1988: The Wondergat Experience

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“I have done this many times before, yet I feel a tremor of uncertainty as I put the regulator in my mouth, take one deep lungful of compressed air, then make the familiar circle with forefinger and thumb to confirm that all is well. I remind myself that although what lies beneath us is a water-filled cave 15 storeys deep, it is just another dive. Still the butterflies won’t settle.”

Old, bold South African divers usually say: “You haven’t dived till you’ve dived Wondergat”

Those who know me know that Wondergat has a special place in my scuba heart (my heart pumps water and not blood) and my eyes light up whenever I get the chance to talk about Wondergat. Those who have dived Wondergat will know that the hole has a certain flair to it that other dive sites do not. I find the site both beautiful and scary at the same time. You have no other choice than to respect this sinkhole because if you don’t ‘the lady at the back of the cave’ might get you!

This excerpt is about ‘THE Wondergat’ and the dangers one faces when diving this site. The book was published in 1988. If you have ever dived Wondergat or heard the ghost stories surrounding this place take a 10 minute break from whatever you are doing and travel back in time with me…

The Wondergat Experience

By Charles Norman

This is no time to have second thoughts. Together, diving buddy Alan Hume and I release some air from our buoyancy vests. With a hiss of bubbles we sink beneath the surface, past the dangling feet of the three other divers who follow is in 30 seconds, and on down into the depths of the Wondergat, this freak of nature set in the middle of the Transvaal Bushveld.

For the first few metres of our descent the light is bright and there are small, colourful fish around us. But as we sink deeper the light fades, and there are no more fish. The air spaces in our body are becoming compressed by the increasing pressure, and we are starting to sink fast; too fast. We release air into the buoyancy vests to slow our descent. Our depth gauges show we are passing through the 30-metre-mark.

Most of the sun’s light now is filtered out by the water above us, and although our faces are only a metre apart we can no longer see each other clearly. We keep giving each other the circle sign of “I’m alright – how are you?”

The 40-metre-mark passes in near darkness. We are now past the point where it would be possible to get back to the surface if our equipment were to malfunction. Beneath us the gloom vague shapes are taking form. A few more metres and we have reached the floor of the Wondergat, though not its deepest point.

My eyes are becoming accustomed to the gloom and a few metres away I see a metal plaque embedded in a slab of concrete – a memorial to the Pretoria twins Anton and Andre Nieuwenhuizen, who were the last – but not the only – persons to die in the treacherous depths of Wondergat.

There is no time for more than one quick photograph and then Alan is gesturing that we must move on. We still have a further descent to make, and we are working against the clock. We do not have enough air for a decompression stop on the way back up, and our total bottom time before starting our ascent can be only seven minutes.

Ahead of us, starkly black against the sheer grey-green rock walls, looms a cave mouth the size of a railway tunnel. We swim into it and switch on our torches, breathing slow and deep to conserve our precious air.

The floor of the tunnel is flat for only a few metres before tilting downwards at a steep angle. It is almost like the entrance shaft of some disused mine, but the hand of man had no part in its making.

On down we go, taking care to stay well above the floor so that our flippers do not raise the powdery, blinding silt. Ahead of us our torches now pick out the yellow gleam of our objective. It is a large metal sign, with black lettering on a yellow back-ground, and it reads: You have never lived till you have almost died and for those who fight for it life has a special flavour the protected will never know. SAP Special Task Force.

Rather corny, perhaps. But with the equivalent of 12 storeys of water above you, and the knowledge within you that any mistake could result in death, then those sentiments do not seem quite so soppy.

I take my pictures and Alan is signalling that it is time to go. Now I feel euphoric, reluctant to leave this place, all sense of fear gone. Am I being affected by nitrogen narcosis, the false sense of well-being caused by the increase under pressure of nitrogen in the bloodstream?

Probably, I decide, but if I am slightly “narked”, then the affect is not strong enough to affect my judgement, merely to give me a sense of pleasure, Alan and I swim out together and join the others hovering like protecting angels at the mouth of the cave, dark silhouettes against the faint light from above.

A barrage of “all right?” signals, triumphant smiles gleaming through facemasks, and then we are heading slowly for the surface far above. Almost immediately the light starts to improve. I am brining with satisfaction over having achieved something significant. At that depth there are no second chances.

Even back in the time of Cecil Rhodes, when the wagon trail north passed not far away, this natural sinkhole near the present-day town of Mafikeng laboured under an evil reputation. It was said to be bottomless, and rumour had it that a despotic local chieftain disposed of his enemies there.

In more recent times Wondergat has become a mecca for inland scuba divers, for there is no other place on the Highveld which comes close to its estimated depth of 70 metres. (Actually nobody knows for sure how deep Wondergat is because the end of the tunnel has never been reached; rumours still persist that Wondergat is linked with the Sterkfontein Caves some 200 kilometres away.)

It is easy to see why Wondergat has become the source of sinister legends. The 100-metre-by-50-metre-pool, with its sheer sides of weathered rock and its sill heart, black as coal, looks both ominous and bottomless. And in the 20 years that divers have been plumbing its depths, it has aggravated that reputation by claiming eight lives while attempting to take many more.

According to the records of the South African Underwater Union medical officer, Pieter Landsberg, the first to die in modern times was a young Wits University student who ran out of air on a deep dive in September 1971.

Although he had a reserve air supply, the pull-rod to release it was missing from his tank. He panicked and went for the surface, impossibly far above. Cause of death was given as drowning, but was probably blackout caused by ruptured lungs. He had five hours diving experience.

Four years passed before Wondergat, in October, 1975, claimed its next victim, a visiting diver who asked to accompany the members of the Transvaal Sub Aqua Club on a deep dive. It is probable that nitrogen narcosis overcame him; at any rate, when the other divers swam out of the cave carrying him at a depth of 50 metres, he was already dead.

All his equipment was in working order and there was still air in his bottle. Only later did it transpire that he had been unqualified and almost totally without experience…a pattern that was to be repeated many times in the years ahead.

But it was not only inexperienced divers who got into trouble at Wondergat, nor was it always the diver’s fault. Robbie Keene, now chief instructor and owner of the Johannesburg-based Central Diving School, is one of the Highveld’s most experienced divers, yet during a night dive – a spooky experience at best – Wondergat almost claimed him. “I was at 43 metres, “recalls Robbie. “When I felt myself attacked. For a second my mind went blank, then I realised that a strange woman was trying to get my regulator away from me having run out of air. This was in the days before octo-regulators and the woman was in a state of total panic. There was obviously no chance of getting her to buddy-breathe.

“Luckily, I’d just taken a deep breath myself, so I made an instant decision, unbuckled my tank and headed for the surface. There was a bright moon that night, and I just went for the light. The second half of that ascent was a red blur in my brain, but I made it. So did she, carrying my bottle in her arms. She said she was ‘very sorry’!

“Fortunately, this was my first dive of the day and I was within the no-decompression limits. After getting another cylinder from our surface standby divers, I proceeded to go through the long, cold procedure of missed and omitted decompression, as tabulated by the united States navy.”

Alan Hume, head of the Teljoy Marine Research Unit, with whom I dived at Wondergat, remembers his club’s nearest brush with tragedy there, and the inexplicable decision that robbed Wondergat of a certain victim.

“Two of our guys went down,” says Alan, “when the lead diver, Sava Zavier, turned round and found that his back-up man had vanished. Usually when something like that happens you would assume that some problem has forced the other guy to the surface, so you’d go up as well to look for him.

“But Sava, for reasons that he couldn’t explain afterwards, decided to go deeper. And he found his buddy drifting down into the depths, unconscious. Sava brought him out and we revived him. He was fine, but had no memory of blacking out and we still don’t know why it happened.”

Some divers were not so lucky. In February 1977, a young diver from the Eskom Diving Club was in Wondergat when he gave his buddy the signal to surface. Though he did not appear to be in trouble, such signals are not ignored. The two began to surface. On the way up they found themselves under an overhang, and by the time the rear diver had negotiated it his buddy has vanished. His body was recovered later from the bottom of the pool.

Later that same year, in August, Wondergat claimed its first double drowning. The victims were a young couple from the Wits Diving Club who had been on a night dive. They had been attached to a float meant to keep them from going deeper than 10 metres.

Nobody will ever know what went wrong, but one theory is that while they thought the buoy was keeping them at the required depth, they were actually swimming steadily downwards dragging the buoy after them.

By the time they discovered their depth, if they ever did, it was too late to get back to the surface on their remaining air. Once again, inexperience was a factor – the man had little experience and the woman none at all.

After that, as though its hunger had been appeased by the double sacrifice, Wondergat was quiet for almost six years. Then, on February 12, 1983, the Nieuwenhuizen twins made their fatal night dive. Later enquiries brought to light a classic list of errors.

Neither of the twins was qualified, and one was using a bottle dangerously out of date. Neither wore a buoyancy vest, and they were so over weighted that the divers who found their bodies the following day could not lift them off the bottom. Although they dived in a party of five, the twins became separated from the others.

Perhaps most significant of all, they carried only one torch between them – it was this torch bobbing to the surface which first alerted watchers on the rocky rim of Wondergat that something was wrong. By then, it was too late.

Gravity is so much part of our lives that few people who don’t dive can appreciate the total disorientation possible in the wightless environment of water. In the dark, without a point of reference, a diver has no way of knowing whether he is moving up, down or sideways.

Whether losing their torch caused the twins death, or whether they were already in trouble when they released it, will never be known. But few stories illustrate the dangers disorientation better that that of Normalair diver Chris Bell and three companions who came close to adding another fatal chapter to the Wondergat saga during a night dive.

“We entered the water and swam to a shotline we’d placed earlier in the day,” says Chris. “What we didn’t realise was that the SAP Special Task Force had also placed a shotline, but for some reason they’d put theirs in upside down so that it read 45 metres at the surface and zero at the bottom. And in the dark we swam to their shotline instead of ours.

“We descended until we felt we’d reached our required depth, then checked the reading. The marking on the line said 30 metres, although our depth gauges read only 20 metres. This was confusing, but in such cases one always trusts the shotline. So we decided to ascend…but as we did so the markings on the shotline showed we were actually going deeper. “By now we were getting a little panicky – we’d already done one deep dive that day, and not enough time had passed for us to do another one. If we were really at 35 metres, as the shotline said, then we were in danger of getting ‘the bends’, where nitrogen bubbles form in the bloodstream and can cripple you.

To make matters worse, while we were deciding what to do we drifted under an overhang where our torches showed a barbell swimming along the roof of the cave above us – but by now we were so disoriented that we didn’t know if we were upside down and the fish was actually swimming along the bottom.

“It was an ugly situation. We were running low on air and not only were we unsure of our depth, we didn’t know which way was up and which was down. The one of the guys took off his weightbelt and held it by the end. In the torch beam we could see which way it was hanging, and that’s when we realised that the shotline had been put in upside down. I don’t ever want to go through an experience like that again…”

Just why does Wondergat continue to cause so many problems? Former Transvaal Underwater Union Chairman Rick Bruschi feels that the answer is simple, perhaps too simple for many people to comprehend; “Because it’s dangerous, that’s why. Any deep dive is dangerous, but Wondergat is exceptionally dangerous for a number of reasons.

“For a start, it’s a cave dive, which few people seem to take into account – they just don’t realise that at Wondergat they’re diving into a deep cave, with all the added problems that creates, such as going into supplementary caves and getting lost in the muck they kick up, or of finding themselves suddenly against cave roofs and overhangs.

“Wondergat is also dangerous because there’s no gradual slope to deeper water – it’s just straight down. Even a shallow dive at Wondergat incorporates all the potential problems of a deep dive, because if something does go wrong there’s nothing beneath you but 40 metres of water. That’s very different to the waters in which guys do their training, where they can’t go deeper than ten metres even if they do run into trouble.

But one of the greatest dangers is that inland divers simply don’t get enough experience of deep diving. They don’t have the experience to cope with things like narcosis, or mentally appreciate that Wondergat is not just another dive. When you start getting down to those sort of depths it’s a whole new ball game. Wondergat kills people because it does not forgive mistakes – and unfortunately, there will always be people who are unable to grasp that fact.”

Too true. With Robbie Keene and Alan Hume I watched a party entering the pool for a night dive. They wore buoyancy vests, no watches, no depth meters, their tanks had no pressure gauges to show the amount of air left, and they carried homemade torches. Alan and Robbie shook their heads in wonder. Later that evening I made my own first night dive with the Teljoy Marine Research Unit team. Each diver wore a buoyancy vest, carried a marine torch and had fixed to his headgear a Cyalume tube which glowed in the dark with green phosphorescence.

All aspects of the dive had been discussed in detail beforehand, and with the most experienced divers at the front and rear we descended to our agreed depth and circled the pool.

Carried out with that sort of precision, modern sport diving is not dangerous. But there is no legislation to stop the merest novice from buying a bottle, just as there is none to stop the aspirant mountaineer from buying climbing gear. The difference is that the mountaineer’s inexperience is likely to defeat him before he can get himself into trouble, whereas the most amateur diver can descend into the gloomy depths of Wondergat.

Going down is easy – it’s getting back to the surface alive that can be difficult.

Things that are taken for granted by experienced divers sometimes come as fatal surprises to novices. Such as, for example, the fact that one consumes much more air at depth than in the shallows. Or that one becomes heavier as one goes deeper, so that a diver who maintains his level easily in shallow water might find himself struggling to do so at depth.

Or even that if the demand valve on a bottle is not turned completely on, that the bottle will still supply air at surface pressure but might not be able to do so past a certain depth.

Lack of such basic knowledge has killed many divers. It is the job of SAUU medical officer Pieter Landsberg to investigate each accident and make recommendations that will prevent a recurrence. Most of the standard safety procedures carried out by local diving clubs these day are as a result of Landsberg’s recommendations after lessons learned from an accident.

It is also Landsberg who has initiated a procedure known as Divermed Emergency, which is geared to give accident victims treatment and, if necessary, get them to the large decompression chamber at the Institute for Aviation Medicine in Pretoria, where several divers who stayed too deep too long in Wondergat have been treated for the “bends”.

Now buoyancy vests and pressure gauges are mandatory equipment, as they are in many other parts of the world. There is some opposition, however, because the vests are expensive and it is felt that such a move would make it more difficult for students to take up the sport.

“Don’t people realise,” snorts Robbie Keene, “that this is life support equipment we’re talking about, not some toy? What’s a few hundred bucks against somebody’s life?”

As analyses of accidents increase knowledge of what causes them and as new equipment improves on existing safety standards, the number of diving fatalities will continue to decline. But eliminating them altogether is too much to hope for, given the nature of man.

For one of the earliest diving maxims remains as true today as when it was coined:

“There are old divers and there are bold divers – but there are no old, bold divers…”

20 years later – the message Charles Norman has is still as valid today as it was then; Do not underestimate the Wondergat. Since 1988 Wondergat has unfortunately seen more fatalities. The site had it’s heyday in the golden years of scuba diving (1990’s) with a lot more traffic than it currently has (it looked like Miracle Waters or Bass Lake on a busy summer’s weekend). It went from being the most visited inland dive site in South Africa to being the eerily quite and isolated site it is today that maybe a handful of divers will visit once a month. If you do decide to dive the Wondergat be sure to read the last minute reminder on the board as you are making your way down the steps: “THERE IS NOTHING HERE WORTH DYING FOR.”

PS: Every time I visit Wondergat I take a walk on my own, find a spot on a cliff to sit down and take a couple of minutes to pay my respects to the people who lost their lives there.


Article by Jacques Bezuidenhout, PADI MSDT