Situated in the stark, arid beauty of the Klein Karoo, just 29km from the historical town of Oudtshoorn, are the spectacular, underground Cango Caves.
Though the caves themselves were formed over many millions of years, and though the entrance to the caves was used as a shelter by indigenous tribes crossing the plains of the Klein Karoo, it was not until 1780 that an adventurous local farmer decided to explore further than the cavesí entrance.
What he encountered would have been an all-consuming darkness as he literally lowered himself 10 metres into the inky blackness that is the first and largest hall that makes up the chain of inter-leading caves. This first cave is known as Van Zylís Hall, after the intrepid farmer who discovered it.
One can only imagine his surprise as, by candlelight, he began to explore the magnificent proportions of the chamber in which he found himself, for this first cave is over 90 metres long, 50 metres wide at its widest point, and between 14 and 18 metres high. Nearly 100 metres of solid limestone roof separates the cavern from the ground above.
In fact, the extensive system of tunnels and chambers that make up the entire Cango Caves system go on for over four kilometres. However, only about a quarter of this is open to visitors, who may proceed into the caves only in groups supervised by a guide. Fortunately, these days one no longer enters the caves by rope, as there are stairs, and the caves have been illuminated by electric light since 1926; previously lit by candles, flaming torches and magnesium ribbons.
But what is it that makes these caves so spectacular? They are beautifully adorned by innumerable dripstone formations known as stalagmites and stalactites. These natural pillars and columns occur in limestone caves and grow in pairs. They are formed when slightly acidic water drips down from the roof of the caves and dissolves some of the limestone, carrying it downward. When the water evaporates, the limestone appears to have flowed downward. Some of the water does not evaporate until it has fallen through the air, and landed on the floor. The remaining limestone then builds the stalagmite. Often, the stalactite and stalagmite will connect, and become a column.
When one enters the caves one is aware of the increased humidity and pleasantly warm temperature. Though the average temperature is around 18 degrees Celsius, due to the humidity of the caves it feels much warmer. A faint musty odour may point to the presence of a small colony of bats which make the cave their home. Sensible footwear and light clothing is highly recommended, as is your camera as many memorable photos can be taken in and around this truly awe-inspiring natural wonder, hidden and protected for so many millions of years.