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.
WHAT TO KNOW:
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 twoOregonians 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!