Caving with Swartberg Adventures. Oudtshoorn, South Africa
By Carly Blatt
Explorers intrigued by centuries-old cave formations and the opportunity to investigate the world below ground will find activities to suit their subterranean tastes in the town of Oudtshoorn in South Africa.
Nestled in the Little Karoo region of the Western Cape of South Africa and a little more than 260 miles from Cape Town, Oudtshoorn is the ideal base for travelers headed to the world-famous Cango Caves. It also boasts opportunities to explore smaller local caves and discover the area near the Swartberg Mountains via quad bike.
Situated just outside of Oudtshoorn, the Cango Caves are among the area’s most popular attractions and feature vast below-ground halls with towering formations.
Located in the Swartberg Mountain Range and first discovered in 1780 by an intrepid local, nearly a quarter of its tunnels and rooms are accessible to tourists via guided tour.
A standard tour and an adventure tour of the caves are available. Although the standard tour provides a thorough experience throughout many fascinating rooms in the cave, the adventure tour is an ideal option for explorers who are looking to see a bit more – and who are willing to endure a few tight squeezes.
I opted for the adventure tour, although the beginning section of our tour followed the same route as the standard tour.
Both tours take visitors through massive rooms with stalactites and stalagmites in astonishing formations that not even the most talented artist could dream up. Once my tour group descended into the first magnificent “room”, we each stood and turned in a 360-degree circle like little kids amazed at our surroundings.
To say it was awe-inspiring would merely be repeating the most over-used cliché I heard my fellow group members use that day, and yet I remain at a loss for words to properly describe the sight.
Our guide described the formations in detail and explained what the experience must have been like for the people who first descended into the cave centuries ago.
Be forewarned that this initial part of the tour is particularly touristy. If you opt for the adventure tour, though, you’ll soon find yourself far from the hordes of tourists since your group will continue onto the tighter, less explored parts of the caves.
The guides warn that you should be fit and lean to embark on the adventure tour, and claustrophobics should steer clear for obvious reasons. Before entering some of the tight spots, you’ll be able to leave large bags in an area to pick up later.
The ensuing adventure tour included our group members facing challenges like the Tunnel of Love, a low passageway that earned its name because it “hugs” people and averages a height of 29.1 inches – and at one point narrows to 11.8 inches.
We braved various other squeezes while getting treated to views of incredible formations that made the extra effort well worth it.
One memorable feat was climbing the supremely tight Devil’s Chimney – a steep shaft that’s about 17.7 inches wide and leads upwards for more than 11 feet. It was a challenge, but with the support and cheers of others in our group we all managed to accomplish the feat.
Afterward, we faced the Devil’s Post Box, which required us to lie on our stomachs to slide through a space just over 10 inches high and “get posted”.
Wear comfortable shoes and bring a pocket-size camera if you have one, since it’s cumbersome to bring a camera with a large lens with you during the tight squeezes.
Visit cangocaves.co.za for more information. The standard tour is 60 minutes and costs R52 for adults and R28 for children. The adventure tour is 90 minutes and costs R66 for adults and R43 for children.
Though the Cango Caves fulfilled some of my spelunking curiosity, I decided to expand my underground repertoire by trying the dirtier, extreme caving offered by Swartberg Adventurers for a more intense subterranean experience.
Whereas the Cango Caves cater to general groups of tourists, Swartberg Adventures caving tours explore an off-the-beaten path cave with a small group of adventurers.
And this caving really isn’t for the faint of heart. We were decked out in helmets and head lamps, and the only sources of light were the ones we brought with us. And we emerged at the end grimier than a group of children left to play unsupervised in a vat of mud. But, that was part of the experience.
Our guide Johan drove us to the cave’s entrance, which appeared hidden in the side of a mountain. We literally climbed down into a hole and soon faced a tiny crawl space that looked tighter than the shaft Tim Robbins character crept through in Shawshank Redemption.
In case we hadn’t already been aware of it, this was a wake-up call that we weren’t doing touristy caving. This felt hard core, and it was amazing. To call what we faced a crawl space felt like a misnomer, though, since we couldn’t actually crawl. Instead, we slithered along the mud and rocks on our knees and elbows.
We emerged from the tunnel into rooms that we could stand up in, chock full of very dirty stalactites and stalagmites. The cave felt raw, not touristy like the other caves I’d been to. It felt like we’d discovered a place that few people had seen.
We climbed up a few rocks and soon faced two more crawl spaces, each longer than 35 feet. One was full of wet sand and was easy to slither on. Another had more rocks, followed by mud and freezing clear cave water.
Crabs and Spiders
It was impossible to stay dry and we emerged positively covered in sand, mud and water. Midway through the crawl space, I did question my sanity when I noticed that worms, crabs and spiders lurked just inches away. Somehow, I convinced myself that it was like being on Fear Factor and the little creatures just added to the challenge of the experience.
In the largest, final room, we were treated to incredible stalactites and stalagmites. It was tricky to avoid touching the formations since they were so plentiful. The best part was that this part of the cave felt completely undiscovered.
We were all alone in the cave and the solitude of just having our small group was perfect. We turned off our headlamps and experienced that near perfect moment of darkness and absolute quiet.
This type of caving was the ultimate adventure, since it allowed us to feel like explorers while simultaneously facing any fears our group members had of small spaces or bugs.
Bring gloves if you can, since it’ll make it easier to crawl through the dirtier areas of the cave. Wear clothes that you don’t care about and avoid shorts or short-sleeve shirts as well as open-toed shoes. You will emerge incredibly dirty, so either bring a change clothes or plan to shower as soon as you return to your accommodation.
For more information, visit swartbergadventures.co.za. Caving trips last 3-4 hours and cost R250 per person.
Exploring the Mountains via Quad Bike
I was eager to explore the area near the Swartberg Mountains above ground as well and since Swartberg Adventures offered the option of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) tour, I decided to book a combo package that included the quad biking along with caving.
Each member of our group was provided with a helmet and a semi-automatic 160cc quad bike. The quads were surprisingly easy to ride and beginner friendly. You have to change gears, but there’s no clutch.
We were allowed to practice for 10 minutes to get the feel of the bikes, then set off onto the trails.
Our adventure included some wicked single track trails through jungle-like areas, complete with sizeable hills with streams at the bottom that created quite a refreshing spray. It was the ultimate way to see the mountains with a splash of adrenaline.
We also traveled on a dirt road that hugged the mountain and included numerous curves, and soon got on another road toward the spectacular Rust & Vrede Waterfall.
We left the bikes for a while to enjoy a short hike to the waterfall. Our guide said that groups often end up swimming by the waterfall, but the weather during our tour was too chilly to enjoy a dip. It’s worth bringing a swimsuit in case the weather works in your favor.
The trip lasts approximately three hours and cost R400 per person. Combination pricing is also available if you’re interested in combining quad biking with caving and abseiling (rappelling). Visit swartbergadventures.co.za for additional information.
For general Oudtshoorn information on lodging, activities and directions, visit oudtshoorninfo.com.
An avid fan of adventure travel, New York-based freelance writer Carly Blatt has traveled extensively, covering 26 countries on six continents.
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