visit in the entrance series is the Crystal Chamber. This 5 metre square chamber has large mono-crystals of gypsum in the roof. The biggest crystal is almost a metre across. This area of the cave contains a number of fine tubular phreatic passages in which a number of photographs were taken. Another area in the entrance complex has several dripping avens with associated small blue lakes below. This area of the cave is one of the few areas where water is found in any large quantities and explains the name of the cave (Blue Lakes Cave). In fact the cave is very warm (13 degrees Celsius) and dry. Light clothing and an overall is all that is required for most trips.

The entrance series gives way to a section of traversing at a point about 400 metres south of the entrance. This traverse is over 450 metres in length and most of the time this in the roof of a keyhole shaped passage with the floor slot beingbetween 4 to 9 metres deep. (".........quite narrow so we can make our way ape fashion. "). There is no way of avoiding this difficulty to get to the rest of the cave although several routes are possible. Normally only one route is used. It is a little wide in places and a bit awkward if carrying lots of camera gear! The gypsum rock is fairly soft so it has been worn smooth and some of the footholds are a bit greasy. Even so most people had little difficulty with this obstacle.


The Bivouac

About 50 metres beyond the far end of the traverse you arrive at the Bivouac which is about one hour from the entrance. A sizable chamber contains a rock table and seating cut out of the mud floor. (".. a white dress hangs on a line and Fran models it quite fetchingly tor us"). There is brewing equipment and in the past the spot was intensively used during the original exploration of the further reaches of the cave. Beyond the camp you enter some fairly decent sized passages with a number of complex junctions but eventually after just over 100 metres the main ways on close down and there are several boulder collapses. This is the key to the way on into the October Series.

The route on beyond the bouIder choke leads to a short crawl and this leads out into the October Series. This middle area of the cave consists of a fine series of passages of varying size and shape but almost all are lined with gypsum crystals both primary and secondary in nature. ("We broke out into bigger passage which just dazzled with crystals. I was gobsmacked" .). The passages are obviously phreatic in nature with severalcross sectional forms including gothic, triangular and tubular forms. Finding your way around this complex maze is fairly difficult and our guide Sergei used a map and a compass and orrienteering techniques. In this way we found our way to several obscure spots which had obviously been visited hardly at all. One relatively untrodden passage lead to a small grotto with red and black calcite formations.

One of the main routes through the October Series is via Alligator Passage, so called because of its shape on the survey. A route through this passage continues to the far reaches of the cave. A trip to the end and back takes about six to seven hours and is well worth while . Here the passages get even larger and large secondary crystal growth is abundant. There is no special end to the cave but all main ways on appear to close down. We were all greatly impressed with our trips into Ozernaja and it is well recommended as a fine caving trip.

Optimisticeskaja - the second longest cave in the world

It is difficult to say the same of the second longest cave in the world but to be fair we had only one trip into the near series of Optimisticeskaja. We were told that all the passages were low and filled with mud and there was not much to photograph. Access to the cave is controlled by the Cyclops Club of Lvov and the cave is gated with an impressive blockhouse. The cave was first entered in 1965 and a year of intermittent visits was spent in making the entrance area larger. Since then over fifty expeditions have gradually increased the length of the cave. Like Ozernaja it is very joint controlled and contains a dense network of passages on three levels in an area of no more than two square kilometres.

Due to lack of communication between the two clubs we had to walk from our camp to Optima a distance of over 6 kilometres as we had to go via a bridge across a river. This at least gave us chance to see a bit more of the countryside. Twelve of us staggered over extensive rolling wheat fields, past some large karst closed depressions, along a road, past a Ukrainian memorial decked with blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, over a river, past a brick works and eventually into another forest much like the one we had left some two hours before.

We had trouble locating the Lvov cavers' camp but when we eventually arrived we were greeted with tea and a light lunch. After negotiating the mosquitoes at the entrance we set off in two groups with leaders from the Cyclops Club. Many of the passages in the entrance series were muddy and mostly of stooping or crouching height. The most interesting features in the cave were the man-made clay formations and sculptures- very artistic. We were taken to see one good crystal chamber but nothing as good as in Ozernaja. The clay floors have been extensively excavated to form trenches so that explorers can move more quickly through this area of the cave to get to the further reaches and continue the exploration.


Exploration still continues but with less optimism as less cave passage is found each year. Lack of water in the cave was a bar to exploration but some pools have been located in the cave and more recently a 21 centimetre borehole was drilled through to the far reaches, down which water and equipment can be lowered. A number of camps have been established in the cave. We stopped at one of these for a snack and found it to be a very homely spot. We photographed out of the cave and all agreed on reaching the surface that it was certainly not one of the most interesting caves in the world despite being the second longest.



We left the Ukraine with mixed feelings, glad to be returning home after some of us had spent over six weeks away; sad to be leaving our new friends. We found both the cavers and the local people to be very hospitable. We were invited into their homes and were able to share, if only briefly, their way of life.

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