23 Oct 2020
Namibia has a large variety of activities to offer tourists and a special adventure is definitely a visit to the various underground caves. It is hardly known that the largest underground lake in the world is situated in Namibia – sixty metres below the surface in a cave mysteriously called “Dragon’s Breath Hole”. Then there is the nearly five kilometre long Arnhem Cave just over a 100 km east of Windhoek, and the ‘Apollo 11’ cave in southern Namibia, with an interesting story how it got this unusual name. Tourists, who like bats, can combine their interest for these flying creatures when exploring caves in Namibia.
According to the official cave register of Namibia, about one hundred caves in various sizes have been found in the country, many of them unexplored and one of them, the Ghaub Cave near Otavi was even declared a national monument. Due to the geological Karst formation in the Otavi area, quite a few caves are found there. Since most tourists arrive in Windhoek and want to visit the Etosha National Park in northern Namibia, let us start with the Arnhem Cave, which is situated some 115 km southeast of Windhoek on a farm.
It is regarded as the longest cave in Namibia, with about 4,800 m length and was discovered in 1930. Its surface contained extensive deposits of bat droppings. More than 100 000 tonnes of bat guano was removed from the Arnhem cave between 1932 and 1942 to be used as fertiliser. Since then, the many bat colonies continue their cave life undisturbed except for the occasional guided tourist tours.
The Arnhem cave has large chambers and many winding passages, which are quite dusty. Since most caves in Namibia are situated on farms, prior notification of intended visits and availability of tourism facilities are necessary.
A cluster of caves in the Otavi area
The Otavi area or ‘bergland’ lies in the triangle of the towns Otavi, Tsumeb and Grootfontein. Its unique geological ‘karst’ formation produced several caves over time and is rich in high quality underground water. Several ‘sink holes’ have created lakes like Lake Otjikoto outside Tsumeb next to the main road to the Etosha National Park and the lesser known Guinas Lake nearby on the farm Guinas.
The Ghaub Cave is on the guest farm Ghaub between Otavi and Grootfontein. The vast cave has several passages and chambers. Guided tours are possible on enquiry at the guest farm.
The most spectacular cave is probably the nearby Dragon’s Breath Hole, with an underground lake, which is two hectares in size. It was discovered in 1986 in the farm Harasib. The cave is situated over 60 metres below the surface, which requires abseiling equipment. The depth of the largest underground lake in the world with its crystal-clear lake is 84 metres! The name refers to the immense depth of this cave, like being in the dragon’s world and the ‘breath’ is the vapours formed when warm air from above reaches the cold-water surface of the lake.
The nearby Harasib cave was discovered to be even deeper - 120 metres beneath the surface.
Not too far away towards Outjo the Gamkarab Cave can be explored, some 30km south of the town, which contains stalactites as well as the ‘Ganachaams Cave’, which is also a national monument. The ‘Mooihoek Cave’ is situated 26km west of Outjo.
The Phillip’s Cave in the Erongo Region
A cave of a different kind is the well known ‘Phillip’s Cave’ in the Erongo Mountains to the north of Usakos and Karibib. It is rather a huge rock overhang, which thousands of years ago was a shelter for indigenous people. It has with rock paintings like that of a white elephant and several more. The view from that cave is rather spectacular.
The Apollo 11 Cave in southern Namibia
It is situated the Karas Region in southwestern Namibia in the Hunsberg Mountains approximately 250 km southwest of Keetmanshoop. The local Nama-speaking inhabitants call the area ‘Goachanas’.
The German archaeologist Wolfgang Erich Wendt was working in the until then unnamed cave, when he heard of the Apollo 11 crew's successful return to Earth from their moon mission on July 24, 1969 in his little transistor radio. It was the first manned mission to the moon in history.
Wendt made a significant discovery as he found four painted stone slab fragments and a flat oval pebble with remnants of a painting, being among the oldest pieces of mobile art found in southern Africa.
In 1972, Wendt discovered three more stone slabs, including a fragment which, when combined with a fragment from the first excavation section, showing the image of a big cat, a predator. Radiocarbon tests made dated the slabs back to the middle stone age, 27,500 to 25,500 years B.C. The art slabs found in this cave are referred to as the Apollo 11 Stones.
On other slabs, a rhinoceros drawn in outlines and a striped animal that has similarities with a zebra can be seen. They slabs are not from the cave and scientists thus assumed they were brought there from another area and referred to them thus as mobile art.
Finds from the Apollo 11 cave are exhibited in the Namibian National Museum in Windhoek. The stone slabs are stored in a vault at the National Museum.
History of Namibia’s speleology or cave science
Caves are often discovered by chance by hikers, miners or geologists and with the knowledge of local inhabitants. During the German colonial era (1884 – 1915), a few caves were known and recorded. Later on, hikers and mountain climbers would discover more caves but there was hardly any central registry kept until the Höhlenforschungsverein (Association of cave researchers), was founded in 1963 in Namibia. It produced several reports and reached out to a similar association on South Africa. The Verein was disbanded in 1974. Namibia’s national museum was also interested in caves since the 1960's, but mainly for archaeological research.
By 1984 John Irish, then an entomologist at the National Museum of Namibia, initiated structured speleological research to obtain more information on the fauna in caves. In 1968, members of the South African Speleological Association (SASA) visited our country to explore areas where caves might be found. This resulted in the discovery of Dragon's Breath Hole cave, which made global headlines.
Since then, research, mapping and site visits have been quite well recorded in Namibia, also driven by enthusiastic laypersons and experts from outside Namibia.
So, if you plan your next trip(s) to Namibia, take your special hiking boots and a good torch along to discover the fascinating world of caves in Namibia.
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