The Cango Caves are located in Precambrian limestones at the foothills of the Swartberg mountain range near the town of Oudtshoorn, in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. The principal cave is one of the country’s finest, best known, and most popular tourist caves and attracts many visitors from overseas. Although the extensive system of tunnels and chambers go on for over 4 km (2.5 mi), only about a quarter of this is open to visitors, who may proceed into the cave only in groups supervised by a guide.
The caves were rediscovered in modern times in 1780 by a local farmer named Jacobus Van Zyl. The chamber he first was lowered down into was found to be as long as a football field, and is named Van Zyl Hall in his honor. Further exploration was done and a second chamber discovered in 1792. The caves soon became a popular place to visit.
A.J.H. Goodwin, an archaeologist at the University of Cape Town, carried out a test excavation in the Cango Caves in 1930 which found stone artefacts and other cultural material.
The Cango Caves Ordinance of 1971 gave certain legal powers over the caves to what was then the Administrator of the Cape; legally, these same powers now devolve to the local government members of the executive. However, day-to-day management of the caves is the responsibility of the municipality of Oudtshoorn.
The first rough survey was done in 1897, mapping out the first 26 chambers. In 1956 the South African Spelaeological Association was tasked to draw up an accurate mapping of the Cango Caves, and look for alternative entrances.
Their results indicated that the caves were 775 m (2,543 ft) long in a single line, and that they never rise nor fell more than 16 m (52 ft). These were called Cango I. The nearest point to the surface in the caves is at the top of the shaft in the Devil’s Kitchen, 52.6 m (173 ft) from the floor.
In 1972 James Craig-Smith, Luther Terblanche and Dart Ruiters widened an obstructed passage to discover Cango II. It stretches 270 m (890 ft) beyond the end of the Devil’s Kitchen. At the end of Cango II there is a shaft that descends 20 m (66 ft) to a chamber filled with water. This water flowed in the direction of Cango I.
In August 1975, during a symposium on cave biology, an exploration team led by Hans Oosthuizen, Luther Terblanche, Michale Schultz, Digby Ellis, Jean Paul Matisse, Bob Mann, Florus Koper and Peter Breedt drained the chamber of most of its water and crawled through what was previously an underwater passage. This led to the discovery of more caves, called Cango III. Altogether these caves are about 1,000 m (3,300 ft) long. The biggest of the chambers, stretches about 300 m (980 ft).
Digby Ellis and Dave Land added 290 m (950 ft) to Cango III when they discovered a crawlway in December 1977. A further 90 m (300 ft) was added in June 1978. All these extensions were surveyed in August 1978 by Dave Land, Charles Maxwell, Brian Russell and Dave Crombie.
Legends of the caves
Mr. Johnny van Wassenaer, the cave’s first official guide is purported to have walked 29 hours to find the end of the caves in 1898. When there, he is said to have calculated that he was 25 km (15.5 mi) from the entrance, and 275 m (902 ft) underground; his route apparently followed an underground river. So far, they are finding more and more caves to support this story.
Where once we thought that they were only about one kilometer in length, we now know that they extend for well over 5 kilometers and that they could be even bigger still. Tours are conducted at regular intervals on most days—there is a “Standard Tour” which takes an hour and an “Adventure Tour” which takes an hour and a half. The “Adventure Tour” consists of crawling through narrow passages and climbing up steep rock formations guided by small lights. The caves contain halls and limestone formations (on both tours) as well as small passages on the Adventure Tour. The smallest passage that tourists will have to pass through on the Adventure Tour is just under 15 cm to exit. The caves are considered to be part of the R62 road.
The R62 is a provincial route in South Africa that connects Ashton with Humansdorp. The R62 runs through the Little Karoo and the Langkloof, passing through Montagu, Ladismith, Calitzdorp, Oudtshoorn, and Joubertina.
The R62 is co-signed for 33 kilometres with the N12 from Oudtshoorn to its intersection with the N9 at the top of the Outeniqua Pass, and then for 71 kilometres with the N9 to Potjiesberg Pass near Uniondale.
The R62 is associated with the Route 62 tourist route connecting Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
But the Caves history and their size are just two of their many mysteries. The skeletons of three genets (small cats) have been found in Cango 2: is there another secret entrance to the Caves? Or were these unfortunates drowned and left behind by receding floodwaters? And how did the skeletons of bats which have also been found in Cango 2 become enclosed in calcite many hundreds of even thousands of years ago?
There is an ancient engraving in the Caves: it’s the only piece of cave art in South Africa in a completely dark area. How did the artist prove himself with a light source to work? The engraving shows and elephant superimposed on an eland and yet, amazingly, you see only the elephant when you view the work from one side and only the eland when you view it from the other.
Why have so many Caves guides committed suicide? And is there a ghost in the Sand bypass (a tunnel which branches off from the Drum Chamber)? One of the guides drank poison in the bypass and nobody has ever been able to solve the puzzle of why the lights in the Sand Bypass fuse so often
And then there’s the mystery of Johnnie van Wassenaar’s 16-mile tunnel. This level-headed man once spent 29 hours underground and, according to him, spent much of that time walking upright. Was the entrance to Johnnies lost chamber bricked up at some stage perhaps during the construction of the stairway into the Van Zyl’s Hall?
|Cango Valley Road||+27 44 2727410|
|6625||Excavation Date: 1930|