South Africa is mainly known for its above-ground wildlife and safaris, but the country also has dozens of subterranean treasures. Some of these caves in South Africa are portals to ancient human life, with ancient rock art and other artifacts that affect how we understand human evolution. In other caves visitors can explore networks of tunnels, see beautiful rock formations, and get a glimpse into the workings of prehistoric Earth. Some of these caves are accessible by car and others you’ll have to work harder to reach — by hiking — but the payoff is worth it!
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This article originally appeared on AFKInsider.com.
1. Cango Caves
Cango Caves, located 29 kilometers from Oudtshoorn at the start of the Cango Valley in the Cape, is South Africa’s best-known cave system. Visitors have a choice of two tours: The Heritage Tour takes you through the gorgeous halls with names like Rainbow Room, Temple, and Throne Room, while the Adventure Tour takes visitors deeper into the network of caves. This is not for the claustrophobic!
2. Maropeng, Cradle of Humankind
If you are more interested in early human history than rock formations, then you will want to visit the Cradle of Humankind in Sterkfontein. The site includes many attractions, including tours of the famous Sterkfontein Caves. This is where scientists discovered fossils of early hominids and animals dating back more than four million years. They also discovered stone tools that were two million years old. Visitors can also tour other caves at Cradle of Humankind, including Plover’s Lake Cave, Wonder Cave, and Cooper’s Cave.
3. Elephant’s Eye Cave
Elephant’s Eye Cave isn’t one of South Africa’s most majestic or historically-significant caves, however, it’s one of the most fun caves to visit because you can set off on your own to the cave without a guide. The cave is located just outside Cape Town in the Silvermine Nature Reserve. The hike to the cave isn’t difficult, save for the last part which is fairly steep. You are rewarded for your efforts with a spectacular view from inside the cave. If you are lucky, you will be completely alone and can enjoy a picnic right inside the cave.
4. Sudwala Caves, Mpumalanga
If you want to tour caves without crowds, the Sudwala Caves are a good choice. With a dolomite chamber measuring 70 meters across and 37 meters deep, these caves are nearly as impressive as Cango, but they aren’t visited by tourists as often. You can tour 600 meters of the caves with a guide, or you can go on the Crystal Tour which takes you 200 meters into the caves and involves wading through water and scrambling down rocks.
5. Echo Caves
Echo Caves are located in Limpopo about 15 kilometers from the Strydom Tunnel. The caves were accidentally discovered in the 1920s by a farmer and his cow. The caves get their name from the echo sound when the rocks are tapped. Today, visitors can take guided tours of the caves and view the impressive rock formations and halls. Unlike some other cave tours, these tours are suitable for the young and the old.
6. Makapansgat Caves
Makapansgat Caves are also located in Limpopo. They are a very important archaeological site because of the vast amounts of fossils there, such as the most complete Australopithecus africanus skull ever discovered. Visitors can tour three of the site’s caves and see where the early human fossils were found, along with evidence of early fire use.
7. uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Caves
These high altitude caves are located within the mountainous uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some 4,000 years ago, the San people lived here and made thousands of paintings in an estimated 600 caves in the region. Visitors can even stay overnight in a cave, as camping is permitted.
8. Cathedral Caves
Cathedral Caves are located in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the Free State. The caves offer a stunning example of sandstone weathering. The beautiful, curving shapes of the sandstone were carved out by wind and water over several millennia. Visitors see rock art and learn about Basotho culture at the Living Museum.
9. Wonderwerk Cave
Wonderwerk Cave is located in the Northern Cape off regional route R31 just south of Kuruman. The cave is an archaeological site, and was used as a shelter for thousands of years by early humans. Archaeologists made impressive finds at the cave, including stone tools dating back 2 million years. Visitors can tour parts of the cave, and is easily accessible — suitable for children, the elderly, and wheelchairs.
10. Blombos Cave
Blombos Cave is an archaeological site located in Blombosfontein Nature Reserve, about 300 kilometers east of Cape Town on the Southern Cape coastline. It’s famous for the 75,000 year-old beads that were found there. The beads were decorated with abstract designs, making them among the earliest evidence of human artwork. The cave site was first excavated in 1991. Findings included ochre processing kits, marine shell beads, and engraved bone. The findings here along with excavations of other Middle Stone Age sites in southern Africa resulted in a paradigm shift in understanding the development of modern human behavior.
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