Have you ever been somewhere and had the realisation that this could be the end? That current events could be the most dangerous and idiotic thing you have ever done? Welcome to Odessa Catacombs.
We set off at 8am meeting our Guide Egor and his friends (thanks to Darmom at www.thebohemianblog.com for the recommendation) in the centre of Odessa. From there it was short 30 min drive to small town where part of the catacomb entrances had been turned into a museum. A section of the catacombs had been gated and a few signs erected describing their history. It is a misnomer calling them catacombs as they haven’t generally been used to bury bodies; the main purpose of their creation was to mine limestone and other building materials. However over the years given the expanse of the system, nearly 2,500km (no-one has actually managed to map them all!), they have had various other uses over the years e.g. smuggling, storage, bomb shelter.
After reaching the official entrance we headed up the road for our unofficial tour. Greeted by a small cave-like hole we entered the abyss.
The first 2 hours of the tour was easy going; large tunnels and chambers which were clearly easily accessible due to the large amount of graffiti and signs all over the walls. Egor was a good guide providing commentary on the history of some of the older graffiti; including old poems and scripture written by the Ukrainian partisans during WWII.
This section of the catacombs had many rest spots, where makeshift dinner tables had been constructed out of the rock quarried from the tunnels themselves. Interestingly Egor explained how his friends had conducted unofficial wedding ceremonies and other celebrations in these locations.
After a couple of hours we arrive outside again (at a different location). Now is where the real “fun” begins. Egor leaves us with his friend Vannay to explore another large complex of tunnels, side note: Vannay speaks broken English which makes communication tricky.
We re-enter the tunnels and take a different route. Onwards from this point the terrain is totally different. Smaller, more compact tunnels requiring a lot more crouching and crawling. Graffiti on the walls becomes more sporadic and soon the only signs of previous life is the few scribbles on the walls when you arrive at a crossroads.
Within an hour I had lost all sense of direction, these tunnels are definitely a labyrinth. We continue on for another hour before we come across our first hurdle. Egor had previously informed me there would be no water in the tunnels. Little did we know at this point that he hadn’t been in the tunnels for 2 years and a lot can change in that time!
We turn a corner and are faced with a pool of stagnant water stretching into darkness.
“We’ll have to build a bridge” Vannay announces.
“Out of what?” We reply.
We start to pull rocks out of the floor, walls and wherever we can find them. Extreme care is taken as the roof of the tunnel feels like it could give at any moment. Standing underneath layers of limestone, sandstone and clay probably isn’t the most stable roof you could ask for.
The “bridge” is completed and we stepping stone across in an attempt to avoid contact with the stagnant pool. Nobody wants to go home with legionnaires disease (it has a 6 day incubation period..I think I’m ok).
Crisis 1 over, we continue our trek. It gets worse, lower, more cramped and damper. To me this is one of the best adventures yet but I can tell the rest of the group is flagging. We walk for another hour or so, its hard to tell in the darkness. By now none of us are clear where we are what direction we’ve come from or even how far underground we are.
We struggle through a very cramp tunnel squatting through a tiny space for about half an hour. Good job no-one in my group is claustrophobic. And then a smell reaches us, the worst thing I’ve ever smelt! We stop, ahead is a whole through the roof, clearly we’re under a village and this is their dumping ground, literally! Ahead a pool of thick swampy mud, sewage to be exact blocks our path…..
We find ourselves planking across this rancid lake of sewage and human waste trying to avoid contact at all cost. Two of my group lag behind. Once we regroup I find one-off them has slipped and is covered from the feet to thighs in this disgusting black sludge. Impressively everyone is still fairly good natured.
The trip continues uneventful for another hour or so, by now we’ve been underground about 4 hours. As we arrive at crossroads our guide starts asking us to wait and he ventures off for 10 mins at a time returning to then explore alternative routes. After one of these events we ask him if anything is wrong. This is when he confesses. “I haven’t been down here for two years, I don’t recognise everything it looks different”. He was lost, we were lost, how would we ever find our way out!
Our guide explains the markings he thinks we should try and follow we continue for another 2 hours. All the time we are trying to decipher any of the Russian text on the walls and follow the signs which apparently lead us to an exit. Mutliple times we re-trace our steps after not losing the trail we are supposed to be following and eventually we fear we will never find our way out. At one point we arrive at a large caved in area where the roof has collapsed, here we rest and wait for the guide to find our next route.
A piece of string was found on the floor this we followed whilst we waited for our guide at one of the crossroads. Upon the route we found an empty rucksack, would a body be next? We continue following the string it but it cuts off with no apparent route that was followed next, probably for the best. At this point we stop and consider how ridiculous the situation is, its pitch black (except for our torches), the caves are silent nothing can be heard no even the scratching of a rodent or traffic from above. If we were left here this would be the end!
Eventually our guide returns and he has found the next route. Our journey continues for another solid hour before we reach sunlight, the phrase “the light at the end of the tunnel” has never felt so right. We exit into the sunlight, exhausted and relieved. I wouldn’t have liked to imagine the smell as we embarked on our bus journey home.