The rugged terrain surrounding Holta Canyon in Albania, about 30 kilometers outside the town of Gramsh and two hours from Tirana, is dotted with karstic caves, many of them still unexplored. Probably the most spectacular is the Kabashi Cave, filled with unusual stalactites and stalagmites in magnificent shapes and colors.
It was the photographs of these colorful cave formations that prompted my Albanian friend Klori to take her first-ever hike. According to the description posted on the Hiking Adventure Club of Albania’s Facebook page, the hike was of average difficulty and only two hours in each direction. Having spent many weekends on much longer and more strenuous hikes, this one sounded like a good first venture for my friend who is best described as a “city girl”.
Getting there is part of the challenge
The reason so many of the caves in Holta Canyon are unexplored is that getting to this highland treasure is not easy. Until recently, roads were nearly non-existent and the trails are still little more than expanded goat paths.
We bumped up a sometimes paved, sometimes not-paved road to a small mountain village where we parked and heaved our backpacks filled with water, flashlights and headlamps, and a few snacks over our shoulders.
Even from this mountain village, getting to Kabashi Cave was a challenge. It sits hidden on the steep, vertical cliffs that line Holta Canyon and maneuvering the terrain requires finding an experienced guide who is familiar with the mountain and the canyon.
We picked our way slowly and gingerly across the steep path, sometimes having to sidestep over loose rocks strewn across the trail from previous landslides. When we did reach the entrance to Kabashi Cave 900 meters (2,950 feet) above sea level, the entrance was a mere one meter wide and easy to miss.
After ducking inside the mouth of the cave, we were greeted by a dramatic cavern with a beautiful underground topography. Our burly guide tells us that the cave goes five kilometers deep into the mountain and that he has ventured much farther than we go to this day. He told us that on his previous hike deep into the cave he had to turn back when the air became thin and harder to breathe.
Despite the inhospitable surrounding landscape of Holta Canyon and questionable living conditions inside the cave, earthenware, primitive tools and other archeological items have been found inside the cave proving that some ancient peoples once chose to live in these underground spaces.
Despite what our guide told us, some people believe that Kabashi Cave is a labyrinth that has not been fully explored. There is a story that circulates locally about a dog that entered the cave from the canyon only to appear in Librazhd as evidence of the endless maze of tunnels.
There are also rumors of gold and treasure hidden somewhere deep in the cave, that has led to illegal and destructive holes being dug that have damaged some of the limestone stalactites and stalagmites that take a thousand years just to form 10 centimeters.
These wonderful stone formations in this cave of rare beauty were created when surface water from above slowly penetrated the limestone mountain through cracks and fissures.
As water passes through limestone and other soluble rock, drops of water filled with dissolved calcium carbonate reach the roof of the cave where it drips and starts to dry. This process, repeated millions of times, creates the stalactites that look like upside-down, misshapen candles hanging from the ceilings of the caves. Water that drips off the end of the stalactites, giving birth to the stalagmites reaching up from the ground in wider, but just as impressive shapes on the floor.
Cave visits are a growing tourist attraction worldwide and a number of caves across Albania are now appearing on tour guide itineraries for visitors who are drawn to nature and history, as well as for those looking for an adventurous trip into less traveled corners of the country.
(I am happy to say that Holta Canyon and Kabashi Cave helped hook my friend Klori on hiking –and she is looking forward to our next outdoor adventure.)
The importance of preservation and respect for nature
Despite its remarkable natural beauty that attracts thousands of tourists, Holta Canyon and most likely Kabash Cave were nearly lost when plans were drawn for the construction of a hydroelectric plant that would have flooded all of its glory underwater. Fortunately, these plans were abandoned last year after people protested and the partially built dam was demolished.
Ironically, as less developed countries such as Albania race to build dams, the United States and western Europe have recognized that damage dams can do to the environment. Rivers are like the arteries in a human body. When the flow of water is interrupted, it cuts off an essential source of water, shelter and food needed for animal and human survival as well as for food production and industry downstream.
More than 1,600 dams have been dismantled in the United States over the last 30 years. And in France, the two dams on Normandy’s Selune River are nearly gone – representing the largest ever in the world.
Hopefully, Albania can follow this lead and find alternative sources of energy for its own population that will not destroy the country’s magnificent natural beauty.