By Lene Templehof
Johannesburg - Imagine owning the largest cave in Africa, which has a network of passages that extends over 13 kilometres. The entrance chamber into Apocalypse cave, situated near Carltonville gold mine territory, is at the bottom of a 52 metre deep abyss.
The average depth of the cave is 60 metres and the neo-aerial view called for nerves of steel as we precariously peered over the edge to get a better view of the bottomless hole. The cliff walls appeared to narrow and darken radically below.
The cave is exclusively accessible via a minimalist aerial spiders web. Our main line spanned 20 metres across the top of the shaft. Circus high-wire and acrobatic installations seemed miniature in relation to what was in front of us.
A vertical rope was suspended from the centre of the slightly concave, tight horizontal rope. Our abseil rope was much like a spiders silk drop line.
Getting to the central point in order to abseil down meant negotiating a number of scenarios. First there was a tricky vertical rocky scramble to an anchored rope, which signalled step two: down the gully. This entailed partnering up with some climbing equipment. Harnesses, safety ropes, helmets and ascenders were the order of the day.
Step three was the take-off stage, leaving terra firma for ethereal air. I nearly missed the launch pad completely as my foot was way too long for the final slither of a rock step.
Without much ado I had stepped right off the edge of the cliff and found myself happily swinging into the middle of nowhere. When the pendulum motion came to a halt, I realised that the lift was about to go down. The writing was on the wall, but here there was no wall! My newfound spider sense kicked in for the descent into the pit.
The abseil was a little slower than I had hoped. In fact nearly coming to a grinding halt half way down – I had to think big and envisage heavyweight Olympic weightlifters – coupled with jumping up and down in order to descend to the bottom. Next time I will load in some extra weight to help turbocharge the trip down.
Master cavers and owners of Apocalypse cave John and Selena Dickie have explored this laby-rinthine subterranean world probably over 50 times. Apocalypse is a stones throw from the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage where a treasure chest of hominid fossils and stone tools were excavated from the dolomite limestone caves that once were part of a coral ocean bed.
On entering Apocalypse one encounters a roost of horseshoe bats. We soon left the semi-lit entrance portal for the heart of the pitch black cave. The flying mice were left to guard our laden harnesses as we headed off with our essential headlamps to explore a plethora of different dark, enclosing spaces and baboon and bovine skeletons. The temperature was 19 degrees, causing us all to glow with perspiration.
There was something special about the forgiving texture and deep sound quality of a sideways area as we slid through.
One bejewelled chamber had great sparkling ragged tooth and popcorn shaped crystalline formations in it. Another exciting area was a slalom slope, a mud runway that we could surf down – wearing regular caving footwear!
We had been in the cave for five hours and had an hour to get back out of the cave so that I could make the flight back to Cape Town. It was at this point that there was a slight falter as how to get out of the cave and one of our party members ventured down a side passage to see if that was the way. Soon we were three parties waiting or searching for each other. The plane had landed at Lanseria and was warming up to leave. My headlamp started fading and it was time to bring out the back up light.
Eventually we were reunited and re-harnessed ready to prussik out, which takes the average person 20 minutes to do.
At one stage it felt like treading water, but dangling in mid-air, feet in footloops, there was no visible movement up the springy rope. Imagine doing the yoga pose utkatasana (deep bend in the knees, up stretched trunk and arms, forming a dynamic zig-zag) over and over again in quick succession, literally at the end of a rope. Being unaccustomed to the high altitude on the Reef made it easy to sound and act very unfit.
I got to the airport in the nick of time, where someone asked if I had taken in a lot of sun! Being underground we hadn’t seen the sun since 10am, but the rich red-brown subterranean mud from the cave had left its mark.