“Cha Cha, Vodka, Pive!” The sellers outside the Novy Afon cave entrance were attempting to cater to the unquenchable thirsts of the holidaymakers.
Home brew wine, lethal spirits and beers. As the Russian tourists stocked up on their drinks for the trip into the dark depths of the cave, my very Soviet holiday to the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia was continuing.
I was in Novy Afon, a small town just outside of Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi, and the most touristy place in the disputed and unrecognised nation. Earlier in the day I’d been caught up with the tour groups from Sochi, I’d visited the old Orthodox Monastery constructed by the Greek monks who named the town after Athens, I’d explored an abandoned Soviet train station and admired the turquoise lagoon and crashing waterfall. Now it was time to visit the main attraction.
The Novy Afon Cave.
The entrance was atop a steep hill, offering a sweeping panoramic view of the Black Sea and the tropical coastline of Abkhazia. In the car park by the huge, concrete mass constructed in the Soviet days that was the visitor’s centre, locals were flogging everything they could to the bus and car loads of Russians that were crowding into the building.
There were bottles of Abkhazia’s finest wine, and plastic water bottles filled with Abkhazia’s not so fine and undoubtedly home made Cha Cha wine. Shashlik was grilling in the sun and vodka was being downed around the plastic tables.
Everyone was in holiday mode here in Novy Afon.
Inside the brutalist structure I found the Kassa- the ticket booth for you non Soviet folk- and in a mixture of sign language and terrible Russian I secured from the burly Babooshka a Bilyet for my trip into the cave!
This was no small cave though. No. I was ushered through the entrance and onto an underground metro platform. A subway train sat on the tracks. I ran to the end, pushing past other holiday comrades to get a spot before it hurtled into abyss.
The Novy Afon Cave is long enough to need its own underground railway. The system has 3 stations and has been transporting tourists since 1975- with a brief interlude during the Georgian-Abkhazian War of course.
The train stopped in the darkness. We all piled out, and I found myself in what seemed to be more of an underground bomb shelter than either a metro station or natural cave formation. The Soviets had a habit of constructing underground railways to double as nuclear fallout shelters as well as commuter transport, so undoubtedly this was and probably still is a bomb shelter.
I walked through the cold tunnels and out into the cavernous Hall of Anakopiya, the deepest of the labyrinth of interconnected halls and tunnels that forms the Novy Afon cave system.
In this hall, two glittering underground lakes were lit up by spotlights as we walked above them on a suspended walkway.
The tannoy system suddenly burst into life as the tour guide began explaining something. I don’t know what. My Russian isn’t quite developed enough to understand the machinations of Abkhazia’s cave tours unfortunately.
The cave was large. I can tell you that much. The size of the tour group was equally as large. We numbered somewhere in the hundreds. It was packed, and progress on the slippery rocks and rusting walkways was slow.
The group was marched through the caves, through almost 2 kilometres of rock and underground lakes and past enormous stalactite and stalagmite formations. At 1,000,000 Cubic Metres, the Novy Afon Cave is one of the most voluminous cave systems in the known world. I didn’t understand the Russian commentary but I didn’t need to in order to appreciate what I was seeing.
The tour ended abruptly in the confines of the last cavern. The loud speaker system was turned off and everyone began rushing for the small door which had been hewn into the rock before charging along the slippery concrete lined tunnel to the metro station.
I don’t know what the rush was for, as the train had yet to even arrive. When it did arrive the scene was more reminiscent of the daily fight to get on the London Underground than a day out in a cave.
I fought my way on, and at the other end fought my way off again.
I went out into the sunshine to find some Shashlik and Cha Cha, and called it a day on my very Soviet holiday to the Novy Afon Cave.
How To Travel To Novy Afon!
Novy Afon is a 20 minute bus ride from Abkhazia’s capital of Sukhumi. Busses depart from the main bus station by the old railway station outside of town. A ticket- payable on the bus when you get off- cost 50 Roubles. I couldn’t figure out the exact schedule, but I didn’t wait more than 40 minutes for it to depart, so I’m guessing hourly. It will drop you off somewhere along the main road as it carries on further.
On the return, wait by the bus stop on the main road at the bottom of the town, in the direction of Sukhumi, and flag it down when it passes. There are a few hotels here too if you fancy spending the night!
The drive from Sukhumi is scenic but sombre, traversing a valley where a fierce battle was fought between Georgians and Abkhazians, and passing the many graves and memorials that now dot the road.
In Cyrillic, Novy Afon is written just like this: Новый Афон