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Caves & Caving In South Africa

by JIM SMART

Roughly half the size of Europe, the republic of South Africa consists of a narrow coastal plain and an inland plateau, the highveldt, of average elevation of 1,000m in the Drakensburg Mountains in the east.  Latitude for latitude the climate tends to be cooler than that of the northern hemisphere and frosts may occur at anytime throughout the year on the highveldt.

Since most of the country's more important caves are formed in dolomite, only two of the four provinces provide any real speleological interest: the Transvaal in the north, and Cape Province in the south and west.

Cape Province has the largest single stretch of dolomite, a roughly triangular area encompassing Vryburg, Griquatown, and a point some 150 km north of Kuruman.  But much of this area is covered with the Kalahari sands so few caves have been recorded.  The southern part of the province is much better documented, the main caving areas being around Oudtshoorn (480 km east of Cape Town) and in and around Cape Town itself.

Oudtshoorn, the capital of the Little Karoo region, is a pleasant, prosperous, tree lined town and the centre of South Africa's ostrich-farming industry.  A few kilometres to the north the wildly contorted Swartberg Mountains rise to more than 2,000 m and mark the divide between the Little Karoo and the more arid Great Karoo.  It is in this range that the province’s longest caves are found including the world famous Cango Showcaves.  Several caves in this area exceed 700m in length and ladder pitches between 20m and 40m are fairly common: the Fonteingrot/Skeleton Cave system comprises over 4,000m of passage including a gruelling muddy river crawl.

Generally, landowners and cavers enjoy a friendly relationship.  I guess both secretly hope to discover a system as extensive and commercially viable as the Cango Caves which currently attract some 150,000 visitors a year.  One day when I was cave-hunting near Oudtshoorn a local cattle farmer suggested that I help him with his dig instead.  I was horrified.  I wanted a caving holiday not a digging one.  Luckily my fears were unfounded: “going digging” turned out to mean sending some black employees below ground to do the graft while the farmer and I supervised from the surface, he sometimes hauling out a token sack of rubble while I photographed our efforts for posterity.

After about three hours we'd all had enough.  So the digging team was dismissed and the farmer and I descended Waenskloof Cave whose showpiece is a chamber neatly decorated with butter-coloured stal reached by a 10m ladder descent.  Due to the dense covering of bush, this cave remained undiscovered until the late fifties although its entrance had always been open.  Local people are convinced that caves are still hidden by the bush.

Prospects for new discoveries around Cape Town on the other hand are slim.  The Mountain Club of South Africa has been recording caves here since the turn of the century.  And in 1954 a group of enthusiasts who had been caving regularly since the end of World War II formally organised themselves into a club.  The following year they merged with a Transvaal based caving group and the South African Speleological Association (SASA) was born, though two sections retained their autonomy.  A few years later however, personality differences in the Transvaal section led to the formation of a breakaway group, the Cave Research Organisation of South Africa (CROSA). There are still only three caving clubs in South Africa and the current total caving population is unlikely to be larger than 200.

One of the first areas to receive SASA's attention was Table Mountain which rises to over 1,000 m above Cape Town.  Being so near such a large centre of population, sit rugged plateau had for years been the popular haunt of innumerable climbers, walkers and general day-trippers.  It has been claimed that the world's largest sandstone caverns are found here but I have not checked the accuracy of this.  Vertical development is generally stronger than horizontal and in the rocks overlooking Orange Kloof on the southern side of the mountain a depth of 50, is reached in Climber's Cave.

Further south Cape Town's suburbs stretch out along the eastern shore of Cape Peninsular.  On the bare and scrubby hills overlooking Muizenburg, St. James and Kalk Bay are dozens of small caves several of which are worth the attention of any passing speleo.  Like Table Mountain this area attracts hoards of day trippers. Caves used to figure largely in local guidebooks and an (incomplete) list published about 10 years ago described 67 interesting caves.  Modern guidebooks however, perhaps being more concerned for the visitors' safety, tend not to mention the caves or, at most, give them only a passing mention.  But the damage has been done: graffiti and litter mar many of the more accessible caves on these hills.

I hitched the 1,400 km from Cape Town to Johannesburg in the Transvaal in 27 hours.  With a vigorously enforced maximum legal speed limit of 80 Kmph this was remarkably good going.  More to the point though are the fuel restrictions: filling stations are closed between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and, as it is illegal to carry fuel in cans, it is impossible to drive all night.  At weekends things are even worse with no petrol on sale between lunchtime Friday and six o'clock on Monday morning.  How far will one tank full of petrol take you?

Luckily caving in the Transvaal has not suffered too much under these restrictions, as it is still comparatively easy to make new discoveries near the heavily populated Rand.  The dolomite here encircles Johannesburg and extends west through Krugersdorp and off into Botswana via Carletonville.  The week before I arrived in South Africa a CROSA member had taken a midday motorcycle ride across the grassveldt of the Kromdraii Valley, a few miles from Krugersdorp, and photographed the hillside with infra-red film.  The following Sunday I joined his party to investigate the cold spots - i.e. potential caves - revealed by this exercise.  We were rewarded with several small caves.

South African cavers are very safety-conscious.  The first cave we discovered entailed a seven metre abseil on which lifelines were used, and when I spotted another cave, with a large walk-in entrance. I had to curb my enthusiasm until the entire party, about nine people, had caught me up before going underground.  Even below ground short solo explorations of side passages were taboo and we were split into groups of twos and threes.  But the cave turned out to be an intricate three dimensional grovel and chaos followed the frequent meeting and passing of other confused small groups.

These 'Fissure caves' mazes strongly influenced by jointing - are the most common type of development in the Transvaal.  Their intricacy can be truly amazing.  For example the Wonderfontein has a surveyed length of 9.3 km but even the most remote parts of the cave can be reached in about 20 minutes.  The Apocalypse Pothole near Carletonville, with a vertical range of 80m, follows a similar pattern: at a length of 10.8 km it is the longest cave in southern Africa.

About 250 km from Johannesburg is the Transvaal's second main dolomite area.  From Carolina it follows the northern reaches of the Drakensburg northward to Ofcolaco - a beautiful country of forests, waterfalls and rolling hills - and then turns westward to Potgietersrust.  This is the only region where horizontal cave entrances can be said to be at all common. But, ironically, the country's deepest open shaft is also found here: the 30m deep Bat Hole near Ofcalaco. With the aid of a black guide, and at the standard rate of approximately 60p per day, I was able to visit this site but I did not descend.  There is only a short passage at the bottom anyway.  On succeeding days, and with a variety of guides, I visited several nearby caves and carried out some original exploration.  Most of the caves I found contained some beautiful formations but none was very extensive.  The Transvaal’s final sizeable dolomite outcrop extends in a narrow strip from the iron mining town of Thabazimbi westward into Botswana.  Until the Transvaal Section of SASA started coming here a couple of years ago the area had been largely ignored by cavers.  Even now the surface has barely been scratched.  I was invited to join SASA on a trip here over the long Easter weekend but had to decline due to the histoplasmosis risk, a particularly virulent form is found here and, at the time I was histo-negative. I think I subsequently caught the disease in the eastern Transvaal (and am therefore now immunised) but I have not had a skin test to confirm this.  Most Transvaal cavers catch histoplasmosis during their first year’s caving but the disease is unknown in Cape Province, as far as I know, except for one case reported from the Goggelgrot in the northern part of the province.

Before I went to South Africa I was advised to steer clear of caves not just because of histoplasmosis, but because of the dangers of 'rabid bats, scorpions, snakes, leopards and bees.'  Careful research beforehand and subsequent experience of the country shows these dangers to have been rather overstated.  As far as I'm concerned the only real 'risks' I ran were those always associated with solo caving.  But I must admit that bees did bother me once.  I was climbing into an entrance when an agitated buzzing warned me that I'd disturbed a hive.  Fortunately it was a frosty early morning and the bees were still drowsy.  By the time they'd got their senses about them I'd decided I didn't really want to do heir cave anyway and was running through the wood to another cave entrance I'd seen about a kilometre away.

Southern Africa is an ideal place for a cheap and fascinating holiday, with some caving thrown in, especially if you don't mind roughing it a bit. For a cost of just under £400 (and this includes the airfare) I was able to travel for three months and take in bits of South Africa, Lesotho and Rhodesia.  My thanks to everybody - including cavers, BEC members: friends and strangers - who helped make it such a memorable experience.