Extreme caving, or spelunking as it is commonly known, is not an activity for just anyone. If you are in any way afraid of cramped spaces, spiders, bats, and darkness then it wont be for you. If, however, you are skinny, limber, and unafraid of all of the above, then you may just find that crawling into the bowels of the earth is an a activity right up your alley.
And the good news is that South Africa is literally riddled with underground cave systems, especially where there are mountains. All it takes to go on a troglodytic excursion is to find a specialised tour operator or join a club that will help you explorer the dank confines of our country’s hidden innards. And there’s plenty of them around; just check out the contacts list at the end of this article.
Recently, I found the perfect man for the job; a chap named Johan Uys, proprietor of Oudtshoorn’s Team Building Institute and a cave monkey of note.
Never happier than when slinking his way through tiny crevices, Johan knows and understands the Swartberg Mountain cave systems like no one else on earth.
And having a guide of that caliber, as I learned, is a very important thing indeed, for it is only the ludicrously irresponsible who would dare venture into an untamed cave system without proper equipment, good local knowledge and a group of friends of adequate competence.
“Some cave floors can be paper thin” said Johan as our intrepid team inched our way up a crawl space no larger than an elephants colon.
“And if you fall through, you could easily find yourself plummeting into a very deep cavern beneath”
Yikes, I thought to myself as I continued through a set of contortions that left my muscles cursing the day I turned my back on yoga.
The floor, on which I was crawling suddenly did not feel so secure and solid as I had thought it was.
I knocked with my knuckles and could swear it sounded like a car bonnet.
“It also helps to be fit and in a half decent physical condition” continued Johan, “Did you ever read that newspaper report a few years back about a large woman and her unfortunate tour of the Cango caves?”
An obese woman was freed ten hours after becoming trapped in a narrow passage in the Cango Caves, the Oudtshoorn metro said on Monday night.
“Normally guides tell people: ‘If you are too big you can’t go in.’ I don’t know why she went in there,” said an unnamed spokesperson “They eventually got her out with liquid paraffin”
Twenty two people were trapped behind that woman- can you imagine the claustrophobic horror of the poor person stuck next to her bottom, especially if she was afraid; which, under her circumstances, she had every right to be.
“What would happen should I get stuck” I called ahead to Johan “I’m not so sure I could handle it” But he reassured me that it wouldn’t be a problem.
“You’re about a third the size of that unfortunate lady” he called back “And besides, I always bring a tub of Vaseline with me on these sorts of trips”
Great, that was good to know.
So, as we crawled, tethered together and on hands and knees, into the impounding unknown, the claustrophobic scenery began to let up a little; well, at least to my mind it did. Johan’s reassuring words coming from up ahead helped sooth my concerns whilst the jolly group of troglodytes at my rear joked and made light of the darkness.
“It took millions of years for the rain to hollow out these tunnels and coat their walls in the minerals you are seeing now” called out Johan “But although it’s a bit cramped and featureless in here right now, just you wait until we see what’s at the end of this route. I think your going to be impressed”
And that, I soon learned, was the understatement of the year, for at the end of our cramped but adventuresome journey through the Swartberg’s calcified labyrinths, we entered into a huge cavern where the most exquisite formations were revealed under the yellowish gaze of our flashlights.
The ceiling, high above our heads glistened with thousands upon thousands of sharp little stalactites whilst the spaces between the floor and the roof was dotted with Romanesque pillars and giant shiny columns. It was almost like a forest of giant ghostly white tree trunks.
There were also many concertinaed formations the size and shape of movie house curtains and there were sparkling pools which looked for all the world as if they were made of glass.
Delicate Helictites resembling worms and lightning strikes coated the walls like ice.
It was beautiful; absolutely stunning, and it was there, among the ethereal crystals and organic looking formations that I suddenly understood what it is that drives spelunkers so deeply underground.
Such wondrous loveliness as I was witnessing that day deep beneath the Swartberg Mountains had been seen by very few eyes before. It had not been easy to get there, it had been a team effort, and at the end of
our adventurous endeavours, we had been rewarded by superlative sights that were truly out of this world.
“It’s a privilege to be here” said Johan, and I couldn’t help but agree with him.
A privilege it most certainly had been.
LETS GO WILD CAVING
There are over 850 wild caves in South Africa (and many more waiting to be discovered) but unless you are a trained and competent member of a caving club, you should never try to enter them. Wild caving is a high risk sport- not only to the person doing it but for the cave environment itself and every year amateur cavers make mistakes that lead to injury, death and damage. Thankfully though the Speleological Association of South Africa (SASA) and its affiliated local chapters, are there to welcome you as a member (should you be deemed to have the right attitude)
Cave environments are very fragile and the various South African clubs discourage adrenaline junkies and their likes from joining.
To find your closest club visit :
Those who would like to do a bit of adventure caving but don’t want to join an association can contact…
www.tbiadventures.co.za (Klein Karoo)
www.wildcaves.co.za (Cradle of mankind)
LETS GO TAME CAVING
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your take on things) many of South Africa’s grandest grottos have been turned into show caves with easy access for almost everyone.
Concrete pathways have been laid, ladders and stairs erected and atmospheric lighting installed.
Trained guides are usually available to take you through and, in most cases, very little physical risk or exertion is required.
Here are some of South Africa’s most popular show caves. All are well worth a visit.
Cango Caves near the Klein Karoo Town of Oudtshoorn which has beautiful formations and huge caverns
Sudwala Caves in the Drakensberg mountains are, apparently, the oldest caves on earth
Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape as well as Krugersdorp’s Sterkfontein both have very rich history of inhabitation by early man.
To find out more on where one can find South Africa’s Show Caves visit