“It looks just like Indiana and the Temple of Doom”, squeaked someone nervously at the rear of our group. Indeed, the two mining carts did look like the ones in the subterranean chase scene in that movie. In two lines, we shuffled penguin-like into the rusty steel cage of the elevator. At the double bell rings, resembling the sound of a pinball machine, the metal doors of the elevator clanged shut. The whole theme park experience was intensified when we were sent whistling downwards through the mine galleries. Gusts of wind buffeted us as the shuddering cage sped downwards to the tourist trail of the mine some 600 m below ground level.
We were in the Kłodawa Salt Mine, the biggest operating salt mine in Poland. From the bus, the draw works for the mine could be seen from some distance across the flat surrounding countryside. As a tourist destination is much less well known than the UNESCO World Heritage listed Wieliczka and Bochnia salt mines accessible from Krakow in the south of Poland. The scale of the operations here are surprising large; the salt deposit is 26 kilometres long and 2 kilomteres wide. The deposit was discovered in 1939
and the mine has been in operation for roughly sixty years. Our guide referred to a schematic plan of the mine which showed a veritable ant-farm like structure of horizontal and vertical galleries.
The salt deposits at Klodawa and in the south at Wieliczka have a similar origin. They are Permian in age and date from around 250 million years ago comprising the Zechstein Formation. They formed in the European Permian Basin that stretched all the way from the UK into Poland. The salt formed by successive periods of intense evaporation of sea water in shallow seas. Evaporitic salt layers build-up over repeated drying cycles. However, even after deposition and burial salt is very much alive and mobile. Over geological time its behaves in a ductile and plastic manner, it often it flows upwards forming large salt domes as is the case in Klodawa.
After our descent into the mine, on opening the elevator doors we were confronted by a train of mining carts all contain snowy lumps of glistening white rock salt. Further along, a small chapel is dedicated to Saint Barbara, excavated out of the side of a tunnel as a rectangular chamber. Saint Barbara was
the patron saint of miners and her image also makes appearance in the surface facilities. A trio of crudely carved rock salt statues stand sentinel in the shrine. The mantle of a figure of saint Barbara is decorated by the rare blue coloured salt that is a curiosity of this mine.The features are also picked out in a rather garish, clown-like manner. A bowl of roses provide a flash of lively colour amongst the pink and white translucent stones. The sucrosic texture of the larger pink stones give the impression of an obscure, super-sized chunks of candy. A large plaque on the wall of the chamber is in remembrance of the miners who lost their lives and is a sobering feature.
Our robust looking guide, pickaxe in hand and the mine’s sole geologist led us along a succession of tunnels. We moved away from the sight of any operations and into the inactive touristic route. In this part of the mine are sizeable excavated caverns up to 20 meters high. The curved and irregular nature of the tunnel walls give the mine an overall natural, organic-like form. The floors are powdered by finely broken-down salt flakes and small shards.
The salt has varying colours both white and varying shades of pink, often with layering clearly visible. The plastic nature of salt behaviour is clearly evident with the presence of highly contorted layers with tight intestinal like folds. The mine owners have ensured the galleries are extremely well lit seemingly with a nod towards the 1970s mood lighting some areas are flooded with blue colour. Elsewhere a line-up of old hulking machinery sit in the gloom and shadow. As we worked our way back towards the elevators on our return, we moved progressively along the galleries. Individual sections are separated by large, thick bulkhead type doors. Chunky looking windows help maintain ventilation. Disconcertingly, as we moved along we could hear each door closing behind us with a rather eerie muffled bang.
As a parting shot from the organisers we were presented with a 1 kg bag of the final product. The experience of the mine had brought new insights into the origin of what must be our most every day, taken for granted substance. However, I would hope to remember this trip next time I will be putting a little sprinkle on my chips at home.
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