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New Athos Cave (New Athos)

New Athos, Abkhazia.


The picturesque nature of Abkhazia is rich in fantastic sights. One of the greatest miracles there is the famous New Athos Cave.

For many years, it had been hiding its secrets in the depths of the Iverian Mountain until it was finally discovered in 1961. In 1975, the "cave metro" carried its first tourists through the artificial tunnel going right into the cave. This is a unique electric train called "Tourist". It was designed by the Design Institute of Coal Industry and manufactured by Riga's railway coach-works.

The New Athos Cave is a gigantic karst cave that can rival the most famous caves of the world in the size of its void, including the Skocjan Cave in Yugoslavia and the Carlsbad Cave in the USA.

Huge halls and galleries covered by the meanders of an arabesque pattern stretch for many hundreds of metres. Even in our wildest dreams we can hardly imagine the secret treasures hidden in the depths of the Iverian Mountain. The beauty of the wonderful cave landscape with its chaotic gloomy lower halls and sparkling white magnificent stalactite castles takes your breath away. Here you can see the mysterious green eyes of the "living" lakes inside the cave, admire the charming sounds in the "musical" grottoes and you will be certainly amazed by the variety of the crystalline formations.

New Athos is one of the most picturesque sea resorts of Abkhazia. It is known for its incredible nature, extremely soft climate and a warm sea. New Athos is well protected by the mountains from the invasion of the cold air mass. At first, the mountains are fairly low, then the mountain range gets higher and higher, and it grows into the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range that is completely covered by snow.

From the ancient times the locals were fascinated by the big gap at the side of the Iverian Mountain. A huge well, whose steep walls were disappearing in the darkness, was named a "Bottomless Pit". For a long time nobody had enough courage to descend into its black jaws. The first attempt was made by Givi Shalvovich Smir, the native of New Athos. However, it was impossible to reach the bottom without having any special equipment.

In 1961, a special expedition from the Geographical Institute of the Georgian Academy of Science was put together with the goal of investigating the mysterious Bottomless Pit. After overcoming all the obstacles of the mysterious gap, the assault quad — Zurab Tintolizov, Arsen Okrodzhanashvili, Boris Gergedava and Givi Shalvovich Smir — had reached the bottom. A thick layer of clay covered the walls and the bottom of the well, and it seemed that this was the end of it. Nearby caves were ending the same way. However, there was a strong air draft in one of the small openings, and one after the other the speleologists had made their way into it. The darkness that was absorbing the light from the flashlights was speaking volumes about the impressive, unprecedented underground space. This is how the mystery of the Bottomless Pit was resolved, and the New Athos Cave, the true underground miracle, was discovered.

This expedition was followed by many other ones. The map of the cave was drawn and a lot of scientific material was collected. A film about the beauty of the cave was made in 1965, despite the incredibly difficult working conditions. It was decided to improve the cave so that the other people could enjoy its beauty. It took many years of hard work, but as a result, one more place of interest had appeared at the Black Sea shore.

The largest space of the cave is called the Speleologist's Hall. It is 260 metres long, up to 50 metres high and up to 75 metres wide. The highest space of the cave is called the Apsar Hall. It is up to 75 metres high. The most beautiful spaces are called the Givi Smir Hall, the Anakopia and the Helictite Grotto.

Previously the speleologists were reaching the underground space through a series of vertical karst wells several dozen metres deep and had to crawl in the tight spaces. Nowadays the trip into the wonderful underground world begins in the hall of the luminous administrative building located at the base of the Iverian Mountain. This is a new, man-made entrance to the cave the hall of which is decorated with the mosaic, colourful stained glass, toreutics.

The tour guide enters the hall and leads the tourists to the station that looks like a metro station, decorated with granite and marble. There are colourful stained glass arrangements with the fairytale themes on the walls. This is how the improvised gates into the underground kingdom look like.

Then an electrical train arrives. It is fairly small, with a 90-people capacity. Everyone takes their seats and the journey into the underground world begins…

The Apsna Hall (the Abkhazia Hall).

The steel door closes behind the visitors — and you find yourself in the Apsna Hall. The light turns on; the voices of the tourists fade. The second of silence seem to be dragging and then you discover a huge cave, an immense underground world that is unlike anything that you have seen before: there are no sounds, no movement, and no wind.

The Apsna Hall does not have a festive and sparkling appearance, but it is nevertheless beautiful. It resembles a calm, powerful and magnificent giant in a deep, thousand-year old sleep. The colours of the hall are simple and soft — gray rough limestone, brown clay.

The sightseeing path runs like a little neat concrete snake among the primordial chaos of the block mass and extending dark ledges, fearlessly slides over the steep slopes of the deep underground gaps, at times whirls up to the dome of the stone sky, wrinkled by the cracks.

The Apsna Hall is incredibly large. If birds could live here, they would have enough space to fly. The hall is 150 metres long, 50 metres wide and more than 20 metres high.

The first steps of people onto the clay bottom of the cave were made here, in the Apsna Hall. Now the spot where the people had first entered the cave is lit by the soft pink light, to commemorate those, who despite being tired, had triumphed over the dangers of their way and discovered the miraculous underground world that millions of people can now enjoy.

The strict tones of the harsh Apsna Hall are brightened by an unexpected colour — bright green. Two underground lakes are mysteriously looking out to the outside world with their green "eyes". The slippery clay slopes with the washed stream channels create the shores of the southern Anatolia Lake. The other lake is called Goluboye (literally translated as Blue). Its shores sharply lead down into the water by twenty-metre long slopes.

These seemingly peaceful lakes had brought many troubles to the builders and the employees of the New Athos tourist complex. Months would go by and their surface would stay perfectly smooth, and then suddenly it would bulge and grow. The water level would rise higher and higher, and then it would flood everything within thousands square metres area of the hall. Someone with a keen eye for the detail would notice on the gray walls of the Apsna Hall some dark-brown horizontal lines that stretch one above the other from the lake surface up to the very top of the cave. These are the traces of the previous floods of great magnitude. According to them, the Apsna Hall — the lowest hall of the New Athos Cave — was almost completely filled during the catastrophic floods. However, this is a story of the past days. Now, the rebellious underground waters find their way out through the outlets and reach the surface in the ravine of the Manikvara River.

The lakes are 36 metres above sea level. The scientists estimated their mean depth as 10–12 metres. In 1986, twenty five years after the cave was discovered, the scientists exploring the cave with aqualungs found out that the Anatolia Lake is over 25 metres deep.

The Speleologists' Hall (the Hall of Georgian Speleologists).

The sightseeing path runs around the steep shores of the Blue Lake and then starts to decline, leading you to the Speleologists' Hall. The biggest hall of the New Athos Cave was given its name in honour of the first people who discovered and explored it — the speleologists from the Vakhushti Geography Institute of the Science Academy of the Georgian Soviet Socialistic Republic. Along with their Abkhaz colleagues they had spent many weeks in the depths of the Iverian Mountain.

In its beginning part (the southern one), the hall is not too different from the Apsna Hall: it has the same rock piles, grey walls, high and obscure arches. Then you begin to hear the definite murmur of the waterfall from the above, and next you see the first underground miracle — the White Mountain. It stands to the right of the sightseeing path among the piles of the darker stones as a contrast to the gloominess and chaos, as a signal of even more incredible things that lay ahead. Sparkling drops of water fall onto the top of the White Mountain and then flow to the bottom of the mountain, forming little streamlets.

You can notice the small white poles of the growing stalagmites near the cave. They look like little steps and form uneven rows, to the left of the sightseeing path, on the steep slope covered by the calcite crust.

These false steps lead to the widely open entrance to the incredibly interesting side gallery. Its uneven floor is covered by the wrinkled stone blanket with the inclusions of white sparkling calcite crystals. In some places the snow-white young stalagmites raise their sugary heads that never melt under the water that slowly drops from the ceiling. Sometimes through the cracks in the calcite lace you can see the second bottom of the hall and a clear water stream that almost silently runs there.

The upper part of the gallery turns into the unusual labyrinth. The main path suddenly splits in two, each part splits again in two or three, the passages become smaller and narrower, until they hit the dead end: a yellow wall filled with light-coloured wedges of limestone.

However, this "oasis" of the Speleologists' Hall does not stretch too far. Just a couple more steps along the tourist path — and there are no more traces left from the festive appearance of the White Mountain, all you see is the dark hollow of the northern part of the hall. Twisting ravines cross the bottom of the hall from one side to another and join together at the eastern wall, creating a deep crater, covered by the brown dirt. Yellow limestone claws stick out from this crater, which sometimes opens up to release cold waters that slowly rise, forming a mudding lake. For a couple of hours the water stays at the level of the second drainage tunnel, and then entirely goes back. Along with the water, the gloomy Maelstrom of the cavern sucks in the clay that had been agitated by the flood that later seals the drying neck of the crater.

Building a sightseeing path there wasn't easy. To lay it along the bottom of the hall would mean to expose it to the threat of periodic flooding. To lay it mounted to the steep west wall would mean to rely on the questionable stability of the limestone rocks, profoundly eaten by the karstic processes. A third option was explored. A 120 metre long overpass was built at the height of 18 metres.

The Narta Hall (the Clay Hall).

The touristic path goes over the gloomy hollow, leans into its northern wall and begins to run around, "tie the knots" around huge rock blocks and giant mountain columns — remaining from the downfalls that were shaking the cave a long time ago. As if they are aware of its power, the rocks had widely spread its shoulders, surrounded the path from all the sides, so the tourists have to move closer together, and even bend a bit, in order to go through this spot.

Then the walls spread out again, the path leads to the observation deck that sticks to the rough slopes. To the right of it there is a rocky wall, and to the left — the Narta Hall opens up its wide black, bottomless jaws. This huge rocky sack is covered by the thick layers of clay.

The third and the last "living" lake of the cave is located at the lowest point of the hall, at 36 metres above sea level. The colonies of translucent crabs, some of which reach the length of 2 cm, feel quite comfortable in the slightly muddy waters of the lake.

A three-barbed bug lives in the cracks of the clay floor. It looks just like the species that live on the surface — it has the same brown chitinous wings, the same number of legs and barb. Only after the close examination it turns out that the three-barbed bug from the New Athos Cave has no eyes! After the millions of years of evolutional development these six-legged animals had lost the habit of examining their food (microorganisms that they eat) — because it's all the same, if you look or not, you wouldn't see anything because of the darkness of the cave. Many bugs of this kind live in the Narta Hall. If you lift up a layer of the drying clay, you would surely see how the bug that you had bothered runs away. These constant inhabitants of the cave are not afraid of the floods, because they know how to escape from them by running up the slopes. They can also swim quite well.

Flooding in this hall is also unusual: not only the lake rises up from its black depths, but also the water enters the hall from the opening in the northern wall.

The appearance of the Narta hall is impressive not only due to its height. On its south side the shades make up the profiles of the giants who have been observing the events that have been slowly occurring in the cavern.

At the upper right part there is a figure of the resting deer that nature itself had cut from the entire rock. It is hard to believe that the master's tools didn't touch this sculpture. When you look at the deer, you'd feel the unsurmountable strength of the heavy rocky beast, self-assurance and peace that are transmitted in the proud shape of its head. It looks just like the legendary Silver Hoof that created many precious stones from the rough rocks and laid down to rest.

The Deer Grotto is the last, very simple and rough part of the New Athos Cave. Then the path goes up and suddenly you are surrounded by the incredibly colourful stones of the cave.

The Corallite Gallery.

It seems like it suddenly got lighter in the cave: the walls now stand closer together; the viewer's glance doesn't get lost in the dark emptiness, and more often finds some underground rarity.

Here is a colony of orange stalagmites that is growing at the cliff by the wall. Thin and straight, about a metre high, the impatiently try to reach the ceiling, placing its rough heads under the falling water drops.

Each drop of water that makes its way through the thick layer of limestone contains a very small part of calcite — the calcium salt of the carbonic acid. When the water drop runs into the empty hollow part of the cave, it briefly hangs on the ceiling and at that time it manages to "lose a little weight" — to evaporate. The calcium salt solution becomes supersaturated and calcite is deposited on the ceiling as a thin ring. Finally, the drop manages to escape, and while it is falling down, to evaporate even more. At the moment it hits the floor it breaks into the smallest splashes, but manages to leave at the place of impact an invisible to an eye deposit of calcium carbonate. The next drop will extend a bit the ring on the ceiling and build up a notch the deposit on the bottom. This is how these relatives slowly grow towards each other, drop after drop, and century after century. The stalactite grows from the ceiling, upside down. The stalagmite grows from the bottom of the cave, towards the top. Sometimes they fuse together, forming a natural calcite column.

Depending on the composition of the rocks through which the cave water has to go through, it may contain other chemical compounds besides the calcium carbonate. Then the incrustive formations can be coloured in soft tones: ferrous oxides give them yellow and reddish tones, copper salts — blue ones, chrome compounds make them greenish. The limestone will most likely contain manganese inclusions in places where dark-purple and even black stalactites are found.

In the gallery that you are going through, the "sinter deposits", as the secondary cave deposits are usually called, have yellowish-reddish colour. The environment is much drier here than in the lower halls, the dampness of the underground is not felt that much. However, in the old days the water was here as well. The witnesses of that are not too fancy, but very interesting crystal formations that cover the walls in many places and big chunks of rocks that block the way. If you direct a bright light sideways then you will clearly see snow-white, penny-size balls, hundreds and thousands of which cluster together like the colonies of small sea corals. These clusters are called just like that — corallites.

The Apsar Hall (the Moscow Hall) and the Givi Smir Hall (the Sukhumi Hall).

At the end of the Corallite Gallery the path splits in two. The Canyon corridor stretches to the left, as a wide underground avenue. The up stairs lead to the Apsar Hall and the Givi Smir Hall.

Then the steps come to an end. The big rock that hangs over the path looks like a gate. It looks like it will separate from the stone mass at any minute, and its inevitable fall is prevented only by two concrete columns that support it from the below. However, this massive stone had been hanging over the entrance without falling since the ancient times; but it is completely unknown how it managed to do so before the columns were erected.

After these improvised gates once again you can see a huge open space — the Apsar Hall. A feeling of solemnity is transmitted to any visitor by the spacious, almost round hall, filled with the rocks, and by the light grey vertical walls. Further up they begin to curve, incline inwards, until they join together, forming a huge dome, the sight of which is lost somewhere in the haze.

The Apsar Hall is the highest one in the New Athos cave; it is up to 70 metres high. Under good lighting you can see that the stone walls are penetrated by many openings, like regular tectonic fractures and even the dark oval or almost round shapes. These are the openings of the karstic wells or so called "organ pipes", which have been uncovered by the ancient earthquakes. Air and water reach the cave through these openings.

In the Apsar Hall here are some dripstone formations as well — large stalagmites are growing on the rocks, stone "icicles" of stalagmites are hanging from the walls. However, they are not too noticeable here; they disappear in comparison to the overall space of the giant hall.

Bats live in the Apsar Hall. Relatively low air humidity and moderate temperature create a favourable environment for the creatures, and the "organ pipes", quite possibly, are the shortest way out to the surface. Sometime ago, large colonies of bats were living here, their traces were discovered in the hall.

In the southern part of the Apsar Hall the established pattern of the walls is interrupted. Here the rocks move over and make up a small, but very beautiful the Givi Smir Hall.

The floor of the hall is made out of cream-coloured limestone wave that was spitted out by one of the "organ pipes" located at the height of the dome. This somewhat uneven, sloped floor is decorated with the stalagmites. At the very top there are two thin stalagmite "twins", with uneven surface they stretch up to the two-metre height.

There are also some stumpy milky thick chunky stalagmites with flat, plate-like tops. Water drops constantly break into millions of pieces when touching those little plates, but stay there. The most notable decoration of the hall is the incredible stone jelly-fish. It comfortably lies in the very centre of the stone ceiling, clinging to the underlying rock by sturdy calcite tentacles.

The Givi Smir Hall is not large, but beautiful. It has another interesting feature: it is located higher than all other halls of the cave.

The Auhaa Hall (the Canyon Hall).

This is a powerful gorge that looks as if it was cut through the rock by the giant sword. It stretches more than 100 metres from north to south. Vertical 10-metre high walls, flat horizontal ceiling and uneven floor covered by broken rocks create the impression of simple and rigorous environment.

Almost black, horizontal stripes stretch along the dark-yellow walls of the Auhaa Hall. However, unlike the case of the Apsna Hall, these are not the marks of former floods. If you come closer, you would notice that each stripe is a rock cavity, filled with clay particles. A thin metal strip would sink lengthwise in this clay. Such cracks in the limestone separate older and lower layers of limestone from the upper ones, which are more recent. However, both were formed hundreds and millions of years ago, when this area was a stream of the raging river.

The rigorous Auhaa Hall has some decoration as well; the most attractive ones are the chubby stalagmites. They are made of the semi-sheer, orange and red calcite. Hundreds of these little, smooth dwarfs line up along the walls, and stick close to the sightseeing path, leading you close to the musical hall, called Iveria.

The Iveria Hall.

This fairly small hall of the New Athos Cave was chosen by the nature to be a centre of the musical harmony. Human's voice or a musical note that sound under its oval dome become incredibly saturated and deep, enhanced by the rich overtones.

Many underground halls have good acoustics; however, the Iveria Hall has some special sound effects. What is the secret? Most likely, various fancy ledges and hollows are randomly situated on the walls and on the ceiling so that air waves are reflected by these natural resonators and concentrate in the centre of the hall, enhancing and enriching each other. Music is always played here for the tourists, and sometimes the singers from the Abkhaz national choir give performances under the domes of the Iveria Hall.

Further from the Iveria Hall, the sightseeing path turns right, makes its way through the rocks and multiple stalagmites, and begins to go up. The nature didn't cut itself short when it came to decoration of this short fragment of the cavern. The walls are covered with the incredible ivory dripstone formations, stalagmite stone edges make up shrubs and try to reach the ceiling, growing into it, forming the stalagnate columns. The ample imagination of the grandest architect — the nature — has created incredible creations that look like theatre boxes in the Empire style, and ornate Chinese pagodas.

However, it is necessary to have a lot of light in order to see all this beauty. Unfortunately, the light can be harmful for the cavern — the warm and bright lights of the lamps foster the appearance of the simplest types of plants — mosses and lichens. They make up a green blanket that covers beautiful crystals and destroys its thin and vulnerable structure. These plants are the enemies of all the caves in the world that are frequented by tourists.

To fight the moss, a scientific and research area was created in the New Athos Cave as well, in this stalactite gallery that had suffered the most from the attack of the plants.

From here you can see the entrance to the next hall, but then you run into a huge, 3-metre high stalagmite, that is planted as a guard in the middle of the path, as if blocking the way. The path modestly clings to the rocky wall, and the dark, thousand year old face of the ancient lady of the Iverian Mountain overlooks the passing by people with its steely glance. So what are these underground guards protect?

The Anakopia Hall (the Tbilisi Hall).

Several more steps — and you enter a true white stone palace! Sloping floor is made from the yellowish, light-grey and white cave limestone, and inclines to the east in the cascade of wide waves, surrounded by calcite-covered walls. These incredible "curtains" that once and forever were bent into the smooth folds, were formed from the countless water drops, flowing on the walls. An entire forest, only upside down, of various stalactites grows on the ceiling.

The Anakopia Hall has an unusual underground "waterfall", unseen on the Earth's surface. A huge, forever frozen rim of stones falls from the 30-metre high opening in the vertical wall. Its heavy "currents" almost split into huge drops, rush towards the earth and stop at the distance of less than two metres. A real water flows on the smooth, a little wavy surface of the calcite fall. It breaks away from the cascade, falls down, crashes against the stones, flows from one stone cup to the other, rushing downwards through the cracks and openings in the stone.

The stone extravaganza of the most beautiful hall of the New Athos Cave, the Anakopia, is truly impressive. However, it is also the most "wet" area — the relative air humidity is always at the maximum level here — 100 percent. It is caused by a small, but constant water flow in this area. The moisture gets in through the ceiling cracks, drips on the walls; water particles are present in the air. The presence of this water, enriched with calcium carbonate, has created this wonderful variety of wall dripstone formations.

The Anakopia Hall is artfully illuminated by the colour lamps and looks like an incredible entrance hall into the house of the good spirits of the mountain. This is where you can make a photo of this example of nature's beauty and generosity. The sightseeing path stops here, but not the marvels of the New Athos Cave.

The Helictite Grotto.

Narrow stairs lead upwards, to the day iron gate, that is usually tightly closed. This is the entrance into the Helictite Grotto — the underground natural reserve. This grotto is sometimes called a "salon" due to the incredible beauty of the dripstone formations, as if referring to it as a space that features the works of art. Indeed, what you find there can be called a work of art.

A white wall that looks like a snow crust is made from the sparkling calcite. Orange, lilac, greenish and yellow stalagmites stand out on this white background. Ornamental floor is made up from many thin little cups, that twist and fuse one with the other, called gurs, the remains from the small lakes or puddles, which were here some time ago.

However, the main treasure of the grotto is the helictites, or the eccentric stalactites. If you look from the distance, it would seem that the ceiling of the grotto is covered by tender furry hairs – thousands and tens of thousands of helictites. There are no two similar helictites: they look like threads, almost like spider web that is spread between the stalactites, fishing and knitting needles, "snakes" bent like wine keys, "hedgehogs" with little needles. Some reach the length of 10 cm or more, others can be seen only through a magnifying glass. They have various colours, from bloody-red to almost black, light-pink, bluish or lilac.

Helictites are the mysterious cave formations. It is still unknown why they are stubbornly grow sideways, upwards, in an incredible spiral, but not downwards, defying the laws of gravity!

It is supposed that the surface tension forces of the water drops play the main part in the process of the helictite formation; however, it is difficult to check this hypothesis, because the incredible crystals grow extremely slow, but they can break very quickly upon the change of the cavern's climate. This is why guided tours never visit the Helictite Grotto — the presence of many people can change the temperature, humidity and the air composition, leading to the quick death of the fascinating stone flowers.

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New Athos Cave