Looming above the beautifully wooded valley of the bustling mountain torrent known as the "Houtbosloop", there is a majestic massif known as Mankelexele (Crag on crag / Rock upon rock) In the great massif dolomite rock there is one of the most astonishing caves in Southern Africa, an as yet unplumbed complex of passages and giant chambers extending into the mysterious heart of the mountain.
The Sudwala Caves are the oldest known caves in the world, and as such, are a `must-see' on the itinerary of any visitor to Mpumalanga. These incredible caverns lie in the Drakensberg escarpment which separates the Highveld from the lowlands of Mpumalanga.
The caves are situated in Pre-cumbrian dolomite rocks of the Malmani Group, formed over a period of some 3000 million years, capturing in stone a time when the area was covered by warm shallow in-land seas. These are amongst the second oldest known sedimentary rocks on the earth, and represented in the cave are fossils of the first oxygen producing plants on the earth, Collenia.
One can clearly see in the different layers and textures in the rock a reflection of the result of the different weather patterns taking place in the building of an ancient seabed. Besides the awesome rock displays the caverns also boast an array of calcium formations, aged but active, anciently and patiently still growing.
In past ages these caves were formed when gigantic stresses cracked the dolomite. Rainwater percolated into the cracks, carrying carbon-dioxide and dissolving away the limestone in the rock, forming in the process a subterranean dreamland of vast caverns and passageways decorated with stalactites and stalagmites in all manner of weird fanciful shapes.
It is as though nature, in the privacy of these dark vaults has directed some leisure moments in eternity and created a gallery of fantastic shapes and forms, and exhibits them to mankind with a sly smile. The dolomite is a carbonate sedimentary rock consisting mainly of the mineral dolomite CCa Mg(CO3)2.
The caves were used as shelter by Pre-historic man in the form of "Homo-Habilis" / "Handyman." approximately 1.8 million years ago. Habilis has smaller cheek teeth, larger front teeth, a relatively large brain and skeleton more like that of modern humans.
They mainly used the cave entrance as shelter during bad weather. Excavations are still in progress and have thus far yielded a fine collection of stone-age tools which are on display at the cave entrance.
Early in the development of the Sudwala Caves as a South African tourist attraction, it was discovered that the "P.R.Owen hall" had natural air-conditioning and it was also suggested that this, plus its other attributes, would make it splendidly suitable for opera and other drama.
In July 1970 the famous Russian singer, Ivan Rebroff, tested the suitability of the big hall for concert purposes. His remarkable voice, with a range of four octaves, resounded gloriously through the caverns in a series of songs. Afterwards he gave his considered opinion that the acoustics were at least equal, if not positively superior to those of any concert hall or opera house in Europe.
In the Pre-cambrian, all the early animals were soft bodied and thus did not fossilize well at all. However there are primitive plant fossils called "collenia" to be viewed in the Sudwala caves. They were a type of blue-green algae that used to float on the ocean.
They were tubular shaped and approximately 2 m in length. It was one of the first oxygen producing plants that produced oxygen safe enough for us to breath.