Oudtshoorn: The Cango Caves!

An index to this series appears in the header of the first post.

September 18, 2019

Cango Caves has attracted attention since this area was named Oudtshoorn. Discovered in 1780, the cave system extends for 2400 m underground. I had anticipated that I would have only a short drive from Oudtshoorn to reach it, but the trip took me at least a half hour on a pretty good climb with some switchback turns. Travelers continuing to Prince Albert over Swartberg Pass take a turn just before the caves. I’ll see that road when I return to Cape Town!

In preparing for this trip, I read a 1992 doctoral dissertation from Stephen A. Craven detailing the long-term management of the Cango Caves. One of the first tasks by the South African Spelaeological Association after it was founded in 1956 was a detailed survey of the caves. Its map, however, soon fell behind the times due to the 1972 discovery of Cango II and 1975 discovery of Cango III. Happily, Cango II and III remain inaccessible to the general public so that their contents are not compromised further. Cango I has already been changed substantially to serve as a show cave, in many ways to its detriment. Cango is a “low energy” cave, meaning that relatively little flow of heat or food or water comes in or goes out. An underground channel of water flows in Cango II and III, but at least tourists aren’t traipsing through it!

You won’t have to wait in the harsh sunlight for your tour group at Cango Caves.

The four-story visitors’ centre stands tall above the parking area at its base. I visited before the start of school holidays, so the parking lot had room for at least four times as many visitors as had come on my Wednesday. In contrast to what Craven reported in 1992, I found that the interpretation centre was solid, with exhibits summarizing the grand scope of time, from the formation of the earth to the evolution of mankind, though some seemed faded with time. Cango Caves formed in a type of limestone environment called “Karst” (a term originating with similar caves in the former Yugoslavia). Essentially, the changing water table means that areas of limestone dissolved away at higher water tables and were then exposed as voids in the rock by a drop in the water table. After its prominence in the Craven thesis, I had expected to learn a bit more about why this cave is called “low energy”, and I hoped I would learn a bit about the genet cats for which skeletons were found in the cave, but these were omitted.

The original Cango Caves tea room, constructed in 1930, served guests until the massive visitor’s centre was constructed.

I opted for the 90-minute “Adventure” tour of the caves, which enabled me to reach the “Devil’s Workshop” part of the cave. It’s perhaps 50% more cave area than the less-taxing “Heritage” tour. It also came at a bit of a price premium. My ticket was R220 (a bit under $15 USD). I was on the penultimate Adventure tour of the day, starting at 2:30 PM.

I was quite surprised to discover I was the only person on the 2:30 tour! Apparently the word has gotten around that the more strenuous tour doesn’t merely require the ability to navigate through tight pinches but also requires a bit of muscle power and flexibility. Amelia was my initial tour guide, and we had a lot of fun talking. I appreciated that she showed me the rock art of an elephant, close to the cave entrance (this part is omitted on group tours because the art is quite vulnerable).

Looking down into van Zyl’s chamber at Cango Caves from the stairway

When we descended into van Zyl’s chamber, I was really dumbfounded. I had read that concerts were conducted inside the cave for an audience of more than 1000, but I was sure that it had been an exaggeration. The chamber really is that big, though. The concerts extended from 1964 to 1994, when management realized that the cave really was being damaged by that much added body heat and carbon dioxide (“low energy” caves are more vulnerable). The tiered choir stand is still visible, though, and the raised dais remains in place. Amelia was pleased to learn I am a choir boy, so I sang a few bars of “Why We Sing,” accompanied by my own echoes. I had tingly skin before I had sung for long. Van Zyl’s chamber is probably the most heavily altered parts of the cave, with a floor that is perfectly smooth, with stalagmites, guano, and boulders removed from its base.

Botha’s chamber at Cango Caves offers dramatic flow stone and drip stone.

Botha’s chamber, following soon on the heels of can Zyl’s, is better preserved, with examples of “dripstone” (such as stalactites) and “flowstone” abounding. It’s an enormous space, and it’s quite easy to navigate since the floor has been smoothed with a brick path and footlights (hooded to prevent the heat and light from being directed upward). Amelia showed me a dark tunnel at one end of the chamber that reflected the original passageway taken by the explorers of the cave. After that, she handed me off to Lesley, an athletic twenty-something on staff who argued that he would be better positioned to navigate the tight corners of the later tour. We moved through much of the rest of the heritage tour at a brisk clip, with fewer stops for conversation. He was clearly looking forward to putting me to work!

At the upper right, I believe you can see places stalactites have been snapped off.

We passed through the end of a heritage tour at the “Drum Room,” and from there forward we were by ourselves. The Jacob’s Ladder walk was not so very bad, though it did involve a fair number of stairs and then a high ladder. The “Lumbago Walk” was much less pleasant, though, since the ceiling frequently required us to walk crouched over. I was grateful that we paused at “King Solomon’s Mines,” since that’s the jumping off point for researchers who are entering Cango II and III.

The “Tunnel of Love” at Cango Caves could also be called “The Dietitian’s Dream.”

I learned that we would pass both directions through the Tunnel of Love, but the tour runs in a loop on the other side of it. The tunnel was a fair squeeze, and I ran into a part where my foot was pointing the wrong direction, briefly giving me the unpleasant feeling I was going to be stuck in that pose!

I was so out-of-breath that I could barely notice the beauty around me.

The Devil’s Chimney, however, was probably my biggest moment for realizing I’m out of shape. Getting my feet high enough to reach the footholds was problematic, and pushing myself up a vertical tube of limestone didn’t feel very good. I was panting like a dog as I passed upward through “the Coffin” (a window in a thin sheet of limestone). When we reached the “Postal Slot,” I was taking multiple breaths for each step. It didn’t seem like any passage was even possible, but Lesley walked me through extending my arms and then belly-whopping down a smoothed limestone slope. I just lay there, awkwardly gasping, with my face on the sheet and my hips and legs pointing upward behind me at a 45 degree angle.

The Postal Slot at Cango Caves at least provided an opportunity to lie down on the job.

From that low point, I rallied back to life as we returned to the easier parts of the cave, though I confess I don’t remember passing through the Tunnel of Love or Lumbago Walk a second time. We passed a Spanish-language tour group that seemed delighted to hear a stranger say “Hola,” but I know that I looked a caution, with dirty jeans and a liberal slathering of sweat in my hair. As we neared the exit to the cave, I asked about something that had been bothering me. Craven’s thesis had mentioned that the Apartheid government had begun boring a second entrance to the caves so that whites and people with darker skin would not share a common passageway (my skin crawls just typing that). Lesley explained that the caves drew enough traffic in vacation weeks that using separate openings for entrance and exit was helpful; the “South African Coloured” entrance was now everybody’s exit. Lesley expressed his hope that a hundred years from now, everyone could laugh about how crazy those racist ideas were. For now, there’s plenty of resentment still in circulation.

I enjoyed this aloe at the lip of the parking lot at Cango Caves.

I was really impressed with the quality of Cango Caves, and it’s a great opportunity for high school students to become interested in geology as a career. I would hate for the people of South Africa to think that underground is only important because it’s where we find the gold or diamonds!

3 thoughts on “Oudtshoorn: The Cango Caves!

  1. Pingback: Oudtshoorn on foot | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Johannesburg: the Cradle of Humankind and Sterkfontein Caves | Picking Up The Tabb

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