Oudtshoorn
Fairview Dryland Traverse
History
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In the 19th century, entrance to the Caves cost 5 rix dollarsthe modern equivalent of about R500.00 – but that even didn’t deter them and many carted away parts of the delicate stalactites and stalagmites for souvenirs or engraved their names onto the walls. In response, the governor of the Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, published the first Caves Regulation in 1820. The 1st law designed to protect an environmental resource in South Africa; it banned the collection of souvenirs, proved for fines for anyone caught damaging Caves formations and prescribed an entrance fee which had to be paid to the District Officer – who was made responsible for enforcing the rules.

 

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 Cango 1, which remains the only part of the Caves which the public may visit. Importantly, though, it is clear that the Caves were known to man long before Europeans first landed at the Cape: recent finds – of some tool left behind in ancient hearths in the Cave mouth – prove that humans have lived and sheltered here for at least 80 000 years.

The Cango Caves reveal their secrets painfully slowly. Where once we thought that they’d been inhabited for a thousand centuries, recent archaeological finds have now proved that they’ve sheltered us for more than 80 000 years.

Where once we thought that they were only about one kilometre in length, we now know that they extend for well over 5 kilometres – and that they could be even bigger still.

But the Caves’ history and their size are just two of their many mysteries. The skeletons of three genets (small cats) have been found in Cango 2: is there another secret entrance to the Caves? Or were these unfortunates drowned and left behind by receding floodwaters? And how did the skeletons of bats – which have also been found in Cango 2 – become enclosed in calcite many hundreds of even thousands of years ago?

There is an ancient engraving in the Caves: it’s the only piece of cave art in South Africa in a completely dark area. How did the artist prove himself with a light source to work? The engraving shows and elephant superimposed on an eland – and yet, amazingly, you see only the elephant when you view the work from one side – and only the eland when you view it from the other.

Why have so many Caves guides committed suicide? And is there a ghost in the Sand bypass (a tunnel which branches off from the Drum Chamber)? 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. This level-headed man once spent 29 hours underground – and, according to him, spent much of that time walking upright. Was the entrance to Johnnie’s lost chamber bricked up at some stage – perhaps during the construction of the stairway into the Van Zyl’s Hall?

 

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