“ Underground caves in the Cango Valley, South Africa. „
The Cango Caves were one of my highlights of my holiday in South Africa. They are situated just outside the Western Cape town of Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo region. The caves apparently began forming 20 million years ago, but the stalactites and stalagmites didn't grow until three million years ago. Although ancient man had used the caves they were re-discovered in 1780 by a Dutch farmer looking for his missing flock. It became South Africa's first tourist attraction and is still one of the most popular today.
The caves are open every day except Christmas Day and they run two types of tour. The Standard tour costs R60 (£6/US$9.20) and lasts an hour, and leave from 9am to 4pm on the hour. There is also an Adventure tour of 90 minutes for R90 (£7.80/$12) which run from 9.30am to 3.30pm on the half hour. There are discounts for children and groups.
The entrance to the ticket complex has lots of pictures on the walls and some examples of the small gaps that you may have to face if you do the Adventure tour. They recommend a degree of fitness for this tour, as well as needing to be on the lean side. There are in fact four sections of caves at Cango, but only the first group are open to the public at present. Some later sections are still under water.
I decided to do the Adventure Tour with some others in my group, but most went for the Standard tour. The first part of my Adventure Tour over-lapped with the Standard Tour. The first thing I noticed when I walked into the caves themselves was that is was warmer than I expected and quite humid. I was concerned that it may have been chilly and that I would need a sweater, but a T-shirt was fine. As I was going to be scrambling about on my knees I also wore jeans, but this wouldn't be necessary on the Standard tour. I recommend wearing trainers or similar footwear if you are doing the Adventure tour. The lights are dim as you enter the caves to give you an idea how it would have been for Jacobus Van Zyl who allegedly discovered these caves, but the guide turns the lights on to show you the details in the caves The first cave is named after him. The size of the caves are impressive, great cavernous spaces, surrounded by an assortment of stalactites and stalagmites, we also visit Botha's Hall. Although the website says that the start of the Adventure tour and the Standard Tour is the same, we didn't linger in these early caves and moved on swiftly in order to tackle the more challenging caves. My friends who did the standard tour did have more time in these parts and learnt more about the caves and many also considered it a highlight.
Our guide Cedric (I believe he is a former mountain goat who has now taken human form) asked us if we were claustrophobic and none of us were entirely sure! Knowing we would be crawling through some small spaces, I think this would be the time to find out if we really were claustrophobic and most of us were quite apprehensive. I was lucky that the group had only six people in it, so you didn't have long to wait for your turn to squeeze through a gap. The first challenging section we faced was Lumbago alley which is a low ceiling corridor of 86m, of which 15m was below 1.2m. As I am petite, I didn't have a problem with a lot of this and just kept my head down, but I had to bend over during the lowest part but it wasn't far. Cedric was very good at telling us what we would be facing so we were prepared. The Tunnel of Love follows this, and is a narrow passageway - I didn't find the ceiling too low, but a taller person my have a problem in parts. It is 30cm wide in places so you may have to go through sideways.
This part of the caves has to be repeated on the return journey but after the 'Coffin' you do a circular route so don't need to go back on yourself. Climbing into the coffin is quite disorientating and you crawl out into another section that looks closed off. There seems to be nowhere else to go, except that tiny hole in the corner, and surely we are not going through there? Um...yes we are. This is the Devil's Chimney and I found I the hardest part. Getting through the small awkward gap wasn't the problem, you were inside a 45cm wide tunnel that went 3.5m upwards at about 60-70 degrees which you had to climb up. Being petite I struggled to clamber up myself and get my right foot up by my left ear. Taller people managed better but I needed a shove from behind by the guide, and pulled out at the other end by a friend. You have a short time to catch your breath before moving onto the Postbox which you have to crawl through before sliding on your belly (or back if you prefer) and 'posting' yourself through the 27cm high gap head first (or feet first if you can turn around) as your guide helps you slide down the slope into an ungraceful and giggling heap on the floor.
I really enjoyed the challenge of the adventure tour, and I had an impressive range of bruises and aching limbs to show for it at the end. It is recommended for those on the lean side due to the narrow gaps (people have got stuck before) and obviously you need to be fairly fit and able to cope with confined spaces and heights (there is a narrow iron staircase). The only real disadvantage for me is that I didn't always take in my surroundings as I was too busy focusing in the challenge ahead. Saying that the part of the caves that are visited on the standard tour are amazing and an hour in them would also be time well spent.
There is also a gift shop here as well as a cafe-bar for refreshments. There is a short film of about 15-20 minutes you can also watch, although I spent the time getting my breath back and drinking a cold drink. The toilets are large, clean and plentiful and I do recommend taking a change of clothes if you are thinking of doing this tour as my jeans and T shirt were grubby and sweaty from all the clambering about.
I visited Cango Caves in Oudtshoorn, South Africa, in January 2010 when I was visiting South Africa (for the second time) with my sister. We were driving from Cape Town to George and so we were looking for places to stop off along the way - and as we were driving through Oudtshoorn then Cango Caves seemed like a good place to make a scheduled stop.
***What are the Cango Caves?***
The Cango Caves are a series of limestone show caves that have been known and celebrated in Oudtshoorn since the Stone Age - and have been a place for tourist to visit the 1800's (although I'm sure it wasn't as developed as a tourist attraction back then!). They hold the record of being South Africa's oldest tourist attraction and, as such, they are a firm favourite on the tourist trail. I have visited show caves in several countries, including some of the worlds most renowned show caves (such as Waitomo Glowworm Cave, Ali Sadr Cave, Velebit Caves) and these show caves are probably the most beautiful and inspiring I have visited. This cave system is known to be very extensive and it is worth mentioning that only a relatively small part of the known cave system is accessible to the public - although what is accessible to the public is definitely worth seeing.
The caves are not the easiest place to get to unless you're planning to stay or make a stop in Oudtshoorn. Oudtshoorn is a smallish town in the Klein Karoo, which is a desert type area of South Africa which could be compared to "the outback". Having said that, Oudtshoorn is situated on the legendary Route 62 which is the most picturesque route that can be taken from Cape Town down to the start of the equally legendary Garden Route - and so despite being a small town, it does get its fair share of foreign visitors.
Driving the Route 62 from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn is about 300 miles (and takes about 5 hours) - and then from Oudtshoorn to George it is about another 50 miles. Although the drive from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn is quite a long drive, it is a beautiful drive and is not taxing as most of the roads are straight with fairly little traffic. If you leave Cape Town by 6am then you can easily be in Oudtshoorn by lunchtime and then this gives you the a good part of the day to spend in the town if you are planning to move on to one of the towns on the start of the Garden Route.
The Cango Caves are just outside of Oudtshoorn and they are will signposted once you get to Oudtshoorn. There is plenty of parking at the caves themselves. If you happen to go to South Africa without planning to drive (I really really recommend that you drive!!) then there are day tours you can book from Oudtshoorn - but this means rocking up in a coach and you're therefore likely to be in a very big group when you go into the caves and that may take away from the experience.
Oudtshoorn does have other tourist attractions that are within about a 20 minute drive of the caves. There are several ostrich farms (I recommend Rietfontein Ostrich Palace) and a type of zoo called Cango Wildlife Ranch (which I don't recommend unless you have little kids).
***Important to know if you're planning to visit***
If you visit the Cango Caves then you have to visit the caves as part of a guided tour where you will go into the caves in small groups. It is highly suggested that you do book a tour time prior to arriving because the caves can get pretty busy and if you haven't bookedthen you may either have to wait a long time or even not get onto a tour at all. We booked a few days before and we had our pick of times that we wanted. You can book on their website (www.cango-caves.co.za), or email them at email@example.com or phone them on +27 44 272 7410. We found the booking system to be very efficient and times were strictly adhered to. It really is a well oiled machine - which does make it feel sometimes like they're herding you through, but having said that, I do think we were giving enough time in the caves and we didn't feel rushed or under pressure to move before we were ready to do so.
As I said, if you're planning to visit the caves, you must book onto a tour as you are not allowed into the caves unguided. I think this is partly because of safety issues and partly because I'm sure they don't want the caves to get too busy at any one time. There are two tour options that you can book - the "Standard Tour" and the "Adventure Tour". Everyone does the Standard Tour and then for those who wish then they can also progress on to the Adventure Tour. We did the Standard Tour and the Adventure Tour.
Both tours have a guide that speaks excellent English and who tell you interesting facts about the caves as you walk through. They seem knowledgeable and they were also very friendly and professional.
====The Standard Tour===
Everybody does the same standard tour - and so you all start out as one group. I would estimate that there were about 20 people at the start of our standard tour - which seemed about an okay number as the caverns on the standard tour are very large and there will only be one group in each cavern at any one time. When you get to the Cango Cave reception area, you check in and then they tell you to go up the ramp where you will be met by a guide at the allocated time.
The Standard Tour takes you into the largest and the most easily accessible of the caverns. Having said that, even to do the standard tour you need to be relatively mobile as there are steps involved and the group is rocky and uneven. I wouldn't take very young kids in there or any person who finds mobility difficult. We didn't have kids with us at the time, but having down the tour I would say that the standard tour is okay for kids who are 8 years old or older (I think the younger kids may struggle a little and if they fall they could really hurt themselves).
The first cavern you come to is called Van Zyl's Hall (the name of the first modern day explorer who helped put the caves on the map) and it is a very impressive cavern. The first thing I noticed about it is that it is absolutely huge and far bigger than any cavern I can remember being in. The dimensions are about 110m x 50m x 18m - which may not sound all that big, but for a cavern I can tell you it feels massive. This cavern is remarkable not only for its size, but also for the beautiful dripstone structures, in particular Cleopatras Needle which is 10m high and the impressive structure known as the Pulpit of a Great Cathedral. All of the structures of note are subtly lit by spotlight but not in a way that bathes the cavern in an overpowering light. The lighting is down sensitively and manages to keep an intimate atmosphere within the cavern. We were given time to wonder around the cavern and take a look at the various formations - both as a group or independently if you preferred. Then, as a group, we moved through to Botha's Hall.
Botha's Hall is a smaller cavern but one that actually I found to be more impressive that the first as there were many more formations over a smaller area. With a little imagination you can see the "Madonna and Child" and the "Three Wise Men". I did think that the formations really did look like the nativity scene and there was more than one person that uttered the phrase ".....it makes you wonder...". Regardless of whether you make these formations look like any religious scenes or not, the images within the cavern are very impressive and absolutely beautiful.
You then go into the Rainbow Chamber which was probably my least favourite of the rooms as it was quite narrow and it felt a bit crowded with us all in it. Large areas of the cave were also roped off and so you couldn't really wander about and decide where you wanted to look. For me, this room felt a little inauthentic as it was overly lit and tried to make it more spectacular than it was - and it didn't really need to have coloured lights etc.
The remaining rooms are quite small and so you move through them fairly swiftly, but having said that they are worth seeing. To get down to The Bridal Chamber you need to go down some pretty steep stairs, but it is beautiful and looks like it has been ornately crafted by craftsman instead of by nature itself. The Drum Room, which is the last cavern on the tour (and the smallest and least spectacular I think) has structures within it that if you "play" and strike like a drum will resonate for a long way.
This room marks the end of the standard tour. I would estimate that from beginning to end it takes about one hour and doesn't involve any strenuous activity. It was enjoyable and even beautiful in parts, and I think the whole cave system that is accessible on the standard tour is very well done with minimal artificial intervention. Sure, there is some lighting which helps you to view the cave, and there is are some roped off areas and some decking - but this seems to have been kept to as little as possible and it only seems to be such interventions when it's necessary.
===The Adventure Tour===
For those that want a little extra than the standard tour then you can continue with the Adventure Tour afterwards. Now, I would stress that this tour isn't really suitable for anyone with any type of mobility or agility problem, or anyone who gets claustrophobic, or anyone who is particularly overweight. Some of the areas you are expected to squeeze through are actually quite uncomfortable and there were times when I wish I could have turned back - which apparently isn't an option! There are also a lot of steps involved - and you will be expected to get on your hands and knees at times. To be honest, I didn't particularly enjoy this part of the tour and I'm not sure I would recommend this unless you really want to see something that is a little bit more off the beaten track. I do think that the best caverns are reserved for the Standard Tour, but it is true that going further into the depths of the cave system in a smaller group is an experience in itself.
At the end of the Standard Tour, you descend deeper into the cave system and end up in Lumbago Alley and as a small part of this alley is just over a meter tall, you will need to get down on your hands and knees - and its quite rough. At the end of here is the Crystal Palace which is basically a small cavern which has crystal style drip formations that look quite pretty. It is noticeably colder down here and wetter - but it's still well lit and I think this helps with the claustraphobia.
From Lumbago Alley, you descend even lower down some even steeper steps into King Solomon's Mines - where there are more interestingly shaped formations - although I do have to say that at this point my interest was starting to wane a little.
After King Solomon Mines was where I really started to decide that I'd made the wrong choice to do the adventure part of the tour. From here, I needed to climb down a ladder into a very small tunnel which meant crawling as parts of this tunnel are really very narrow (30cm!) and very low (75cm). I did not enjoy this at all and I really hadn't expected such a narrow tunnel - and really felt more warning should have been given. Although the tunnel was pretty short, this part was slow going and just not enjoyable! Once you get out of this tunnel - and breathe a sigh of relief - you are into the Ice Chamber and then......thankfully.....we got to stand up again in the Devil's Workshop. The Devil's Workshop had more ornate formations - but to be honest, I did feel it was more of the same.....just a little harder to get to.
And then, just when I really thought it couldn't get any worse......it got worse!
First came the Devil's Chimney - which I had been warned about but I didn't really appreciate how bad it would be. So - I actually don't know how I managed to get through an opening that was so small that at first I didn't even see it! The worst thing about it is that the Devil's Chimney goes upwards - and although short - it is almost vertical and about 50 cm wide. Yes, I did say 50cm wide. Hideous! It feels like you're slowly being squeezed and that you're going to get stuck and be left there to rot....because if you do get stuck I have no idea how they would get you out. Seriously! I grazed my knees on the way up - and one man behind me twisted his ankle. How this can be anyone's idea of fun is beyond me! But I made it......but there was no sense of relief because at the top of this hideous HIDEOUS tunnel was an even more hideous tunnel.
The Devil's Postbox is another tunnel that is only 27cm high (although thankfully wider) and means slotting yourself through and then grinding your way forwards towards the opening - and the blissful end of the tour. I cannot tell you how happy I was! The Adventure Tour took about an extra 40 minutes on top of the time taken to do the Standard tour - and so you need about 1 hour and 45 minutes in total.
In conclusion, while the Standard Tour was really enjoyable, the Adventure Tour really was not - and unless you like feeling stuck, claustraphobic, cold, wet and like you're being buried alive - I really really would not suggest this part of the tour to anyone. I just didn't feel it added anything for me - and I didn't see anything on this part of the tour that I felt made the extra effort worth it. I would highly recommend the Standard Tour however - and then suggest you go to the coffee shop instead of progressing onwards!
There is a restaurant at the caves which is fairly decent and not too expensive. The speciality is ostrich meat - but as I'm not a big fan of ostrich, I had the Karoo lamb which really was very good. There is an outside patio area to sit which is in a beautiful setting within the mountains, or alternatively you can sit within the air-conditioned seated area indoors which still has lovely views. Unless it's particularly hot (or particularly cold) I would recommend eating outside because it's very beautiful.
There is an interpretive centre which gives some history on the caves - but I really didn't find this particularly interesting and so really stayed in here only about 5 minutes.
There is the typical souvenir shop - which sells more products unrelated to the caves than related to the cave. There was a lot of ostrich - related souvenirs - as there is in most places in Oudtshoorn!
Visiting Cango Caves is actually very reasonable - as are most attractions in South Africa to be honest! In order to do the Standard Tour it costs R.69 (about £6) for adults and R.33 (about £3) for kids. To do the Adventure Tour it cost about R.90 (about £7.50) and for kids it was R.55 (about £5).
***Would I Recommend Visiting Cango Caves?***
If you are in the area of Oudtshoorn or passing through Oudtshoorn then I would recommend spending an hour or so at Cango Caves. It is close enough to the ostrich farms in Oudtshoorn that you can stop off here first and then go on to the ostrich farm - and even onto Cango Ranch if you want to (although I didn't particularly enjoy Cango Ranch). However, I'm not sure I would suggest traveling miles to see the caves because, to be honest, South Africa is such a beautiful country that there are so many other things to see!