Adventure Travel: Back to the cave
Claire Keeton and Marianne Schwankhart don skirts, risk cannibal country and brave bats to take some natural shelter
Eland cave in the Drakensberg, with rock art lit by a full moon; Blouberg cave in Limpopo, where climbers sleep; and a cave about 100m up a cliff near Harrismith, where I celebrated a birthday, are among the caves that have made an impression on me.
But the Motouleng cave near Clarens was the most memorable, with its ritual traditions and size.
Traditional healers, herbalists, their patients, initiates and mystics have visited this cave for hundreds of years. It is lined with saltpeter and is believed to be the second-largest overhanging cave in the southern hemisphere.
Our guide was Oliver Esplin, founder of the adventure company Clarens Xtreme, who made sure Marianne and I understood this was a holy place for sangomas before he took us there. He once had a dream in which the elders advised him women visiting the cave should wear skirts and he asked us if we could adhere to this, bringing along sarongs for us to wrap around our shorts.
From Clarens, we drove to a farm about 15km away, where we parked under trees near a stream and started to follow it up the narrow valley. The hike was a gradual ascent over about 2km and my son Zade, who is five, walked up with no difficulty.
Along the way, we passed groups of pilgrims wearing cloaks, one returning home with a drum, a three-legged pot and a suitcase. When we approached the cave, we crossed the river, making a ritual offering of a coin before walking closer.
On first sight, the Motouleng heritage site is awesome.
The cave, more than 1ha long, has enough space to house a village and there are huts under its roof. It has more than 20 permanent residents, and chickens roam its sandy floor.
"On any day, you can find hundreds of people drumming or singing or you can find the cave nearly empty," said Oliver, adding that it was special for its religious rituals as well as for its geological features.
I crouched down to enter a narrow cavern, about half my height, where people go to pray directly to the ancestors, and saw the burnt-out candles that marked their petitions.
The cave's blackened walls bear testimony to the thousands of people who have sought out dreams, healing, initiation and refuge there.
In contrast, the cave we slept in the following night, also near Clarens, is occupied only by bats and birds.
To reach "Mike's cave", Marianne and I followed the Cannibal hiking trail, so named for a flesh-eater who was rumoured to live in these mountains and confine his victims to the caves on its slopes. Oliver was to meet us at the cave with the gear, Zade and a friend.
We found the trail clearly marked and set off, following the painted white feet across orange slickrock, to where it dropped into a river valley with overhanging sandstone formations.
We climbed out from the valley floor towards a cave on the horizon and it was a beautiful, easy hike for us since we had no backpacks.
We arrived first and Oliver and co joined us within an hour, then we lit a fire for a braai and drank beers and ciders from the Clarens Brewery as the sun was setting.
Inside the cave, we could admire rock art along the walls and looking out we could see Rooiberg and Witteberg mountains. At night the stars came blazing out and we slept well in the open, lying on a groundsheet with mattresses and sleeping bags.
"I can hear the bats but I can't see them," Zade told me. He woke me up at first light saying: "I love sleeping in caves!"
After croissants from the Millery Bakery in Clarens, Marianne and I joined Oliver for a long mountain bike ride back to Clarens, while the others drove back.
Ever since that night, Zade keeps asking me when we're going to sleep in a cave again. Soon, I'm sure.
Cavemen food, cave dwelling
Like cavemen, we ate a palaeodiet for dinner: boerewors, chops, nuts, tomatoes, apples and chocolate (ok, they didn't have chocolate). But our living quarters were more luxurious than our ancestors'.
Mike's cave on the Cannibal trail has a braai pit, grid and wood, table, log benches and mattresses. There is also an ablution block with two toilets, two basins, two showers and a sink, with cold, running water.
Clarens Xtreme, for a visit to Motouleng, call 0825636242 or 0582561260 or visit www.clarensxtreme.co.za.
For the Cannibal trail (previously known as the St Fort trail, as the hike is on the St Fort Guest Farm), call Ernestine Goldblatt on 0582561345; e-mail email@example.com or visit www.trailinfo.co.za. Alternatively, contact Clarens Xtreme.