Sunday 26 July 2015

Hidden Cave – July 2015 - By: Karin Human

A cataclysmic event almost two billion years ago, the Vredefort Asteroid, gave birth to some of the greatest places we can explore today. Whether big or small, caves give us a glimpse of our planet’s history and on some occasions, unexpected treasures defining our meagre existence.
Hidden Cave is one such place. Whilst getting ready for our journey into the dark unknown, my eyes swept over the boundless grasslands surrounding us. Here, a few metres under our feet, a maze of crannies and nooks awaited our somewhat eager exploration. A few clouds lazily moved about in the blue sky and an exceptionally cold wind made us anxious to get underground.

A bowl-like area surrounded with wild trees, courtesy of the resident bats, and a few dolomite boulders masks the small crevice giving access to the cave. A flexuous route follows, creating a decent dust cloud as bodies twist and turn to get through some of the restrictions. The soft sand covering the cave floor in the last corridor made for an easy crawl-through and with one last body-twisting curb we landed on a very accommodating ledge.

Steven was already working on proper anchor points for the cave ladder. Peeking over the ledge the cave wall disappeared into darkness. On the opposite side a small winding corridor loomed an alternative. Dave Ingold encouraged the group to attempt getting to the chamber beneath via that route. A tight squeeze and short climb would see us down there. Suegne, Natasha and Stian opted to try and subsequently succeeded. The ladder became the rest of the group’s option. Snaking down, the silver glowing cable dissipated into darkness. The narrowness of the ladder really only sinks in when you’re working your way down. And by saying that, I really mean working your way down. The slit becomes a bit limiting and you have to twist sideways to get past a small ledge. When the free-hanging ladder gets under the roof of the chamber, it yanks in all directions to counteract your weight and movement.

Finally down and waiting to regroup in the chamber, we used the time to explore the cave floor. Some bones were found and upon questioning the possibilities of how it got there, Steven was ready with an answer. During the summer rains it gets washed in. The interesting bit was that seeds also get washed in and actually sprout in the fertile soil being found here. Sadly they die soon after this because of obvious reasons. The imagery of a newly sprouted garden deep in a cave is something one should truly experience. It brought to mind that life lessons are always at our disposal, even here in a world always cloaked in darkness.

The climb down progressed slowly. Lots of loose rocks made for careful stepping. We found a bat all by itself glued to a rock face on one of the descending climbs. His little body was cosily enfolded in its wings and you could see him breathing as his body heaved at almost lightning speed. To me it was a precious moment of being there in his space, his world, his time for a few seconds.

The stalactites were really interesting at this point. Growing high on the roof, blade-like formations enfolded one another to create flowery-cone like structures. Calcite on the walls and some droppings on boulders exhibited nature’s profound ability to create amazing art.

Steven disappeared in small slit in the floor and within seconds his light was gone. We patiently waited our turn to go down this worm hole and due to the danger of rock falls, only one at a time was allowed. It turned out to be a short, body shovelling, twist and turn and you ended upon a very small ledge with what seemed to me at that point, a sheer wall of shiny black manganese in my way of reaching the next chamber. Staring at it in disbelieve I didn’t even notice Steven sitting right across from me in a small cavity. He talked me through getting hand and foot holds and encouraged me to climb down. After what felt like a life time I was standing in the chamber below. It’s in moments like this that I know we grow a bit by doing stuff we deemed impossible. It wasn’t as sheer as my mind told me and really not as high as it seemed. My first ever free climb went really well.

Another wait for regrouping gave us a chance to look around. Stian found the perfect position to sit and a huge boulder became our vantage point. Pity our lights were about to give up, but David’s light was revealing some amazing stuff. A steep slope led to Stalactite Garden. The roof was high and more stalactites resulted in us staring in wonder. Steven eventually joined us after assisting most on the climb down. A pair of fresh batteries for our lights and we were ready to move on.

Stalactite garden turned out to be a garden of awe. Multi coloured stalactites were decorating the low ceiling in astonishing ways. New stalactites grow in all directions. Some have little horizontal branches growing from them. Some are twisty while others formed little rings over time. In between all of this, thin straw stalactites also found some space to grow. Over time they will also form incredible structures like the older ones surrounding them. Being human and wanting to use all our senses to experience beauty like this, it’s hard not to reach out and touch, but this will mean a sure death of wherever our finger prints remain. Moving carefully on a slightly sloped rock floor, we reach the end of stalactite garden and another slit gives entry to the final chamber.

The prized Waikiki Dancers patiently awaited us and instilled quiet wonder as we circled it in an almost holy moment. This cave was once a water cave and these speleothemes were once cone shaped. When the water disappeared from the cave, they slowly started deteriorating and water dripping from the stalactites on them assisted in this process. Because of the aforementioned, most of them are hollow. The caramel coloured dust surrounding them is evident of their breakdown. Two perfect holes in the dust on the far side was also the work of water dripping, although it looks like someone stuck their fingers into it. Would love to see what grows out of that, but I assume none of us will be around that long. One of the Waikiki Dancers has managed to form a hat-like structure at the top and from the right vantage point seemed like the sculpture of someone standing with their hands behind their back.

Another five metres down and we were at the back of the cave. Halfway up the slope we found a really small opening and whilst joking and daring one another to a sheer display of guts, Natasha walked up and decided to attempt a squeeze through to see what is on the other side. The slit was so small she had to remove her helmet. Needless to say, it went nowhere and just became smaller as she progressed. A few wiggles further and she gave us the thumbs down. Suegne had to pull on her legs to assist on getting out. We had some serious explorers in this group and it was really inspiring to watch as they eagerly moved forward. Dave told us the opening to the chamber we so badly believed were there and wanted to see was just around the corner. An obvious joke as it turned out to be just another opening going into the slit Natasha tried squeezing through. Alas, there might be a chamber, but it remains hidden, like this cave, for this moment.
We decided to switch of all our lights to experience the cave on its own terms. As the lights went off one by one and at random, shadows merged as darkness grows. The first minute or so everyone was quiet as we sat in a big half circle with the Waikiki Dancers being centre. Everything felt vast, unreachable. It was as if existence ceased in that moment and nestled within one self, a move closer to greatness. We talked, joked around and had some advice regarding climbing in caves and caves in general while enveloped in darkness. The information was sound and the decision was made from my side. This is by far the best place to learn and gain experience in caving. Steven, Dave and Allen have an obvious passion for what they do and don’t mind sharing their knowledge. Hidden Cave was an exceptional experience, covering a lot of skills needed for caving and still has a lot more to offer to those who need to feed their hunger for knowledge and experience.

Upon exiting, a herd of cattle was grazing not far from where we parked our vehicles. The stark sunlight blinded us for a moment and the wind still raced though the long, yellow-brown grass with a serious note of chill accompanying it. Smiles were abundant and a nice cup of coffee from Allen and his wife completed a perfect symmetry.

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