Journey to the centre of the earth

By A.B. Gondwe

Most of us imagine our travels and adventures to be somewhere above the ground, on the water or in the air. However, few of us realise what a wondrous world of exploration and amazing experiences are to be found underground, in the bowels of our planet.

While we cannot literally travel to the centre of the earth, going underground may at times feel just like that. And it opens up an entirely new world of sights, sounds and creatures that many have never experienced before, as well as lots of fascinating history of humankind. South Africa is blessed with many access points and routes to this subterranean wonder world, such as the world-famous Cango Caves of the Southern Cape, or the equally famous Sudwala Caves in Mpumalanga. Of course, there’s also the Cradle of Humankind and the Sterkfontein Caves where some of the most fascinating fossil discoveries have been made.

But there’s so much more to be explored, like cave systems off the beaten tourist track, sea caves along our coast, diving down old water-filled mine shafts, or guided explorations of lesser-known caves where the remains of ancient human habitats have been unearthed. There are in excess of 30 well-documented, accessible cave systems in South Africa, mostly open to the public, but some only by special arrangement.

Cave Exploration

For the more adventurous who don’t mind physical and mental challenges, there is a world of exploring caves on offer in South Africa. Caving or cave exploring involves moving through caves that have been formed as acidic groundwater or underwater rivers dissolve away the limestone and leave cavities that range from a few metres to many kilometres in length and depth. Some of these limestone caves can takes millions of years to form.

Exploring many of these caves may involve lowering yourself by rope, crawling through narrow spaces with a headlamp to find your way in complete darkness, wading through water and more. Many of these caves are inhabited by bats and other shy creatures, while even monkeys, dassies, birds and the odd snake are frequent visitors. Caving operators are active across the country, from the Cango Caves of the Southern Cape, to the mysterious Sabie Caves of Mpumalanga, Sudwala Caves also in Mpumalanga, and the Bat Cave in Gauteng, as well as in lesser-known caves.

Of course, this is not for the fainthearted or novices, and requires special equipment and the services of experienced guides. There are a number of cave exploration operators across South Africa, whose details can all be found through a simple Google search online.

Caves of the Cradle of Humankind

South Africa’s renowned Cradle of Humankind region, a World Heritage Site, is located approximately 90 minutes’ drive from Johannesburg, and includes two magnificent subterranean attractions, the Maropeng and Sterkfontein caves. Here you can learn all about prehistoric stone tools, fossils and the bones of our ancient ancestors. Or you can engage in some adrenaline-pumping adventures.

Situated just an hour’s drive from Johannesburg and Tshwane, the Sterkfontein Caves are best known for the world-famous fossil discoveries made there, most notably those of Mrs Ples and Little Foot. In 2005 the site underwent an extensive facelift, and visitors are now offered easy access along modern walkways. Above ground there are restaurant and conference facilities. Daily guided educational tours take place, starting above ground with guides taking visitors deep into the caves.

Maropeng is a world-class attraction where you will get to see incredible interactive attractions about the history of the earth, its human inhabitants, stone-age tools, complete with lifelike replicas of hominids. More fascinating fossils can be seen at another visitor centre some 10km away.

Makapansgat

The series of caves at Makapansgat in the Makapan Valley World Heritage Site is another archaeological wonderworld, northeast of Mokopane in Limpopo Province. It is an important palaeontological site, with the local lime works of numerous caves in the Makapansgat valley holding fossils that date back 3.3 million years. It is linked directly to the history at the Cradle of Humankind. The whole Makapan Valley has been declared a South African Heritage Site, and Makapansgat belongs to the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.

This series of caves are also the playground of baboons and vervet monkeys. The hills surrounding the Makapansgat valley are literally dotted with caves. The rich history of these caves was discovered during mining operations in the 1920s, but it was not fully investigated until 1947, when it was confirmed that there were remains of Australopithecus africanus or early man.

Cango Caves

Some 29km outside the town of Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo (Little Karoo), just off the R328 as you travel towards the Swartberg Pass, are the world-famous Cango Caves. Situated in a limestone ridge alongside the Swartberg Mountains, it offers a series of the finest dripstone caverns, with their vast chambers and towering stalagmite and stalactite formations. Many of these are lit up in a spectacular colourful display as visitors pass from chamber to chamber.

Legend goes that the caves were first explored by a local farmer named Jacobus van Zyl (after whom the first chamber, Van Zyl’s Hall, was named), although research has failed to reveal anybody by that name living in the Cango Caves area in the 1770s. But archaeological evidence shows that the caves have been visited by man since the Early Stone Age.

With or without Van Zyl, the chamber named after him is dominated by the giant Organ Pipes, a spectacular dripstone and flowstone combination. Centrepiece is a tall, slender stalagmite which rises nearly 10 metres towards the ceiling – Cleopatra’s Needle. Still active and growing, the Needle is estimated to be in excess of 150,000 years old! Near the base of the staircase stands an impressive formation known as The Pulpit of a Great Cathedral, replete with angel’s wings, sculptured by nature.

And if you look carefully, you’ll note at its base the shape of The Kneeling Camel. On its side is an unusual stain known as The Moses Figure, representing the biblical Moses, dressed in a flowing, brown robe, his arms outstretched in blessing. From here on visitors pass through a series of wonderful chambers, each with their own impressive formations and stories. With the lights off, you are engulfed in total darkness and total silence, perhaps hearing, if you listen very carefully, a faint dripping sound…limestone and water forming the stalagmites and stalactites.

As you continue deeper into the caves, you’ll pass through chambers with names like the Tunnel of Love, the Ice Chamber, the Coffin, the Devil’s Workshop and his kitchen and chimney. Squeezing your body through the narrow confines of the chimney is only for those not suffering from claustrophobia and who are not too much overweight. People have become stuck there!

Adventure and heritage tours with guides are offered daily, but its best to make reservations in advance. Tours are led by experienced, knowledgeable and accredited guides and are offered in English but Afrikaans, German, French and other language options may be available. Facilities include a restaurant, information centre, interpretive centre and curios shop. Some tours are wheelchair friendly.

Sudwala Caves

 These caves are situated some 30km from Mbombela (Nelspruit) in Mpumalanga along the R539 going towards Sabie. The caves offer visitors an epic underground adventure that takes one 2km into the heart of the cave system… the Crystal Chamber with its amazing array of sparkling aragonite crystals.

A specialised guided tour, called the Crystal Tour, if offered for the more adventurous and involves scrambling up and over rocks, picking your way through the dark by torchlight, squeezing through tunnels, wading through water and will leave you wet and dirty, but awestruck. But don’t fret, you only need average agility to complete it, but it’s not recommended for very large people or those who suffer claustrophobia or other related phobias. In fact, it is suggested that people who weigh over 115kg should not attempt the tour. The duration of the tour is about 4 hours and it is essential to book.

For the less adventurous there are a number of options and caves that can be visited. The Sudwala cavern complex is dominated by the spectacular Amphitheatre chamber, reached through a lofty 150m corridor. The Amphitheatre is 70 metres in diameter, and 37 metres high to the peak of a dome-like feature in its roof and has become a popular venue for music concerts and dramatic performances over the years.

Apart from the Amphitheatre or PR Owen Hall as it is also known, some of the most popular attractions for visitors are the Devil’s Workshop, the Map of Africa on the ceiling of the caves, and a magical alcove called Fairyland. The Sudwala Caves are part of the Malmani Dolomite Ridge, in turn part of the Drakensberg escarpment. They are solutional caves, formed by natural acid in groundwater seeping through faults and joints, and dissolving rock, most often occurring when the rock is dolomite rock and/or limestone.

Wonderwerk Cave

This cave, a National Heritage Site, is situated in the Northern Cape about 139km from the town of Kuruman. It is an archaeological wonder with a rich history and many legends attached to it, and a valuable geological resource. The cave, formed in the dolomite rocks of the Kuruman Hills, takes visitors some 140 meters into the earth. The cave is so big, it used to be boasted that a wagon and team of oxen could turn around in the entrance.  An information centre with colourful displays introduces the rich history of Wonderwerk Cave.

Deposits and formations inside the cave have left fascinating traces of a prehistoric world with evidence of the plant, animal and human life that existed here hundreds of thousands of years ago. It is an important research site equally popular with scientists and tourists. Ancient rock art can be viewed near the entrance. The cave also plays a role in local African custom and tradition, used for rituals and to collect healing water. The cave is open to the public and has an interpretive centre adjacent to the cave. All the excavated material from Wonderwerk Cave is now housed at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley.

Seaside caves trail of the Southern Cape

Located in some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in South Africa, are a series of sea-cliff caves where scientists have only relatively recently started unearthing the fascinating evidence of the people who lived in them up to 200,000 years ago. Many of these caves can be reached through some beautiful nature reserves or along some awesome hiking trails, such as the St Blaize Hiking Trail running all along the cliff face from the St Blaize Cave at Mossel Bay, past Pinnacle Point and its cave to Dana Bay.

These caves contain Middle Stone Age deposits currently dated at between 100,000 and 70,000 years old. It is believed that modern man, involving modern human behaviour, originated from this region from a small population of around 400 to 700 individuals, who survived an ice-age in the mild temperate climate of this coastline, existing primarily on shell fish. Some of the most fascinating and informative material recovered from the caves in this region include engraved ochre, engraved bone ochre processing kits, marine shell beads, refined bone and stone tools, and a broad range of terrestrial and marine faunal remains, including shellfish, birds, tortoise and ostrich egg shell and mammals of various sizes.

This “cave trail” starts more or less at the Blombos Cave, an important archaeological site located in Blomboschfontein Nature Reserve, about 300km east of Cape Town near Jongensfontein and Stillbaai on the Southern Cape coastline. It ends more or less at the Klasies River Cave located to the east of the Klasies River mouth on the Tsitsikamma coast in the Humansdorp district of the Eastern Cape. Travelling east from Blombos you’ll find many more of these caves where archaeological excavations are uncovering our natural history. They include Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay and Nelson’s Bay Cave on the Robberg Peninsula near Plettenberg Bay.

Nelson’s Bay Cave, also known as Wagenaar’s Cave, is a Stone Age archaeological site. This fascinating cave has yielded rich archaeological material covering its intermittent Middle and Later Stone Age occupation by humans, dating from a few hundred to more than 125,000 years ago. The cave is rectangular in shape and roughly 18 metres wide by 35 metres deep and was formed in quartz-sandstone and quartzites. Its mouth is about 19–21 metres above sea level. Nearby are other Stone Age caves, Hoffman’s or Robberg Cave and Matjes River cave. Graves have been found near the mouth of the cave, the remains being in a foetal position, and decorated with shells and ochre.

The Klasies River Caves are a series of caves consisting of three main caves and two shelters at the base of a high cliff that have revealed evidence of middle stone age-associated human habitation from approximately 125,000 years ago.

Most of these caves with their precious archaeological treasures are protected and have been added or are planned to be added as National or World Heritage Sites. They are therefore mostly closed to the general public, but special guided tours can be arranged. However, in between Blombos and Klasies River, and on either side of them, are many more similar coastal caves that can be freely visited and can be included as part of some breath-taking hikes, cliff-face rock climbs or even kayaking adventures.

Western Cape Caves

Among the more popular caves to be explored by modern-day cave dwellers in and around Cape Town in the Western Cape, are Elephant’s Eye Cave, Klipgat or Drupkelder Caves, Peers Cave and the caves in the mountain behind Muizenberg and Kalk Bay.

Elephant’s Eye Cave is easily accessible as part of one of Cape Town’s favourite hikes and is suitable for families as children can easily do the climb. It’s located in the Constantiaberg area and from the cave you’ll have some spectacular views.  Peers Cave, also very easy to reach, is located along an easy hike up Silvermine Nature Reserve near Fish Hoek and the Ou Kaapse Weg. The cave is famous for the fourteen 12,000-year old Palaeolithic skeletons discovered here by Victor Peers and his son, Bertie, in 1927. The cave is thought to be an ancient burial site

Further afield from Cape Town is the Klipgat or Drupkelder Cave near De Kelders, a short distance east from Hermanus. From within this cave, and several others in the area, you’ll have a dramatic view of the ocean.  These caves were formed millions of years ago when underwater aquifers slowly eroded these spaces beneath the coastal cliffs. They served as shelters for early humans for thousands of years. Klipgat Cave is also the only freshwater cave along the coast of Africa. The cave is protected within the Walker Bay Nature Reserve and forms part of the 7km Klipgat Trail, a hike from the harbour at Gansbaai that hugs the coastline.

Underground Mine Tours

While most caves or underground cavities are formed naturally, South Africa of course also has many underground caves and tunnels that are man-made: these are its extremely deep-level mines. Some can be visited for truly fascinating tours of where our brave underground miners venture every working day of their lives.

On the southwestern side of Johannesburg, at Gold Reef City with its 10-hectare theme park, you’ll find the historic Crown Mines No 14 shaft. Mining started here in 1897, and the shaft once was the deepest goldmine shaft in the world, producing 1.4 million kilograms of gold before closing in the 1970’s. Today visitors can travel, just like the miners once did, in a metal cage lift down the shaft to a level of 226 meters. From where the lift stops, you’ll walk along tunnels with a hard hat and a torch in hand and gain a first-hand experience of what the miners did on a daily basis, including drilling into those gold veins.

At Kimberley the famous Big Hole offers an above-ground view of one of the biggest manmade holes in the world – now filled with water – where thousands of fortune seekers dug down into the earth in search of diamonds in the late 1800s. But the Big Hole Diamond Museum, adjacent to the Big Hole, also offers a fantastic underground tour. It provides a fascinating view of the inner workings of one of the most famous diamond mines in the world. Of course, touring the rest of the museum complex with its restored mining town is also equally fascinating.

Another underground diamond mine tour is offered at the Cullinan Diamond Mine east of Pretoria. Or you can do the underground goldmine tour at Kromdraai Mine, one of the first goldmines opened in Gauteng and located 7km from Sterkfontein in the centre of the Cradle of Humankind.

Underwater Caves & Mines

For some, the cave and other underground adventures described thus far, may not be enough; there will always be those who may want to push their subterranean curiosity to even more extreme limits. This is where underwater cave diving, or diving down water-filled old mineshafts enter the picture.

For scuba diving enthusiasts the coast along KwaZulu-Natal is home to the magical coral gardens of Seven Mile Reef at Sodwana Bay in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Here you will encounter spectacular, multi-coloured coral formations and breath-taking drop-offs, underwater cliffs so sheer and deep that it provides an undersea cave-like experience where you will rub shoulders with a variety of sharks. Further south on the Aliwal Shoal, you’ll find a spot called Cathedral, a fascinating rock formation where the ancient sandstone reef forms a large crater-like chamber – like a cave – that can be entered and swam through via the front archway or through the roof. It is also home to many ragged tooth sharks during the mating season.

Going inland a number of operators, mostly in Gauteng, offer diving tours of waterfilled, abandoned mine shafts and open cast mines. But for all of these underwater experiences you’ll be required to be in possession of a diver’s course certificate from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).

Finally, if you are fascinated by the secrets and delights of the subterranean world, you may also want to explore the underground tunnels of Johannesburg and Cape Town. But that’s another story for another day.