“Room for one more” I am told as I am gently nudged into what looks to me like an already-full-to-capacity lift. The doors are pulled across behind me with much scraping of metal and we move up – by about five metres.
This will happen twice more before we can finally descend the 57 metres into Wieliczka salt mine. This is so that we can load more people into the lift’s other levels, packing us in quite literally on top of each other. It is hot, cramped and uncomfortable – I feel like I am getting an insight into the life of a miner already, just a few minutes into my three-hour tour.
This is the new Miner’s Route, and it starts with this descent by lift down the oldest existing mine shaft to be found here, the Regis shaft. The lift is not completely enclosed and so I watch the shaft’s walls rushing past as we descend at a speed of four metres a second. By the time we reach the bottom, just 15 seconds later, I am completely disorientated – and very glad of our guide.
He leads us along tunnels only just tall enough to avoid bashing our hard hats on the ceilings and points out the wooden beams holding it all in place. At various points on the walls and particularly in the joints of the wood we see cauliflower-like deposits of salt – it feels like salt is seeping out of every one of the earth’s pores here.
But the most remarkable thing is the size of the tunnel network. Just 1% of the mine is open to visitors and yet we walk for hours, clambering up ladders and marching down endless flights of stairs. There is chamber after chamber to explore. We see the remnants of the so-called “Hungarian dog” transport system, a simple wooden cart pulled along runners in the ground, and are taught everything from how to measure the methane levels in the air to how to use a pickaxe to dislodge salt from the walls.
We really start to feel like the novice miners we have been cast as, trudging along in our grey boiler suits, and I must be doing something right because I am picked out to navigate our way back to the lift. I am handed a map of the mine and that feeling of disorientation immediately returns, there are tunnels in every direction, looping off and circling back on several different levels. I turn the map this way and that and eventually identify a couple of landmarks. A few minutes later we arrive at our final destination – a modern lift back up and out into the sunlight.
We have reached a depth of 101 metres but there are still hundreds of metres below us, not to mention another 240-odd kilometres of tunnels we haven’t even set foot in. This is a truly vast mine. We may have hacked off a chunk of it with a pickaxe on this tour, but we have barely scratched the surface.