The oldest evidence of habitation in the Caves takes the form of a fine collection of stone age tools, ranging in date from Early Stone Age (from 2,5 million years ago) to Late Stone Age (up to a few thousand years BC). These tools are on display at the Caves’ entrance. The University of Tshwane’s Department of Archaeology is currently busy with excavations and research.
The Caves were used as shelter by Prehistoric man in the form of Homo habilis (Handyman), a predecessor of Homo erectus, approximately 1,8 million years ago. Habilis had smaller cheek teeth and larger front teeth than modern humans, a similar skeleton, though shorter, and a relatively large brain.
The Swazis: Somquba
In the nineteenth century the Sudwala Caves were used by Somquba, the brother of the Swazi heir apparent, as a fortress. In a power struggle for the Swazi throne, many bloody battles were fought at the cave entrance. The story begins as follows:
When King Sobhuza I of Swaziland died in 1836, his heir was Mswati II, who was still a minor and too young to ascend the vacant throne. A cousin, Paramount Chief Usutfu, was installed as regent, which proved to be a flawed choice.
Usutfu was too weak to prevent Mswati’s brother Somquba from making an effective bid for the throne by calling an Incwala, or Festival of the First Fruit. The significance of this is that it is high treason, not to mention sacrilege, for any other person other than the Swazi king to hold an Incwala.
After a skirmish with Mswati’s army near the Mgwenyana River, 9km west of Barberton, Somquba and his followers fled the area, with some 500 head of Mswati’s cattle. They crossed the Crocodile River and settled near the Mankelexele Mountains, between Elandshoek and Schagen, about 10km from what are now the Sudwala Caves. Their settlement was known as M’selezie.
Help from Lydenburg
Somquba sought and received protection from the newly established Boer settlement of Lydenburg. He made a formal alliance with the (1856-57) Lydenburg Republic.
There was continuous conflict between Mswati’s and Somquba’s followers in the form of raids and cattle theft. The Boers continued to side with Somquba, in return for labour to dig the first water canal at Lydenburg. Another benefit for the Boers was that Somquba acted as a buffer for them, against Mswati.
During the early 1860s Somquba came to know of the Caves, and subsequently, in times of conflict, he and his followers would take refuge there, with their cattle. They stock-piled food and there was plenty of water, so it made a strong refuge. Somquba maintained observation posts, and always kept the cave entrance clear, so that he could retreat there in a hurry. At that time stage the cave mouth was much smaller, and could barely accommodate the long horns of his small herd of prized Nguni cattle, as they were led in by hand, in single file.
Sudwala: How the caves got their name
The principal guardian of the Caves’ entrance was Sudwala, Somquba’s chief inDuna (councillor/captain), whose name is thus commemorated to this day, and whose spirit is legendarily said to linger in the Caves. Today nobody knows how many times Somquba took refuge inside the Caves, but many bloody battles were fought at the site. At one time, the ever-persistent regiments of Mswati built a massive bonfire at the entrance, while Somquba and his followers were inside, in an attempt to suffocate them, but the natural airflow in the Caves foiled this attack. Help was sent for and received from a Lydenburg Boer commando, led by one Abel Erasmus. The commando drove off Mswati’s regiments, and freed Somquba. Traces of the fire are still visible to this day.
The end for Somquba
Eventually, around 1868, Somquba was killed in a surprise attack on his village. Stabbed in the upper thigh, he bled to death. His head was severed and taken back to King Mswati to prove that the deed had been done. The two men responsible for his death, Kambe and Mataffin then fled, realising that Mswati, knowing that they had killed his brother the prince, might fear them, and have them killed pre-emptively.
Biannual modern visits by Somquba’s most recent descendants, accompanied by prayer and traditional beer-drinking ceremonies, today commemorate those long-ago days of flight and conflict.
Modern history: The Kruger Millions
The Caves also featured in the second South African War (1899 – 1902). Two months before the fall of Pretoria to the British, on June 5, 1900, gold bullion belonging to the Transvaal Republic was sent for safekeeping to Machadodorp in the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga). This bullion, as well as State treasure of gold sovereigns, accompanied President Kruger to Waterval Onder, where he stayed until after the Battle of Berg-en-Dal, near Belfast, in August 1900. President Kruger then left for Nelspruit and finally on to Lourenco Marques (now Maputo), without the treasure. The so-called Kruger Millions had unaccountably vanished somewhere between Waterval Onder and Nelspruit. Because it was known that Boer commandos had hidden ammunition for their 94-pounder Long Tom guns in the Sudwala Caves at this time, many people believed that the dark depths of the caverns were the most likely hiding place for the legendary fortune also.
After the war, fortune hunters descended periodically to the spot to search for the Kruger treasure, but it has never been found.
In 1914 a couple of prospectors, who had originally gone in search of the gold, formed a company to excavate many tons of bat guano from the Caves, which they sold to the farmers of the Crocodile River Valley.
The Sudwala Caves were acquired by Mr Philippus Rudolf Owen, a Pretoria excavation contractor, as part of the farm Sudwalaskraal, in November 1965. He opened the Caves to the public, and developed them as a tourist attraction and cultural venue. He devoted his last years to the protection and preservation of this natural wonder, and died on the farm in 1972.