Cape Town in the early 1950s was a place where we grew up, and spent weekends rambling and scrambling over Table Mountain. My brother Adrian, a friend and I soon got to learn of the existence of quite a few caves in the Wynberg area, and decided to explore. The first time we entered Wynberg cave was a bit scary, mainly because we had no torches, and we were not properly equipped at all. Later that afternoon round the campfire, we discussed the possibilities of continuing with this – the answer was a definite YES.
First, we thought of getting hold of a light-weight, rust-proof aluminium ladder, but that was too expensive for us, so the only thing to do was make our own rope ladder.
We used two 50-foot hemp ropes, beautiful wooden rungs made by my brother, and the cement driveway to work on. It was hard work moving the rungs the length of the ropes, settling them in their marked positions and tying special knots to hold them firmly. At last it was finished. Besides the rope, we had waterproof torches and spare batteries, our normal climbing rope and a large ball of string – this was to help guide us the first time – we never wanted to go wandering down passages and find ourselves lost.
We were all members of the Mountain Club, and it wasn’t long before our friends got to hear of what we were up to. Soon we had a fair crowd who were very interested. Now we formed a Club, the South African Spelaeological Association. Someone designed a badge for us, with a bat in the centre. We decided that since we were well on our way, the Club fees would help us buy our aluminium ladder. Generally, when walking or climbing, shorts were worn, but some of the caves were wet and muddy or even filled with bat guano, so the best solution was to wear long overalls, with long sleeves, and elasticised at wrists and ankles; hard hats just as a precaution, with a miner’s lamp clipped in front and a battery box fixed on the belt, nestled in the small of your back.
Before using the new rope ladder in the caves, we all had to practice with this outside; so, we found a suitable spot, the ladder was securely tied on and thrown over the side where it landed on a wide ledge. The first “candidate” down was well held by a sturdy rope – but we soon found one had to do this differently – climb with your body and hands on the outside and legs round to the back, or rock, side – not too easy until you got used to it. The ladder was especially difficult to carry when it got wet, as its already heavy weight increased with each drop of water it absorbed, and caves can be WET.
Many people asked me over the years if I was ever scared, and the answer to that was definitely YES, but most of us were, when using the ladder. As far as getting stuck is concerned, that happened only once when my battery box hooked on a rock projection, and a friend had to help me undo my belt; she then took my belt and battery box away across my legs, and all was well again.
The Oudtshoorn Municipality heard of our club, and as they had for a long time been wanting a good survey done of the Cango Caves, invited our club to see whether this would be feasible. Some of our members were qualified Surveyors.
Easter weekend, 1955, was wet and cold, but as far as we were concerned, we enjoyed it, particularly as we were allowed into sections of the Cave not seen by the General Public – we found a chamber with growths called Helictites – they grew from the sides of the walls – a beautiful shiny white, curling into all different shapes.
Before going home, the decision was made to do the Survey, starting later that year. Now began the hard work.
Our Surveyors took us out to an area above Kalk Bay, Cape Town, and there we were split into Sections and taught the correct use of their tools.
In Oudtshoorn we camped outside the front opening of the Cango Caves in a large field, where the Municipality fed us well. The survey group I was with worked in the first Chamber, and from a central point, using a tape, measured the width and breadth, to get the shape correct. My fiancée, Frank, was with the next group, measuring the height of the Pillars and the roof, using a balloon and string, and so on. Of course, the tourists thought we were aliens because we looked rather strange.
Frank and I got married about 4 months later, so did not get to finish the survey, but the original map was in our possession for years.
Recollections of the Cango Caves Mapping Expedition 1954-1956
Below are Frank and Helen Berrisford's recollections of the expedition as told to their daughter Catherine Berrisford circa 2010:
- Adie Bogers, Jose Burman and Helen Bogers made a rope for their caving – made of HEMP, it had wooden rungs with holes through the ends – the rope was threaded through the holes and knotted. This they had to carry wherever they went. When it got wet - which happens often inside a cave - it was almost impossible to carry because of its extreme weight.
- The Oudtshoorn Municipality heard of their little Caving Society and contacted them, offering to put them up and see if it would be feasible to do a survey of the Caves.
- Before their trip to Cango, Jose came into contact with someone who had a large roll of Parachute material. The three of them were measured by a tailor in Cape Town who made each one an Anorak, complete with a hood, zip and pockets. Helen collected the completed anoraks in Cape Town and took them home. They had to walk from Kenilworth to Constantia while it grew darker and darker – and their Anoraks were shining in the dark.
- Their club was by then growing, with many Mountaineers joining – they brought with them better equipment like overalls, boots, helmets with lamps on them.
- The Club moved to Fish Hook. There they were taught how to do PROPER surveying by two qualified surveyors, namely Ralph Taylor and Jan Blacquiere. Using pegs, tape and a compass in a large hall, they were trained in surveying.
- The next three weekends were spent sorting out cars and gear.
- They first went to Oudtshoorn in 1954 in groups
- The survey was begun in 1955- Frank Berrisford, Helen & Adrian Bogers, and Jose Burman were part of this initial survey.
- While they were busy surveying, the tourist groups were still being brought through the Caves – when a tour group came past, the Cavers had to sit down and switch off their headlamps so the Tour Guides could impress the tourists with the lighting in the caves.
- The Cavers found it extremely interesting, listening to the Tour Guides with each one giving different, inaccurate information to the tourists.
- The Cavers measured the height of the caves with helium balloons attached to string which they sent up while measuring the string. They discovered that all the previous measurements had been grossly exaggerated.
- One section had needles and helictites which curled sideways; as Frank crawled along the passages, the needles bit him!
- The floor was covered with tiny spikes, growing from drips from above – they were very painful to crawl across, biting their skin through their clothes.
- On their trip home, the group spent a night in Kaiman's Gat in Wilderness, where Helen woke up on her Lilo, floating out of her tent in a river of water from the copious amounts of rain.
- Their daughter Catherine Berrisford remembers going to the Cango caves 20 years later, in 1974 and seeing the original pegs which her parents had driven into the surface to do their surveying.
- The Berrisford family had a Cango book – Helen gave it to her brother Adrian who lived in Morgan’s Bay, Eastern Cape, with his son Christopher.
Main image: Stalagmites and stalactites Van Zyl hall of the Cango Caves, in the Swartberg, South Africa (Rute Martins of Leoa's Photography (www.leoa.co.za) - Own work