By Pieter Smith
Photo's by Johan Boshoff
Diving the jewel of Africa
The Chinhoyi Caves in Zimbabwe offer some of the most spectacular diving to be found anywhere.
The traditional name is “Chirorodziva”, meaning “The Pool of the Fallen”. This came from the 1830s, when the Angoni Tribe surprised the local tribe living near the caves and flung them into the pool. The delinquents were simply thrown down the cliff . An outlaw called Nyamakwere, who murdered many and threw them into the silent pool, had also used the caves. A headman called Chinoia, who then became chief, eventually defeated Nyamakwere. He used the caves as refuge from raiding tribes and to store grain bins. The nearby town was eventually named after him. The source of Chinhoyi is unconfirmed, but the mineral content is similar to that of Lake Victoria. With water temperature at a constant 22°C all year round, even at 110m, there may be a link through a bigger water body.
History of Chinhoyi Caves
Diving History in ChinhoyiIn 1969, South African Normal Air Diving did Africa’s first mixed-gas dive in Chinhoyi, reaching 103m. In 1992, US Navy divers reached a depth of 135m, and then it was resurveyed in 1994 by a SASA expedition. There are still unexplored areas and the depth has not yet been confirmed, although Sleeping Pool is believed to be 172m deep.
More about the cavesThe caves are elongated by a north-south fault zone further complicated by two or more other fracture directions, and a weak bedding plane. It comprises a system of limestone caverns and tunnels formed by rainwater over millions of years. The Wonder Hole is a huge cavern of which the ceiling collapsed, leaving open the sunlit Sleeping Pool with its 20m vertical walls. Access to Sleeping Pool is through an inclined passage leading down manmade steps. The cave has several fossil passages with noticeable speleothems. Several larger daylight windows make this cave unique. Dark Cave is a tunnel system, now artificially lit, on the western side of Wonder Hole, leading to the back of Sleeping Pool, where visitors throw down coins for good luck. It seems probable that further caves remain to be discovered. There are goldfish in the lake because of human intervention – they were freed here in order to keep mosquitoes at bay. Nearby are some prehistoric cave paintings to be found at Lake Chivero National Park. Excavations in and near the caves revealed that people have stayed around the area from early times. Pottery and human remains were unearthed from the area, which radiocarbon-dated to around AD 650.
Facilities at Chinhoyi CavesCamping, shaded trees, toilets and showers are available in the park and close to the caves. A huge tree only 30m from where the path to the caves starts is a perfect spot to set up camp and rest between dives. A compressor is available and fills are done some 200m away from the campsite. Staff assists with carrying gear to and from the water. The scenery around Chinhoyi is beautiful with lots of trees, grass and birdlife. There are other caves in the area that one can visit between dives or for those in the group not diving. The footpath leading to the caves takes you to the lookout point, with a top view of Wonder Hole and the breathtaking Sleeping Pool some 20m down. The path is adequately paved for the public, leading on towards Dark Cave, or to a small cave opening sloping down towards Sleeping Pool. Walking down, the cave opens up gradually with windows (openings to the surface) high up in the roof, lighting up stalactites hanging from the roof. The floor of the cave is quite rocky, with a stable paved footpath leading down through the rocks. Rock benches along this path are welcome resting points.
Regular divinGChinhoyi is a perfect site for divers of all qualifications – from open water to highly technical (cave/trimix). It measures up to the best dive sites in the world. And what do you see down there? Well, in Chinhoyi there is plenty. According to the history, many human remains (bones) must still be in Sleeping Pool. Some bones and remains of animals are visible. Wallace’s Wallet will keep you interested with many coins easily found. Divers have started “manmade stalagmites” by building it with lose rock, whilst decompressing or just adding their contribution. The fish life is quite diff erent to that found in dolomite sinkholes in South Africa and with the infinite visibility, it is both interesting and exciting to explore. The site is different to most other inland dive sites, for if one looks up (even from 40m) one can clearly see trees, the rock walls, people and so forth on land – it is just awesome!
Slots:Slots are a series of vertical passages at a depth of 16m, leading from Sleeping Pool with openings at the bottom. It is quite narrow and looking down a slot you see the bluest water. Going down it, you enter the main pool again.
Moon Walk:Situated on the left wall of Sleeping Pool as you enter the water, under an overhang where the rock is quite flat and straight, you can do moonwalking. Divers can take off their fins and with slight positive buoyancy one can walk upside down – quite a move!
Wallace’s Wallet:This is at the back of the Sleeping Pool. Visitors going through Dark Cave reach the back of the Sleeping Pool and throw down coins for good luck. Divers can see these coins from 3m down to 12m on the edges of the rock. If you’re really lucky, you may just find some rare coins like the old Rhodesian penny (with a whole in the middle). Knowing this sparked some competition and by the end of the week we had found three such coins, the oldest one from 1947.
Gents’ Cave:Gents Cave is on the right wall of the Sleeping Pool as you enter the water at a depth of about 8m. It goes down a very narrow vertical shaft that opens out again into Sleeping Pool. Divers can go down and re-enter Sleeping Pool again.
Bat’s Cave:Although we did not dive this technical dive, it is right at the back of Sleeping Pool. When the water is high enough, one can swim over the rock at the end of Sleeping Pool to enter it. When the water is low, you need to climb over the rock to enter it. It is very dark and you need to have the necessary qualifications and equipment to dive it.
Technical divingChinhoyi is a technical diver’s dream with 40m+ viz, 22°C water and caves that haven’t been fully explored. We went down the roof of the cavern/cave leading out from the left of Sleeping Pool with a 120m penetration and a depth of 67m, with no bottom or end of the cave in sight. Unfortunately, it was the end of our dive plan and the end of the week. Fortunately, though, it’s the beginning of great dreams and plans to go back to Chinhoyi Caves. Accommodation at “The house on the Hill” After a full day’s diving, nothing can beat a good meal and the Africa bush atmosphere. To top it all, one finds oneself on top of a hill with a 360° view over the world – exactly aligned with one’s spirit after diving such a wonderful place. The “House on the Hill”, or Selous Lodge, is a 20 minute drive from Chinhoyi Caves. It was built from natural rock and thatch and has a huge verandah and open-air fireplace that is visible as you drive up the hill. The Zimbabweans are friendly and excellent hosts. The fire burns high as you arrive and the bears are ice cold. This magical place lets you forget normal day-to-day life and talks around the fire are about the day’s dive in the bluest of water. For a moment, time stands still and you are physically and spiritually on top of the world. When it’s time to sleep, you have a choice: either in a room or outside in the open air on the verandah, safe under the African stars.
How to get thereThe caves are located about 9km northwest of the town of Chinhoyi, 120 km from Harare. The National Park stretches along the main Harare-Chirundu Road, which is also the main road to Kariba. The journey is about 900km from Pretoria or Johannesburg and travelling along the N1 to Beit Bridge is quite a pleasant drive. The road from Beit Bridge to Harare is in good condition, but it is best to drive it during daytime as most accidents happen at night. One can stay over in Harare and leave for Chinhoyi early in the morning. You can also fly into Harare and use provided transport from Harare Airport to Chinhoyi.
Tips and information
Distance:900km from Pretoria / Johannesburg.
Water temperature :22°C
Facilities:Camping / hotel or full package from Zimbabwe Divers
Dive qualification:All levels (buoyancy control important)
Additional costs:Zim parks fee (USD23 – USD50 per day)
Transport:Drive through or fly to Harare. As the caves are protected by Zimbabwe National Parks, you are only allowed to dive there if you are with a registered Zimbabwean dive club or centre. Fuel is not readily available but can be arranged through your dive center. Longrange fuel tanks recommended.
Plan your dives carefully and check your buddy and gauges – the water is so clear that you may loose focus on your dive plan.
Drive within speed limits and be friendly to the locals (we had no problems with local police at all)
Drive only during daytime (general Africa rule). Other activities and places to see.
Other dive sites nearby:Ethel Mine Quarry / Mutorashanga Quarry (all with excellent viz)
Visit the Zimbabwe Ruins (on the way toHarare, near Masvingo (290km south of Harare)
Mana Pools National Park (175km NW ofChinhoyi)
Visit Lake Kariba (240km NW of Chinhoyi)
Contact Kyle & Nicole Forrester from DiveZimbabwe Safaris at
or phone them on +263 4 336307 or +263 11 607306.
They offerdive safaris, PADI scuba training, full packages (accommodation & meals included)