In the depths of southern Poland Helen Ochyra goes underground to try out the claustrophobic work of miners in the Wieliczka salt mine.
“Room for one more” I am told as I am gently nudged into an already packed out lift. The doors are pulled across behind me with much scraping of metal and we move up by about five metres. This will happen twice more before we can finally change direction and descend the 57 metres into Wieliczka salt mine so that we can load more people into the lift’s other levels, packing us – quite literally – on top of each other.
It is hot, cramped and uncomfortable – an authentic mine experience I imagine. I’m here to get an insight into the lives of the miners who worked here from the thirteenth century right up until 2007. Although it’s just a few minutes into the three-hour tour, I can already feel that I wouldn’t have lasted very long.
I am following the new Miner’s Route, which starts with this descent by lift down the oldest mine shaft at Wieliczka, the Regis shaft, which was built by the order of Casimir the Great in the 1200s. The lift is not completely enclosed and so I watch the walls rushing past through gaps as we descend at a speed of four metres a second. By the time we reach the bottom, just 15 seconds later, I am somewhat disorientated and very glad of our guide Dariusz – a former miner who provides some reassuring company so far below ground.
He leads us through a dizzying network of tunnels that are held in place by thick wooden beams, only just tall enough for us to avoid bashing our hard hats on the ceiling above. At various points on the walls and particularly in the joints of the wood we see cauliflower-like deposits of salt. It feels like the stuff is seeping out of every pore here and it is surprisingly beautiful, a brilliant white bloom growing out of the darkness.
But the most remarkable thing about Wieliczka is the size of its tunnel network. Just one per cent of the mine is open to visitors and yet we walk for hours, clambering up ladders and marching down endless flights of stairs. There is chamber after chamber to explore. We see the remnants of the so-called “Hungarian dog” transport system, a simple wooden cart pulled along runners in the ground, and are taught everything from how to measure the methane levels in the air – after the classic canary method they used chemical-infused paper which would turn brown in the presence of methane – to how to use a pickaxe to dislodge salt from the walls.
This turns out to be my favourite part of the tour. There is little that is delicate about swinging a metal axe and I make meaningful contact with the mine’s wall with my first swing, shattering the salt and sending it flying through the air. It is immensely satisfying and I really start to feel like the novice miner I have been cast as.
We continue along the tunnels, trudging along in our grey boiler suits and clambering up wooden ladders to reach new levels. I start to enjoy the feeling of being underground in this vast underworld and it seems I must be doing something right because I am picked out to navigate our way back to the lift.
Dariusz hands me a map of the mine and that feeling of disorientation from the start of the tour immediately returns. There are tunnels in every direction, looping off and circling back on several different levels. I turn the map this way and that and just before the panic sets in, eventually identify a couple of landmarks. I strike off in what I believe is the right direction and sure enough a few minutes later we arrive at our final destination – a modern lift installed specifically for visitors that will take us back up and out into the sunlight.
We had reached a depth of 101 metres but there were still hundreds of metres below us, not to mention another 240-odd-kilometres of tunnels we hadn’t even set foot in. This is a truly vast mine and it would take a lifetime to truly navigate it. I may have successfully hacked off a chunk of it with a pickaxe today, but I have barely scratched the surface.
Wieliczka Salt Mine is located just outside Krakow, in the south of Poland. The Miner’s Route tour costs 76 zloty (about £15). For more information on Poland visit www.poland.travel. Explore more of Poland with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.