All in a day’s work
While tiptoeing past large unfriendly porcupines with their rears aimed at the leg may worry laymen, it does not daunt cavers.
And while other hidden horrors including bats, spiders, snakes, locusts, bees, baboons as well as histoplasmosis could be lurking around the next corner, it is all in a day’s work for the experts.
They emerge from the depths of a dark hole covered in grime, miners’ hats, armed with a lamp and smelling distinctly of animal urine. But scuffling, digging, slipping, sliding and exploring South Africa’s underground heritage is a reviving Sunday hobby for speleologists.
Members of the SA Speleological Association spend much of their lives surveying and exploring, and are constantly on the lookout for new caves.
The Sunday that Today! went out with them a small one was found and instantly christened Walk Past Cave — they had walked past that cave many times before and had never spotted it.
“When we find a cave, all we know is that we have found a hole in the ground,” said Mr Roger Ellis, chairman of the association. “What hazards follow, what we are going to find down there and how we are going to get there is what makes caving so exciting.”
The members are a mixed crowd of all ages. There’s a geologist, a chemist, boilermakers, computer engineers, national servicemen and a palaeontology student.
The association is particularly worried about preserving all caves in their natural form. While the public is lucky to have such magnificent caves as the Cango Caves, the constant human activity, artificial lights and concrete pavements have ruined its natural state.
Even among the cavers the numbers who go down at one time are limited as too many could damage the delicate ecosystem. “There’s a whole new world down there made up of curious animals, insects and a whole system of plant life,” one of the cavers said.
Mr Ellis said that although they explored and surveyed many caves throughout South Africa, it was not the association’s purpose to find caves which could be opened to the public. However, should anyone want to develop they could not stop it.
The association has a small membership, most of whom are immigrants. While caving is a very popular sport in the United Kingdom, possibly because over there “it is wet whether you are underground or on top”, as one caver put it, it is a different story here.
Another reason, as we found out, could be that it is neither an easy nor particularly glamorous occupation. In fact, I still have the bruises on my legs from climbing a ladder which was suspended some 16 metres above the floor of a cave.
The association keeps the location of caves quiet to protect them from damage from the public. Though it would have to be a pretty determined public which would attempt to reach the centre of a cave without knowing anything about the sport.
The longest cave in the country and, it is suspected, in Africa, is Apocalypse in the far West Rand. It is 11,2 km long. The association is currently trying to establish whether it is longer than a cave in the Atlas mountains.
Perhaps the most beautiful caves are next to the Cango Caves and comprise the Wolkburg complex in the Northern Transvaal near Pietersburg.
Other caving clubs in the Transvaal are the Cave Research Organisation of South Africa and the Free Cavers. The SA Speleological Association has two sections to it — the Cape (40 members) and the Transvaal section with 35 members. About 20 of the latter are active members.