The day after our Safari we took another day trip, this time to the Sterkfontein Caves. I was excited; my curiosity and imagination is taken over by the prospect of caves, with unexplored caverns and hidden treasures waiting just below the surface, especially with the concentration of fossils in the country. South Africa has the highest rate of fossil discovery in the world, with an even higher number being uncovered in the Cradle of Humanity where the Caves lay.
However, this casual trekker’s fossil-finding was cut short by my imagination. It all began when our tour guide took us down the manmade stairway and into the first cavern, which held the first entrance ever found into the Caves. Emphasis specifically on entrance, because upon excavation the first Italian miners found skeletons of mankind’s ancestors trapped beneath the surface, either dying by starvation and fear in the deep darkness of the Caves’ recesses or, if they were lucky, from the 30 foot fall.
He told us how the Italians mined for the the stalagmites and stalactites, and that excavation continues today for fossils and precious metals. One gate in particular sectioned off the main tour from the workers, a locked portal to another deeper, darker realm. The next section was known as the Elephant Cavern for its elephant-like rock formation, and also because it is the largest cavern in the cave. There is another, higher opening to the outside, with an even sheerer, longer drop. Let’s just say I was happy we took the stairs.
From here, however, things got creepier. We hiked deeper into the winding caverns and arrived at a natural pool. The rock in the cavern is porous, so the water washed away any salt, leaving twisted underwater pools begging for exploration. This was banned, however, when two snorkeling spelunkers went to find the bottom of the pool and maxed out at over 40 meters, or 135 feet. They never saw the bottom. On their way back one snorkeler’s lights and rope failed him, and he was essentially free diving in pitch black water. He tried swimming to the surface but got caught in a different tunnel, eventually finding an air pocket and apparently deciding to wait for help to find him. It arrived 90 days later when the team of rescuers finally found his body in a small tunnel right near the pool opening. They must have swum by him every day. Upon further inspection, they discovered he had carved the words “I love you, Mom. I love you, Shelley” into the rock.
This freaked me out. Images of The Descent and the terrifying Golem flashed into my mind, (I find Golem from The Hobbit to be one of the most terrifying settings I’ve ever read or seen) and I’m sure I was going to be taken by some blind bastard ancestor of mankind waiting in the deep recesses of the caves. My friend Raj corrected me: it was actually the lesbian shaman witches that would harvest men to continue their race. From then on I saw fleeting shadows, probably of my fellow adventurers but maybe, just maybe, of the dreaded lesbian shaman witches.
The worst part of the tour was my claustrophobia. As the name reveals, cramped spaces stress me out, and if my arms and legs are restrained I break into a panic attack. The thought of the lack of natural light and of the rock walls crushing me beneath their weight with the one unfortunate blast from below subjected me to a cold sweat. It was a long 290 step ascension, some spaces where I had to crawl on my hands and knees, to reach the end of the cave. By that point I was done with caves and with lesbian shaman witches; they could wait for other travelers. We escaped the cave and waited for the bus to transport us to a mall for lunch.
As Raj prefers to rationalize it, he likes to experience what the average people eat to get a feel for the culture. Key word, eat. This meant many things throughout the trip: succulent meats, delicious creamed spinach, spiced vegetables, and steamed bread. This time it meant fast food. The first but not last fast food joint we sampled was called Nando’s. It’s kind of cheating on the experience-the-culture aspect because there are some Nando’s in Great Britain; however, they started in South Africa so I decided we were still in the clear. The food, while messy, was much better than American food equivalents, which seems to be a theme throughout the trip. We chalked this up to more exotic spices (Raj and I enjoyed that the food was actually spicy) and the less processed meat. It just seemed less fake than McDonald’s, for example, and it even had creamed spinach as a French fry alternative! More Nando’s was to follow along with another presumably local brand, Chicken Licken, and just to see the difference we tried KFC and McDonald’s. The latter two were just as expensive by South African standards as they are in America.
Reflecting on my time so far, South Africa seems to be a country of extremes: it is richer in minerals and fossils than any other, more politically corrupt than many, and still getting through a different kind of social tumultuousness that characterized the country under apartheid. The food is superior, its history is richer, heck, they even have more official languages than any country I know of (they have 11, compared to the United States at zero). What I was to find out that night is that not only are the people friendly but its hard-fought sense of community translates to its music. Touristy sight-seeing accomplished, we headed to our first concert of the tour that night, and it was an experience I will remember forever.