The Cango Caves is situated about 300 km east of Cape Town and 29 km to Oudtshoorn in the Precambrian limestone at the foothills of the magnificent Swartberg mountain range. It is one of the world’s great natural wonders resulting in fascinating land impressive limestone formations as well as a wide variety of colours, sculptured by nature through the ages.
Once thought to be about one kilometre in length, it is now known that they extend for well over five kilometers and however could be even bigger.
From the entrance, a flight of stairs descends to Van Zyl’s Hall, an enormous cavern that is 107 m long, 54 m at its widest and up to 17 m in height. Other famous formations include the 10 m high Cleopatra’s Needle (estimated to be about 150 000 years), the Organ Pipes, the Ballerina and the Frozen Waterfall.
Knowledgeable guides conduct tours at regular intervals on most days.
There are 2 tours from which to choose:
- Heritage Tour: Which takes an hour. A moderate walk through the first tow magnificent halls, continuing to the “African Drum Chamber”. Several stairways are included in this Heritage tour.
- Adventure Tour: Which takes an hour and a half. Consists of crawling through narrow passages and climbing up steep rock formations guided by small lights. The caves contain spectacular halls and grand limestone formations (on both tours) as well as some rather small passages on the Adventure Tour. The smallest passage that tourists will have to pass through on the Adventure Tour is just under 30 cm high at the exit as a result, this is a challenging tour, with exciting passages and narrow chimneys, requiring a good degree of fitness. The adventure tour snakes along narrow passages and tunnels with appropriate names like Lumbago Walk, Devil’s Chimney as well as the Letter Box.
- The temperatures in the Cango Caves are a warm and humid 18 degrees Celsius (approx. 65 Fahrenheit). Wear sensible footwear and light clothing.
- Arrive at least 10 minutes early – there are no toilet facilities on tour.
- It is a one kilometer walk, with 416 stairs on a full tour, and lasts about one and a half hours.
- The tunnel section at the back (devil’s chimney) borders an extreme adventure, so should be reserved for those who are fit and adventurous. Not advisable for small children.
- You may turn round at the halfway mark (drum chamber),
- There is a creche where you can leave children, and kennels for animals.
- Photography welcome
- Touching or climbing on formations
- Tampering with light switches
- Leaving your party and guide
- Food or beverages
- Curio shop
- Creche – you can leave small children here when you go on a tour
- Shaded car park
- Self-service restaurant
Recent finds prove that humans have lived and sheltered here for at least 80 000 years. The Khoisan used the entrance area of the cave as shelter about 10 000 years ago. They never wandered deeper into the cave because of their superstitious nature. Bushman paintings covered the entrance but over time have been damaged. The San people left this area and their cave approximately 500 years ago. There is also a common myth that a local farmer, Jacobus van Zyl, was the first European man to explore the caves in the 1770’s, but research has shown that no-one by that name lived in the area at that time.
The Cango Caves is South Africa’s oldest tourist attraction and boasts a number of pioneering firsts:
- It is South Africa’s oldest tourist attraction.
- The first tour was conducted in 1891 and it has been a favourite ever since.
- It was first to be protected by environmental legislation. In 1820 Lord Charles Somerset, published the first Caves Regulation. It was the first law designed to protect an environmental resource in South Africa and which banned the collection of souvenirs and provided for fines for anyone caught damaging Caves formations.
- It is the first to employ a fulltime tourist guide
Many of the most significant discoveries in the Caves were made by its first full-time guide, Johnnie van Wassenaar, who served for 43 years, from 1891 until his retirement in 1934. He opened many side chambers and introduced thousands of people to the Caves.
- Skeletons of three genets (small cats) were found in Cango 2. Is there another secret entrance to the Caves? Or were they drowned and left behind by receding floodwaters?
- And how did the skeletons of bats found in Cango 2 become enclosed in calcite many hundreds or even thousands of years ago?
- There is an ancient engraving in the Caves – the only piece of cave art in South Africa in a completely dark place. How did the artist provide a light source to work? And amazingly the engraving shows an elephant when you view it from one side – and an eland when viewed from the other.
- Why have so many Caves guides committed suicide?
- Is there a ghost in the Sand bypass? One of the guides drank poison in the bypass. And nobody has ever been able to solve the puzzle of why the lights in the Sand Bypass fuse so often!
- And then there’s the mystery of Johnnie van Wassenaar’s 16-mile tunnel. In 1898 this level-headed man spent 29 hours underground most of which time he claimed to have spent walking upright. When there he calculated that he was 25km from the entrance, and 275m under ground. His route apparently followed an underground river. So far, no caves have been found to support this story.
The Science Bit
The Cango Caves is located in a limestone belt which is 1,5km wide and almost 16km long. The limestones are formed by chemical processes about 750 million years ago. They do not consist of animal shells and contain no fossils.
The caves were formed during the last 20 million years by rainwater seeping through fissures in the limestone. Gradually the water dissolved the limestone, forming an extensive network of subterranean caverns and tunnels. When the acidic oxygen in the rainwater comes into contact with the calcium carbonate in the limestone, a crystalline solution is formed, which hardens and eventually accumulates as stalagmites, stalactites and flowstones.
Surveys And Explorations
Slowly, over the years, more and more chambers and tunnels were discovered.
Cango I: The first rough survey was done in 1897, mapping out the first 26 chambers. In 1956 the South African Spelaeological Association was tasked to draw up an accurate mapping of the Cango Caves, and look for alternative entrances. Cango I is the only part of the Caves open to the public. Their results indicated that the caves were 775m long in a single line, and that they never rose nor fell more than 16m. These were called Cango I. The nearest point to the surface in the caves is at the top of the shaft in the Devil’s Kitchen, 52.6m from the floor.
Cango II: In 1972 Cango II was discovered. It stretches 270m beyond the end of the Devil’s Kitchen. At the end of Cango II there is a shaft that descends 20m to a chamber filled with water. This water flowed in the direction of Cango I.
Cango III: In August 1975, during a symposium on cave biology, an exploration team drained the Cango II chamber of most of its water to discover more caves, called Cango III. Altogether these caves are about 1000m long. The biggest of the chambers, stretches about 300m. In 1977 a further crawl way was added to add 290m to Cango III and then in 1978 a further 90m was added.