Cave And Lake Diving - A Once In A Lifetime Experience

12 Apr 2015 17:20pm
By Francois Lottering

WINDHOEK, 12 APR (NAMPA) - When thinking about diving, a person tends to think about exotic places like Bali, Thailand and even the coast of Australia, but very few are aware that Namibia also offers unique diving opportunities.
That is to say if you have the courage to dive in remote areas and do not suffer from claustrophobia as many of the diving spots are hidden in caves or undergound lakes and involves abseiling.
Many of the diving spots in Namibia are on private property and special permission is needed to access it.
It is also not as easy as putting on your diving gear and getting into the water as thorough planning, training, preparations and safety measures are required.
Besides being recreational, many also take up diving as a sport, for an income or for exploration and research purposes, and it can be done from the tender age of eight years.
For the most spectacular diving spots you have to travel to the Otjozondjupa and Oshikoto regions to places like the lesser-known Harasib and Aigamas caves. The Aigamas caves are home to the white catfish, or Clarias Cavernicola – a critically endangered fish which can only be found in these caves.
Located northwest of Grootfontein is the world renowned Dragon's Breath Cave, which offers a spectacular experience for the more adventurous diver. The Otjikoto and Guinas lakes are about 20 kilometres north of Tsumeb, and offer ideal diving conditions due the water temperature and clarity.
But even here divers make use of a makeshift lift as the water level is about 50 metres undergound.
Two frequent explorers of Namibia's cave and underground diving systems, Stephanus 'Steff' Viljoen and Chris Steenkamp, in April this year spent a few days diving with a group from South Africa at Dragon's Breath and Lake Otjikoto.
“Before one can even think of going down into any of the lakes, there are procedures and training involved to ensure that divers are safe at all times,” Steenkamp said in an interview with Nampa. He noted that the equipment required for cave diving is more than just a gas tank and requires professional training.
Since mankind cannot breathe underwater we need equipment like oxygen tanks and regulators, goggles, and flippers to mention but some of the equipment.
When asked about the mental and physical characteristics of a diver, Steenkamp said, “Eighty per cent is mental and only 20 per cent physical. This is due to the fact that divers often dive in unknown surroundings and they must stay calm to avoid panic attacks, which can be fatal.”
He noted that since anything can happen, divers are always required to go under water in pairs and to assist each other when necessary as lives might be at risk.
Although divers ensure that their equipment is in 100 per cent working condition, anything can happen, and help must be at hand, Steenkamp stressed.
“This sport is very strict and controlled and one must do a diving course before becoming a diver,” he added.
Steenkamp's diving partner, Steff Viljoen, never lets an opportunity go by to explore the depths of the many undiscovered lakes and cave systems in Namibia.
His experience and passion, combined with a sense of safety, makes him one of the most experienced divers in the country.
Driving long distances to go down into the belly of the earth to explore is nothing new to Viljoen - adrenaline and passion take him into snake and spider infested narrow openings to see what undiscovered spots and artifacts lie underneath the surface of the dark pools.
And to share the duo’s passion with others, there is always a camera or two mounted on the already heavy diving equipment.
“Dragon's Breath is a really nice experience for us. When it is your first time diving there it is like going back in time,” Viljoen said.
Dragon's Breath is situated about 46 kilometres north-west of Grootfontein, and is the largest non-subglacial underground lake in the world.
The lake is situated about 100 metres below the surface, and covers an area of about two hectares. The water in this lake is clear and according to Viljoen, divers have clear underwater visibility for many metres, making it a diver’s paradise.
The lake is only accessible by abseiling and only under strict supervision by diving professionals as it is life threatening, and to protect the pristine area where the diving spots are situated. Steenkamp and Viljoen along with their fellow divers ensure that no harm is done to the environment and once they are done diving, make sure that nothing is left behind on land or in the water.
“The stalactites in Dragon's Breath is something that will awe any diver, but since the lake is on private land it is not easy getting there without prior permission, and a lot of planning goes into the diving,” Viljoen said.
He described Dragon's Breath as “the most beautiful diving site we have in Namibia”.
When he dived there two years ago the roof of the lake was about 25 metres above the surface of the water. They were however amazed to find that when they dove there again two weeks ago, the water reached the roof. This meant the stalactites that hanged above their heads two years ago were now underwater and they could therefore get a close look at the ancient rock formations.
“Diving between the stalactites is a superb feeling, it is indescribable,” a clearly excited Viljoen said.
Another favourite diving spot for Viljoen and Steenkamp is Lake Otjikoto. This lake with it's diameter of around 102 metres is of historical value and was declared a national monument by the Namibian Government. This ensures that the weaponry dumped there in 1915 by the German Schütztruppe before they surrendered to South African and British soldiers, is not removed or destroyed by divers.
Some of the artefacts are said to lie about 50 metres underwater, and many divers dream of taking pictures of the 'Kaizer’s canons' in their watery grave.
In 1984 some of the canons and ammunition were recovered and restored, and are now on display at the museum in Tsumeb.
Apart from folklore that the ghost of a drowned German soldier haunts the area, stories have also made the rounds that a safe containing six million Mark (German gold coins) was dumped along with the weapons. That safe has never been seen by any of the divers who have risked their lives to find the treasure.
The story of the drowned soldier and money remain a mystery, with Viljoen saying a lot still lies undiscovered in Lake Otjikoto as the bottom of the lake is still to be determined.