Cango Caves: Open. And lit.

Martin Hatchuel
This Tourism Week

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The debacle at the Oudtshoorn Municipality and the fallout for the Cango Caves –  one of South Africa’s most famous (and oldest) tourism attractions – are well known.

The good news is that the Cango Caves are open for business. The bad news is that Hein Gertsner has resigned as their manager. The good news is that domestic visitor numbers are up. The bad news, though...
The good news is that the Cango Caves are open for business. The bad news is that Hein Gertsner has resigned as their manager. The good news is that domestic visitor numbers are up. The bad news, though…

Somehow, the municipal officials got their hands on Cango’s considerable (and necessary) pile of cash, and squandered it. They withdrew R 16 million from the Caves’ Investment Fund – money that had been put aside over many years for maintenance and so on – and moved it into the municipal budget, where it was used up in no time at all. And, according to the (now) ex-manager of the Caves, Hein Gertsner, they even tapped into the Cave’s operating bank account – which was previously maintained at a positive balance of well over R 600,000 (this to ensure that there’d always be enough for salaries and emergencies). Tapped in so deeply that the balance dropped at times into just three figures: a little over a hundred rand.

Recently, the media was alive with the news that the Caves could close altogether because contractors that had installed new lighting were at the point of removing the equipment – for which they hadn’t been paid. Hein said that they were owed well over a million – by the municipality, not by the management of the Caves – and that they (rightly, understandably) had obtained a court order that would have allowed them to take the lights out.

Fortunately, the Caves managed to come up with some of the funds at the last moment, a payment was made, and disaster was averted (although the Municipality still has to square up its portion of the debt).

Part of the fallout, though: the municipal manager issued Hein an order with which he (Hein) felt he couldn’t comply, so he resigned.

This is bad news for tourism but, as Hein himself said, “No single person is indispensable to any large organisation, and the staff – including Alison Moos, with whom I’ve worked for more than 22 years – has the depth of experience to continue running the Caves.”

According to Niel Els, co-owner of Turnberry Boutique Hotel and chairperson of Oudtshoorn Tourism, the Cango Caves remain very much open for business.

But they’re going to need your help.

“Cash-flow is the immediate challenge facing the Caves, especially since the number of international visitors has fallen dramatically as a result of the new visa regime, and the requirement that children have to travel with unabridged birth certificates,” he said. (According to Hein: the Caves received 23,000 LESS overseas visitors in the first six months of 2015 than in the first six months of 2014. Which accords with the latest stats for foreign arrivals to South Africa as a whole. Month-on-month or year-on-year, they’ve fallen off their faces, so they have, no matter which way you spin them.)

Niel did say, though, that South African visitor numbers to the Caves are up on last year, so that’s good.

The Cango Caves are recognised as the leading heritage caves in Africa. They offer a choice of two tours lead by experienced, knowledgeable, and accredited guides – and they’re open 364 days of the year (no tours on 25 December.)

The 60 minute Heritage Tour (which explores the first two halls of Cango 1) departs every hour on the hour from 09:00 to 16:00, while the 90 minute Adventure Tour (which explores deeper into Cango 1, and includes the Devil’s Chimney and the Post Box), departs every hour on the half hour from 09:30 to 15:30.

Please note, though, that you need to book in advance to ensure that you won’t be disappointed when you get to the gate. The Caves have a limited carrying capacity – so, for the sake of conserving them as a non-renewable natural asset, restrictions have been imposed on the number of visitors who may enter on any one day.

While it’s possible that your booking will help keep Cango open for another day, the real problem – the question of sustainability – lies in the institutional arrangement.

According to both Neil and Hein, it’s clear that the Caves cannot remain under the management of the Municipality for much longer. But part of the problem is that the Caves themselves belong to one arm of government, the land on which the visitor centre is built to another – and the visitor centre itself to the municipality of Oudtshoorn.

No one seems to know yet what the ideal arrangement would be, nor how to get there, but it’s also clear that a number of people are working hard towards finding a sustainable solution. (Although, as we saw in This Tourism Week last week – the Cango Caves haven’t been earmarked for help from the National Department’s Tourism Incentive Programme in the current, pilot phase of that project. But maybe this will change?)

What do YOU think the ideal solution would be?  Please post your comments and suggestions here.

And please – make a plan to visit the Cango Caves ASAP. It’s (to paraphrase ourselves), in Oudtshoorn’s economy’s best interests.

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Now go away on holiday – it’s in the economy’s best interest.

And have a great tourism week!

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