Samson’s Pillar, Screaming Monster, Lowveld Rocket, Fairyland and Chicken Wings are names that together may conjure up the image of a theme park. But in Nelspruit, South Africa, these are the names of rock formations born millions of years ago in the famous Sudwala Caves.
Believed to be the world’s oldest caves, these are estimated to have been formed about 240 million years ago from dolomite rock when the area was covered by warm, shallow inland seas. Dolomite is locally known as elephant skin-rock since its texture resembles an elephant’s skin.
The first formation inside Sudwala Caves is called the Lowveld Rocket. It is 2.5 metres in diameter and is 140 million years old. Inside these are chambers with rocks stained with prehistoric soot marks caused by fires built for both warmth and cooking by the Swazi people of South Africa, who used the caves for refuge in times of war. The caves are a museum of ancient life, displaying artifacts such as baboon tail plant, a stone to sharpen spears and another for grinding millets. The Swazis would use the plant as a torch by dipping it in melted animal fat and setting it aflame.
The active stalactites at Sudwala are still growing depending on the amount of rainfall that enters the caves. The average growth rate of a stalactite formation is 2.5 centimetres every 100 years; if a stalactite is cut, rings resembling those of chopped tree trunks can be seen on its cross section. Sudwala, which means grass skirt of a married woman in the local lingo, houses more unique rock formations; one resembles a group of three praying nuns, another looks like King Kong scratching his head. The 160 million years old Screaming Monster rock formation is a combination of a stalactite, stalagmite and a flowstone. It eerily looks as if an old man is holding it up in agony. The annual Screaming Monster Running Race is conducted at Nelspruit, making Sudwala the only cave complex which has an annual marathon dedicated to it.
The largest dolomite auditorium in the Southern Hemisphere is located here. Almost 500 people can be seated inside this 37-metre high and 70-metre wide space, which boasts of excellent acoustics since dolomite can absorb echoes perfectly. Concerts, recitals, choir and theatre performances are conducted regularly here. Since the temperature inside the caves remains 17 degrees celsius throughout the year, it makes for a pleasant venue.
The Devil’s Workshop owes its unique names to the fact it is warmer than the other caves. The highlight is Nick, The Devil— a fallen stalactite. Chicken Wings resembles the famous fast food dish. Samson’s Pillar is 200 million years old. The subterranean Fairyland is the only chamber in the caves group which is lit up with coloured light. Prehistory here is between a rock and a hard place.