Words & Pics Lene Tempelhoff
‘Is it this way or that way?’ Not the words one wants to hear when one is 60 metres underground in a maze of passages. Particularly when there’s only an hour left to find the cave’s exit. The aeroplane was revving its engines at Lanseria airport, nose already pointed in the direction of Cape Town. And I’m supposed to be on it.
Apocalypse is the largest cave in Africa - a dark, dense subterranean landscape of tunnels, tubes, squeezes and passageways that extends for over 13 kilometres. Located in the far West Rand, at an average depth of 60 to 65 metres, the cave is near Carltonville, a mining town that boast one of the deepest gold mines in the world, the 3.7 kilometre-deep Western Deep Levels Gold Mine. The Cradle of Humankind is also within a stone’s throw. The UNESCO World Heritage site has one of the richest concentrations of hominid fossils in the world and excavations that started in the 1930s continue to this day as archaeologists try to piece together clues as to the origin of our species.
The entrance chamber to Apocalypse is like an art gallery. The cave was originally called Bobbejaans Gat and one of your first encounters is an installation of bovine and baboon bones stacked on a ledge. The lighting is surreal. As we wait for each caver to abseil down our restless LED headlamps overexpose points of interest inside the cave, while a few slithers of dappled light cast from the outside pit penetrate intermittently.
Suspended from the ceiling in the second chamber is a roost of horseshoe bats, prompting a wit to remark that we could entitle this performance piece ‘The Year of the Bat’. Down the passage is a discarded bicycle wheel. Not quite Duchamps' famous ready-made sculpture ‘Bicycle Wheel’; more likely part of the farmyard’s scrap metal collection.
The journey into the cave starts with an intense scramble down one side of the abyss. We’re kitted up in full caving regalia - harnesses, caving helmets, LED headlamps, descenders and ascenders, cow-tails and the crucial footloops for the haul back up.
The top of the hole is about 20 metres wide and drops down to a narrow, dark spot some 70 metres below. A horizontal rope spans the gap while a vertical rope, down which we will abseil, is suspended from the centre. The abseil rope set-up is designed much as a spider’s silk drop line. The spider thread is the arachnoid's lifeline, breaking its fall and serving as a route back to the top.
My journey to the central point happens rather quickly - earth suddenly becomes air. Scrambling down, I overshoot the final rock step, miss the launch pad and step right off the edge of the cliff to find myself happily swinging into the middle of nowhere. When the pendulum motion eventually comes to a halt it’s time to go down. My newly-found spider sense kicks in as I press the red lever of my Petzl Stop, a self-braking descender designed for caving, and begin the descent into the pit.
Thanks to the fact that I’m a lightweight the abseil is a little slower than I had hoped for. In fact, after nearly coming to a grinding halt half way down, I have to think big, envisage myself as a brawny Olympic weightlifter and jump up and down in order to reach to the bottom. Next time I’ll carry some ballast to help turbo charge the trip down! I nick my fingers on the descent and wish I had Spiderman's accelerated metabolism, which allows him to repair himself instantly after injury. Apparently spiders’ threads have anti-septic properties and help with clotting blood – not so this man-made thread.
Temporarily ditching most of our gear at the entrance chamber we leave the flying mice to guard our laden harnesses and turn our headlamps into darker territory. The average temperature in the cave is 19 degrees, which means we’re perpetually glowing with perspiration.
We encounter an interesting mud-clad vertical squeeze negotiable by walking upright, zipping up and hollowing our stomachs while proceeding sideways. The narrow walls in the crack have a velvety, forgiving texture that makes deep rumbling sounds as we push through. Another area has us bridging walls so wide as to turn my straddle into a Russian split.
Much further on we encounter a bejewelled treasure trove of cave formations. Flowstones, sheet-like deposits of calcite, and argonite needles glitter in the beams cast by our headlamps. Another exciting area is a slalom slope, a mud runway that we can surf down in our caving footwear! The exciting and varied subterranean network of passages keeps us intrigued for hours.
We’ve been in the cave for five hours when we decide to turn around, but there’s a slight hesitation as how to find the exit. One of our party members decides to backtrack; another ventures down a side passage to see if that was the way, while the rest of us stay put. Soon we’re three parties waiting or searching for each other. Not ideal. My headlamp starts fading - time to bring out the back up light.
Eventually we’re all reunited and re-harnessed up ready to prussik out – an Indian rope trick that takes each person around 20 minutes. At one stage the vertical ascent feels like treading water in mid air - feet in footloops, action taking place but no visible movement up the now very springy rope. Imagine doing the yoga pose utkatasana (deep bend in the knees, up-stretched trunk and arms, forming a dynamic zig-zag) over and over again in quick succession. And as if that isn’t difficult enough our lack of acclimatisation to the high altitude of the Reef has us puffing with the effort.
We make the airport in the nick of time. At check-in someone asks me if I’d had taken in a lot of sun. ‘No, I haven’t seen the sun since 10am’ I reply somewhat baffled ‘been underground all day!’ The rich red/brown spa mud from the cave will leave its mark for days.
Explore dark places by joining a caving club
Cape Peninsula Speleological Society
+27 84 575 0221