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Text and photographs Marita van Rooyen
Deep in the darkest innards of the earth, lies an otherworldly universe of stalactites and stalagmites that is home to baffling bat families and a mysterious underground lake.
“An expedition launched into the bowels of mother earth is usually met with great excitement, fear and – needless to say – a little apprehension. The air is damp and dark, and your head torch breathes only a thin sliver of light into the ever-engulfing darkness that surrounds you. With the flutter of bat wings and the unknown lurking around every corner, these expeditions are sure to send shivers up your spine,” says Nico Scholtz, professional cave explorer.
At 38 metres beneath the surface of the earth, the Ghaub Caves comprise a muggy underground world formed by a forced get-together of water and calcium over the past seven million years (give or take a year or two). But that’s not all; there is also an entire galaxy of dolomite and sandstone, limestone, and even the odd crystal formation glistening at you from the dark.
Bat families flutter around and even cockroaches loom in the gloom. But that’s about as far as signs of life go. Otherwise, between gasping for the occasional breath of damp air and clambering over muddy heaps of fossilised sand, you will experience only deadly silence.
An intriguing little playground
Way back in 1914 when the venerable missionary Dr Henry Fedder happened upon a large gaping hole in the crust of the earth, he probably had no idea what an intriguing little playground it would become. Over 2.5 kilometres of channels, passageways and rocky halls make up this cave system, where guides Abraham Dawids, Mika Shadwanale, and Andreas Likuwa are leaders of the underworld and teachers about a different realm.
Abraham admits that there’s always a touch of fear present when entering the yawning bowels for the first time, but that it rapidly transforms into a flood of pumping adrenaline. “You can’t imagine how exciting it is to explore beneath the earth you’re usually walking across. Every corner is different, formed through a fascinating process of evolution.”
The underground lake is a tale of endless fascination, with nobody really knowing how deep or large it is, where the water comes from, or where it goes. The general consensus is that our northernmost caves are interconnected to an immense underground lake of azure crystal-clear waters, including waterways to the Guinas and Otjikoto lakes, forming part of the largest underwater lake on earth.
Top cave exploration potential
In 2010 a group of brave Italian and Swiss divers took on the challenge of exploring Gaub’s watery depths. One of them made it 17 metres into the water before returning with the news that the channel down there eventually becomes too narrow to continue the journey, but that the water definitely continues flowing on. So an underground water system had been discovered!
Of course, you can’t imagine anyone splashing around in these daunting waters. The cliffs that take you down to the water surface are way too steep and slippery to make your way back up again in one piece, but indeed, it has been done and will probably be done again. For the present, though, the only sign that any human has ever set foot into the sparkling waters is the helmet of a disorientated tourist lying at what appears to be the bottom of the pool.
Unfortunately cave enthusiasts cannot spend too much time down at the lakeside, as the air is really thin and the oxygen levels become chokingly low. Shortness of breath aside, the underground lake remains a spectacular and decidedly special sight to behold.
Nico adds, “Most visitors to Namibia know little of the enormous and awe-inspiring cave systems in the north. We boast with some of the best cave exploration potential in Africa.”
So what are you waiting for? Don your hard hat and experience the troglobites of the Ghaub cave system!
Awesome underground investigation
Explore the bowels of the Ghaub Caves with the professional cave dwellers from Guestfarm Ghaub. The adventure takes about two hours of underground inspection, which includes becoming covered in mud, sweat and tears (of both excitement and fear!). Those taking up the challenge must wear comfortable hiking shoes, and will be given a helmet and lamp to protect them against bat droppings and other unexpected falling objects, while at the same time enabling them to see where their feet are about to land.
Interesting facts about Ghaub Cave
- In the depths of the caves the temperature is between 25 and 29 degrees Celsius, but they can seem colder in summer and warmer in winter, due to the lack of fresh air.
- A stalactite takes about 100 years to grow 1 centimetre, which is why it was possible to estimate the Ghaub Cave system to be around 7 million years old.
- There is a small entry into the caves called The Postbox, a misleading name, as the opening is large enough to accommodate an adult man.
- Dr Vedder’s original exploration rope is still lying on the floor of the cave system.
- The caves contain graffiti and other signs of man dating as far back as 1914.
This article originally appeared in the Travel News Namibia 2013 edition.