Table Mountain Activity Guide. Caving

Woodstock Cave above Cape Town.
Photo: Shaen Adey ©
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When you think about caving, you more than likely picture wriggling around in the dark, deep, muddy passages beneath the earth's surface.

Words by Fiona McIntosh

Photographs by Shaen Adey


When you think about caving, you more than likely picture wriggling around in the dark, deep, muddy passages beneath the earth's surface. There is caving of this nature within the bowels of Table Mountain, but it is for the specialist only and the whole issue of access to caves on the mountain is a sensitive one. Caving can be dangerous and environmentally damaging if the correct procedures are not adhered to. But don't let that spoil your fun. Below you will find a selection of caves that are easy to get to, and, if you follow the rules, relatively safe.

History of caving on Table Mountain and the Peninsula

The caves of the Cape Peninsula have been explored for recreation since the late 1800s. JCW Moore, a prominent member of the MCSA, reports having been taken to Muizenberg Cave by his father around 1890. From the 1920s to 1950s, Johan Meyer, a retired school teacher, explored and named most of the 80-odd caves above Kalk Bay and Muizenberg along with his group, affectionately known as the Moles.

His classical training led to cave names such as Taphos, Tartarus, Avernus and Adullam, while his more descriptive side led to names like Crystal Water Cave, Drip Drop Cave and Musical Drops Cave. These caves range in length from no more than a few metres long, to almost 800m (2 625ft) of underground passage. In the 1950s, a group of cavers got together to form the South African Spelaeological Association (SASA).

Early members included the well-known local author Jose Burman. This group concentrated on exploring the deep, vertical caves on the back table of Table Mountain. (See The Table Mountain Book, Jose Burman, published by Human & Rousseau, now out of print), for an excellent description of these early explorations. The Cape Peninsula Spelaeological Society (CPSS) is a Cape Town affiliate of SASA  and I am grateful to this organisation for the guidelines and descriptions mentioned in this chapter.

Cave formation

There are over a hundred caves recorded on the Cape Peninsula. These range from small overhangs, like Peers Cave and Woodstock Cave, to deep cracks on Table Mountain, some of which have more than 1km (0.62 miles) of underground passage. Many of the caves occur at current, and previous, sea levels and were formed by wave action that widened weaknesses in the quartzitic sandstone and granite base rock of the Peninsula. Higher up in the mountains, all the caves occur in Table Mountain sandstone.

Most of the caves formed below the water table, where water chemically weakened the structure of the sandstone and streams bore the loosened grains of sand away. Many of the caves on Constantiaberg and in the Kalk Bay and Muizenberg mountains were formed in this way. The large caves found on Table Mountain developed through mechanical rather than chemical processes. Geological movements shifted parts of the back table of the mountain so that cracks eventually appeared.

Some of these cracks are open to the surface, whilst others are deeper down and therefore not visible. Wynberg Cave, Bat's Cave, Smuggler's Cave and the Giant's Workshop are some of the caves formed by this geological process. Although water has enlarged many of them over time, they were primarily formed by movements of the rock near the surface of the mountain.

Safe caving Before you go

Ensure that you tell someone responsible exactly where you are going, what you will be doing, and, most importantly, when you will be back.

What to take

Protective clothing, like overalls. Jeans and a jersey will do for short caving trips but will be uncomfortable in narrow caves where crawling may be necessary. Light! Each person on the trip should carry at least two torches, so that if one breaks there will always be a spare. Carry spare batteries and have at least one headlamp-type torch to allow for the free use of your hands. Extra energy food. A small medical kit. Cellphone.

When you are caving Always watch the time. Ensure that you do not exceed your capabilities. If one of your torches breaks, leave the cave as soon as possible. Never leave used batteries in a cave. The chemicals that leak from the batteries could cause serious damage to the environment.

The Overhangs, Woodstock Cave

Woodstock Cave is a horizontal crack halfway up Devil's Peak that can clearly be seen from Woodstock and Salt River. The cave is little more than a large overhang but there is a lovely view of the city and the Cape Peninsula from its mouth. Access to Woodstock Cave is via the Upper Contour Path running along the front face of Table Mountain and Devil's Peak, or alternatively from Tafelberg Road.

Elephant's Eye Cave

This large cave is easily accessible from Tokai Forest or Silvermine. If you drive around the Bergvliet area in the early morning you will clearly see the elephant - the large mass of Constantiaberg - and the gaping cave that is its eye. Although it does not go far back into the mountain, its size and the view from the entrance are impressive. Go to the back of the cave and look out to get an unusual 'framed-view' over the Cape Flats and False Bay.

Peers Cave

This easily accessible cave achieved fame as the home of Fish Hoek Man who, according to anthropologists, would have inhabited the area around 12 000 years ago. Sea levels were much higher then, and Peers Cave was formed by wave action. Access to the cave is from Ou Kaapse Weg. If coming from the M3, pass Silvermine road on your right and, about half a kilometre later, park in a small car park on the crest of a hill as the road bends to the right. Take the sandy road to the left of the parking area and head for the beacon on the top of Skilderskop.

Just before the end of the sandy track, about ten minutes after leaving the car park, take a fork to the left. The path narrows as it climbs up very rocky terrain and winds to the right, hugging the cliff just below the peak. You will pass Tunnel Cave before coming upon Peers Cave, which, unfortunately, has been badly littered and defaced with graffiti. The one-way trip will take about half an hour. Return the same way.

Kalk Bay Caves

These caves penetrate the mountain and can be dangerous. It is recommended that anyone wishing to explore them should contact the CPSS, whose members are familiar with these caves and have appropriate equipment for exploring them.

Tartarus Cave

Tartarus Cave is basically a long passageway and series of chambers that penetrate 50m (164ft) into the mountain. It is quite a dangerous cave to visit but, since the entrance is right next to the path on the top of Kalk Bay Mountain, it is tempting to explore. If you insist on going without guidance, be aware that you will find a large, slippery-edged pit at the end. Unfortunately there is also danger in the form of broken glass and rusty tin cans, even in the entrance tunnel, so take extreme care and ensure that you have several light sources.

Follow directions for Kalk Bay Mountain and, once you reach the beacon on the summit, turn right, along the top of the plateau in the direction of the sea. The entrance is a five-minute walk away, on your left.

Boomslang Cave

Boomslang Cave above Kalk Bay runs right through the mountain for approximately 200m (656ft). The entrance to the cave is a large vertical crack on the Fish Hoek side of the mountain, accessible from Boyes Drive. Park as for the hike up Kalk Bay Mountain and proceed past Weary Willy's Pool up Echo Valley (your descent route on the hike described). After about 10 minutes you will come to a clump of boulders on your right (often marked as Hungry Harry's on maps and in guidebooks).

Take a path off to your left and climb until you pass through a short rock tunnel and begin to descend towards Fish Hoek. Keep right, and high, until you see a ravine, just around the corner on your right. Scramble up (there are actually two ravines, both of which are relatively straightforward) and, once at the top, contour for about five minutes until you see three cave entrances on your right just before a grove of yellowwoods. The entrance to Boomslang is the obvious wide crack slightly above you.

The cave is best visited in summer as there is a seasonal pool just inside the entrance of the cave, which makes it quite damp in winter. Visitors are requested not to enter the cave in the winter months, lest they disturb the resident population of Schreiber's Long-fingered Bats. Further into the cave is a large canyon passage, which has a rock formation known as The Pulpit on one side.

A little further on, the passage narrows, the ceiling becomes lower and the floor becomes rocky.  After a few twists and turns, you'll find yourself in a low, round chamber known as Bat's Chamber. The way out is via a short, low crawl along a sandy floor to the sunshine on the other side of the mountain.

Wynberg Cave

Visits to this cave should only be made with experienced cavers or the CPSS. This is a very dangerous cave and is definitely not for beginners. It is included here because of its historical significance and to whet your appetite for the caving opportunities that are open to members of the CPSS. Wynberg Cave is a deep vertical crack that runs along the side of a small rift valley on Table Mountain.

There are a number of entrances to the cave, some of which are holes in the roof through which an unsuspecting person could fall over 30m (98ft) to the floor of the cave below. The main entrance to the cave requires some dexterous climbing down a sheer 3m (10ft) wall. At the bottom of the climb, cavers have to zigzag their way down the cave, always choosing the correct level on which to proceed.  Many of the passage floors have deep, dangerous holes that lead to the lower parts of the cave.

After negotiating a narrow and difficult boulder choke - a pile of rocks filling the chamber - cavers will find themselves in Pluto's Hall, a narrow lofty chamber in the middle of the cave. The chamber narrows at one end, and, after a short crawl, the long climb up to the surface begins. The rocks in this part of the cave are slippery and loose, and an unwary caver can easily knock rocks down onto an unfortunate and unsuspecting fellow explorer. The last part of the passage is intermittently open to the sky, and a short scramble will lead the explorer back to the fresh air.

Ancient names

The mythological and Biblical names given to some of the Kalk Bay caves evoke powerful images of the underworld - a reminder that exploring these dark chambers is not something that should be undertaken too lightly! Tartarus: Named for the cave under Hades where, according to Greek mythology, the Titans were imprisoned. Avernus: In Roman mythology, a crater near Cumae in Campania believed to be the entrance to the underworld. Also a name for the underworld itself.

Taphos: In ancient Greece, Taphos was the mystical tomb or sarcophagus placed in the crypt of initiation, and in which the neophyte was expected to lie. It was called a tomb because the newly converted person, for the time being, was considered to be 'dead' before being 'resurrected'. Adullam: Named after the Biblical Cave of Adullam in the mountainous deserts of Israel, where David sought refuge from his pursuer, King Saul.

Caving rules

No commercial caving is allowed within the parameters of the Table Mountain National Park.Cavers should adhere to the general rules of access to, and use of, both private and public land. In particular, they should seek permission from private landowners. No littering, graffiti or other defacing of the caves is allowed. There should be no disturbing of wildlife within the mountain's caves. Importantly, if bats are disturbed while they are hibernating, they may die due to the unexpected, excessive expenditure of energy that occurs as a result.

Fish Hoek Man

Peers Cave is named after Victor Peers, who, with his son Bertie, stumbled upon what he thought were some stone tools in the overhang in the 1920s. After further excavation between 1926 and 1928, Victor unearthed the remains of nine hominids in the cave. The skull of one, named Fish Hoek Man, had the largest brain area of any skull found in southern Africa at that time. Initially, the remains were dated at 15 000 years old but they have since been re-dated at around 12 000 years old, i.e. Later Stone Age. The fascinating Fish Hoek Valley Museum has a whole room dedicated to Peers Cave and the remains that were found there, but the skull of Fish Hoek Man now rests in the South African Museum in the Company's Garden.

Rare wildlife

Visitors to Boomslang Cave may glimpse a spider-like creature with long antennae. This unusual and rare specimen is the tiny, long-legged, golden-haired, cave cricket (Spelaeiacris tabulae). It's found nowhere else in Africa but similar crickets are found in the Falklands, New Zealand and Australia. Given that the cave cricket cannot tolerate sunlight and lives only in caves, it could not have migrated to such distant shores. The distribution therefore provides strong evidence of continental drift - the theory that the continents were once part of one landmass, called Gondwanaland, that broke up around 145 million years ago.



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