The Cango Caves are regarded as one of South Africa's foremost natural wonders. They owe their origin to a geological fault in the Swartberg mountains (which were known to the San as the Kango). Water, time and simple chemistry have combined, over hundreds of thousands of years, to create a magic castle of carved caverns, corridors and dripstone formations deep within the mountainside.Water seeping through the limestone rock. The dripstone formations (speleothems) consist of stalagmites reaching up from the floor and stalactites hanging from the ceiling. These intricate calcite formations range from the miniature to the massive, many of them with picturesque names such as Lot's Wife and the Organ Pipes.
The caves were discovered by man in prehistoric times. The entrance was used as a home by the San and the walls were painted by them with pictures of game animals. Not having a portable light source the San would have been unable to explore far into the caves.
Over two hundred years ago in 1780 a Khoi herdsman stumbled into the entrance to the caves while searching for missing cattle. After his herder told Van Zyl (the farmer who owned the land) about the hole in the ground, he led the first expedition deep into the caves. With their flickering torches, Van Zyl and his men found their way to the first great chamber — to be named Van Zyl's Hall — 98 metres long, 49 metres wide and 15 metres high. This remains one of the greatest treasure chests of nature. From every nook and cranny glimmer stalactites (hanging columns), stalagmites (which grow upwards) and helictites (which grow in all directions).
Van Zyl was lowered to the floor of this mammoth chamber and gazed in awe at what was to become known as Cleopatra's Needle, 9 metres high and at least 150 000 years old. How much further Van Zyl continued is unknown.
It was this first sequence of caves - Cango One — which was developed and opened for tourists. There are innumerable dripstone formations in the main chambers and ante-chambers. The largest of the chambers is Grand Hall, 107 metres across and 16 metres high. The highest dripstone formation, a 12,5-metre column, is in Botha's Hall.
The mystery of the unexpected dead end of Cango One was cleared up in modern times. In 1956 the Spelaeological Society surveyed the caves and noted that when the atmospheric pressure outside dropped, air flowed out of the caves. When pressure outside mounted, air flowed into the caves. This proved that there was a continuation of the cave sequence.
Two of the professional cave guides, James Craig-Smith and Luther Terblanche, assisted by Dart Ruiters, devoted their spare time to further exploration. In the last chamber of the known sequence, the Devil's Workshop, they followed a draught to a small crevice. For months they painstakingly expanded the crevice. At last, on 17 September 1972, they broke through into a breathtaking fairyland, a 27O-metre extension of the sequence never before seen by man.
This extension is Cango Two, or the Wonder Cave. Spelaeological Society experts were called in to investigate further. At the end of Cango Two they found a stream flowing back towards the entrance and disappearing into a course about 20 metres below the level of the cave. Two members of the society, Dave Land and Peter Breedt, went down the stream until they reached an obstruction.
In 1975 a pump was brought into the caves and the water level of the stream lowered enough to allow a party led by Floris Koper, on 2 August 1975, to continue through the stream and find their way into what is known as Cango Three, a sequence of chambers 1 600 metres long (twice the length of Cango One and Cango Two combined), and with one chamber more than 300 metres long. This is probably still not the end of the cave sequence, and exploration continues.
Cango Two and Cango Three are not open to the public. The pure, crystalline beauty of the dripstone formations in these two sequences is thus preserved, for man carries destruction into such caves. Cigarette smoke deposits nicotine over the white lime, and litter invites bacterial invasions which can also dull the colours of the rocks. Stalactites and stalagmites have been snapped off by souvenir-hunters.
Geology of the caves
The whole cave sequence originated as a fault, up to 91 metres wide, in the limestone rock here. Nature sealed this fault with calcite. Water soaked in and slowly eroded the huge chambers. The water drained away. Rainwater dripping down through the roof picked up carbon dioxide from the plant roots and humus in the upper soil. Passing through calcite, the carbon-rich water carried on with it calcium carbonate, which is soluble only in a mixture of carbon dioxide and water.
Dripping through the ceiling of the caves, the water encountered air far less rich in carbon dioxide. In the balancing action of nature, carbon dioxide was then transferred from water to air. The calcium carbonate could not be transferred with the carbon dioxide. It was now unwanted, so solidified, a minute amount from each drop of water, and over hundreds of thousands of years decorated the caves with dripstone formations of astonishing beauty and variety of shapes. Occassionally, stalactites and stalagmites joined, forming columns.
In this wonderful way nature worked in the dark for so many forgotten years, and then gave man the privilege of seeing a work which is still in the process of change and growth.