Boesmansgat, commonly referred to as “Bushman’s Hole,” is a remarkable freshwater cave or sinkhole of significant depth in the Northern Cape province of South Africa.
This natural wonder has attracted the attention of divers who have ventured into its depths, reaching an impressive depth of 282.6 meters (927 ft). The submerged cave’s allure lies in its enigmatic nature and the exploration it offers to those who dare to delve into its depths.
In 1977, Boesmansgat, also known as Bushman’s Hole, was initially explored by a recreational diver named Mike Rathbourne. Over the years, divers have strived to reach greater depths within this challenging cave system. One notable achievement was accomplished by Nuno Gomes in 1996, who courageously descended to a remarkable depth of 282.6 meters (927 ft).
This incredible feat was made even more remarkable by the fact that Boesmansgat sits at an altitude exceeding 1,500 meters (4,921 ft), adding an extra layer of difficulty to the dive. In fact, due to the altitude, the decompression schedule required for this dive is equivalent to that of a dive reaching 339 meters (1,112 ft) at sea level.
Gomes’ dive was not without peril, as he encountered a harrowing situation where he became trapped in the mud at the bottom of Bushman’s Hole for a tense two minutes before managing to free himself.
How Can You Reach the Bushman’s Hole?
The public can visit the Boesmansgat cave, which is in South Africa. The availability of tours should be confirmed in advance because they tend to fill up rapidly.
The cave is predominantly filled with fresh water, creating a serene surface pond with a diameter of approximately 100 meters, often adorned with a green film of duckweed. Through the use of sonar technology, the cave’s incredible dimensions have been determined, revealing a depth of around 270 meters, solidifying its status as one of the deepest freshwater caves worldwide.
Accessing the mouth of Boesmansgat requires descending a steep rock face until reaching the water’s surface. Initially, the entrance to the cave appears deceptively narrow, spanning around 20 meters from the surface.
However, beyond this seemingly confined opening, a vast main chamber unravels, stretching to depths exceeding 200 meters below. The extreme depth of the cave presents a considerable challenge for divers, necessitating lengthy decompression periods to ascend from the depths safely.
Throughout its history, Boesmansgat has witnessed the establishment of numerous world records in cave diving. Adventurous divers from around the globe have sought the exhilarating experience of exploring its treacherous waters, often surpassing previous records in the process. However, the cave’s allure is not without its risks.
Tragically, Boesmansgat has claimed the lives of experienced divers such as Eben Leyden (1993), Deon Dryer (1994), and David Shaw (2005), the latter of whom ventured into the cave in an attempt to retrieve Dryer’s body, ultimately meeting a similar fate.
What Happened to Deon Dryer at the Bushman’s Hole?
Deon Dreyer, born on 7 August 1974, was an enthusiastic recreational scuba diver from South Africa. With approximately 200 dives logged, Deon was invited to join a group of divers from the South Africa Cave Diving Association for an expedition to Bushman’s Hole during the Christmas break of 1994.
The plan was to descend to a depth of 150 meters (492 ft), and Deon was asked to provide dive support, a proposition that excited him greatly. However, just two weeks prior to the expedition, Deon experienced the loss of his grandfather.
During a family gathering around a barbecue, Deon spoke with youthful bravado, expressing his desire to pass away while diving if given the choice.
On 17 December 1994, at the age of 20, tragedy struck as Deon drowned during a practice dive. He was assisting a team organized by Nuno Gomes in preparing the conditions for a deep technical dive scheduled to take place later that week.
Accounts from those diving with him suggest that Deon became disoriented during the ascent, approximately 50 meters (160 ft) from the surface. Speculations arose that he may have lost consciousness due to either oxygen toxicity or hypercapnia caused by the high exertion of breathing at such depths.
Following Dreyer’s untimely death, two weeks later, Theo (his father) enlisted the services of a remotely operated submersible typically used by the De Beers mining company. The submersible located Dreyer’s dive helmet on the floor of the cenote, but unfortunately, no traces of his body were found.
To honor the memory of their son, Dreyer’s parents took the initiative to place a plaque on a rock wall above the entrance pool of Bushman’s Hole. This act served as a heartfelt tribute to Deon and a way to keep his memory alive.
In Phillip Finch’s book “Diving into Darkness: A True Story of Death and Survival,” it is suggested that Dreyer’s passing had a profound impact on the cave diving community, partly due to the presence of the plaque.
While most other divers who tragically lose their lives, even in cave diving incidents, are typically recovered, it was believed for many years that Dreyer’s body would never be retrieved due to the extreme depth of the cave.
However, the presence of the plaque served as a poignant and constant reminder to cave divers that Deon’s remains rested within the depths of the cave, leaving a lasting impression on the diving community.
Dave Shaw Arrives and Tries to Get Deon Back
David John Shaw, an Australian scuba diver and technical diver, had a remarkable career as an airline pilot for Cathay Pacific. He flew various aircraft models, including the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, 747-400, A330-300, A340-300, and A340-600, throughout his tenure with the airline, starting in 1989.
During his remarkable and record-breaking dive, Dave Shaw made a significant discovery that would forever be etched in the annals of cave diving history. At the daring age of 50, Dave Shaw fearlessly ventured into the depths of Bushman’s Hole, reaching the impressive milestone of passing the 800-ft mark.
Once he reached the sloping bottom of the cave, Shaw detached himself from the cave reel, allowing him greater freedom to explore. With his flashlight in hand, he began to navigate and survey the surroundings carefully.
During his meticulous scan of the area, Shaw’s attention was abruptly captured by a sight that he instantly recognized. Just 50 feet away from his position, he spotted something that he knew all too well – it was the unmistakable form of a human body.
Shaw had encountered the body of Deon Dreyer, who had tragically lost his life in Bushman’s Hole a decade prior.
Shaw located Dreyer’s remains at an astounding depth of 270 meters (890 ft). This profound discovery shed light on the enduring mystery surrounding Dreyer’s fate and provided closure to his family and the diving community.
Shaw’s extraordinary feat of reaching such depths and uncovering the long-lost remains of Dreyer marked a pivotal moment in the history of cave diving exploration.
Determined to fulfill his promise and provide closure to Deon Dreyer’s grieving parents, Dave Shaw committed himself to return and recovering their son’s remains. Despite the challenges and risks involved, Shaw remained steadfast in his dedication to bringing closure to the family.
With unwavering determination, he set out on a subsequent mission, fully committed to retrieving Dreyer’s body from the depths of Bushman’s Hole. This would be his 333rd and final dive.
Dave Shaw Tries to Retrieve Deon Dryer’s Body and Passes Away
During his dive, Shaw meticulously documented his exploration using an underwater camera, providing valuable footage for researchers and investigators to analyze. The analysis of this footage revealed that Shaw encountered respiratory challenges resulting from the high-pressure environment within the cave.
Unexpected difficulties arose when the body he discovered unexpectedly began to float. Shaw had received advice from various experts indicating that the body would remain negatively buoyant, given that only skeletal remains were visible.
However, inside Dreyer’s drysuit, a transformation had taken place. The decomposing body had undergone saponification, turning into a soap-like substance called adipocere, which causes buoyancy. This unexpected buoyancy added further complications to Shaw’s already challenging situation.
While Shaw was engaged in his tasks, he had rested his can light, a powerful underwater light connected to heavy battery canisters, on the cave floor. Typically, cave divers secure the wires of these lights behind their necks.
However, in this instance, Shaw found himself unable to do so. The lines from the body bag appeared entangled with the light head, leading to a critical entanglement. In his efforts to free himself, the physical strain became overwhelming.
The footage captured by Shaw’s camera depicted his relentless efforts to free himself while experiencing breathlessness. This maneuver, which would typically be straightforward for an experienced diver at normal depths, proved exceedingly challenging due to the extreme conditions of operating at such significant depths.
Regrettably, the formidable demands of the environment overwhelm Shaw, causing him to lose consciousness and tragically lose his life.
Dave Shaw Keeps His Promise at the Bushman’s Hole
Approximately 15 minutes had passed since Shaw descended into the depths, and the diver above him (Don) began to observe for any indication that Shaw had completed his dive. Concern arose when no signs of movement were detected from below.
Reacting swiftly, the diver shifted into rescue mode. However, as he initiated his swim, an unsettling sound caught his attention, accompanied by the realization that his gauge, a crucial piece of equipment essential for the dive, had malfunctioned.
Using a slate, a small handheld writing board, the diver communicated the sorrowful news to the individual stationed at the subsequent decompression stop, conveying the heartbreaking message, ‘Dave’s not coming back.’
The message was relayed through the chain of divers, eventually reaching the surface, where Deon Dreyer’s parents anxiously awaited updates. The somber words conveyed the devastating outcome of Shaw’s mission, delivering an indescribable blow to those who held hope for his safe return.
The shocking news profoundly impacted the rest of the team so much that they abandoned their gear and returned home in disbelief. However, when they eventually returned to retrieve the equipment, they pulled up the line connecting them to the cave’s depths.
As the line gradually ascended towards the surface, they made a startling discovery—both the lifeless bodies of Shaw and Dreyer were attached to it.
Shaw had remained attached to the line, managing to free Dreyer before succumbing. Both bodies were released when the line was pulled and rose to the surface.
The camera still affixed to Shaw’s head proved to be a crucial piece of evidence. It enabled the team to analyze his final moments, leading them to conclude that he likely experienced nitrogen narcosis, a condition encountered by deep divers that induces feelings of intoxication and disorientation.
Although the story reached its tragic conclusion, Shaw’s unwavering courage, and determination are a testament to his character. His ultimate sacrifice brought long-awaited closure to the Dreyer family, ensuring their son’s remains were finally recovered from the cave’s depths.
Next, read about John Lee, the Man They Couldn’t Hang, and then, about Moby Prince, the Ship That Burnt Alive with Its Passengers.
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