One of Golden Gate’s must-see sights, Cathedral Cave can now be appreciated from an exciting vantage point. But make sure your nerves are up to the challenge. By Lesley Stones

I like surprises. Just not the kind of surprise where you discover that the only way down from the rocky Golden Gate heights you’re standing on is to climb down wooden ladders nailed to a near vertical cliff.

I could go back the way I came, of course, but I’m not about to wimp out when everyone else is climbing down the ladders at the same time as vogueing for selfies.

One of the ladders on the Cathedral Cave Trail. Picture courtesy of SANParks

The guides who lead our hike through Golden Gate Highlands National Park failed to mention the ladders that let you explore Cathedral Cave. The last I’d heard, you could only admire the view from ground level. Unless you were brave enough to swim through a rock pool and shin up a chain ladder through a crevice in the cavern roof. Now a new swing bridge gives dizzying views into the cavern from the top.

An exhilarating experience

You can only visit Cathedral Cave with an official guide, with the choice of hiking or a horse ride. I find horses frightfully wobbly, so I opt for the walk.

Visitors to Cathedral Cave can approach the site either on foot or on horseback. Both options are guided. Picture by Lesley Stones

To get to the top, you first scramble up some slopes, passing a sign that warns the route is dangerous in wet weather. I smile gratefully at the blazing sun, although a rocky path is risky at any time if you’re accident prone like me.

Then you reach the wooden swing bridge stretching above the cave. This is precisely the ridiculous point where my camera battery dies, so I grope in my bag for the spare battery with one hand and cling onto the chain rail with the other.

Left: the view from ground level. Right: the wooden swing bridge stretching above the cave. Pictures courtesy of SANParks

The battery isn’t there. So if you want to admire the glorious views over the surrounding hills and valleys, along with giant sandstones sculpted by the wind and rain that gleam golden in the sun, you’ll have to climb up there yourself.

On the way down, I try to focus on the remarkable engineering feat of hammering three successive ladders into a cliff face as I manoeuvre slowly, with flutters of fear intensifying as I switch from one ladder to the next.

I’m glad I manage it – the experience is exhilarating and the views magnificent. But even with a fresh camera battery I’m not rushing back to do it again!

Travellers catching their breath in the shade of a sandstone cavern. Picture by Lesley Stones

Walks at Golden Gate

Other short walks or longer hikes around Golden Gate are marked on a simple map as dotted lines wiggling towards various blobs. Having no sense of direction I need things marked out more clearly, but if you’re good at following wiggly lines, you can hike to Echo Ravine (1hr), Mushroom Rock (30min) and even summit Brandwag Buttress (1hr), the iconic rock that draws your eyes like a magnet.

The iconic rock that can’t be missed: Brandwag Buttress in all its gorgeous hues. Picture by Lesley Stones

Where to stay

A good accommodation option is the Golden Gate Hotel & Chalets, with bedrooms inside the main building as well as two-bedroomed self-catering chalets. My room has a little patio looking directly at the Brandwag, coffee-making facilities, a spacious shower, air conditioning and a same day laundry service. There’s free wi-fi in the hotel, too, although it doesn’t reach the restaurant or bedrooms.

The main Masutsa restaurant serves breakfast and dinners, while the bar upstairs offers lighter meals like burgers, toasted sandwiches and a really good Mozart cake. Settees next to the dining area let you relax in comfort with your drinks.

Stay in comfort at the Golden Gate Hotel after a day of thrilling outdoor activities. Picture by Lesley Stones

Service can be slow when the hotel is busy, so plan to be out and about exploring rather than lunching in the hotel. The front desk can arrange quad biking, abseiling and river rafting in season and nearby Clarens can tempt you with a spa, golf course, art galleries and brewery, or just meander its arty streets. Then it’s back to the hotel for wine on your patio as the sun sinks behind the mountains and turns them golden.

To book at Golden Gate Hotel & Chalets call +27 (0)58 255 1000, email [email protected] or book online.

Also read: 10 reasons to visit Golden Gate