SPELEOLOGY IN THE KALK BAY MOUNTAINS, THE CAPE PENINSULA, DURING THE EARLY  TWENTIETH CENTURY: John G Meyer and the Moles

Photo of John Meyer standing outside Ronan’s Well.

Speleological activity took place on the Cape Peninsula some time before the formation of the South African Spelaeological Association (SASA). The caving activities of John Meyer and his caving friends from 1924 to 1950 was an important period in the history of cave exploration on the Cape Peninsula and especially the `Kalk Bay’ Caves.  They were amongst the pioneers that proceeded ‘formal’ caving in the region, which was initiated with the establishment of the Cape Section of the South African Spelaeological Association in 1954.

A number of articles on or references to John Meyer are found in newspaper articles, the Mountain Club journal, Guide to the Kalk Bay Caves and Muizenberg Mountains, and SASA bulletin.  These sources do not, however, tell the full story about John Meyer and the ‘Moles’.  Their activities were revealed when Meyer’s Mountain Diaries were rediscovered in the 1980s. This article focuses on the caving exploits of John Meyer and ‘The Moles’ and the effect that they had on Kalk Bay Mountains and its caves. The diaries are a valuable source of information as they reveal much of the unpublished history of caving in the area.

Who was John Meyer?

John Gustav Meyer was born on the 30th May 1873. Not a great deal is known about his early.  He was a schoolteacher who was trained in the classics and mathematics. According to my father, Phil Hitchcock, he exercised his mind by translating passages from Ovid.  He was also keen on classical mythology, which clearly influenced his choice of names for caves. He also had an ordered mathematical mind and was known to solve problems purely for the pleasure of the mental exercise.

Meyer believed in keeping fit and spent much of his time walking.  He used to holiday at Kalk Bay and it was his walks on the mountain behind this picturesque fishing village that brought him into contact with the caves.  His diary suggests that he began walking on Kalk Bay Mountain in early 1924 making several discoveries  that year.

Owing to ill health he retired in 1932 and moved to Kalk Bay where he stayed with his sister, Annie, in a cottage called ‘Bellevue’ opposite the harbour gates.  John Meyer’s brother had bought the cottage in 1910/11.  After his sister died, he stayed with the Prattens in High Level Road and caved with A.W. Pratten who became one of the `Moles’.

For the next twenty years Meyer spent most of his time exploring the Kalk Bay Mountains.  He was meticulous about everything he did and would type a detailed record of each trip at the end of the day. He was shy, but appeared to be friendly, as he would often take groups up the mountains and to the caves.  He forged good friendships and walked and caved regularly with a number of people.  Some of his friends helped him explore caves and opened the secrets of newly discovered caves.  My father, who was at university at the time, accompanied him on over 50 walks and, with Basil Harris, was involved in the discovery and exploration of Oread Halls in 1941.  Meyer referred to himself as ‘The Tramp’, which might have something to do with the baggy clothes that he wore on the mountain. He called my father ‘Tarzan’, but I am not sure what the connection was?  His diary records that he climbed until August 1951.  He died on the 9th September 1952 in his 79th year.

Early Cave discoveries on Kalk Bay Mountain

It is most likely that a number of the more obvious cave entrances were known before Meyer started exploring Kalk Bay Mountain.

J.W.C. Moore records that he visited Muizenberg Cave with his father in 1890 and he went to Clovelly Cave in 1892. He also mentions that caves now known as Ronan’s Well, the Labyrinth, Echo Halt Alcove and Twin Caverns were visited by 1912, but were not known by those names at that time.  There is also a record that a plan of Boomslang cave was prepared in 1916 by Arderne and Samson and a copy lodged in the Mountain Club of South Africa archives.  This survey appeared to be lost until it was re-discovered by speleo-historian and caver, Dr. Steve Craven. (`Map’ of an early survey of Boomslang Cave.)

It is most likely that anybody visiting Boomslang or Clovelly cave in these early days would have seen the other caves nearby. Caves such as Lower Aladdin, Harbour View, White Dome Grotto and Avernus were surely known, but were probably not documented.

What was different about John Meyer was the systematic way he went about searching, finding, exploring and naming the caves. In most cases the names we know today are those he gave to the caves even if they were discovered before his time. It is also clear from his diary that he found the majority of the caves on the mountain.  The names he gave the caves have endured because he neatly painted them at the entrances to the caves and for years he returned to repaint any that were fading. He also took many people to the caves and told them the names. The cave names have also been published by the Mountain Club, SASA and in a booklet issued by the Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Committee.  Meyer’s cave names have been passed down from generation to generation and remain in general use to this day. 

The Diaries of John Meyer

The mountain diaries of John Meyer are records of each of his trips on the mountain or in the caves. With over 1400 entries recording a range of his activities in detail over a period of twenty-six years it is rather difficult to extract and mould the relevant information into a concise readable account.  This information has therefore been put under headings that deal with different aspects of his work on the mountain.

Meyer kept a mountain diary from 1924 until 1950. His diaries are neatly hand-bound and covered with thick brown paper. Each entry is numbered and includes the date and short description of the trip. The early records from 1924 until the beginning of 1933 are sketchy and limited to a few entries each year.  This is probably because he was still teaching and only went up the mountain when on holiday at Kalk Bay.  From the time of his retirement in 1933 until 1951 his trips up the mountain became far more frequent amounting to about two or three a week.

It was during this period where he took many people to the caves and when he issued Mole Certificates. He also listed all the people or parties that accompanied him on the mountain at the back of each diary. Their names are grouped under each year and next to the number of his climb.  This is a good quick reference for anybody wishing to read up when and who he went walking with and what they did.

What do his diaries tell us about his discoveries on Kalk Bay Mountain?

His first visited the caves in 1924. Despite infrequent trips during the intervening years he managed to find and explore 50 caves over the period 1924 – 1933.

In 1924 he visited and named 25 caves of which about 15 were probably new discoveries.  In 1933 he recorded a further 25 discoveries of which 20 were probably new discoveries.In 1934 he records 8 discoveries of which 7 were new. Ystervark cave was known to the farmers in the valley below who blocked the entrance with boulders to prevent porcupines from breeding in the cave.In 1935 he records 5 discoveries of which 4 were new.  In 1936 he finds 4 new caves.  In 1937 he finds 8 new caves.  In 1938 he finds 2 new caves.  In 1940 he finds 1 new cave.  In 1941 he finds 3 new caves including Oread Halls, which appears to be his last discovery.

So the record shows that 64 of a total of 83 caves were found by John Meyer, which indicates what an impact he had on caving in the area.

 Moles and their certificates  

Meyer called his various caving companions ‘Moles’ once they had visited the twelve principal caves on Kalk Bay Mountain. He recognized this achievement by presenting them with a ‘Mole Certificate’, which he prepared on his typewriter.  The various articles on the Kalk Bay caves give the impression that John Meyer and the ‘Moles’ formed a cohesive band, almost a club, of explorers. This was certainly not the case.

John Meyer referred to himself as the First Mole. The first surviving Mole Certificates in our possession are dated 30th November 1935.   Three certificates were issued on this date to Colin and Edward McCracken and Kenneth Williams after their visit to a cave, which was given the celebratory name,’ Six Moles Cave’. These certificates point to the existence of six Moles at that time.  (See a photo of the Mole Certificate awarded to Phil Hitchcock dated 26 December 1940  after he had visited 15 of the significant caves above Kalk Bay.)

Meyer typed each certificate, which included a list of all the caves and some place names on the mountain. Records in his diary show that Mole certificates were issued over the next 13 years.  The last mention of these is certificates number 27 and 28 given to Denis and Gwyneth Paine on the 25/02/48. It is clear form Meyer’s diary that the Moles were caving companions of his that had visited the dozen principle caves determined him. Few of the Moles caved together and therefore were not a caving group as we have been led to believe. It must also be noted that least 50 of the approximately 80 caves on Kalk Bay Mountain had already been found and named before the era of the Moles.

The Twelve Principle Caves

 The caves that had to be visited in order to receive a Mole certificate are some of the major systems or better-known caves on Kalk Bay Mountain.

The Twelve Principle Caves according to John Meyer

Clovelly cave Picnic cave Vier Grotte
Boomslang cave Ronan’s Well Tartarus
Devil’s Pit Egyptian cave Kliphuis (Muizenberg cave)
Leap Year Grottoes Johalvin cave The Labyrinth

 

Meyer the Path Builder

Few of us know that Meyer had another major influence on the area – that of path-builder.   He records in his diary in great detail his path building activities.  Many of his paths and place names are still used today.  From April 1935 on he developed a network of paths primarily to get access to the caves and his rest areas. His records suggest that even the main routes up the mountain were needing attention. He mentions, for example, that he worked on Main Track in 1936. To illustrate this I quote from his diary entry 213 dated 26th November 1936. ‘Worked on the track. It is finished at the lower end, and nearly so at the upper. I painted the words “Main Track” just beyond the point where the new track leaves the old.’

Meyer also built new paths, the routes of which, were largely determined by cave locations and gaining easy access to them. So in April 1936 he began building Excelsior Track. His diary entry 167 states the following; ‘Went up the mountain in the morning and started (at half past ten) clearing a new track (Excelsior Track). I commenced on the ridge near Devil’s Head and worked in the direction of Ronan’s Well’. Entry 170 continues, ‘Went up the mountain and worked on the footpath, joining it up with Pratwil Track. Then I worked at the other end. I painted the name “Excelsior Track”.’ He then built Pratwil Track from the forest, ‘Kroon se Bos’; in the main valley and through the Amphitheatre past a number of caves (Egyptian cave, Blue Disa, Edward’s Limit and Squeezes cave) on its way up to Rock Town.

He started work on Jojulu Track in June 1936. It was built from just above Hungry Harry’s Halt over Cave Peak for access to the south entrance of Boomslang cave and the caves beyond. The track was named after Joyce Logan, June and Lulu Fourie who accompanied him on one of his trips.

In December 1936 he built Bellevue Track from the Main Track past Echo Halt and Step Aside. This track was named after the cottage in Kalk Bay where he stayed for a while.

In March 1938 he began work on a new track through the forest in the next valley. He called this ‘Klein Kroon se Bos’. For the next few months he concentrated on this project and built a track right up the valley through the forest, ‘Klein Kroon se Bos’, later to be called Spes Bona Forest. He called the lower path ‘Lower Spes Bona Track’. At the same time he built ‘Upper Spes Bona Track’ from the forest past Tartarus cave and eventually linking it to North Track. Each entry he made in his diary records how long he worked and how many paces he cleared during that time.

His record of work done when building North Track from Oukraal to Muizenberg cave will give you some idea of the detailed records he kept of all his path building exploits. Entry 494 of 4th December 1939 reads as follows: ‘Left at 8.38 a.m. Did 1¾ hrs. (33 yds.) Joined on the existing track below Dolly’s Doorway. … After lunch painted the name, “North Track” at the end of the track, and, returning, repainted the name “North Track” at the beginning of the track: also cleared the first 7 yards. North Track is 1643 yards long. In all, I worked on it 65 ½ hours (29 days). Average, 25 yards per hour. I started on the 17th April.’

This is a short account of some of the path development work that John Meyer undertook on Kalk Bay and Muizenberg Mountains. It is however clear from this abbreviated account that he was largely responsible for developing the network of pathways that we use today. In building these pathways he was responsible for opening up and popularizing the area for generations after him.

 Naming the Caves and Popular Sites

Together with his path work his major influence on the area was by giving names to the caves and sites of interest or rest. He is probably responsible for allocating over 90% of the generally accepted names we use today. The names he chose were usually representative of some event or place of significance to him or drawn from his classical background.

So we have a number of appropriate cave names drawn from classical mythology such as Styx Dungeon, Tartarus, Avernus and Oread Halls. Some of the caves were named after people or combinations of their names such as Bettie’s cave, Johles cave (John and Leslie), and Johalvin cave (after John and Alvin Meyer) who discovered it. Others were given descriptive names such as Moss and Diamonds, Sofa cave, Rocktown, and Creeper Fern cave. Places commemorating events or dates include, Commemoration Hall, Leap Year Grottoes, and Six Moles cave.

These names really only distinguish one place from another, but they also give a sense of magic to the area. Young explorers heading into the depths of Tartarus or searching the rock surface for a faded name may experience a surge of excitement as they discover a long forgotten cave.

Painting Names and Visitor Books

Painting names on rocks in natural areas is a controversial and frowned on activity. Irresponsible people have defaced a number of areas and caves in this way. That John Meyer spent much of his time painting the names of caves at the entrances, numbering chambers or recording names of visitors on the walls of certain caves is also open to criticism. The two mitigating factors are that he was meticulously neat about his name painting and that they serve as a historical record of caving in the area. Anyway, most of the names are fading and will disappear in time. Peter Swart had the foresight to make a photographic record of many of the cave names and painted visitor books. (see www.darklife.co.za) It is however a pity that the names painted neatly on a wall at Muizenberg cave have been removed. I remember seeing a few that dated back to the early 1900’s and even one before 1900.

Meyer generally painted the names at or near the entrance to the cave. He took great care to choose a position where the rock surface was not too exposed to the elements. He always prepared the area first by painting a background in black or silver paint. Later he would return to paint the name.

His visitor books were areas that he prepared on a dry wall normally inside the cave and often in a chamber. They were not large areas and were often added to as more friends visited the cave with him. If he discovered a new cave he painted the names of the discoverers and date of discovery. There is a fine example of this in Oread Halls. Other caves displaying visitor books are Tartarus, Johalvin cave and Ronan’s Well.

He also painted place names and names of tracks, but most of these have disappeared as they tended to be in more exposed positions outside.

Meyer the Caver

Photo of Meyer and friends at Kliphuis Cave

John Meyer was a man of habit and spent an enormous amount of time revisiting old haunts, repairing paths, repainting names and recording all this in his diary. In amongst all these possibly mundane activities he was also responsible for some important spelaeological work in quartzite caves. There are too many to mention all here, but they will be highlighted elsewhere in articles on individual caves.

Primary amongst his caving feats is the discovery and exploration of Oread Halls. This is a fine cave, which originally had only one entrance. Meyer, Phil Hitchcock and Basil Harris had to descend the 10m entrance pitch by home made rope ladder. They then systematically explored the system as we cavers do today.

He entered a number of other caves by rope ladder, which he specially made for the purpose. He measured and recorded passage length in larger caves such as Boomslang, Clovelly, Labyrinth, Oread Halls, and Ystervark cave. He even prepared a sketch of Ronan’s Well showing the pits. He was also equal to the challenge of exploring difficult and tight passages such as Leslie’s Grotto, which is the unpleasantly tight and wet lower level of Muizenberg cave.

Legacy

Instead of trying to summarize John Meyer’s contribution to spelaeology on the Cape Peninsula it is probably better to look at what effect he had on the area. In essence, what is the legacy of John Meyer and his caving companions on the Kalk Bay mountains and caves? It is clear from the diaries that Meyer was the major influence on the area. The Moles were, barring a few exceptions, friends who had visited the principle caves designated by Meyer. Only a few of them caved together so they were not a caving group as has been suggested in other articles.

His major influence was that he systematically found, explored and named most of the caves, and then recorded what he had done. In the process he sign posted the caves and other areas of note by painting their names in appropriate places. He also connected them with a network of paths that he built by himself. Most of these paths are still in use today.

His influence would probably have been far less enduring had he not recorded what he had done and then shared this information with others. He showed many people where the caves are and told then what they are called. This also resulted in quite comprehensive lists of caves complete with a map being published in various publications. This has led to Kalk Bay being one of the most popular places to visit and explore on the Cape Peninsula.

The problem we all face as cavers is that if we publicize information about a cave or caving area we run the risk of that area being exposed to abuse and wear and tear. This has certainly happened in places on Kalk Bay. The worst abuse is graffiti being spray painted all over the rocks and in some of the caves.  (See the photo left of graffiti in the Grand Hall of Oread Halls Cave.) Another problem is littering and members of the Cape Peninsula Spelaeological Society often conduct cleaning trips to remove rubbish from the caves. In conclusion, the large visitor numbers and heavy traffic has caused quite bad erosion in places. We all erroneously think it is something somebody else must fix up.

Despite these negative aspects, John Meyer may be regarded as the pioneer caver explorer of the Kalk Bay area. In carrying out his hobby and interest he opened up an area for the recreation for many following generations. His caves and the names he gave them have created an area of wonder and adventure for the young and not so young. It remains for us to honour his name by dedicating ourselves to maintaining the area and preserving the caves as he did in his lifetime.

By Anthony Hitchcock

Member of the Cape Peninsula Spelaeological Society forming part of the national organization called the South African Spelaeological Association.  Photos reproduced with the permission of Peter Swart from his website http://www.darklife.co.za 

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