Sudwala Caves

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Information provided by Hans Bornman from his unpublished book, Lowveld Tour Guide:

Take the R539 north, 5 km east of Montrose, for approximately 8 km to the caves, situated in the rocky Mankelekele mountain range.

Somcuba, senior half-brother of Mswati II (1845-1865) defected and after a skirmish with Mswati’s forces near the Mgwenyane (Queens) River, about 9 km west of modern Barberton in the Tsibeni area, Somcuba and his following, numbered about 500 people, moved northwards, about January 1850, and after crossing the Crocodile River (Sotho: Mokwena, SiSwati: Ngwenyama), settled between present day Elandshoek and Schagen, near Sudwala caves, and sought and received protection from the newly established Boer settlement of Lydenburg.

Somcuba established his homestead on the western side of the Ngwenezi (Houtboshloop) River valley, backed by the rocky Mankelekele Range in which was the extensive cave system, now known as the Sudwala Caves. This impregnable position thwarted several attacks by Mswati as Somcuba would disappear into the vast under­ground caverns whenever danger threatened. On one occasion his enemies built a huge bonfire at the entrance in order to smoke Somcuba out, but they were thwarted by a Lydenburg Commando which came to his rescue. The marks left by the fire are still visible. After the enemy had with­drawn, a company of Somcuba’s warriors, under the command of a princi­pal induna (headman), named Sudwala, was left to guard the entrance to the caves.

Mswati’s spies led an imphi one misty morning into Somcuba’s homestead and he and many of his followers were killed. His huts were set on fire and the army returned south taking his children with them. When Malikalik, one of Mswati’s half-brothers, who also fled to escape the anger of Mswati and living near Low’s Creek, heard that Mswati had sent men to kill him as well. He fled, joined by Ngulube, Sitorom and Nkhobe – all fleeing from Mswati, and sought refuge in Sekhukhuneland.

Weirdly shaped stalactites and stalagmites are cleverly illuminated by electric light displaying their brilliant true colours. The Sudwala Cavern complex is dominated by a chamber known as the P R Owen Hall. The chamber is roughly circular 70 metres in diameter and reaches a height of 37 metres to the peak of the domelike feature of its roof. Notable on the ceilings are specimens of fossilised algae called Collenia, a form of life that flourished 2000 million years ago.

Several choral performances have been given in this hall. Recordings were made of these performances and it was found that the acoustics were excellent. In July 1970 the famous Russian singer, Ivan Rebroff, tested the suitability of the big hall for concert purposes. His remarkable voice, which ranges through 4 octaves, resounded gloriously through the caverns. Afterwards he gave his considered opinion that the acoustics of the hall was at least equal, if not superior, to those of any concert hall or opera house in Europe.

The caves have vast halls and caverns and are electrically lit, showing up to best advantage the strange shapes of the limestone pillars. Some 1500 feet from the entrance cool fresh air makes its way through the subterranean passages from an unknown source.