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Minor Miners

POLAND | Tuesday, 30 September 2014 | Views [844]

We were heeded not to wander off on our own, as we would quickly become lost and die. Briefed on how to use our carbon monoxide absorbers in case of a fire in the mine, we were also informed if there was an emergency, our absorbers would last only one hour. If we could not find a way out by then, we would all die. A grim start to our seemingly safe adventure.

The braces and ongoing construction in one chamberThe braces and ongoing construction in one chamber

Before it started we were all laughing at each other, struggling to fit our different physiques into one-size-fits-most coveralls. The petite redhead from Scotland could have fit a second person in hers, Paul's were slightly too long, and mine were slightly too short, giving me a unpleasant wedgie every time I made a movement to sit or raise my arms. Considering we were embarking on a mining tour, I figured the torture was going to be continual.

A model of the system used with horses to hoist and  lower objects in deep shaftsA model of the system used with horses to hoist and lower objects in deep shafts

But I was blissfully wrong. The air grew cool and damp as we descended down the oldest mine shaft, the Regis, via elevator into the first level of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We were bound for the Miner's Route, a more hands-on small-group experience than the more popular Tourist's Route. After the four of us faithfully following our leader by headlamp down paths with low-hanging ceilings covered with salt "cauliflowers", passing passages with splintering support logs, we arrived in a small opening, the former location of an underground chapel. We cautiously explored the remnants, learned how to check for unsafe gases in the air (remember fire=death), and continued on our way.

More constructionMore construction

At the next stop, the men practiced sawing support logs while we women sat on the log for support. Of course, we got the chance to change places, but we were not quite as successful. Good thing we only needed to cut a starting notch for the next group. The adventure continued, where we learned how to tie ropes, the age of different shafts, chambers, and tunnels. We used a water wheel to transport water, dangerous because of its ability to dissolve salt, through the mine.

The saw master by headlampThe saw master by headlamp

Descending down 60 meters to yet another level, we had the opportunity to turn off our headlamps to experience the true darkness of the mine. Darker than pitch-black, the lack of sight was oppressive and terrifying, giving me a new healthy fear of the dark. Thankfully I was not the only one to breathe a sigh of relief when the light returned.  We even experienced a dynamite explosion simulation, and I got a chance to practice my map-reading skills and be the leader to several locations.

Follow the leaderFollow the leader

But my favorite part of our grand adventure? The actual mining. A relatively simple task, armed with small picks we each had our own block of salt to whittle away at. I took my instructions to heart and began rhythmically pounding away at the chunk before me. Though only illuminated by my single beam of light, the clump seemed to transform before me, each blow sending crystals into the air, sheering off another layer of the salt. This only served to spur me on in a mining frenzy. Licking my lips in exertion, I was delighted by the taste of salt, the product of all of the crystals we were stirring into the air. It tasted of history, of secrets locked away in the darkness. The stories and lives of hundreds of miners flashed before my eyes in that one taste. What was a revelation to me was likely commonplace to them. But still, it let me take a tiny step in their shoes.

Hacking away at the saltHacking away at the salt

As we moved on and made our way out to the lighted shaft to the surface, I couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed. Not in the tour, the guide, the mine, or my companions. I simply didn't want to leave. I wanted to explore, to walk in chambers that dated back to the 16th century, to measure crumbling braces for their rate of descent, to mine by light and sleep by day.

We had to follow the tradition of jumping over a cloth and getting "spanked" with a stick to earn our certificateWe had to follow the tradition of jumping over a cloth and getting "spanked" with a stick to earn our certificate

It only took one trip to the depths of the earth to make a miner out of me. A minor one at that, but still enthralled with a skill set and trade I had never before witnessed. Maybe it is the sense of danger lurking in the shadows, maybe the isolation and solitude, maybe even the peaceful sense of entombment. The darkness may be haunting, but the mine still calls to me, whispering of secrets hidden in the dark.

Finished and happy

Tags: dark, miners, mines, poland, salt, tunnels

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