The world-famous Cango Caves are located in Precambrian limestone at the foothills of the Swartberg range near the town of Oudtshoorn.
The extraordinary cave system is over 4 km long but only about a quarter of it is open to tourists. Some of the limestone formations have been dated back to 4 500 million years ago and it truly is a natural wonderland.
Read more: South Africa’s iconic Cape Route 62
The legends of the Cango Caves
A local farmer called Jacobus van Zyl discovered the caves in 1780. He lowered himself into the pitch dark cave and discovered the first chamber which is as long as a football field. A second chamber was discovered in 1792.
Legend has it that Johnny van Wassenaer, the first official guide, walked 29 hours to find the end of the caves in 1898. His route followed an underground river and he reached an estimated depth of 27m below ground. The total expanse of Cango Caves is not yet known as they are discovering more and more of the caves all the time.
The Cango Caves were declared a natural monument in 1938.
Read more: Ride an ostrich in Oudtshoorn
Cango Two and Three
In 1972, three intrepid cave guides broke through into what is now known as Cango Two. It has been described as a ‘breath-taking fairyland’. Three years later, Cango Three was discovered which extended the current depth of the cave by about 1 600 metres.
These two areas are not open to the public. This is to preserve the pure, crystalline beauty of the dripstone formations found in the chambers. It’s said the formations and natural crystal colours outshine Cango One which has slowly faded as millions of tourists breathe warm air on the formations and dim its brilliant colour.
An underground wonder
Creative lighting illuminates the majestic stalactites (hanging columns), stalagmites (grow upwards) and helictites (grow in all directions). When the lights are turned off, visitors are plunged into pitch darkness.
Van Zyl’s Hall, named after the farmer, is a massive chamber. It has a dark-grey roof that is smoothly sculptured into hollows and pendants. The walls are softer limestone which gives of a yellow glow in the light. Many dripstone formations finish of the spectacular look, the most impressive being Cleopatra’s Needle which stands 9 meters high and is at least 150 000 years old.
In the second chamber, the “Completed Column” is really impressive. It is about half a metre in diameter and rises 125 metres from floor to ceiling in the centre of the chamber.
Visitors follow a route through a long series of chambers which slowly decrease in size. You have to turn back if you’re a bit broad around the waist as the tunnels shrink in size and you are at risk of getting trapped. A long flight of stairs called Jacob’s Ladder takes you through to a series of smaller caverns.
Aspiring cavers can climb a steep ladder that leads up to a small hole, high on the wall. It’s the start of a circular trip where you have to crawl on your hands and knees to make your way out.
Read more: Karoo lamb – the best in the world
For the whole family
A tour of Cango Caves is something the whole family can enjoy. The caves are well-lit and the stairs are not too difficult climb. Children under 12 years must be accompanied by adults. A professional guide leads you through the caves so there is no worry that you’ll go in and not come out.
The tiniest passage that visitors need to squeeze through is just under 15cm. If you don’t think you won’t fit through the gap or have a fear of confined spaces, you must turn back and follow a guide to the entrance of the cave.
The temperature in the cave is warm and humid but bearable. Dress in layers so you can strip off when it gets a bit hot and sweaty. Wear flat shoes with rubber soles and don’t wear your Sunday best because you’ll be crawling on your hands and knees at some point.
Remember to leave only footprints. Nature has allowed us a glimpse of this magnificent underworld fairyland and we must take care to protect and preserve this natural wonder.
Interesting facts about how limestone caves form
Falling rain picks up atmospheric carbon dioxide. When the water passes through soil, more carbon dioxide from plant roots and decaying vegetable matter dissolve in the water, along with complex organic acids called humic acids. This ground water easily dissolves limestone.
The water solution slowly makes its way into the cave and deposits the dissolved calcium carbonate, and other iron and mineral impurities. A water droplet falls to the cave floor and leaves behind a tiny deposit of calcite crystal.
As water drips slowly from the roof of the cave, it deposits a microscopic ring of calcite crystal. These rings continue to build and can form what look like drinking straws hanging from the cave roof. They are often many centimetres long.
Stalactites are formations that grow downwards from the cave roof (remember, they hang on ‘tite’). Nearly all stalactites start their life as a straw. When the straw becomes blocked with calcite or impurities, a stalactite starts to develop and thicken over the years from the water solution that continues to run down its outer surface.
Stalagmites are solid dripstones that grow upwards from the cave floor, from each drop of water from the roof or from stalactites overhead.
Columns or pillars are formations that develop from stalactites or stalagmites that extend from floor to roof.
A helictite is formed by water slowly entering the caves through pores and cracks in the limestone. The formation gets its name from the Greek word ‘helix’, meaning ‘a twist’. They are small irregular growths which proceed in any direction contrary to gravity. Because no drop forms, gravity has no effect and a helictite can develop in any direction.
Experience the sights and sounds of South Africa. Lekker Adventures specialises in providing you with the complete travelling experience to South Africa. Click here to find out more about travelling to South Africa with the assistance of Lekker Adventures.