I’ve never understood the allure of caves. The last time I visited one was during a high school trip and all I can remember was being exhausted from the days’ activities along with the claustrophobia that came with being inside a hole carved into a mountain.
As part of my mission to explore Mpumalanga Province, I challenged myself to let go of my aversions and spend the day at the Sudwala Caves, the oldest dolomitic cave system known to mankind.
I wasn’t sure how to prepare for this but I was at least certain that comfortable walking shoes and a water bottle were non-negotiable. So, I laced up my trainers, grabbed my travel buddy and headed just over 36 km outside of Mbombela to the Sudwala Caves.
Mpumalanga, the Lowveld in particular, is one of the most scenic regions in South Africa, filled with rolling hills and lush, green vegetation. Despite the landscape still bearing the brown scars of a harsh winter, new leaves were sprouting and spring was in the air making the 30 minute drive a rather pleasant one.
It’s a short walk from the parking area to the entrance of the caves but the multiple “slippery when wet” signs are ominous reminders that the right shoes are essential for this type of environment.
Upon entering the caves, we are informed that as per government regulations to curb the spread of Covid-19, the facility no longer offers guided tours. Guides would however be available throughout the caves should we require assistance. So, after a temperature check and a squirt of hand sanitizer, the adventure begins.
The first thing I notice is how unbelievably cool and comfortable the atmosphere in the cave is. This is the result of a stream of fresh, cool air from an unknown source that acts as a natural air-conditioner, keeping the temperature at about 17°C throughout the year.
Barely 20 meters into the caves and I’m struck by the magnitude of the place. Intricate structures formed millions of years ago line the walls of the spacious passages and elaborate patterns decorate the ceilings that horseshoe bats call home.
A self-guided tour is simple as the cave is lit well enough for visitors to see the ample direction and description boards, but it still manages to remain dark enough to maintain the mystery one would associate with a 240 million year old cave.
For the more adventurous traveller, the facility offers a Crystal Tour which they describe as an epic underground adventure that takes you 2000 metes into the heart of the caves where you will enter the crystal chamber characterised by sparkling aragonite crystals.
What I found to be a major drawback from this trip was the lack of information relating to the cultural significance of the Sudwala Caves. In certain areas there were references to the Swati and Pedi people as well as other groups who used the caves for various reasons until they were bought and turned into a tourist attraction in 1965. This lack of information could be a side effect of the current lack of guided tours.
Overall, exploring a cave system of this magnitude is one of those experiences that leave you in awe of how remarkable our planet is and that we should never take the power of nature for granted.
Entrance into the caves is R100 per adult and R70 per child over 4 years old. A visit to the Sudwala Caves definitely a worthwhile experience for families, couple’s or lone travellers with a desire to uncover some of nature’s best kept secrets.