According to the South African Speleological Association in a 1994 report, the Chimanimani mountains “rank alongside the mountains of the Roraima Formation near Bolivar, Venezuela as one of the most important deep sandstone/quartzite caving areas in the world.”
The Chimanimani mountain range is a massive ridge of pre-cambrian quartzite (compressed sandstone), rearing up out of the earth on Zimbabwe’s eastern border. The towering, rounded peaks gleam ghostly pale at full moon; the rock itself is quite different to the surrounding countryside. Hikers in the National Park find overnight shelter in well-known and easily accessible caves along the trails and waterfalls, but the mountains hold more than stone-age shelters on the surface.
The deepest shaft cave system in southern Africa was discovered in these mountains and six caves were mapped in 1993. The Mawenge Mwena shaft, according to the Cape Peninsula Speleological Society which organised and led the expedition, reached effective bottom at 305 metres below the surface. Its record still stands: the 7th deepest sandstone/quartzite cave in the world.
During the same trip, the group made another major discovery: the world’s largest chamber in a sandstone/quartzite cave: a vast cavern 90 metres high, 70 metres long and 15 metres wide. They named it Big End Chasm, and it was one of the six significant new caves explored, measured and photographed on the two-week long expedition. A few mysterious surface resurgences of streams, and several promising dolines (cave entrances) were also noted but not explored.
The SASA team also rigged over 1200 metres of vertical cave for access ropes, using permanent stainless steel bolts for the benefit of future expeditions. But 20 years later, no-one has yet returned. The official report of the expedition contains a strong warning that only expert cavers should attempt any descent into these caves, which contain underground waterfalls and streams, and are ranked as ‘very dangerous’. In addition, special permits have to be obtained prior to any expedition.
Perhaps one day a new generation of intrepid explorers will return to these wild, magnificent mountains, lured by the promise of more first-finds: new spectacular underground caverns, streams, labyrinths and – who knows? – perhaps even a new ‘troglomorphic’ species or two.
References from and acknowledgements to:
Cape Peninsula Speleological Society (CPSS)
The Bulletin of the South African Spelaeological Association, Volume 35, 1994