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Cave Hunting

by Tyler

A few weeks ago, we received a contact through our website from a Romanian who lives in Tara's hometown. He was excited to tell us all about the country he grew up in, and the things we shouldn't miss while we are here. Having no guidebook for Romania, we were thrilled about this stroke of luck.

It turns out, Tara's dad (who tells everyone proudly about our trip) had met him at a Minute Man Press franchise. Their brief conversation, occurring thousands of miles away, sparked a series of email correspondences which are now shaping our entire journey through this beautiful country.

One of the many places our new friend Silviu recommended in his comprehensive emails was a pestera (cave) called Tilponita. During our last rest break, we spent some time searching out the location of it, discovering that it was just twenty five kilometers into the mountains from the town Orsova where we were staying.

We love riding in the mountains, and a trip through them would be a more direct than following the river to reach our next major destination, Târgu Jiu. We decided to go; we'd stop at the cave, have lunch, look around, and then continue on to the Sfanta Ana monastery to spend the night. It would make for an 80 kilometer day. As we plotted this tiny little line in MapSource (our mapping software), that seemed perfectly doable.

This morning, after a brief ride out of town along the Danube, we headed into the mountains. The first few kilometers were smoothly paved, flat, and gorgeous. I remember thinking to myself, "pssschh, the roads in Romania are fine". Almost immediately after this thought went through my head, we turned a corner and the pavement abruptly ended, deteriorating into swiss cheese. Here it is, just riddled with potholes!

Romanian Road Romanian Road

It was slow going, and eventually we decided we'd camp around 50 kilometers and make for the monastery tomorrow.

Romanian Village Romanian Wagon

Back in the tumble dryer, we carried on. The roads weren't much to look at but everything else was. Over the last year, my love of remote locations has grown tremendously.

Romanian Mountain Road Tara Pushing Romanian Road

When the road leveled out, we saw our first signs for Tilponita. By then, it was looking like reaching the cave at all would take the rest of the day! When we started our adventure, these sorts of "setbacks" would drive me crazy. Nowadays, this kind of thing doesn't even register as something to be annoyed about.

Romanian Road Tara

A little less than an hour later, we reached a pair of big wooden signs for the cave. One of them indicated it was a thirty minute walk away, but it didn't really say in which direction. If it did, it was in Romanian and we couldn't read it! With just thirty five kilometers on our GPS, we decided to shorten our ride even further. Assuming we could find the dang thing, we would camp IN it. Maybe we'd see some vampires!

Pestera Topolnita: Rezervatie Speologica

Before starting our search, we stopped for lunch. As we ate, a black dog who we dubbed Sirius Black eyed us from afar, slowly making his way nearer as long as we weren't looking at him. We fed him, of course, but he never did trust us enough to be petted. He'd lunge forward to grab the morsels we placed nearest to us and then quickly dive back, as if trying to dodge an incoming blow. He seemed lonely :(

Sirius Black Sirius Black Sirius Black Sirius Black

While we sat, I grabbed a stick and started whittling. If we were going to sleep in a Romanian cave, I wasn't going to go without at least one wooden stake!

Tyler Whittling Tyler Whittling Protection Against Vampires

While Tara finished her lunch, I scouted around, trying to find some sort of signage which would indicate where to go (there were three possible options). When I spotted some red triangles with white borders leading down into the mountains, I decided that it had to be our route. If it wasn't, we were going to give up and camp there.

Path to the Cave

Feeling rejuvenated from from our lunch, we headed down the rocky path, hopeful we'd made the right decision. Mid-descent it got really steep. Then, things got even trickier when the road became one big slippery leaf pile. Slowly, slowly, we made it safely into a beautiful, totally isolated valley with a river running through it.

Tara in the Leaves

At the bottom, we parked our bikes and surveyed our home for the night. While looking around, I discovered the next marker was on the other side of the river. Oh well! It didn't look too deep. We changed our shoes, packed some supplies in a backpack, grabbed the camera and set out. It couldn't be far now!

Fast Flowing River

The water was COLD and the current was pretty strong, but we rolled up our pants and walked across anyhow.

Tara Crossing the Stream

A little further on it looked like we'd have to cross the river again! This time, it was a lot deeper. I was amazed when Tara consented to continuing. Here I am scouting a route. There aren't any pictures of me crossing because I was holding our camera above my head while I did; it was a bit nerve wracking.


We made it across, and then began scaling the rocks along the bank in order to follow the signs, hopefully leading to the cave. This was getting a little ridiculous, but I went ahead to see if I could find a safe path. If I couldn't, we'd turn back; help was very far away. I was able to find a suitable route, so we pushed on.

Tyler Adventuring

Climbing around on rocks is not something that comes naturally to Tara, but she is getting much better at it. So far, I've coached her up and down a cliff at Tintagel and off of a high rock in Cassis. This evening, she was terrified after she banged her shin slipping on a patch of moss. I was so proud when she faced her fears, following me one step at a time instead of quitting. Here she is, carrying on, bashed shin and all:

Tara Adventuring Tara Adventuring Tara Adventuring

At long last, we made it to the cave itself. It was a giant chasm, sadly inaccessible due to the high river running directly into its mouth. Maybe we were supposed to take a boat inside? Maybe it wasn't the cave at all? We still don't know. Either way, we decided it was too dangerous to explore further. There was a small side-cave that I took a photo of though. I climbed on all fours as far as I could but eventually the tunnel closed off too much to continue. It looked like there was a big opening beyond it! Dang.

Cave Path Marker Path Marker

The way back to the bikes was uneventful save for when Tara slipped during the first of our return river crossings and was swept a meter or two downstream. I was about to leap in when she regained her footing triumphantly, soaked to the bone in the chilly water, a little shaken, but none the worse for wear.

Back by our bikes I quickly put together a blazing fire to warm Tara who was wet and cold from head to toe. Then, I made camp while she warmed up and got down to making a delicious meal. I'll let her describe it:

Tyler Riverside Free Camp


Into our pot, I diced an onion and an eggplant, along with a couple cloves of garlic and a generous drizzle of olive oil. With some cayenne pepper, garlic powder, salt and pepper, plus a bunch of Indian spices that Miwa gave me, I sautéed the whole mess over our stove. I'm not sure what the spices were, but they smelled like an Indian restaurant and I could pick out anise seeds among the mix. I'm guessing it was this.

Into the veggies, I added a can of tomatoes and let the whole thing simmer for a while. To add some substance, I served it with spoonfuls of Romanian pureed beans (from a can), and an egg, simply fried. Since we didn't have any bread, I mixed up a couple of flatbreads (flour, salt, and water, mixed into a dough, rolled out, and cooked on an ungreased skillet), which I cooked in our pan, and then set over the campfire so they'd get a smokey flavor. The resulting meal was amazing. I wish we had more spices so we could make it again!

Best Meal Ever

It was a good day. A hard one, physically, and we didn't really get anywhere, but it certainly was an adventure!