Cango Caves, the chimney and snowy Oudtshoorn.

My hands were clammy, my knees were shaking and I felt like I would soon break into a sweat. It was dark all around us, except for a small light showcasing the surrounding stalagmites and other limestone rock formations. The guide was shining a flashlight up a tiny hole winding upwards into the abyss telling us about a huge lady who was four months pregnant and got stuck in this ‘chimney’. I took a huge gulp and tried to block the image of terror and panic I may experience if I was the one to be trapped in the tunnel and cause the entire group to have to wait for 11 hours before the rescue team freed me with baby oil and climbing equipment. I tried to reassure myself and calm my nerves with the fact that I was shorter and smaller than most parents and older adults in our group other than the little children and my lean brother. The guide mumbled something about right shoulder first, then right, left and right foot again whilst hoisting your body upward to avoid the horrific scenario. What if I forgot the correct stepping? My body suddenly got hotter and I mentioned to the Austrian named Barbara and my brother that I would first peer up the hole before attempting it and there may be a massive chance that I stay behind with the Chinese granny and claustrophobic woman.
We were on the Adventure tour of the famous Cango Caves in Oudtshoorn which has been declared a world heritage site where all tourists are forbidden to eat, drink, smoke and according to our guide,kiss within these walls. The first leg of the Adventure tour went along the same path as the standard tour- through the chamber, past the organ and Cleopatra’s finger and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The first man to discover these caves carried a single candle. Once all lights were switched off, we stood in total darkness with a one light to demonstrate the dim light of the pioneering candle. The man obviously had no fear, I couldn’t see anything.

At about a third of the way is where the standard tour ended, but for us thrill seekers, there was way more in store for us- all 2.4km in total. Outside it was freezing and the nearby mountain peaks were covered in snow, but inside the caves it was muggy and quite warm. I soon had to remove my thick jacket, tie layer number two around my waist and lift my sleeves up to my elbows. Note to prospective visitors: do not wear new leather boots with slippery bottoms that you don’t wish to see dirty in their young life or any white clothing. You will need to develop tiger like grip along the wet limestone and when there are multiple things to worry about like hitting your head, bruising your knees if you slip or getting stuck, this is an added stress. I wish I had worn walking shoes. Next was the Love Tunnel dubbed due to it ‘squeezing you from all sides’ where the only way forward is sideways.

But when it comes down to it and little children and teenagers begin clambering up the evil chimney before you with a queue of eager people at your heels, there’s no way you can chicken out. I send my brother ahead of me, handed my Nikon over to the guide as I didn’t want to crush it whilst crawling up the 90cm diameter chimney. The Chinese grandma takes one look up and shakes her head. My brother boldly makes his way into the darkness. It was now or never. I look up and see light. That already makes me happier, but doesn’t stop my heart racing. I remember “right shoulder first”- crap, there are so many footholds, which one first? I shout up at my brother and I get a few answers from him and the guide. I can see his feet above me and make sure my shoulders never touch the sides. My feet are slipping and now it’s time to push my whole body up. I clutch at anything and hoist myself upward. I already just wanted it to be over and thankfully he was waiting at the top in case I needed rescuing. I breathed a massive sigh of relief whilst sweating like a criminal on the run. I was pleased as punch when the guide said we wouldn’t need to squeeze back down there.

But it was not over yet; the last challenge of the tour was yet to come. The letterbox: a 5 metre crawl with 60cm roof to floor clearance. It was all going well until I could see the person in front of me disappearing through a slither in the rock. Was I meant to get through there? I was already crawling like a serpent on my belly and praying my pants would stop sliding down. The guide was already waiting with my camera to get me in this gruelling position. I smiled and encouraged him to take the photo. What next? I proclaimed in desperation. He wasn’t offering any help and smiling back at me. Surely I was not meant to slide down hands first over this downward hill? I would end up toothless and bruised or lose my pants along the way and flash all behind me. He said I would be fine so I slid down at snail’s pace to ensure I remain unscathed.

Of course this was just the one way journey, we had to go all the way back this way (avoiding the chimney). In hindsight it didn’t seem all that bad, but I was still really proud of myself and happy to be alive and not stuck in the Cango Caves.

'The love tunnel'

The 'letterbox'

Tiny tunnels

Steep stairways

Snowy mountains