Manila Times column
We had chosen to stay the night at a 19th century farmhouse situated on a slope outside of Oudtshoorn, close to the Swartberg mountain range. An old animal trap decorated the top of our door and the toilet flushed only after we had given the iron chain a good many sharp tugs. The property nearby was a farm where ostriches were bred for meat and feathers. The Cango caves were a ten minute drive away. Helpful signs pointed the way: the caves are a part of South Africa’s patrimony, and the government has made every effort to make them visitor-friendly.
We bought tickets at the entrance lobby, which contained tourist shops, an exhibit of early photos of the caves, a small theater. In the parking lot, a tour bus idled; as we entered the vestibule of the cave, we came upon the passengers, a flock of German tourists. A tableau representing a Khoi-san family had been set up in a niche – these brown-skinned people, distinct in feature and culture from the black Africans, had inhabited the mouth of the cave several hundred years ago. Flashbulbs popped. Pretty soon, two young black women joined us. The one who spoke German shepherded the tourists away, leaving five or six for the English-speaking guide.
She led us down a flight of stairs into a cavern lit just enough for us to see the structures that water seeping through rock had created over thousands of years. She told us how the first European to set foot in this cave had come through that very entrance, equipped only with a kerosene lamp. He had estimated the cave to be a mile high and five miles deep. The guide turned the cave lights off and in total darkness we contemplated a single red pinprick high up on the wall – the wattage of that very lamp. Then the lights went on, gloriously illuminating the steles and waterfalls of rock, while we took pictures to our heart’s content.
The tour went on, through several more chambers, each strategically lit, sometimes with colored lights, each with its own story, each formation with a unique (albeit cheesy) nickname – the bridal bed, for instance, with seven bedposts; the angel; the devil; the African drum. We noted where souvenir seekers had destroyed the niche once-called Fairyland by breaking off every last stalactite and stalagmite. Once concerts had been held in the large chamber closest to the entrance but this had been stopped in the 60s for the damage it did to the interior. Green matter that snaked down one moist formation was moss caused by an excess of carbon dioxide the visitors had tracked in, as well as the lights: it was an ecological problem the cave’s preservers were battling.
All this we learned from the guide, who spoke in an engaging but extremely slow manner, as one might explain things to those for whom English is a third language, as I supposed many of the tourists would be. I was impressed that there would be a guide to speak German, but given the quality of the infrastructure surrounding this natural wonder, it seemed likely that, given the proper notice, the Cango Caves authorities would have been happy to field Japanese-, Spanish- or French-speaking guides as well. Her carefully paced and rehearsed commentary also served a more practical purpose – it protracted the tour of what was essentially a kilometer worth of oversized limestone carrots, playing to the imaginative child in all of us, and ensuring we knew enough to properly label our pictures when we got home. At the gift shop, we picked up ostrich feather fans and an African music CD.
I was struck by the contrast between the highly-developed Cango Caves and the Palawan underground cavern, which I visited, in 2002, in a banca equipped with a simple yellow floodlight. The boatman served as guide as well. His ability to steer us through the submerged rocks partway into the cave and back again was more crucial to the experience than his communication skills, and in consequence his cheesy commentary hindered, rather than enhanced, our enjoyment of the underground scenery. This scenery, with its swollen, organically shaped structures and intriguing textures, was, to my mind ten times more beautiful than what we had seen in the Cango chambers, had it been lit and presented in a similar way. And Palawan simply has more of it. But I suppose an underground river brings with it a number of engineering challenges, none of which might be funded at the rate of P100 per head, as we were charged. That journey, beneath the limestone crust of Palawan, was infused with a romantic jungle roughness – we were entering an enclave that even the locals were in awe of. Perhaps that is how the Philippine tourism department wishes to keep it.
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