Sudwala Caves – South Africa’s Ancient Cave Formation

Sudwala Caves is a cave formation in the eastern province of Mpumalanga in South Africa. At an estimated 240 million years old, they are the oldest known caves in the world. Sudwala Caves is visited to explore its incredible tunnel lengths, see the colourfully named rock formations (such as the Screaming Monster), and its cavernous amphitheatre (which can even hold music concerts). The caves are also known for its geological significance, and its long history as a place of refuge.

Visiting Sudwala Caves

The caves are located half an hour drive west of Mbombela (Nelspruit), and is a popular tourist draw in the area. After hiking up to the main entrance, admission costs 80 Rand (40 for children). There are two tours to take, a 1-hour guided tour during the day, and 5-hour Crystal Tour that must be booked through the website. This epic trek goes through 2000 metres of cave tunnels, narrow crawl spaces, and water, coming out to the spectacular aragonite crystal chamber. The highlight is the impressive Sudwala Star, a huge clump of spiked white crystal.

For those not interested in squeezing through tunnels, there is still plenty to see. One of its most impressive features is close to the entrance, the enormous main chamber. At 70 metres wide, and 37 metres from floor to ceiling, the chamber is nicknamed the amphitheatre, and has even hosted concerts because of its great acoustics.

The caves are home to a number of speleothem (mineral deposit) rock formations, given interesting namesbased on their look. The Screaming Monster is perhaps the best known, which resembles a King Kong lifting his hand in the air. Samson’s Pillar, near the entrance to the cave, is a column of stalagmites and stalactites. They are thought to be about 200 million years old. The Lowveld Rocket is named after, well, it’s similarity to a rocket!

The caves are lit up along the way by artificial lighting. During the 1-hour tour visit, the lights were turned off for a moment to show how pitch black the caves can look without any lighting.

Sudwala Caves Dinosaur Park

Nearby Sudwala Caves is the Sudwala Caves Dinosaur Park, where visitors can see life-sized models of dinosaurs, extinct prehistoric mammals, and even neanderthals. This is a great place for kids to explore, and even has resident crocodiles, monkeys, and red-breasted cuckoos to spot!

There is also a restaurant nearby (Pierre’s Restaurant at Sudwala), a collection of stone ruins from an ancient settlement, and even a fish spa!

Sudwala Caves In History

As a natural shelter from the elements, Sudwala caves has been used by many groups of people in different ways.

Refuge of The Swazi King Somquba

When King Sobhuza I of Swaziland died in 1836, his two sons Mswati and Somquba vied for the throne, resulting in minor battles, skirmishes and theft of cattle. Somquba made the caves his fortress, stockpiling food and using the cave’s natural water supply for his people and cattle . The cave entrance was always protected to prevent attack, guarded by Somquba’s advisor Sudwala, after which the cave is named. After many battles, including an attempt by Mswati to fill the caves with smoke, Somquba was eventually killed, and Mswati became king.

Sudwala Caves During The Second Boer War

The Caves were used during Second Boer War, in which the South African Boers defended their land from the influence of the British Empire. The caves were used by the Boers as ammo depots, storing shells for their Long Tom artillery.

Hiding The Kruger Millions In Sudwala Caves

It is also rumoured that the Sudwala Caves were used as a hiding place for the Kruger Millions. This urban legend of a vast treasure of gold bullion was removed from Pretoria before the British advance, and was transported by train towards Mozambique. The train never arrived, and some believe the gold was buried nearby, possibly even stashed in the caves themselves. Despite many searches, no gold has turned up.

Commercialisation and tourism

The caves were used to harvest guano in 1914, using the bat droppings as a fertiliser for farms. But it wasn’t until 1965 that the caves were opened to the public, purchased by Philippus Rudolf Owen and opened for tourism. The amphitheatre is name the P.R Owen Hall after him. Today, the caves are owned by the African Heritage Foundation.

Geology And Wildlife Of Sudwala Caves

The caves were formed about 240 million years ago, from precambrian dolomite rock eroded by water. At this time, Africa was still part of Gondwana, the supercontinent which was once composed of Africa, South America, Australian, Antarctica, India, and Arabia.

While there isn’t much wildlife to see, there is a colony of horseshoe bats that lives in Sudwala Caves. Going back further in time, scientists have discovered the preserved fossils of collenia, a bacterial colony thought to be about 2.2 billion years old!

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For those passing through eastern South Africa, staying at nearby Mbombela or even the southern part of Kruger National Park, Sudwala Caves is absolutely worth a visit. Whether it’s just to admire the incredible cavernous spaces and unusual rock formations, or to test your adventurous spirit in the physical Crystal Tour, there is a lot to discover in Sudwala Caves.