Destinations, Feature Trips, South Africa, twoOregonians Tour the Cape

What Lies Beneath: Caving and Craft Beer

September 19, 2012

As I wiggled like a worm through damp crevices, claustrophobia gripped me. I trepidatiously advanced into the belly of the earth, one.five kilometers away from sunlight, deep within the recesses of Mother Nature’s time capsule, where beauty wore darkness to veil its secrets.

I eagerly agreed to visit the Cango Caves, just ninety minutes from our lodging in Wilderness Bay, South Africa, not knowing just exactly what to expect. Bethany stayed behind to catch up on work. I took the car across a major mountain pass, up up up and then down down down, threading my way inland, looking for what is known as one of Africa’s seven natural wonders.

Guests can choose between two routes at the entrance of the caves. Both are guided. Neither are for the faint for heart. I chose the first route, an easier distance which didn’t require tight squeezes or belly crawls. However, the caves manager talked me into the second route, extolling the additional beauty I would behold, and assuring me that I could “turn back and wait” if at any time I felt uncomfortable.

Okay. Considering I get claustrophobic if I wake up with a pillow on my chest, embarking on the second option was my equivalent to shark cage diving or jumping head first off the world’s highest bungee. But I agreed, and off I went.

Pictures from the scenic drive out to Oudtshoorn and on to the Cango Caves.

The Cango Caves (prounounced like the “Kang” in Captain Kangaroo) were inhabited by nomads for over 80,000 years. Legend has it, over two centuries ago, one of the first cave ‘explorers’ ventured in as far as he could reach, by candlelight, and emerged days later claiming the caves extended over five kilometers. Actually, the Cango Caves DO extend that far into the earth, but they weren’t accessible back then (passages have since been opened up). Either way, even one kilometer can feel like an eternity when you’re on your hands and knees by candlelight.

Nowadays, the Cave administration has decided to keep only 1/5th of the caves open to the public, in order to preserve the integrity of the other 4/5ths.

The story of the Cango Caves is really a story about water.

Within these caverns, water has dripped for eons, from cavern ceiling to cavern floor, creating stalactites and stalagmites (meters thick) by depositing minerals one drip at a time. In this ultra-slow creation of art, colors and billows and columns and pillars remain hidden and intact, waiting for the light to reveal their glory.

Water is as water does. Undisturbed by humans, it follows the rules: obeying gravity, depositing minerals, and going slowwwwwwlyd. Like a drippy faucet.

But the results are astounding. To behold one of these columns is to actually see music — tangible, visual music. They sing of beauty that can be produced only through the slowest of undisturbed processes, through nature’s gratuitous display of impurities.

Our small group moved from the more spacious caverns to the tiny ones, progressing through the tightest of squeezes. The air grew heavier. This far into the earth, the air remains a constant 18 degrees (67F) and 97% humidity.

One particularly tight squeeze, aptly named the “postal box,” frightened the hell out of me. Nothing to do but keep moving.

Was it worth it? Yes. Resoundingly yes. The manager was right — it was just too beautiful not to see. It made me forget (mostly) the frightening experience of being rebirthed by the earth.

My caving companions in the light of day

Just seven kilometers away from Cango, on my way back home, I stopped at Karusa Winery. Their sign said “Winery and Craft Brewery” so I really didn’t have any choice but to pull over.

South Africa is a Craft Brewery desert, like many places we’ve visited. Everywhere we ate in the Western Cape, even at the places extolling “local” and “quality,” the same four or five commercial beers were offered.

As I’ve said before, when Heineken is the best beer choice on the menu, something is wrong with the menu.

Despite showing up unannounced, vintner and brewer Jacques showed me around his place. Jacques has run a successful winery since 2004 in the Cango Valley, selling most of his stock locally. But half the year, when he wasn’t crushing grapes, he was bored. He likes beer and saw the wide open market for craft brew in the Western Cape. So he brewed his first batch this February.

Until the day I showed up, it has only been available on draft at his restaurant. However, he was prepping to bottle his first batch the next day.

Here’s what Karusa’s website has to say about the brew: (bolded words are my own).

Tired of thin watery and carbonated mass produced beers? (YES!) Karusa is the first and only full grain Micro Craft Brewery in the Klein Karoo. Using locally grown hops (from Waboomskraal) (see the picture below I took en route), malted barley from Caledon and the sweet water from the great Swartberg, Karusa produces complex aromatic styled ale. The climate of Oudtshoorn lends itself to the crisp refreshing style of ale produced at Karusa – come and have it on the tap! (Say no more. I’m coming!)

Eagerly, I partook. And I was not disappointed.

Hop fields in South Africa

Now before I tell you about this beer, a reminder (as if you could forget). I’m from Portland, Oregon, land of hops and hoppy beer. Hoppiness is very important to me. Not over-hoppiness, but balanced hoppiness. Many of the craft beers I’ve tasted outside of the US just don’t have any hoppiness. Even if the taste is decent and quality, the overall beer is boring. And boring beer is a sin. (Incidently, “hoppiness” is not a word. Spell check wants to autocorrect it to read “happiness.” Touché Spell Check).

What did I taste? I tasted a lightish pale ale, refreshing, cold, fruity, and yes, even hoppy. It was a beautiful batch of brew. It was complex, very complex, with honey and lemon and several other fruits saying hello. It was a harmonious balance of bitter and sweet.

Indeed, I couldn’t keep my hands off the stuff.

This brew is already a dynamo, and Jacques is only going to improve it. I am happily (hoppily?) declaring Karusa Brew to be the most satisfying beer I tasted during our tour of the Cape.

It was EXACTLY what I needed after crawling out of the darkness at the Cango Caves, covered in sweat and tired from the two hour hike.

I mentioned this to Jacques. His eyes lit up. “That’s what I was thinking too,” he said.

That’s why Jacques has received permission to sell his beer at Cango on draft, in the very near future.

Oh happy cavers! Exiting Cango will truly be a rebirth for South Africans, out of darkness into light, with a happy alternative to SAB (South African Breweries) waiting in the lobby.

Cango Caves
Open: 9 to 4:00/5:30 364 days of the year.
Standard Tour: Costs R75 ($10) and takes about 60 minutes. No squeezing required.
Adventure Tour: Costs R95 ($12) and takes 90-120 minutes. Lots of squeezing required.
Tips: leave unnecessary items behind, prepare to sweat, call ahead if traveling Dec or Jan.

Karusa Winery and Craft Brewery
Open Monday through Saturday, and includes a Tapas Restaurant.
After leaving Cango, drive about 15 km and look for SCHOEMANSHOEK road on the right. Drive around the back of the church and follow the signs.
Tips: Wine is fine but TRY THE BEER!

This post is part of our €œtwoOregonians Tour the Cape series featuring quintessential and offbeat South African experiences, one-of-a-kind accommodations and beautiful B&Bs, respectful wildlife programs, social service projects, and landscape photography from the South African Cape. As always, all opinions, photos, and stories are our own; many thanks to our kind hosts and partners along the way. It was our pleasure to experience such genuine kindness and hospitality!

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  • Reply Carmel September 19, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Oh man…a year without good beer. I hadn’t thought about that part….

    • Reply Ted ~ twoOregonians September 26, 2012 at 10:00 am

      Carmel, so true! And I was unprepared for that. When we started in South America, I was still naive, but I specifically remember the pit in my stomach when I realized, somewhere in Argentina, just how far I was from Portland and good beer. It’s made discoveries like Karusa all the more exciting.

  • Reply Joel September 19, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    Ted, I liked this post but the first picture—and the similar one halfway down—makes my skin crawl. I’d skip the caves and go directly to the brewery :)

    • Reply Ted ~ twoOregonians September 26, 2012 at 10:06 am

      Joel, me too, in most cases. Or reverse the order and start with beer :)

  • Reply kaylea foster September 19, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    Cerveza buena! Naturally, i loved this post. This is one of those stressful days where I think “they” should let “us” drink on the job. This post is as close as it gets to such an agreement

    • Reply Ted ~ twoOregonians September 26, 2012 at 10:07 am

      Kaylea, I know what you mean! Some days, I just want a job that allows a little afternoon drinking. You know, like a classy scotch or something?? ;)

  • Reply Darian September 20, 2012 at 12:04 am

    So much fun! Sounds like a good day overall. I think I can justify visiting South Africa for the caves/craft beer combo alone. P.S. our ESB is fermenting away with a melange of locally grown Fuggles, Willamette, and Goldings. As always, we’re saving you a bottle.

    • Reply Ted ~ twoOregonians September 26, 2012 at 10:08 am

      Can’t wait to try the ESB Darian! And the others. Three more months…

  • Reply Tony September 22, 2012 at 3:39 am

    Ted… I feel like you are the JD Salinger of blogging. Super reclusive and only sporadically writing articles, yet providing each article with its own poetry. For a guy who doesn’t blog you sure do seem to work hard on perfecting each article!

    Two things I know about any adventure activity. One: when the guide tells you can back out, he’s counting on peer pressure forcing you to go forward; Two: beer always calms the nerves :)

    Great article and loved your thoughts on the caves! I have never been spelunking but have always wanted to give it a shot. There is something insane about looking at all of those rock formations and realizing that they are still moving, still growing, and so dynamic.

    • Reply Ted ~ twoOregonians September 26, 2012 at 10:10 am

      Thank you Tony! I take that as the highest of compliments. Every blogger just needs to find with he/she is passionate about.

      Can’t wait to go on a beer tour of Portland with you!

  • Reply Judy Loucks September 23, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    You are sooo bwave! Good job on the photos too. One of those in the cave looks like a pipe organ and you mentioned music……

  • Reply Susan Buck September 28, 2012 at 12:16 am

    Delightful, Ted! I felt like I was tagging along– and though I’m not a beer drinker, I’m happy for hippiness (hummm.. My spell checker made it’s own commentary there!) hoppiness if it tugs at your heart-strings reminding you to enjoy the whole, wide world– but be glad to come home. Love you!

  • Reply Jennifer September 30, 2012 at 2:42 am

    This sounds like a caving adventure Tim talked me into in Budapest. It wasn’t remotely close to being what I now like to refer to as “show caves”. Oh no, this caving adventure required coveralls, a helmet with head lamp, and superman poses just to wiggle through tight crevices 20 meters long.

  • Reply Steve Mouton October 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    It was wonderful having you here Ted, and I hope that via this blog, you are able to convince many more to visit us (Cango Caves) AND the beer (it truly is fantastic!!).. Many thanks again for the visit and have a fantastic and safe journey further!!

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