The Balinka Expeditions

Few days ago I got a letter from Ljulo Latus. He described the situation in which were murdered his brother Franko and his comrades by this way. In this time situation between partisans were still not clear. A great part of them didn't know the true aim of them battle and what they were fighting for. This situation used some cetnicks which were between partisans. During the night they took the guns from the communists which were in fact the spirit-leaders of the partisans. Cetnicks then went with five main communists to Balinka pit; Four of them they killed, cut thems necks and threw the bodies in the pit. The heads they brought to Italian soldiers in Plaski. ( It isn't proved but people are talking so). The fifth man ran away and he described later everything. A pity he also fell in the war. So the cetnicks threw in the pit four men:- Robert Domani, Drago Steinberger, Franko Latus and Stevo Cuturilo. The first two were later proclaimed for national heroes.

Thus wrote Zlatko Pepionick, (known to SWCC as Pepi) in January 1965 in reply to a letter from SWCC questioning what had happened at Balinka on the night of the 2nd of April 1942.

But this is not the beginning of the story.

In 1961 several SWCC members had been caving in Yugoslavia with Pepi. On the return journey Pepi said, almost in passing;

"Last year I tried to reach the bottom of a vertical pot-hole discovered by our Society, but it was too deep for us. When we found the pit we lowered 200 metres of ladder, but even when 100 metres of rope with a lamp were hung from the bottom of the ladder we could see no sign of the floor".

This eventually lead to the planning of an expedition to Yugoslavia. In 1963 many letters passed to and fro between SWCC and the Yugoslavians with an interest in the project. However the first hint that Balinka had an importance other than just as a speleological phenomenon came in a letter dated 6th. May 1964.

-------------I write again in Plaski and Mr Latus answered me that we should get the horses for carrying for nothing. He is very interested for our action, because during the last war his brother and still 3 partisans were thrown in Balinka. Latus believe that we find them bones on the bottom.-------

Just over a month later the President, Dr. V. Blaskovic, and Secretary, Srecko Bozicevic, of the Speleological Society of Croatia wrote officially inviting the group to explore Balinka:-

" Dear fellow speleologists,---------------------------Balinka Pit is very important for us not only as a first rate speleological phenomenon, of exceptional depth, but also because the fascist occupier threw its victims into it during the Second World War: four fighters of the Struggle for People's Liberation (Partisans) and two People's Heroes lie on its bottom. This we know for sure, ----------------


Because of the expected exceptional depth it was decided back in Wales that a motorised winch would have to be built which would be capable of hauling a man-carrying cage up and down the main shaft. The building, experimentation and preparation of this and other equipment occupied considerable time. A bus was also purchased and modified to carry all the gear for what had become Balinka '64, a major expedition.

                                                      Testing of the Balinka winch in the Forest of Dean (c.1964)

 In the summer of 1964 the bus left Penwyllt for the long drive to Yugoslavia. The journey was too eventful, with mechanical problems and customs problems at the international borders. The writers at the time give an impression of an endless drive with no-one getting much sleep. But the bus did finally reach its destination and the campsite was constructed. This was to be home for a while.

Balinka is on the southern slopes of the Pistenik mountain and about 1 Km from the summit of Mali Pistenik (800m)in an area of mixed forest. This meant that all the equipment had to be hauled to the entrance by a mixture of LandRover, Gaz, some horses, and the members of the expedition. Mr Latus had obtained permission for some trees immediately round the entrance, in the State owned forest, to be felled by the foresters. Scrub and loose boulders were then carefully cleared away, and the way was clear to install the scaffold frame for the winch-head.

Considerable effort had been put into safety considerations for the cage with its occupants, and other members moving round the top of the slippery entrance. The occupants (sometimes two) of the winch cage were in telephone contact with the winch operator and others on the surface. The problem with the winch was that the entrance shaft had some obstacles around which the cage had to be guided. At 60ft there was a muddy rock-strewn sort of ledge into which bolts were fixed for a steel lifeline. At 200ft. there was a small ledge which was gardened of loose boulders, and subsequently used as a staging post. A metal boom was bolted here to help guide the cage away from the encroaching wall.

Many separate descents were made which slowly extended the known depth of Balinka. But time eventually ran out and the expedition had to return home. They had descended to a ledge at -720ft, and dropped stones which, by their clatter, suggested that Balinka had more to offer.

This inevitably lead to Balinka '66. A bus was hired this time, but it suffered clutch trouble, as had its predecessor. The intervening two years had been used to redesign and rebuild the equipment. This included cunning wire walking devices that might be used to effect an escape up the wire, should the cage jam or the winch break down. There was another manic drive across Europe, old friends were met, and the expedition again made camp at Balinka.

There was nobody on this expedition who had been below the 200ft ledge, so there was some re-learning to do. In fact, laddering down from the -720ft ledge found a 15ft pitch, followed by one of 30ft. There was a traverse around some massive stal pillars and then the final pitch of 60ft lead to a gently sloping floor, covered in oozing mud. There was no way on.

Some human bones were found at the bottom and a button from some army pants. All this material was gathered up and then taken to the surface by Mladen, a Yugoslav caver. Mr Latus brought four metal coffins for the remains and said he thought that the button had belonged to his brother.

Whilst Balinka was the main point of the expedition, a great deal of work went on in other caves in the area, and contributions were made to a better understanding of the hydrology of the area. The biologists had also collected and identified many underground species.

The cavers were the heroes, they had at last retrieved the remains of the four Partisan martyrs after so many years. The victims had been war time comrades of the man who would become President Tito. So there were television and radio interviews, drinking and celebrations, and lastly, a medal from President Tito to SWCC.

These events pre-date my membership of SWCC, so I have put together the stories I have heard and condensed enormously the material from the SWCC 21st Anniversary publication. Read it in the original if you can, or talk to those who were there!


Last Updated: 17 June 1996