Sterkfontein Caves Pano 1 1
The mysterious underground lake at Sterkfontein Caves. Photo: Stephen Frank

The Sterkfontein Caves, just 45 minutes north-west of Johannesburg, are world famous for some of the most important fossil discoveries. Owned by the University of the Witwatersrand, the caves are credited with the discoveries of “Mrs Ples” an Australopithecus skull, and “Little Foot”, an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton dating back more than 3-million years.

The tours of the Sterkfontein Caves start above ground before taking visitors deep into the caves to hear the story of the caves’ history, what scientists discovered inside, and how stalagmites and stalactites were formed.

Woven into the tour of the caves is the tragedy of a South African diver who lost his life while exploring the lake inside Sterkfontein caves.

In 1984, diver Pieter Verhulsel and two companions went diving in the Sterkfontein Caves in an attempt to discover the depth of the lake in Milner Hall, one of the chambers in the caves. According to Speleogenesis and Evolution of Karst Aquifers - the Virtual Scientific Journal, the geology of the caves is similar to Swiss cheese, and where they submerge the holes fill with water.

Verhulsel, intrigued by an unknown chamber in the caves, turned into a side passage and got lost. It is still unclear to this day whether he left the guideline that connected him to his team mates or it snapped as he went in further.

Verhulsel’s body was found in an air chamber three weeks later by rescue teams which also discovered and surveyed 892m of new passages in the caves. It is believed Verhulsel died hours before the rescuers arrived.

As a result of this tragic incident, diving is no longer permitted in the caves and the depth of the lake remains unknown.

This world famous destination received a facelift in 2005 and now boasts improved entrance to the caves, as well as new walkways and a boardwalk past the excavation site where famous fossils have been unearthed.

Tours of Sterkfontein Caves run every half hour seven days a week.