OUCC Proceedings 11 (1983)

The St Michael's Cave System, Gibraltar

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Chris  Danilewicz

Situated at the southern extremity of the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar is probably the most famous limestone outcrop known to mariners. The Rock scrapes in at a touch over 5 km long (N-S), up to 1600 m wide (E-W excluding jetties), and rises to a maximum height of 424 m. The only part that is not limestone is the sand on the beaches. There are over 140 natural caves recorded as well as many kilometres of man-made tunnels, dating from the early British occupation to the Second World War. However, there are many obstacles in the way of the sporting caver. These are mainly windsurfing, waterskiing, sunbathing and drinking, not necessarily in that order. If one manages to survive the acclimatisation process, the troglophilic existence of the true caver can be pursued in pleasant surroundings with no long slogs across bleak, desolate, rainswept moor. The caves, however, are limited in what they can offer, most being no more than hollows in the flanks of the Rock. Of the few sporting caves, the Saint Michael's system provides the finest situations in all Gibraltar. The system was first described in writing by the Romans who occupied Mons Calpe; however, long prior to this the caves had been used by early cave dwellers. The Romans believed the cave to be bottomless, with a route under the Straits to North Africa, and this route was supposedly the way by which the Barbary apes crossed to Gibraltar. Surprisingly, many people still believe this to be the case.

The system falls naturally into four parts - Old Saint Michael's Cave, Lower Series of Old Saint Michael's Cave, New Saint Michael's Cave and Leonora's Cave. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of confusion amongst the uneducated about which bit is which, the most common mistake being that New Saint Michael's is called Lower Saint Michael's. Even the Gibraltar Tourist Office gets this wrong! In addition, Old Saint Michael's is commonly referred to as plain Saint Michael's Cave.

Old Saint Michael's Cave

This cave has the only natural entrance to the system and is therefore used as the starting point of this description. The entrance is easily found, as it is next to the road and known by all the taxi drivers on the Rock. Behind a log cabin type building, which contains a bar, is a turnstile and the way into a unique show cave. A short flight of steps descends to an illuminated description of the cave and its formation. To the right, row upon row of red plastic seats descend on neat concrete steps to a large stage; this area is known as Main Hall and is probably the only naturally excavated auditorium in the world. The flooring was originally installed when the cave was turned into a hospital during the last war. Since then it has been used as an auditorium, and the regular concerts performed by the band of the resident battalion are well worth attending.

Beyond the stage area, a concrete path wends its way through stupendous arrays of stalagmitic columns over 20 metres high in the area known as Cathedral Cave. Interspersed with these natural displays of beauty are several unnatural tableaux of Homo neanderthalis, provided by the Gibraltar Tourist Office. At the southern end of Cathedral Cave, beyond the columns, one arrives at The Precipice, a slope down of over 15 metres, nearly vertical in places. Railings prevent further progress down this serious obstacle.

On the western side of the cave, a man-made bridge crosses a deep pit (accessible by staircase) to a dug-out entrance level, which emerges in the cave car park. This entrance is kept locked and a barrier prevents access to the bridge.
Access to the cave is unrestricted except for an entrance fee and opening times. In the war against vandalism, much of the cave is wired with alarms, and so it is advisable to stick to the paths. Although a tourist cave, it is still well worth a visit just for the chance to see such extensive formations lit by more than a muddy Oldham lamp. Wet suits and helmets are not required.

Leonora's Cave

The entrance to Leonora's Cave is found by following the left wall of Old Saint Michael's auditorium. Where the concrete floor ends at a loose soily slope covered in litter and broken glass, a climb over or under the railings gains the start of The Passage. This is a grotty stooping-height descent past a short section of dry-stone walling into the cave. The Passage ends at a step down around some stals into First Chamber. A short low section leads from First Chamber to the more impressive Main Chamber which is dominated by a fine stal slope and three pretty stal columns. Unfortunately, the cave has been severely damaged by generations of visitors. A staircase has been cut into the stal slope and this marks the way on. It leads to a short hands-and-knees crawl in a narrow passage with a pool of water about one centimetre deep covering the floor. This crawl goes by the imaginative name of The Crawl. The Crawl ends at a junction. By turning left and upwards a rift can be followed for a short distance. Right and down is the obvious way on, with one or two useful steps cut into the walls to aid descent. A bob down around a corner enters the eastern section of Bell Chamber at the top of a flows tone-covered slope. Again steps provide an easy descent. On reaching the foot of the slope, a crawl can be entered in the right wall - this is Gas Passage. Bell Chamber itself is dominated by the stalagmitic Partition, which effectively divides the chamber in two. Several short passages radiate from Bell Chamber. These are of varying degrees of tightness and stability but all close down with no possible way on. Although one passage goes by the name of Twin Rope Pitch, no tackle was required by the author or friends in any part of the cave.

Access to Leonora's Cave is controlled by the Gibraltar Tourist Office. Permission to enter can easily be obtained by calling in person at the main office in town one or two days in advance. Once permission is granted, cavers should book in and out via the turnstile at Old Saint Michael's Cave. The entrance fee is normally waived.

New Saint Michael's Cave

Survey: 1200x746; 3200x2200

This section of the system is without a doubt the paragon of Gibraltar caves. It is crowded with an abundance of fine formations which must surely rival any in the world. What is more, the whole is contained in a cave which would only merit a technical grade II in Yorkshire!

The entrance was discovered in 1942, when a level was being driven from the surface to the chamber at the foot of The Precipice in Old Saint Michael's Cave. At the time, the chamber was being converted into an operating theatre. The entrance level is found by walking down the metalled track from Old Saint Michael's car park to a small flat area from which a level footpath leads northwards to the way in. Just before the mined level reaches the operating theatre, a narrow wooden staircase descends into a hole. This is the start of New Saint Michael's Cave.

From the foot of the wooden staircase there are two ways on. Northward is the Northern Series (Ed: really?) and south leads to the main cave. The Northern Series is a group of rift passages, generally sandy and uninteresting. A claimed 19 m pitch was never found, but the remains of a rope ladder descended a climbable rift for some ten mentres. Going south from the entrance, a short, stooping-height passage emerges at the head of a climb down flowstone of some three metres. A knotted handline is in place to assist. The obvious way on enters a short crawl which emerges in the impressive Great Rift Chamber, dominated by a 'boxing ring' tangle of fixed ropes to aid progress for the less agile. The formations in Great Rift Chamber whet the appetite for what is to follow, and include a fine painter's palette high up at the top of the chamber.

An easy traverse, aided by the top fixed rope, leads to a simple climb down by a large calcited boulder. Straight ahead is the continuing Great Rift Extension, but the way on is to descend to where a handline drops to a low archway. A short traverse line leads through the archway and to a continuing descent over a flowstone, with a handline, into The Antechamber. Here, a small knee-deep pool is the first standing water to be encountered. The way on is the obvious route up to a two-metre climb, with handline, over a stal wall. On the far side of the wall is the First Stalagmite Hall and the start of the fine formations. Of particular note are several large chunks of stal which have fallen from the roof and have subsequently been calcited down. A short climb up leads to the way out of First Stalagmite Hall by way of a walking-size passage, with a drop into The Bottomless Pit on the right. The well-decorated passage emerges at the stupendous Second Stalagmite Hall, whose formations are largely controlled by the square pattern jointing displayed in the ceiling. Preston's Rift, a short narrow passage, starts at the entrance to Second Stalagmite Hall. An easy route passes through the Hall and leads to a largish pool covering the floor, avoided by traversing on ritnstones. A short way on is the start of the Third Stalagmite Hall. Although smaller than the other two Halls, it is nonetheless impressive. The final Stalagmite Hall terminates at the waters of the magnificent Lake, a body of water that occupies the entire passage and is up to ten metres deep in places; a life-belt and an inflatable dinghy are kept here as a safety precaution! The Lake is easily circumvented with dryish feet by traversing along rimstones which form a ledge down the left-hand side. This splashy traverse gains a particularly obscene stalagmite, from whence some planks lead to further rimstone traversing and, eventually, to Southern Hall.

Southern Hall is dominated by a near-perfect column about ten metres high and is the last chamber in the cave. The end of the cave lies a short way beyond, down a passage on the left, where a superb painter's palette can be seen.
Access to New Saint Michael's Cave is strictly controlled by 1 Fortress Specialist Team, Royal Engineers (1 Fortress STRE) who run the trade route as a show cave. The entrance is kept locked but a guided trip can easily be arranged. A guided tour takes approximately two hours but the journey from beyond Southern Hall to the surface can be accomplished in under fifteen minutes! Permission to explore the unlit sections of the cave can be arranged for "bona fide' cavers through the Army Watermanship Training Centre (AWTC) on Queensway, Gibraltar.

Lower Series of Old Saint Michael's Cave

This section of the cave is without a doubt the most sporty cave in Gibraltar. It is a good grade III fun cave. The entrance is situated at the end of the tunnel in which New Saint Michael's Cave was found and is usually covered by a large wooden board to prevent accidental entry! Beneath the board is a climb down of three to four metres on to some very loose deposits which funnel down a further drop of some two metres. A handline is essential as the whole floor is unstable and a fall would land on an assortment of boulders, broken glass and scrap iron. As a further precaution, only one person should be on the climb at any one time and the whole group should be well clear of the cave directly below when someone is climbing.

From the foot of the climb, a slope of assorted detritus descends to a solidly-shored wall of timber, about three metres high, which acts as a dam. Below this, a small scree slope has to be traversed to the start of The Corkscrew, a series of small chambers and awkward descending squeezes. A long continuous handline marks the route through The Corkscrew to emerge at The Grotto. In The Grotto it is possible to wander in circles but there are two ways on. By following the right-hand wall the entrance to Ringing Rock Cave is easily found. This chamber derives its name from the musical properties of the rock flakes which cover parts of the walls, and all ways out quickly close down. The main way on from The Grotto is a flat-out crawl a short way past Ringing Rock Cave. A small chamber to the left of the crawl is known as Warren's Cave, but the main route is straight on through a particularly nasty squeeze, best tackled without helmet and battery. Beyond the squeeze is a second, of similar dimensions, known as Smith's Hole, and a low crawl continues over a small drop into squatting-height passage, leading to Brown's Bath. This pool is between five and fifteen centimetres deep in a chamber with a maximum height of about one metre. The acrobatic antics produced by trying to stay dry whilst traversing this obstacle usually put any observers into such paroxysms of laughter that they end up in the water themselves. Over Brown's Bath is a short flat crawl which emerges about four metres above the floor of Prison Approach. The use of Great Walenda tactics can overcome this disparity in altitude and place one at the foot of another four-metre slope, which has to be climbed to go to The Prison. The name is derived from a fine stal grille which produces a fair imitation of some rather robust bars.

For those who have not yet tired of bodily contortions whilst in intimate contact with sharp rock, there is an escape route from The Prison via Hanson's Passage. Unfortunately, it is only an escape for those who are sick in mind, for Hanson's Passage is a tight, sharp squeeze which ends at a two-metre drop with no hand-holds and a less-than-thigh-length gap to the opposite wall. It thereby acts as a very efficient leg breaker or knee reverser. Reversing Hanson's Passage is the crux of the cave. Beyond Hanson's Passage there are two ways on. Left leads to Hanson's Cave, a large, dusty chamber in bouldery, shattered rock. Going right is a short crawl to a three to four metre climb into Hanson's Grove, a fine long rift chamber walled with flowstone. At the far end, a short climb up reaches a broad, gently sloping expanse of flowstone. This is Brown's Seat and the end of the cave.

Access is controlled by 1 Fortress STRE. However, this is effectively delegated to the AWTC. The Lower Series is well worth a visit by any caver on holiday on the Rock with a spare pair of jeans, a sweatshirt and a pair of boots. The hire of helmets, lamps and belts may be possible by prior arrangement with the AWTC.


Surveys of the Saint Michael's Cave system were kindly supplied by Mr G. L. Palao, BEM of the Gibraltar Cave Research Group. A BCRA grade 5 is claimed for the survey of Leonora's Cave. The remainder are grade 6, having been surveyed using theodolites and levels.