What’s it like to visit a dripstone cave?
Today, it was wet and cold (4 degrees C). Where could we go for an outing? Got it — somewhere warmer and drier — a dripstone cave!!! We picked up grandma and drove to the city of Iserlohn to visit the famous “Dechenhoehle.” It is the only German cave that has its own train station, because it was discovered by railroad workers in 1868, which is very interesting for this mommy, who works in a training academy for railroad construction workers. Apparently, the railroad construction workers dropped a hammer into a cave opening, and this is how they found the entrance.
The Dechen cave is 902 meters long, of which 400 m are accessible to visitors, and we were in its lowest hall 30 m beneath the earth’s surface. Thus, it wasn’t very deep, which was okay because I wasn’t sure if my son would be claustrophobic. Turned out he wasn’t. But since this is the first time for him inside a cave (he has only admired the Drachenfels cave near the Bridge of Remagen in the basalt mountains of the Erpeler Ley from far away before), I had wanted to start with an easy to walk and small cave. It is not handicap accessible though, as there are some stairs to climb. And it was 9 degrees C “warm” inside (a temperature which remains constant throughout the year).
The Dechen cave was named after Oberberghauptmann Heinrich von Dechen (1800–1889) as recognition for his contributions to his geological examinations in the Rhineland and Westphalia. We lined up at a gate with the other visitors of our group to wait for our tour guide. She did a great job explaining the history and characteristics of the cave; alas, even though acoustics in the cave were really great, one could not understand what she said with so many noisy people around. The group was so big that it had to be split in half.
The prices were very reasonable; EUR 9.00 for adults and EUR 6.00 for children aged 3-15 years. One could book a photo tour of the cave with colorful lights. We learned that concerts take place in this cave, and one can even celebrate children’s birthdays with treasure hunts in there. This formation was called “the organ,” because this flowstone looks like organ pipes, and you can even recognize a huge hand playing the organ:
Lyons Cub learned the following important dripstone cave formation terms:
Stalagmites: Formations that grow from the cave floor up to the ceiling
Stalactites: Formations that grow from the cave ceiling down to the floor
Columns: Formations spanning the distance between the cave floor and the ceiling
Flowstone: Formations looking like a frozen waterfall, because they were formed from calcium-rich water flowing in a sheet.
Soon after entering and walking down a slightly muddy path, we stood in an enormous, high hall. This is where the concerts are taking place, and the huge stalactites hanging down from the ceiling are nick-named “the chandelier.”
There was also a little cave lake, where people of the past used to throw lucky coins in, but this is forbidden nowadays. Our guide also told us not to touch the stalagmites and stalactites, because that could turn them black. This is because people’s fingers contain oil, which they could deposit onto the formations’ surfaces, thus hindering them to grow. First, you could break them by touching them; second, the oil of your skin would create a hydrophobic layer on their surface, and the water saturated with CaCO3 drops down, thus blocking their growth. Interesting! So how much do they grow in what time?
Lyons Cub learned that it took a stalactite or stalagmite 100 years to grow 1 centimeter! They form as mineral-rich water evaporates or drops off. The formations often have a droplet of water hanging from them, which leaves behind a very thin layer of mineral.
Some stalagmites looked like unicorns!
The red light made the formations look like lava:
We stopped at a beautiful column in the middle of our path.
Look at the astonishing detail of the mineral deposits!
The little kids in the group were excited about a few plastic and fabric ghosts put among the formations. The biggest thrill came shortly before the exit — a dragon!
We didn’t get to see any bats because they were well hidden, but we were shown the places where they usually sleep. Cave spiders were supposed to be there, too, but we didn’t encounter one. By the way, historical pictures of the Dechen cave can be found in this archive. Adjacent to the cave is the German Cave Museum, which was opened in 2006. We saw some pretty semi-precious stones in glass cabinets, which can also be purchased in the shop. A cave researcher was hanging down from a hole in the ceiling! Lyons Cub was excited 😉
Inside the black hole in the wall was another cave researcher in his gear. In addition to a documentation of worldwide speleology, important finds from the Dechen cave are shown in this museum, such as the skeleton of a cave bear cub excavated here in the year 2000 and the skull of a forest rhinoceros discovered in 1993. These finds were recovered from the thick clay deposits of the cave floor.
There was a little cave for children to climb through beneath the stand with the cave bear and cub. Of course, Lyons Cub had to venture into it:
We also saw some bones, skulls, as well as taxidermy and photos of former cave dwellers.
This concludes our trip to the Dechenhoehle. If you have curious future cave researchers among your kids who would like to visit a dripstone cave, in the U.S., I can recommend the Meramec Caverns in the Ozarks near Stanton, MO, which I visited in the 2000s. And if you’re an expat in Germany, come to the Dechenhoehle or the Attahoehle!