Chinhoyi Caves Expedition

Chinhoyi Caves Expedition
Photo by Carola Bieniek
Photo by Carola Bieniek

The dream to dive Chinhoyi Caves began almost 8 years ago when I was fortunate enough to be shown pictures taken by a group of divers of the Caves. Ever since then I just knew that I had to dive Chinhoyi caves in Zimbabwe one day.

Text by Quintin Heymans

I am forever looking for new challenges and dive sites because of my passion for Technical Diving; for example  the search for the elusive Sodwana Coelacanths at depths in excess of 100 meters. Back in November of 2011 the possibility of diving Chinhoyi arose as a group of us Technical Divers began to toss the idea around.

Technical diving considerations aside, Zimbabwe itself added a significant logistical  and  financial  complication  to the expedition, which needed careful consideration to successfully negotiate. To experience the full wonders of Chinhoyi we knew we had to go deep. And, to go deep we needed specific gasses, like helium, for our Trimix dives. Zimbabwe is in the grips of a recession and food, for example, is a scarce commodity, let alone supplies of helium. Having worked with the South African company Afrox, on previous expeditions we were able to secure delivery of all our gas requirements to the little town of Chinhoyi. With that important hurdle out of the way, we gave the expedition the go-ahead. We had to be self-sufficient for 10 days, meaning we had to supply our own food, accommodation, electricity, compressor and gasses, and transport logistics to get everything up there, and back.

Photo by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Getting permission to dive and explore the caves was no easy task. But eventually we got permission from the head of Zimbabwe’s National Parks. Word of our exploits spread quickly especially given the magnitude of our expedition. Three different newspapers recorded and published the event and one news channel too. Even Robert Mugabe’s private guards and police force came to interview us one day and the Minister of Tourism also travelled from Harare (about 130 kilometres from Chinhoyi) to meet with us.

Photo by Carola Bieniek
Photo by Carola Bieniek

Photo by Carola Bieniek
Photo by Carola Bieniek

Photo by Carola Bieniek
Photo by Carola Bieniek

After 5 months of hard work, 5 weekends of build-up dives, a lot of planning, a long road travelled, our first dive with expedition leader Johan Boshoff, made up for all the effort. Johan Boshoff was the only one in our group with prior experience of diving Chinhoyi.We researched the Chinhoyi Cave system and came to the conclusion that there is no conclusive evidence to inform as to how deep Chinhoyi really is. Most of the information we obtained led us   to believe that it is around 80m deep. Hence the expeditionary nature of this trip – we wanted to go and find out for ourselves.

Submersing beneath the water on that first dive it felt like we could see forever.  The water was a pleasant 23 C. Taking a bearing from the light entering the cave as I descended I looked back to see the silhouettes of ten other divers against the azure backlight. It is a vision I will treasure for the rest of my life. It appeared as if each of the divers had eight to fifteen ghosts above them and their exhaled air bubbles were visible all the way to the surface. We could see the top of the rim of the caves from 50 meters down with small detail like the trees even being visible from that depth

Our first dive was in the pool named the silent pool. And before the dive  we  were  exactly  that, silent. However, on breaking the surface after the dive the silence was shattered by an endless explosion of words from each of our mouths. “Wow”, “awesome”, “unbelievable”, “azure”, “endless visibility”, “scary”, “dark”, the superlatives were never-ending.

Photo by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Photo by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Photo by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Photot by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Once at the cave system, the effort required to get to the dive site is immense. There are exactly 288 steps to get down to the Sleeping Pool (the main dive site) but remember, being technical divers we each had twin 15l cylinders, 2 x 80cu and 2 x 40cu cylinders with regulators attached to each cylinder, our dive bags, spares, toolboxes and camera bags and enough food and drink to see us through the day. As far as possible we tried to make only one trip down to the sleeping pool and one trip back out again each day. The expedition comprised four different teams according to their experience and target depth. A successful expedition is dependent on teamwork and our daily task list consisted of waking up, making coffee and breakfast, gas analyzing, working out dive plans according to mixes, assembling gear, loading the vehicles to take gear down to the cave entry point, preparing lunch, getting all the gear down to the pool, charging 2 way radios for the different teams, getting all the gear and divers out safely, making supper, heading to town for daily necessities, mixing gasses for the next day’s dives, compressor maintenance and fuelling the generator.

We started with 40 metre dives then 60, 85, 100 and 105 meters. Each dive to a new depth added to our knowledge. When I dive caves I experience a phenomenon I call “the calling of the cave”. It is as if some force lures you deeper and further into the caves. This is also the case with Chinhoyi. We reached our maximum dive time of 14 minutes at 104 metres, but yet we only scratched the bottom. There is still so much to explore.

Nearing the bottom of the main pool for the first time felt really eerie. Adding to this feeling was the sensation that the bottom was beginning to glow. We looked at each other thinking we were on the wrong gas mixture. However, as we got closer to the bottom we saw that the floor was covered with broken glass, porcelain and coins. Then we saw what looked like a white ghost not too far away and immediately started our ascent without even signaling to each other – the conversation with the park ranger the previous night who told us of 4 Scuba divers who have never surfaced from their dives, added to the sensation.

It was later explained to us that when a Sangoma dies, the first person at the scene takes all of his or her belongings and wraps it up in a cloak and throws it into the sleeping pool. This was what we saw resembling a ghost, the floating white cloak.

Photo by Quintin Heymans
Photo by Quintin Heymans

Diving Chinhoyi is no easy task made more difficult by the effort required on every single dive. During our expedition we explored a lot of the cave system and gathered much information all of which we gave to the local authorities for future use. Unfortunately no words adequately describe the beauty of this place. I hope the images give you a taste of its beauty.

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History (Courtesy of Parks and Wildlife Management authority)

It  was  believed  that  the  Caves  were  being  used  as       a stronghold by an outlaw called Nyamakwere who murdered many victims by throwing  them  into  the “Silent Pool”, now referred to as the “Sleeping Pool”. The notorious Nyamakwere was eventually defeated and killed by a herdsman called Chinhoyi who became a Mashona Chief, hence the name Chinhoyi Town. Chinhoyi and his followers used the Caves as a refuge from raiding tribes such as the Matebele. Until a few years ago the remains  of Chief Chinhoyi’s grain bins could be seen in some of the underground passages.

The Traditional name for the Cave is “Chirorodziva” which means “Pool of the Fallen”. The name was derived from an incident, which took place in the 1830’s when the Angoni Tribe, who were moving northwards, surprised people living near the Caves, and flung them down into the pool.

The Caves consists of a system of tunnels and caverns. This System is a dying one, in that they are slowly collapsing. The Wonder Hole, which is the main feature of the Caves, is in fact a “Swallow Hole” or a large cavern with a collapsed roof.

The walls or sides of the Wonder Hole” drop vertically down for 50 meters to the Sleeping Pool. The Sleeping Pool has a known depth of 120 meters. The Pool is unbelievably blue and crystal clear which reflects great depth and the non- flowing water.

Several underwater passages have been found leading from the Sleeping Pool, but all those that have been explored lead back to the main Pool again. Near the end of the Dark Cave is a small annex to the sleeping pool known as the cave of the bats.

This Cave has three outlets – one, known as the Blind Cave leads to a small cavern and is accessible only to a SCUBA DIVER, a second one connects with the Sleeping Pool 58 meters below the surface and the third has not yet been explored.

The Caves are composed mainly of the sunlit “Sleeping Pool” and the artificial lit Dark Cave. The Sleeping Pool is accessible in two ways.

Excavations in and near the Caves have revealed that people have stayed in and near the Caves from earlier times. Pottery and human remains were unearthed from the area which were Radiocarbon dated as far back as A.D 650 . The pottery from the area excavation is called the Chinhoyi Tradition of the early Iron Age and is found from Chinhoyi to Kariba.

The dominant rock in which the Caves are formed is Limestone, Millions of years ago the action of underground water weakened the cohesive forces that held the rock particles together forming underground caverns and tunnels. Some of these caverns eventually collapsed to form sink holes, the largest and most spectacular of which forms what is known today as the “ Wonder Hole” and “ Sleeping Pool “, rated as the country’s most dramatic natural tourist attraction. The clarity of the water in the “Sleeping Pool” is such that the fish and rock formations can be seen many meters beneath the surface and the shoreline.

” The Caves” don’t have much in the sense of fish life but it’s the visual of the underwater rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites, caves and crannies that bring divers back each time and having a breathtaking experience. On a technical point, the conditions in “the Caves” offer the most ideal deep dives and offer exciting opportunities.

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The oceanic archipelago of Madeira

The oceanic archipelago of Madeira

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The oceanic archipelago of Madeira lies approximately 1,000 km southwest of Lisbon, right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Located between latitude 30° and 33° N, close to the Straits of Gibraltar and almost on the same latitude as Casablanca in Morocco. Seven islands form the archipelago but only the biggest two, Madeira and Porto Santo, are inhabited, and both have a harbour and airport. The remaining islands and islets are clustered in two small groups, the Desertas and the Selvagens and are natural reserve parks due to their immense biological wealth.

Text and images by Nuno Sa

Geographically located in a subtropical region and influenced by the southerly branches of the Gulf Stream, the archipelago has a moderate climate all year round. Average air temperatures range from a maximum of 23 °C to a minimum of 15 °C, and water temperature hovers around 22 °C in summer, gradually lowering to 18 °C at the end of the winter.

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As in most oceanic archipelagos, the sea topography lacks a continental shelf, reaching great depths at relatively short distances from the shore. These characteristics create the opportunity for sighting ocean specimens such as large pelagic fish, manta ray, turtles and marine mammals in diving spots close to the shore.

The archipelago of Madeira has deep blue waters, with excellent visibility (20 to 35m on a typical summer dive) and is home to some 360 marine plant species, together with 550 marine fish, 21 marine mammals and an enormous amount of invertebrates. The biodiversity of species that inhabit the waters of Madeira is unique worldwide. Being an oceanic archipelago, Madeira is not only visited by Atlantic species, such as large pelagic fish, but also a wide-range of species from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, as well as some tropical species that have Madeira Island as their northernmost distribution limit.

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Diving Madeira

Madeira Island offers a wide range of diving sites including several wrecks, cave and coastal dives. However the top dives on this island are concentrated in a small area called Garajau Natural Reserve. This protected area was the first exclusively Marine Reserve created in Portugal, 23 years ago, and since then the area has become populated by a wealth of fauna and flora.

This 376 ha (929 acres), Natural reserve is located on the south coast of Madeira, not too far from Madeira’s capital – Funchal, and has several diving sites, marked by yellow marker buoys. Some of these dives can be made directly from the shore, with some diving centres offering direct access to the dive sites from hotel bathing areas.

Dives in the reserve include several cave dives, including a 35m long cave (Gruta da Ponta da Oliveira) with a large air pocket inside which divers can surface into, and which is often visited by one of the world’s most endangered sea mammals – the monk seal (Monachus monachus).

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However, the Garajau Dive site is by far the most visited of them all, and definitely the top dive site on the island. The reef starts at about 15m but quickly descends to about 30m. During summertime, the Reserve comes alive with shoals of pelagic fish that pass through the archipelago following the Gulf Stream. During this time you can expect to see fish such as the white trevally/guelly jack (Pseudocaranx dentex), yellowmouth barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis), almaco jack and greater amberjack (Seriola rivoliana and Seriola dumerili) and bastard grunt (Pomadasys incisus). Towards the end of the summer, the graceful and elegant mobula rays (Mobula sp.) can sometimes be seen slowly gliding over divers.

Here you can also encounter large specimens of barred hogfish (Bodianus scrofa) and comb grouper (Mycteroperca fusca), several species of moray eels and colorful anemones and other species that are abundantly present. However, a particular species captures the special attention of most divers – the dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus), considered the symbol of the Garajau Reserve.

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Dusky groupers at Garajau are very large (they can weigh up to 60 kg) but are extremely playful and curious, usually following divers for the duration of the dive. Due to their longevity (they live up to 50 years) and curious nature regular visitors recognize particular individuals year after year, such as “Malhado” (spotty), Garajau’s oldest, largest and most famous grouper. 3 or 4 dusky groupers can be seen on a typical dive at this site, often competing for the divers’ attention and usually swimming beside the dive masters that have known them for several years.

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Also fun to observe are the large colonies of brown garden eels (Heteroconger longissimus) that, in some places, cover the sand bottom looking at divers and then quickly vanishing in the sand as they approach.

Diving Porto Santo

Just 27 miles off the high rocky cliffs of Madeira is the small island of Porto Santo. Although situated relatively close together, the landscape of the two islands are vastly different. Porto Santo is a small island with a large coastal plane that boasts 5 miles of golden sandy beaches.

Less of a tourism attraction than Madeira, Porto Santo has a calm and easy-going way to it and is also home to some of the archipelago’s best dives and most pristine waters. With daily boat (3-4 hour trip) and airplane connections, visiting both islands on a 1-week dive trip is certainly possible and recommended.

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Porto Santo also has a large marine protected area, with several dive sites within its boundaries. Distances to dive sites are, however greater and a short boat trip to the main dive sites is necessary.

Porto Santo is home to a huge biodiversity of marine species. Expect to see; dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus), comb grouper (Mycteroperca fusca), morays (Muraena sp.) large common and round sting rays (Dasyatis pastinaca and Taeniura grabata), shoals of yellowmouth barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis) swimming in circles, white trevally/guelly jacks (Pseudocaranx dentex), almaco jack (Seriola rivoliana) and skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis).

The best and most well known dive site in Porto Santo is without doubt the the wreck of the Madeirense – this dive alone makes a trip to this Island worthwhile. The ship Madeirense – a ship used for decades to connect Madeira to Porto Santo – was purposely sunk for diving on, in the year 2000. Nowadays it is filled with a range of diverse species from resident dusky groupers to large shoals of other fish. As in Garajau Reserve these groupers are very playful and enjoy the company of divers. The wreck lies vertically on the sandy bottom at a depth of 34m and large schools of fish can be sighted as soon as divers start their descent. “Big lips” – the wrecks most curios grouper – usually leaves the wreck to meet the divers as they descend.

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When approaching the top of the ship, usual sights are large shoals of almaco jack (Seriola rivoliana), white trevally/guelly jack (Pseudocaranx dentex) and yellowmouth barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis) all feeding on small bogue (Boops boops) that school in thousands around the wreck. Exploring the inner areas of the ship’s bow, are found other, less curious, dusky and comb groupers and it is advised to always keeping an eye on the sandy bottom where resting common stingray (Dasyatis pastinaca) and spiny butterfly ray (Gymnura altavela) are usually sighted.

 Diving Desertas and Selvagens Islands

These islands are a group of three major islets located 22 nautical miles from Funchal, and were proclaimed a Natural Reserve in 1995. Visiting these islands is possible with some dive centers and a 3-hour trip from Madeira Island.

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The protection of the Desertas islands and the launching of its Natural Reserve was caused by the need to create conservation measures for monk seal (Monachus monachus), whose population was in danger of extinction in Madeira. This species, classified as threatened (in critical danger) by IUCN, is the rarest seal in the world but can still be sighted on these islands. The population of monk seals in the archipelago of Madeira seems to be recovering now, and is currently estimated at around 25–35 specimens. Happily the seals appear to be increasing their range to now include some spots on Madeira Island.

Divers may only visit half of the reserve, as the area most visited by monk seals is completely forbidden to navigation, bathing or diving.

The coastal area of Desertas is mostly characterized by steep cliffs only accessible through some rolled gravel beaches in some coastal spots. Its landscape is sculptured by constant sea and wind erosion, including below the sea where the rocky formations are true works of art from Mother Nature.

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Diving in Desertas can mean a chance to witness large shoals of yellowmouth barracuda, white trevally/guelly jack, almaco jack and great lumberjack (Seriola rivoliana and Seriola dumerili), manta ray (Manta birostris) with the added bonus of sometimes an encounter with a sea wolf!

The Selvagens Islands, on the other hand, are located 163 miles south of Madeira and also comprise three major islets. However, diving activities are subject to permission issued by the Madeira Natural Park, but the distance from the other islands in the archipelago is enormous and limits ecotourism activities in these islands.

Altogether this group of islands has something to offer to every diver, from beautiful wrecks, cave dives, pristine waters, a healthy sea life and very reasonable weather year round, and is just a 2-3 hour flight from many European capitals. Together with beautiful landscapes, hundreds of kilometers of walking trails, excellent bathing areas and the opportunity to see several species of whales and dolphins on a whale-watching trip, Madeira is definitely a destination for keeping in touch with nature.

Hyperbaric Chamber

There is one hyperbaric chamber available for the whole archipelago, located on the Island of Madeira.

Desertas: 22 nautical miles from Funchal.

Porto Santo:  42 nautical miles from Funchal.

Getting there – SATA and TAP, are the Portuguese airlines with daily connections to Madeira. Lufthansa, Spanair, Transavia, Continental, Easy Jet and several European airlines have regular direct flights to Madeira and Porto Santo.

Getting around – Connections from Madeira to Porto Santo:

By boat – Porto Santo Line

By Plane – SATA

Christopher Bartlett

Christopher Bartlett

I started my journey into underwater photography with a second-hand 2 MP Canon A40 in 2006. I was a freelance journalist writing for a range of publications, from FHM to the much-read (ahem) International Brewer’s Guardian and Field Guide News, and a technical translator. I wanted to write about my new passion, diving, but needed to supply the images to go with my words. To begin with I specialised in poorly-lit out of focus downward-looking rear-view shots of fish, and stuck to writing a mixture of pieces about people who had died whilst having sex, the merits of dry-hopping, and drive end brackets.

After the A40 had a fatal encounter with the waters of the Indian Ocean, I purchased an 8MP Sea and Sea, started working on macro shots with the internal flash and manual white balance shots and was lucky enough to get my first UW images and dive travel features published.

In 2008 I moved onto a Canon Ixus 960 with my first external strobe, an Inon D2000, and wet mount Inon wide-angle and macro lens. My coffee table creaked under the weight of photo books.  Through many hours experimenting underwater, and much internet trawling I eventually went as far as I could on this simple but effective compact camera. On the way I covered several Red Sea destinations, Zanzibar and Pemba islands, and the Galapagos.

In 2010, I decided I needed to go “full manual” and got an EPL-1 on the recommendation of the excellent Dutch photographer, Karin Brussard, and an S2000 strobe. I read more, experimented with settings, and bugged other photographers with questions. I learnt to take the time to shoot one scene many times with small adjustments to settings and position. I became more adept at deleting too. Anything that requires more than a minute’s editing goes in the bin.

In 2011 I got my first dive mag cover shots, three in total including one for African Diver, and decided to combine my teaching experience from eight years lecturing Business English at university in France with UW photography. I also had to buy a second S2000 after a Bahamian tiger shark had a feel of the D2000. It wasn’t a great trip for equipment; a Caribbean reef shark made off with the Inon wide-angle lens from the Canon.

I have now run four workshops and have more coming up, but keep experimenting as I think there is always more to learn and discover both with equipment and subjects. I think the best way for any photographer to progress, coupled with taking lots of pictures of course, is to show them to as many other photographers as possible and to be open to critique. Pick some favourite images from other photographers and try and emulate them and look to them for inspiration.

“As well as learning about the relationships between light and time, fish behaviour, and how to tickle a tiger shark’s tummy, I have also learnt more about humans. If you leave your rig on a coffee table, some curious and technically incompetent soul will fiddle with it, open it, and not close it  properly. And it will flood. Some dive boat crew , despite having been told many times that cameras must not be placed lens down on the deck, can suffer sudden memory loss. This can only be temporarily rectified by a hippo-esque bellow, but only ever happens when you haven’t put the lens / dome cover on. Rude photographers who behave like spoilt children underwater can be effectively side-tracked when you take a macro shot of an empty crinoid, gorgonian, or anemone. Try not to giggle too much as they search fruitlessly for the tiny crustacean they think you have just snapped.”

www.indigosafaris.com for tailor-made dive and safari trips to Africa, Papua New Guinea, and the Caribbean

 

 

 

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