‘Use the stepping stones as a pass through’. The muted advice drifted through the pitch black patch at the base of rear of a deep rectangular cave. The approach to the dark patch was a strip of muddy water, punctuated by a series of convenient rocky protrusions, providing a natural array of stepping stones across the wet cave floor.
Closer now, the dark feature opened into a small doorlike hole leading into a second chamber. Equally as large as the first cave, it was in a perpendicular alignment to the first, a glimmer of sunlight stabbing the darkness to the west and the flitter of bats shimmering through the humid air above.
This is one of many caves that can be found in the Garden Route between Storms River and Witsand. Like most, this cave is not easily assessable, located at the base of an ocean cliff, requiring a scramble down a scree covered slope and bouldering along the shoreline to reach the discrete opening.
There is something that triggers our primal memory when we enter a cave, a legacy of our ancestral past, especially along the Southern Cape coastline. Considered the Cradle of Human Culture, the caves of Southern Cape have yielded evidence of the development of human consciousness with prolific middle age stone tools, art and even engineering from midden layers. Exploring a cave in the region can reveal a range of finds, from wildlife, middens, stone tools and artwork, all offering a glimpse into our ancestral past and our role in nature.
Two easily accessible caves that have been comprehensively studied are Nelson’s Cave and Cave 13B, both of which unlock a time capsule of the Garden Route.
Changing Sea levels
Wending your way down a narrow, overgrown path to Nelson’s Cave in the Robberg Nature Reserve is a journey through the past 20,000 years. Inhabited from about 125,000 year before present (BP), the cave was abandoned between 40,000 and 20,000 years BP when the sea level was 140m below it’s current level and the shoreline was approximately 100km to the south. The cave floor is covered by a thick midden, a collection of discarded food items consumed by human dwellers over the past 20,000 years, contains terrestrial animal remains in the older bottom layer, transitioning to marine mollusk shells closer to the surface and finally fish bones in the recent upper layers. The transition in the contents of these layers shed an insight into the rising sea levels and the transition of habitat from savannah type grasslands on the exposed Agulhas Bank to the current intertidal zone that is approximately 20m below the cave entrance.
‘Welcome back home’ is the greeting with which Christopher welcomes guests to cave 13B at Pinnacle Point. First studied in the 2000’s cave 13B has become a definitive cave in understanding the history of human existence along the Southern Cape. Containing flowstone which is intimately correlated with the midden layers, it has yielded extremely accurate dating of human habitation in the cave for the past 164,000 years. Shell beads along with fire hardened and treated stone tools suggest the onset of human culture originated along our coastline.
Hiking along a cliff top path in the Robberg Coastal Corridor Protected Area, we encounter some spoor, fresh and unmistakable. Following a trail of Baboon tracks on the path are clear Cape Leopard footprints, the raised ridges of soil between the pads still crisp and sharp, not more than an hour old. Their presence is appropriate as we are about to descend to Tiergat, a spectacular cave overlooking a rugged bay within the protected area, a private conservation area east of Harkerville.
With columns of flowstone between the floor and ceiling, the cave is named using an old Afrikaans reference to leopards, tier, which presumably frequented the cave in the not too distant past. Inside the cave, adding to the imagery of the caves name, the stalactites lining the rim of the cave mouth appear as predatory teeth.
Entering the cave on a guided hike, our guide and conservation manager of the RCC, Kei Heyns’, emphasizes the importance of only taking photo’s and leaving nothing but footprints, a conservation ethos vital to protecting the geological and archeological features of this and many other caves.
Hiking between Nature’s Valley and Keurboomstrand, we approach a sea cave that penetrates a sheer cliff, a tunnel offering a shortcut passage through the rock. There is one catch, you have to do it at low tide, preferably on a spring low tide to get through safely. Scanning the waves, we pack our clothes and gear into a drybag and scuttle along a rock ledge till we have no option but to enter the water to chest depth and proceed towards the gaping opening spurned on by sets of waves.
The cave runs at right angles to the cave opening, the high water mark clearly delignated by algae and intertidal mollusks indicating that at high tide this would be a current assisted swim-through if you got your timing wrong.
Another series of coastal caves which, while not tunneling through cliffs, do also require tidal timing to visit, can be found between Glentana and the Malgate River. Approaching from the west requires a sense of adventure as you negotiate across some narrow ‘dassie’ ledges before reaching a series of towering caves. With tall gaping openings, some of them extend tens of meters above, with a few opening into roomy chambers that would offer ample shelter for fishermen that get caught by a storm or incoming tide.
Rock art in Southern Africa is synonymous with depictions of wildlife, ritual practices and otherworldly characters which grace geological features throughout the region, though there is a noticeable shortage along the coastline. Consensus views are that it is rather the moisture laden sea air that has shortened the life of rock art along the coast instead of the lack of ancient artists recording their creativity.
In the Southern Cape, there are a handful of caves that house some intact archeological art, the most notable being in the Blombos Cave where a flake of silcrete with a cross-hatched drawing penned with ochre dating 73,000 years before present was found. Evoking comic comment that it was the first hashtag, it does represent the oldest global artwork attributed to Homo sapiens.
The urge to express creativity onto cave walls and rock faces lives on, and sadly too often, ancient rock artwork is simply covered with fruitless expressions of adolescent love by modern visitors to these sites.
Passing into the second chamber through the dark door-like portal at the rear of the cave, we turn left, jumping over bat guano as some of the bat colony dart above our heads while we made our way towards a shaft of light in the distance. There had to be another opening, and after passing beneath the seething bat colony, a hole opened into a third chamber, parallel to the first, returning to the ocean.
Emerging into the sunshine through a previously unseen opening, a dassie alarm call and a flock of Red-winged Starling flushing from a nearby ledge heralded the end of our current caving circuit, etching into our memories a hidden dimension of the Garden Route.