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ESCAPE

A world first: connecting with Mother Earth underground in Somerset West

A world first: connecting with Mother Earth underground in Somerset West
Inside the chamber at Earthbox. (Photo: Gary van Wyk)

At the intersection of geology and architecture, engineering and magic, Earthbox is a first-of-its-kind immersive experience. You can’t imagine in advance what being inside it will do to you, but you can go there, step inside and find out.

There was a weird moment as I stood silently contemplating the dark, dank chamber when tears suddenly and inexplicably came to my eyes. 

I was somewhere below the Earth’s surface, and as I inhaled the petrichor scent of the clean, moist soil that was all around me, I saw that the dark-ocher walls of the cavernous space seemed to be crying, too. Near-imperceptible trickles of water, filtered by sand and sediment hundreds of millions of years old, were slowly seeping through the exposed surface. 

It was science, though, not an hallucination. What I saw was what happens inside the Earth below our feet all the time. The soil below us is a humongous filtration system for water that begins its journey at the surface, often from the very tops of high mountains, and steadily finds its way to an underground river or perhaps to the sea, and then cycles back again and again and again.

My tears had at least something to do with that intricate water cycle, some part of me struck by just how exquisitely this natural system is balanced. 

Much of my heartache, though, was caused by the simultaneous realisation that we humans have managed to disrupt these cycles, that we’re steadily causing the entire system of life to implode. 

It becomes somehow sacred, a kind of hallowed space that’s ideal for deep reflection, personal contemplation, or simply having your usual reality turned inside out.

It was in that moment of connection with the raw Earth around me that I felt as though I was witnessing the soil itself mourning the irreparable disruption of our planet’s natural rhythms.

The more I stood and stared, observed and tapped into my feelings, the more connected to this ancient, primordial system I felt. It was a kind of healing, a return to basics, and it felt heavy on my heart. Like that water being filtered by the earth, I seemed to be undergoing some sort of purification.

It might be why some folks who experience Earthbox emerge at the other end claiming they feel “reborn”. 

Touching the raw Earth walls inside Earthbox. (Photo: supplied)

Whatever feelings it stirs in you, it’s an experience.

On paper, Earthbox seems so simple. A rectangular empty space 24 metres long by about 7.5 metres wide, its walls angled slightly outwards as they rise to a convex, strutted ceiling. It feels far removed from the daylight, yet you’re not too far below the surface. You don’t take an elevator to reach it, there aren’t even stairs. In fact, those soaring rafters are just six metres up, which means you’re only about five metres below the surface. Most of us have been deeper than that in underground parking garages or subterranean train tunnels. You get in via a curved, sloping pathway.

Silent once inside

Once inside, there’s a pristine silence, an otherworldly dimness and a permanent coolness that heightens the effect of having undergone some sort of escape from the familiar world above. It becomes somehow sacred, a kind of hallowed space that’s ideal for deep reflection, personal contemplation, or simply having your usual reality turned inside out. 

It’s good, too, for reestablishing some sort of connection: with Earth, with nature, with something primordial. Or with yourself.

“We’re really just allowing a space for the unseen to be seen,” says Marina Busse, who conceived Earthbox. “It’s like going back in time. The Earth that you’re standing on in there is 500 million years old. That’s as old as when Africa and South America were still connected and called Gondwana. That pebble layer on the walls is an ancient riverbed from two-and-a-half million years ago.”

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Earthbox is the inaugural project of the Dream Commission, which Busse started together with fellow dreamer and imaginer Brad Baard because she “wanted to create these completely unique, once-off, immersive experiences”.  

Theirs is a creative enterprise with novelty and innovation central to its pursuit of art-adjacent projects that, she hopes, “will help reawaken our sense of childlike wonder that we tend to lose when we become adults”.

With Earthbox, Busse says they wanted to create an immersive experience underground. “We explore space. We explore the oceans. But rarely do we explore the beauty that’s underneath our feet.” 

Perhaps the reason is that creating such a structure is far more complex than it looks. What began with a conceptual brainstorming session during which Busse and Baard cut out a cardboard box and started imagining the possibilities ultimately required a geotechnical engineer and more than 2,970 man-days worth of construction time. 

Journey into the Earth. (Photo: Gary van Wyk)

Location, location

The first hurdle was finding a suitable location. “The structure required these clay-like, completely dense Malmesbury residual soils,” says Busse. A location scout proposed Lourensford, a wine farm in Somerset West, which had a large empty field and owners willing to rent it out. 

“It’s these specific soils that allowed us to have raw-earth walls, unmitigated, that didn’t require retention of any sort,” says Busse. 

The lack of concrete or steel girders is one of the astonishing things about Earthbox, and what sets it apart from underground parking garages and train tunnels. Its unusualness lies in the fact that you are staring directly into the Earth’s organic structure, like being in a cross section of the planet.

During excavation, water was the biggest challenge. Between the April 2022 test dig and the moment when the crew broke ground in February 2023, the groundwater level had shifted: from five metres below ground to three metres.  

“We’re situated literally between the mountains and the river, which was extremely challenging, especially since we were excavating throughout the wettest winter in 200-odd years,” Busse says. “Initially we were going to do the bulk of the excavation in the summer, but it started raining in March so we ended up having to work through the winter. In June it rained every day.” 

Excavation for the Earthbox project started at Lourensford on 1 February 2023. (Photo: Earthbox)

Fortunately, the geo-engineers figured out a solution. To allow for the constant presence of water, Earthbox has an intricate drainage system around the chamber. There are manholes in the ground, with sumps and pumps down below so that if the groundwater rises, it gets pumped out.

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The project, which opened to the public in November, is globally unique. Busse says if she’d attempted such a thing in Europe or the US, it would have been tied up in red tape for longer than would have been feasible. She says South Africa’s a more permissive environment for this type of project – there’s a willingness to allow for experimentation. 

Trying to put a label on what it is, though, is perhaps less simple. 

It’s at the intersection of art installation and pure experience, but it is also an attraction, albeit one that goes against the grain of emotion-assaulting thrill-rides one might associate with Disneyland.

Busse’s background is in advertising. She worked at Tate Modern before moving back to Cape Town and says her interest is in making art accessible. She wants to create projects that can engage a wide audience, that don’t feel hemmed in by the “sort of unspoken rules and protocols” that tend to dictate art exhibitions in Europe. 

The curved Earthbox entrance with the Helderberg Mountains in the distance. (Photo: Earthbox)

Interest in immersive experiences

In this sense, Earthbox is part of the global rise of “immersive experiences”, most of which tend to be technology-driven. 

Unlike adrenaline-pumping rollercoasters or Ferris wheels though, or any of the newfangled experiences that rely on VR goggles and digital tech to immerse the user in an alternate environment, Earthbox is about the “human experience”. It is a very physical, very real environment created to foster a human connection with the Earth. And, unlike most experiential attractions, it wants to slow you down.

“The entire experience is designed to invite you to connect with what is viscerally, physiologically happening in your body,” explains Busse. “That requires you to be very slow and very present so that you can feel the little discomfort when you step into the unknown, go into the darkness.”

Emerging from the immersive experience. (Photo: Gary van Wyk)

The absence of sunlight and sound (and cellphones) enhances this sensation, compelling you to be fully present. To simply be and to experience the space completely, without interference. “It is about creating an antidote to our very busy, very distracted lives,” says Busse. “Creating a space that is a complete antithesis to that.”

Getting inside it is itself part of this “slowing-down” process. First there is the arrival from the parking area by way of tractor-pulled shuttles, and then the sight of the Helderberg Mountains looming up ahead, their craggy peaks thrusting into the sky, slightly Lord of the Rings-ish. Then there are the meandering pathways and a curved ramp that leads, somewhat disorientingly, into the underground space. 

“It invites people to engage and become present in their bodies,” Busse told me as we sat on the grass outside Earthbox, not long after we’d participated in an early-morning Vinyasa class, one of the daily yoga sessions that happens inside the space before it opens to the public. Roxy Prentice, who had led the class, said she experiences “an energy” inside Earthbox that “definitely adds something” to the yoga experience. “It makes me feel a lot more grounded, as corny as that sounds,” she said. 

Earthbox hosts morning yoga before opening to the public. (Photo: Earthbox)

Invigorating or overwhelming?

Certainly, all of us who participated emerged refreshed, invigorated and joyful, although one young woman left just as the class began, claiming she’d been too exhausted, a bit overwhelmed simply from entering Earthbox. Later, we found her seated near the entrance meditating under the sun. 

Some people do find the disorientation – or the energy – too much. There’s a possibility of something akin to claustrophobia bubbling up, even though it’s quite spacious. The occasional moments of complete darkness can also prove overwhelming or frightening for some.

My own emotional response to the space, my connection with the crying walls, was at least in part triggered by an audio recording, a soothing 25-minute guided meditation that took me on a journey designed to calm, relax and slow me down. Alone in the chamber with that disembodied voice, my sense was of being inside the Earth’s womb, a precious place, a sanctuary.

Not that there’s any overarching intention of steering visitors into any particular thought process. “It’s a blank canvas,” Busse says. 

“There was no agenda, no narrative around it. It was just about creating a very neutral, agnostic space that can just be whatever you need it to be. 

“I mean, it’s the Earth, right? And the Earth holds all, accepts all. And so that’s all it is, just a space that people can come and be in and experience whatever they experience. Some people go into the space and they have profound moments and they’re moved to tears. And some people, well, they can’t wait to get back to their screens. Some people find it really challenging to slow down and to access that space where you can actually achieve that level of depth.”

Which is why audio tours are available. “Because people need help being guided through the experience,” Busse says. “It can be difficult to grasp.”

Daily yoga happens inside Earthbox at 8am, before the public has access for visits. (Photo: Earthbox)

Aside from the guided meditation, you can opt for the geology tour, which is a more nuts-and-bolts, fact-oriented exposé that gets to grips with the natural history of the underground space you step into, helping visitors understand what’s going on below the surface of the planet we walk on every day. A children’s guide has also been created.

And there are other ways of visiting and experiencing Earthbox: live music events, a cheffing series, and you can hire it for events.

It is an impermanent creation, however. Earthbox is scheduled to be deconstructed entirely in May, after which no trace of its existence will remain. Busse says it is the first of hopefully many such “crazy pioneering projects” – whatever follows will be equally unusual, but entirely different. DM

Situated at Lourensford Wine Estate, Somerset West, Earthbox is open daily with visits priced from R170 per person (depending on time of day) and audio tours available at an additional R50. Visits can be booked in advance via Webtickets. 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan West says:

    Was a thorough EIA done?? If not it is a contravention of NEMA.

  • Alan Salmon says:

    Sounds like a lot of BS to me – yet another nonsense fad.

  • Thomas Leach says:

    R220 to walk into a man made ditch? this is a money making scam. If you want to engage with earth you can dig a hole in your garden, or for the Full Monty, go for walk on any Cape mountain where you can experience Mother Earths geological forces in a truly visceral way.

  • Shaun Slayer says:

    Are you a gamer? cause that sounded just like the prelude to a very cool FPS. 😉

  • André van Niekerk says:

    I find the comments strange. I for one love the idea. It is a pity that it is aimed at being impermanent.

    I can imagine a member of the cell-phone infested youth, with expectations of instant gratification regarding all needs, suddenly sitting down on the floor, seeing just the earth, and experiencing silence and solitude, and hopefully having an aha-moment regarding life.

    Almost like being alone in die desert – but that is not achievable for everybody.

  • I must go there and experience a meditative moment.
    That will happen soon.
    Best regards,

    David.

  • Edward Visser says:

    Surely Earthbox should be a permanent exhibition, so as a lot more people can experience this wonder.

  • Conrad van den Berg says:

    Wonderful concept. Our purpose, to contribute, our privilege, to experience. With bare earth walls it is clear that Earthbox cannot be permanent. So it is with the best things in life.

  • John Seccombe says:

    This sounds like fun and it does no harm, so why not experience it? OR: visit Sedona in Arizona, USA, which is famous for its ‘vortex’ and ley lines which are reputed to work their magic by sending thrills and chills and more serious feelings up and down spines and legs and most everything else. OR: Go 2000 meters underground in one of South Africa’s gold mines where, when no one one is watching, you might be able to sneak off into one of the ‘mandala sides’, or old workings where there is absolutely no light and no sound apart from the creak of rock overhead. Let you ears become attuned to the sound of air molecules brushing your eardrums, and learn to accept there is such a thing as complete and utter darkness. It either scares you half to death, or it cleanses your soul and does whatever else these experiences are supposed to do.

  • Agf Agf says:

    If this had appeared on 1 April I would have been taken in, until the final reveal at the end. But it’s not 1 April and there is no reveal. I have never, NEVER, read such drivel in my whole life. Well, as they say in the classics: “There’s one born every minute”.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Maybe you should consider acquainting yourself with the expression “to each his/her own” ? Hard to do if one is imbued with an apartheid mindset .. as almost paradoxical as it seems !

  • Jan Hanekom says:

    I am quite surprised by the negative comments. I suppose you will always have those that prefer a Disney-like theme park and who do not expect to gain from this kind of experience. I love the concept and cheer on these dreamers.

  • Sarien Lategan says:

    Looks like a perfect wine cellar – then I’m all in!

  • Josephine Allais says:

    Why is it being demolished in May? Can it exist for at a least a year yo give Vaalies etc a chance to experience it?

  • David Bristow says:

    Sounds exciting, astonishing in fact. What a wonderfully creative concept!

  • James Harrison says:

    Sorry to hear that it will be deconstructed so soon. I won’t have an opportunity to visit it.
    PS: DM, PLEASE get rid of the spam comments!!

  • PK PK says:

    All of the pretentious gits will be oohing and aahing…

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