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Descending into another world: Cave diving in Namibia

Being an arid country aptly named after a desert, Namibia is not generally associated with recreational diving. Though the country boasts a coastline extending over 1500 kilometres the oceanic conditions are mostly unfavourable for diving due to strong currents, rough seas and poor visibility. Equally unsuitable for underwater excursions are the few artificial storage dams, which are predominantly shallow and murky. So what does Namibia have to offer divers looking for adventure?
"The simple answer is cave diving", says Stephanus Viljoen, owner of Otjikoto Diving Enterprises (ODE). His company is named after Lake Otjikoto, a sinkhole located near the mining town of Tsumeb about 450 kilometres north of the capital city Windhoek. While it is not the only one of its kind, it is a lot more accessible than similar sinkholes like Harasib, Lake Guinas and Dragons Breath and thus the premier site for cave diving in Namibia.

Lake Otjikoto is situated en-route to the Etosha National Park and derives its name from the Herero language which loosely translated means "the place too deep for cattle to drink". The popular tourist attraction was formed when the roof of an underground dolomite cave collapsed leaving a steep cylindrical hole with a diameter of about 102 meters and a surface area of 7075 square meters. As was the case with nearby Lake Guinas the cave evolved when subterranean dolomite rock was dissolved over millions of years by carbonic acid contained in water that slowly percolated through cracks in the rock formation. This lead to an underground grotto filled with water that was partially exposed when a section of its roof caved in.
Believed to be part of an underground ri-
ver system, the lake tapers into a lateral cave system making it impossible to determine its exact depth, estimated to be in access of 142 meters. Many legends surround Otjikoto among them the myth that it is either bottomless or connected to other inland lakes and contains a safe filled with Millions of gold coins deposited there by retreating German soldiers during the First World War. Other stories tell of the ghost of a German soldier who drowned in the lake haunting the site and of whirlpools dragging swimmers and divers down.
While these rumours are most likely little more than fairy tales what is true is that the lake contains weapons, artillery and ammunition wagons dumped into the water by German soldiers on the brink of surrender to Union troops in 1915. Some of this material the German Schutztruppe didn't want to fall into enemy hands was retrieved and a few of the recovered and restored field guns are now exhibited at the museum in Tsumeb.

"These relics are the main drawing card attracting divers to Otjikoto", says Viljoen. But he is quick to point out, that diving in the lake is potentially dangerous and requires special skills learned through advanced technical training. While this kind of tuition is offered locally by certified diving instructors like Viljoen, he stresses that it is very intensive and time consuming. For a novice with no experience in deep diving it takes several weeks of theoretical and practical training before being able to decend to a depth of beyond 30 meters. "Scuba diving in Otjikoto is thus not geared to the ordinary tourist who only stays in Namibia for a short period and has no prior experience in deep diving" Viljoen emphasizes.

Being classified as a type III sinkhole by the World Underwater Federation (CMAS) all qualifications are closely scrutinized prior to allowing an applicant to descend into the chasm. In addition a qualified diving instructor is required to accompany each dive for safety reasons.
Applicants need to be at least 12 years old, should have some experience of cave diving, and ought to have completed at least 75 to 100 dives of which 50 should be below 40 meters. Practice in buoyancy control is of particular importance at Otjikoto as the entire bottom of the lake and walls of the overhangs are covered in fine sand and silt which can reduce visibility to zero when churned up by divers.
Other than the required diving qualifications clients need to submit a medical fitness test certifying that s/he is not suffering from Asthma or Diabetes. Furthermore they ought to have some experience in decompression diving and be in possession of DAN insurance to cover all medical and evacuation expenses in case of an accident.
"Otjikoto is classified as an underwater museum and managed by the Namibian Underwater Federation (NUF) on behalf of the National Monuments Council", explains Viljoen and continues: "For that reason the lake is not accessible to the general public for diving but only available to people that are assisted and accompanied by members of the NUF". Since being declared a national monument it is illegal to add or remove anything from the lake. This rule is strictly enforced by the three organisations allowed to use the lake for diving purposes being Otjikoto Diving Enterprises, Windhoek Underwater Club and Skeleton Coast Divers.
Because the site is kept undeveloped for aesthetic reasons divers need to carry their full equipment down to the edge of the lake. From there they have to climb down a ladder for six meters or jump down with full kit to enter the water. The NUF has a small piece of land available at the site that is used for camping purposes during diving expeditions and features basic sanitary facilities as well as electricity connections.

Except for the historical weaponry a further point of interest for divers are the eight different species of fish that occur in the lake, among them the critically endangered Tilapia guinasana, which is endemic to and was discovered in nearby Lake Guinas and introduced to Otjikoto to aid in its conservation. The fish in Otjikoto, many of which are brightly coloured, have attracted much scientific attention by virtue of having evolved in such a closed environment and having adapted their behaviour accordingly.
When asked to describe a dive in Lake Otjikoto, Viljoen pauses for a while and says: "When you dive down into the abyss it's like submerging in a world of absolute peace, silence and tranquillity. You leave all your problems at the surface and immerse yourself in a weightless environment where you feel suspended in space and time. Though I have dived in Otjikoto on many occasions it is a thrilling and unique experience every single time."
For safety reasons divers have to follow a line into the lake leading to various points along the way, among them the `reef' at 28 meters depth, the kudu horn` (38 meters) and the `toilet` (at 42 meters). These orientation points were named by divers and refer respectively to a natural sand and silt formation, a well preserved kudu horn and a ceramic toilet that was dumped in the lake.

Except for these signposts divers use another landmark 55 meters below the surface that they refer to as the `shopping mall'. "The shopping mall is situated directly beneath the overhang from where divers enter the water", Viljoen explains and adds: "Because many divers prefer to jump into the water with full kit rather than use the ladder, some of them loose items like torches or watches that accumulate on the ledge we started referring to as the shopping mall."
So what makes Otjikoto different and special compared to other diving sites in Namibia? "The most obvious advantage is that Otjikoto offers good visibility compared to the rather gloomy conditions prevailing along the coast and in local storage dams", Viljoen explains. Because Otjikoto is an isolated lake, fed mostly by water seeping through the surrounding limestone it is not muddied by sediment introduced through rivers. As a result, the water in the lake is usually clear with visibility reaching 15 meters on good days.

While the water level in the lake has fluctuated and risen by 2.5 meters in recent months what is constant is its temperature which remains steady at between 22 degrees near the surface and 18 degrees in the lower layers. Coupled with the complete absence of any currents this makes Otjikoto an ideal place for diving - something the 80 to 100 clients hosted there annually by members of the Namibian Underwater Federation can attest to.
When asked what fascinates his clients most about diving in Otjikoto the reply from Viljoen is prompt: "I think most of them are particularly captivated by the old armaments situated at a depth of between 45 and 55 meters. Due to a lack of oxygen in the water the relics are very well preserved and their presence elevates a regular dive into a journey into the past."

In order to share this unique experience with as many people as possible, Viljoen also offers customized diving excursions for individuals and makes the required equipment available which can cost up to 8000 Namibian Dollars, excluding wetsuit, snorkel, fins and mask. While it is more lucrative to take several clients on a diving excursion simultaneously Viljoen offers a simple explanation for considering individuals as well: "For me it is not about the money but about the love for diving that I want to share with as many people as possible."

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27-May-2009-07:00

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