Down under, exploring the Seegrotte caves

Down under, exploring the Seegrotte caves

Down under, exploring the Seegrotte caves

surreal Mining activities were conducted at the Seegrotte mine from 1848 to 1912. photo courtesy:

A weak head for history, a weaker purse and severe paucity of time, tips the scales in favour of Vienna Woods. As it turns out, it is a decision I do not regret.

At the end of a breathtakingly beautiful drive through Vienna Woods, which is dotted with quaint little villages containing very pretty houses seemingly devoid of people, the bus stops at Seegrotte, a defunct gypsum mine, just 17 km from Vienna. The guide, who speaks excellent English, informs us that the temperature inside the mine, come winter or summer hovers at 90 degree Celsius. Blankets are handed out at 50 cents per piece and we enter the mine through a narrow tunnel that allows neither elbow nor head space and where tall people have to stoop while walking.

The history of the mine itself is fascinating. Spread over three levels, grey and red gypsum were mined here for fertiliser used for agriculture from 1848 to 1912. In 1912, while digging a fourth level, 20,000,000 litres of water flooded the mine and it was shut down. The lake is reputed to have seven springs that fill the mine with 60,000 litres of water everyday with no natural outlet. Even today, excess water is pumped out every night in order to prevent flooding in the mine.

After being shut down for several decades, Seegrotte was discovered by some cave explorers in 1932 and opened for public viewing. In 1944, however, the Germans requisitioned the mine and a subterranean aeroplane factory was established in it after pumping out the water and heating it with warm air.  Several workers in the factory were prisoners from concentration camps. The first jet plane — the Heinkel HE 162 was built here and a model of the plane is on display in one of the caves in the mine.

The mine has several cavernous rooms including one the miners used as their lunch room; one that houses a chapel dedicated to St Barbara — the patron saint of miners — and a stable for the horses that were used to hoist laded carts out of the mine. It is said that the horses were blinded so that they could work without fear. Services are held in the chapel till date in honour of St Barbara and in memory of the miners who died in the mine. The Cardinal of Vienna, the Boys Choir of the Vienna Woods and 3000 people are said to have once celebrated mass in this cavern.

Around 450 mts into the tunnel, a flight of stairs leads down to the highlight of the mine, Europe’s largest subterranean lake grotto set 60 mts deep in the fourth level. A boat powered by an underwater electric motor bobs gently on the surface of the water as it waits for us.

Our teeth chatter with the cold and we hold our blankets close to ourselves as the boat glides soundlessly over the lake, making its way around the natural stone archways of the grotto.

The floor of the lake, just four feet below, is visible through the crystal clear water and the skillful lighting reflects the rocky walls of the grotto on the surface of the water. The water is completely does not have any aquatic life owing to the high levels of gypsum present in it. The soft music, the play of lighting on the water and the softly gliding boat add to the surreal atmosphere inside. An ornately carved boat anchored under an archway in the lake is a relic left behind by the crew that shot for The Three Musketeers in the grotto.

The more adventurous can eschew the fixed tour and explore independent ways to get to Seegrotte. It would probably work out cheaper than the tour rate of € 44. But the entry fee of € 9 seems a small price to pay to view the splendid Seegrotte and the payoff is in the rich memories of the place, which will stay with me forever.