Monday afternoon, I reconnected with Sophie, an old high school friend, and her family. Together, we embarked on a special trip: a visit to Katerloch, a well-known limestone cave with the largest range of stalactites and stalagmites in Austria. And, after a 15-minute drive from Weiz through serene hills, we arrived at the entrance of the cave.
Fritz, our Austria travel guide, came to show cave and led us on a two-hour visit and, with his lively and engaging way of speaking, covered all the features of the Katerloch stalactite cave. He spoke to us about the numerous rock formations, as well as several large caverns with names such as the Hall of Magic, the Enchanted Kingdom, and the Lake Paradise. He also taught us about the former owners and explorers of the cave, a deeply religious married couple who explored the cave in the early to mid-fifties. Those two people have definitely assumed that determination and belief would raise mountains!
Visit to Katerloch cave beginning
We joined a party of about 20 people, and the owner of the cave, a young man named Fritz Geissler, was ready to take us on our guided tour. The adult tickets for a visit to Katerloch cave cost €20 per person. Fritz explained to us that the upkeep of the cave is pricey and the price serves as a significant barrier that holds away unwanted visitors who might not have any real interest in this natural wonder. His fears are warranted because, over the last decades, tourists have caused considerable damage to the cave and broken down dripstones to take home as a souvenir after their visit to Katerloch cave.
As we started our visit to Katerloch cave by moving towards its entrance hall, Fritz clarified that the name of the Katerloch cave comes from the word Eulenkater (male owl) and Loch (hole), suggesting that owls occupy this cave and fly regularly in and out of it, particularly from fall to spring.
At the beginning of our visit to Katerloch Cave, we passed by a limestone column measuring 22 meters in height with a diameter of 46 meters located right at the entrance. Fritz led the way, and the crowd followed in a single file the narrow paths and steep metal ladders connecting the different sections of the cave.
Uncovering the cave’s history on our visit to Katerloch
Fritz clarified that the former owners and explorers of the cave were a married couple named Hermann and Regine Hofer. The couple arrived from out of town at the cave in 1951 after a long honeymoon and settled down to modernize another limestone cave near Grasslhle. With the revenue from the admissions into the other cave, Hermann and Regine Hofer were able to pay for the exploration of their beloved Katerloch, which became their life-long project. Between 1952 and 1955, the couple discovered different parts of the cave, began digging tunnels and connection points, and started electrifying the cave.
Our guide spoke about the tiresome, backbreaking, and tedious research involved in making this cave accessible to the public. Each of the 400 concrete steps that led 135 meters down into the mountain had to be hand-built and the cement had to be pushed across narrow passageways with a bucket. New openings to other caverns were observed by candlelight, the flickering of which could hint that there was an air current and a possible link to another still undiscovered portion of the cave.
The cave consists of several portions: right at the entrance is the so-called Marteldome, a 45 m deep vertical shaft that was originally used by the pair to enter the cave. Another wide cavern we discovered during our visit to Katerloch cave is the Fantasy Hall, a room with a length of 120 meters, a width of 85 meters, and a height of 15 meters, which contains a large variety of oddly formed dripstones. Fritz Geissler pointed here to the limestone corals; the delicate white and colored limestone curtains, and the stalagmites and stalactites which were in various stages of growing together until they formed fully bonded columns.
He clarified that the age of stones varies widely, some of the younger ones could be hundreds of thousands of years old, while the older huge columns would have been several millions of years old. Fritz noted during our visit to Katerloch cave that Hermann Hofer often said that 1,000 human years are but a second in the history of this cave, a statement that will certainly put our everyday human worries and problems into a broader perspective. Our guide also pointed out the bones of a cave bear, a mammal species about 30% larger than the brown bear which went extinct after the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago. This cave is now populated by large bat colonies.
In 1955, Hermann and Regine Hofer finally discovered the Zauberreich (Enchanted Kingdom) in cave Katerloch, a hall full of magical royalty-inspired limestone structures, including a king, a queen, some knights, and even a royal lapdog. Not far away is a huge ice-cream-shaped limestone cone, the story of which is also fascinating: Fritz Geissler elaborated that a wealthy American man once wanted to buy a mighty dripstone, proposed paying a huge sum of money for it and drilling a vertical tunnel straight through the mountain to remove the dripstone. But the owners of the caves, Hermann and Regine Hofer, both deeply religious and humble, refused the generous offer. For them, the dignity of the cave was more important than material gain.
We continued our visit to Katerloch downwards and eventually entered the lowest section of the cave, which was open to the public: the Seenparadies (Lake Paradise), an incredible sight of an underwater lake. The turquoise-green iridescent water surface is lined with white alabaster stalagmites and stalactites, framed by spectacular vertical walls. Our entire group stopped to take in the image of this magnificent subterranean pool. We had reached the deepest point of the journey, 135 m below the entrance of the caves. After discovering this magical setting, we made our way back to the surface the same way we came in.
Our underground visit to Katerloch cave lasted about two hours, and on the way up Fritz Geissler told us more about the eccentric and ambitious couple who discovered this cave and made it accessible to the public. The key-phrase he used was that dedication and will could actually move mountains. The tenacity of Hermann and Regine Hofer led to the discovery of new sections of the cave, and it was only their backbreaking mining efforts and the building of ladders and bridges that made it possible for ordinary people to visit and appreciate the cave.
The Hofers gave public tours of the cave from the 1960s to the 1980s, but then closed it because the visitors had caused so much damage. Fritz Geissler was one of the cave guests and he offered to help Hermann Hofer with the conservation of the cave. His tutor welcomed his aid and Fritz Geissler became an assistant to Hermann Hofers from that stage on. In his later years, Hermann Hofer was taken care of by our guide and decided to pass on his life’s passion, the Katerloch cave, to a much younger man who was proud to continue his legacy. Mr. Hofer died in 2003 at the age of 95.
After major repairs in 2004, the public could once again enjoy a visit to Katerloch, and Fritz Geissler’s in-depth knowledge and highly developed speaking skills have made his cave tours a popular attraction in the entire region. Nowadays, he is also offering a mental strength training program that integrates cave experience into the sessions.
Our entire party was quite impressed with our visit to Katerloch cave and the enthusiastic and insightful introduction of our guide. A lot of people lingered to talk to Fritz and exchange contact details to stay in touch.
The visit to Katerloch was the perfect introduction to Tuesday’s adventures: a hike through the nearby Raabklamm, a deep river canyon that is surrounded by the very mountains that house these caves.
Visit to Katerloch featured image: Ingeborg56 [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Sarah Grossman was born in Austria but moved to Canada after college. She is an avid and savvy planner and organizer of worldwide travel and enjoys sharing her personal stories to encourage, inspire, and help other travelers.
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