Text and pictures Dale Morris
When I was just seven years old my sister’s boyfriend did something very bad to me. He put me in a cabinet freezer and with the help of his heathen friends, sat on the lid and trapped me inside. Fortunately the freezer wasn’t plugged in so I didn’t slowly solidify in there, but the incident left me with an acute case of claustrophobia.
So why on earth, 33 years later, did I find myself in the foothills of the Western Cape’s Swartberg Mountains in the company of people who were preparing to lower themselves (and me) into a dark and forbidding hole in the ground? I have no idea. Masochism, I suppose.
“It’s tiny,” I said in horror. “You couldn’t get an endoscope in there.”
When I signed up for TBi Adventures of Oudtshoorn’s special caving trip, I’d pictured myself gently strolling through well-lit caverns on concrete paths with railings. I’d never imagined being forced to shimmy into a space no wider than an elephant’s colon. But to my surprise our caveman leader, Johan Uys, managed to get all eight of us into that cramped orifice with the minimum of fuss and shoving.
I contemplated backing out right then and there but I didn’t want to look like a sissy in front of all the other people, many of whom were girls. Cute ones at that . . .
“Okay, everyone. You all know the rules,” Johan called out to our single file gang. “Nobody splits from the group or takes a side passage. If you do, you might disappear completely. Some cave floors are paper thin and if you fall through one you could easily find yourself plummeting into a deep cavern beneath.”
For a while we were all forced to move on our hands and knees through thick gloopy mud. My face was pressed against the buttocks of whoever was in front of me and there was absolutely no room to turn around.
That’s when my mind took me back to the freezer of my childhood, causing my heart to race and my hands to turn into clammy octopi. We were just a few metres in but I could already feel millions of tons of damp earth and rock bearing down on me from above.
“It’s okay, Dale,” Johan crooned softly into my ear. He had obviously pegged me as a potential problem from the outset and so had positioned himself close to me. Bless him! “This tight section will soon let up and then we’ll find ourselves in a much more spacious area. Just breathe normally and think of the great outdoors.”
I thought about the sweeping plains of the Serengeti and the vastness of the Sahara. And then, for the greater good of all, I closed my eyes, swallowed deeply and continued slowly onwards into the tight and creepy darkness.
“There’s a good boy,” came Johan’s voice from behind me. “There’s a good boy.”
I felt like a poodle at the vet.
Spelunking (or potholing as it is sometimes known) is a very popular activity among bats, earthworms, molerats and troglodytes. Some people like it too.
But it’s not caving – not in the traditional sense, anyway. You don’t follow a well-trodden path but rather explore a subterranean network of tunnels and caverns that are never visited by the layman and only occasionally visited by the pros. And you need to be a pro, or at the very least have a pro guide with you. Fortunately, Johan is one of the best.
While growing up in Ladismith in the Klein Karoo, he and his buddies used to spend most of their free time playing in the mountains behind his parents’ farm. It kept the energetic youngster out of the house and out from under his mum and dad’s feet.
During school holidays he would regularly camp out in the spacious caves of the Langeberg mountains (with his parents’ consent), and from there he explored the many dark and winding caverns that snaked like eels into the earth below (most likely without his parents’ knowledge). It was undoubtedly a risky thing to do, but boys will be boys, and through this regular activity he became familiar with the ins and outs of spelunking.
His love affair with nature and adventure later took him kayaking, climbing, mountain biking and, eventually, to the ownership of an outdoor adventure tour company called Oudtshoorn Adventures. He has climbed Kilimanjaro, competed in numerous outdoor challenge events and guided countless cave enthusiasts into the winding maze that riddles the interior of the mighty Swartberg. In other words, he knows what he’s doing and he does it rather well.
“What if one of us gets stuck?” I asked Johan as we slipped and shimmied through a tube of smooth and shiny limestone.
“Don’t worry, Dale,” he replied, “I’ve packed some Vaseline and a nice box of sandwiches to see us through.”
As Johan had promised, the claustrophobic nature of the tunnel gradually began to change, with it broadening here and there just enough for us to sometimes stand with our necks crooked to one side so we wouldn’t scrape our hard hats on the roof.
“It took millions of years for rain to hollow out these caves and coat their walls in minerals, but we humans have only known about them for a short time,” called out Johan. “Not many people have seen what you are seeing here today. It’s a real privilege.”
The deeper we moved into the network, the more fragile and pretty the environment became. The ceilings were covered with a myriad of spiny stalactites, while parts of the floor were adorned with snow-white flowstone formations that sparkled like glitter in our torchlight.
Some hours later we reached another small hole in the floor, one which Johan announced as the day’s major challenge – it involved a vertical rope descent of some 40 metres. I began to feel claustrophobic once more, but again Johan was close at hand with a kind word or two and a nice ham sandwich to see me through. “It’s okay, Dale,” he said again. “You’ll be fine. You’re doing fine. There’s a good boy. There’s a good boy.”
The descent through the hole and into the pitch-black cavern below was done in stages and required lots of teamwork with ropes but, ever so slowly, we all dropped through like paratroopers.
Strangely, it smelt a bit like lamb stew in there – a humid concoction of dampness and rotting piles of bat poop, but I couldn’t see a thing. None of us wore headlamps powerful enough to reach the walls or the ceiling of the cavern. Then down came Johan with his big torch and all of a sudden a fantastical world of jaw-dropping beauty was revealed to us. I was so startled that I almost lost balance and fell into a sloppy pool of muck.
Words cannot adequately describe the loveliness of that vast and awesome place. Easily as big as a concert hall, almost every inch of it was coated with jewel-like structures.
Ethereal shapes hung from the walls and ceilings while monoliths and delicate formations rose like a sculptor’s artworks from a glittering floor.
There were huge flowstone formations that sparkled as if encrusted with diamonds and there were multi-storey drape arrangements that resembled curtains more than rock. Columns twisted from the floor to the ceiling, delicate helictites (glass-like growths) sprouted from the walls, translucent straws dangled, coral reefs bulged and ice pools shimmered like winter’s frost.
I could almost hear a heavenly choir – that’s how beautiful it was. We were speechless. Even Johan.
From that moment on I became a caving convert. I fully understood what it is that drives apparently sane men and women underground. Why they contort their bodies through damp and wet confines, why they endure discomfort and cramps and darkness and bats and spiders and dirt and poop. The reason was there before me, glittering like a fireworks display.
It had not been an easy journey to get there, it had been a team effort, and I had had to overcome a deep-seated fear, but the rewards were truly out of this world.
“It’s a privilege to be here,” Johan said again as we departed, and this time, I couldn’t help but wholeheartedly agree with him. A privilege it most certainly had been.
Source: Country Life