Leonora’s Cave is a cave system within the commonly known St Michael’s Cave. One would argue it is actually only an extension chamber of St Michael’s. Leonora's Cave was long believed to be a bottomless pit and it was here where the story of an underwater cave passage communicating with North Africa emerged. It was also said that through this passage, the macaques made their way into Gibraltar. Nonsense of course, but a good story that has lasted many years to this present day. Leonora's is in fact not a bottomless pit, but is quite deep indeed!
Graffiti we have found on stalagmites and pillars dating back to 1801 and early reports mentioning ‘passages leading off St Michaels Cave’ suggest that the site was first explored in the 1700s by British Troops; however it was only until 1864 that Captain Brome explored this system extensively and realised its beauty. In 1867, he named this cave after his wife Leonora saying the site was ‘of unimaginable beauty’.
In 1914, the famous French prehistorian Abbe Breuil visited this cave in an attempt at researching it properly and he reported seeing spiders, isopods, acaris, staphylindis and diptera. Bats were also reported to have been common in this site although sadly, none are found now.
In November 1959 Mr George Palao, a local cave enthusiast and surveyor, head of the then ‘Gibraltar Cave Research Group’ also surveyed this cave producing some fine maps of the system. As we will explain later, they however did miss a few sections of this cave (What we now call ‘Lower Leonora's Cave) which we discovered ourselves in 2012.
Leonora’s Cave just like St Michael’s Cave was used as a show cave in the 19th century. This passage by Lt. Col. G.J. Gilbard explains this nicely:
“Ladies however need not be afraid of proceeding to the explorations of Leonora’s Cave, from where, candles only having been used to light up the stalactites, pillar are undimmed by smoke, and the decent, although a little difficult is not too arduous an undertaking”.
We would imagine that these trips for ladies would only be to the Main Chamber since attempting the Crawl and later the drop into the Bell Chamber dressed in a long skirt would actually have been quite dangerous!
Leonora's has had its fair share of casualties too. There are various accounts of military personnel having visited the cave in their spare time to finally find ‘The passage to Africa’ and were never seen again. Some believe though that they were simply trying to find a way of leaving the army, and being lost in a cave and never seen again would be an easy way to do this.
In early 2012 the Gibraltar Museum Caving Unit decided to explore this system systematically. It took a few visits to understand the system properly, but while exploring, found two access points to chambers which had never been mapped, drawn or described before; what we later called ‘Lower’ Leonora's Cave.
This part of the system is a little more complicated with vertical rope pitches and steep narrow descents. To this day, the team has covered over 500 metres worth of new passages going deeper and deeper underground; and the exploration is still on-going.
Who knows, we may someday find the remains of some lost soldiers…
Archaeologically, Leonora's Cave has never been fully examined, with this said, some remains have come from this site including that of an Ox found by Dr. Oliver C. Lloyed in 1958. Also, there is an abundance of breccia containing bone in some of the chambers.
Leonora’s is an exciting site which will undoubtedly offer some nice surprises in the future.