Cango Caves

by Jim Smart

About 300 km east of Cape Town, across an arid stretch of country known as the Little Karoo, lies Oudtshoorn, a town of 10,500 white inhabitants and 17,000 non-whites. Oudtshoorn's first claim to fame came in the 1860's when ostrich farms were set up to meet the - mainly European - demand for decorative ostrich feathers. Apart from a 20 year lull after 1885, a result of the fickleness of the fashion trade, the industry thrived until the slump of 1914; since then it has never fully revived. Today ostriches are farmed mainly as a source of meat and as a tourist attraction. But Oudtshoorn has a greater claim to tourist fame: the Cango Caves.

First explored in 1780 by a white farmer, his children's tutor, and eight slaves, the Cango Caves lie some 27 km north of Oudtshoorn over the picturesque Schoemanspoort Pass. The farmer, a Mr van Zyl was lowered on a riem (leather thong) into a great hall containing a 10 m stalagmite. Today, this hall, measuring 97 m long by 40 m wide and up to 18 m high, bears the name of its discoverer and the great stalagmite is known as Cleopatra's Needle.

But times have change in this quiet valley below the Swartberg Mountain where van Zyl's slave came in search of strayed cattle nearly 200 years ago and where he noted the great cave entrance which he later reported to his white master. Today the Cango Caves are among the most commercialised in the world: around the entrance are the usual tourist facilities - car park, restaurant, etc as well as some unusual ones such as the nursery and kennel where the family infant and dog respectively, may be left while the adults do their tourist thing.

And super-commercialism continues below ground too. As tourists, we make our way along the passage first explored by van Zyl - today it is lined by lifesize models of Bushmen - and descend stone steps into van Zyl's Hall.

It is here that we meet our guide. But instead of talking to us, he flicks a switch and a sound and light show commences. A fanfare is followed by a recorded commentary; a history of the cave's discovery and exploration is presented, as well as a description of the caves evolution - "but- this is more than history... it is the story of continuous creation" - we are told. We are also told that concerts are occasionally held in van Zyl's Hall and that an audience of 2,000 can be accommodated. The lights are then automatically extinguished and we are treated to a mechanical reconstruction: of van Zyl's original exploration; dim lights appear from the direction of the entrance and approach to the top of the stone steps, while through concealed speakers we hear the 'explorers' discussing the impending descent; at last, a faint light, and the speakers are lowered down the pitch, occasional curses and instructions emanating from the latter. The whole episode is amusing rather than informative and is spoilt by being rather drawn out. We are in darkness and silence for a couple of seconds before a large speaker behind us blasts out the familiar' opening bars of Bach's ‘Fugue in D minor' and we are treated to another light show, different effects being created by different coloured lights.

"Right, let's go on to the next one", said our lethargic guide when the show was over. So, like lambs, we proceeded to the second large hall - Botha's Hall - again lit by coloured lights. Again a fanfare greets us and during the ensuing sound and light show we are shown such formations as the Frozen waterfall, the Elephant, King Edward VIII;, and a 13 m column " the tallest in the cave. Finally, the hall is lit by natural lighting, revealing that most of the formations are pure white in colour.

"You may leave now if you want", our guide hinted. "There's only small stuff ahead". But everybody in our party volunteered to go on to the 'small stuff', (which, after all, they had paid to see). So our poor guide had to talk to us.

There are no tape recordings in the 'small stuff. But there are switches so his task was not too great. All he had to do was switch one on, and, abracadabra, we have 'Sunset over Oudtshoorn' or 'Moonlight over the Mountains' and so forth. Questions from tourists were not encouraged. Indeed, when one brave soul ventured to ask how far underground we were from the entrance, he was told vaguely, "Not very far" Later, we ascended a passage to what we were told was the deepest part of the cave. Little wonder that when we were shown smoked graffiti high in the roof and allegedly dating back to 1857, an Austrian tourist turned to me with a cynical grin and remarked "Ah, they were tall people in those days'".

In this 'small stuff it is occasionally necessary to stoop and a little climbing is involved, but none of our party found it necessary to turn back. But now we came to the 'real caving' section of the tour and about half the party, including the guide, did not proceed. And, given that it's not too wet or dirty and that electric light has been installed this is quite a good introduction to 'real caving'; a sign-posted route leads us through flatout crawls, tight squeezes, and a chimney that defeated three of the weegies who attempted it. We all agreed that this section, which takes about 15 minutes to complete, was the best part of the tour; this may be a good argument in favour of no-nonsense sporting trips for tourists, though it is worth bearing in mind that we didn't get wet or too dirty! Certainly the fancy sounds and lights left most people cold; one tourist told me that she had much preferred her visit to the cave some 20 years earlier "before they installed all that nonsense", but another - a citizen of Oudtshoorn - told me that Cango guides have always been renowned for their indolence - a remark that suggests that without the sound and light there would be no information at all. It is a pity that so much time and money appears to have been wasted in 'developing' the Cango Caves when a simpler presentation would probably have proved more generally acceptable. However, cavers will forever be drawn to these caves; apart from the extremely well-decorated non-tourist part of Cango there are some 40 or so other caves in the area. And, of course, the tourists will continue to flock to Oudtshoorn and the Cango Caves - that's what good advertising does.

Reprinted from The British Caver, Vol 68, Spring 1978, pp 5-8, with the editor's kind permission.