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May 2012

Words and pictures by: Richard Holmes

Driving along the N14 through the rather unattractive outskirts of Johannesburg, it’s hard to imagine Australopithecus africanus and their prehuman buddies hightailing it across this dusty piece of Highveld - pursued by sabre-toothed cats and long-legged hunting hyenas.

Keep with the dreary N14; take a right at the Krugersdorp four-way stop and you’ll soon discover the incredible history of this corner of Gauteng.

When I mentioned to my wife that we were going to visit the Sterkfontein Caves, the audible groan was almost enough to make me turn the car around and head back to the malls and of the big city. Countless school trips filing past dusty fragments of bones explained by even dustier white cardboard captions had made any interest in the prehistoric as extinct as Mrs Ples herself.

Thankfully, a visit to the Sterkfontein Caves today bears no resemblance to those dull school outings of days gone by. Just 50 kilometres west of Africa’s economic powerhouse, the very roots of humankind lie waiting to be explored at two wonderful new visitor attractions.

The 47 000ha area known as the Cradle of Humankind – a designated World Heritage Site – is home to over three million years of human activity. Over 40% of the entire world's human ancestor fossils have been found in and around these nondescript koppies.

The Sterkfontein valley consists of around 40 different fossil sites, but the epicentre of the cradle is the Sterkfontein Caves. Here Dr Robert Broom excavated a near-complete skull of Plesianthropus transvaalensis in 1947. It was the first hard evidence ever found of the ape-man ‘missing link’. Although Mrs Ples, as she was later called, has become the icon of the caves and the Cradle of Humankind, over 500 hominid fossils and 9 000 stone tools have been discovered in the surrounding cave systems. These date as far back as 3.5 million years.

The revamped visitor centre is proving to be a huge hit with local and overseas visitors. It offers facilities that match the incredible discoveries to be made below ground. But before exploring the new museum, a tour through the caves is the perfect way to get a real sense of the history and mystery behind the cutting-edge science that takes place nearby.

Well-informed, if rather short, guided tours run regularly through the caves and are highly recommended if you want to understand more about the history and palaeontological significance of the area. The caves, formed over millennia by water eroding the soft dolomite rock, were first discovered in the late 1800s. Prospector Gulgimo Martinaglia stumbled upon them while searching for lime deposits. More interested in the lime and guano the caves had to offer, the miners’ dynamite destroyed many of the caves’ most rock formations. Thankfully there are still some remarkable examples of stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone to marvel at.

Enthusiastic guides bring the history of the area to life with tales of fortune seekers, sabre-toothed cats and scientific exploration. They are able to answer questions on topics ranging from geomorphology to human genealogy.

Want to know more?

The James Kitching Gallery on the east campus of Wits University is a small but wonderful museum dedicated to palaeontology. It is well worth a visit.

Crammed with fossils from across Africa (but mainly from South Africa), the museum offers ‘wall-to-wall missing links’ and has several near-complete skeletons on display.

Another highlight is a model of the Taung skull, which was the first Australopithecus africanus skeleton to be discovered in South Africa, in 1924.

If you still have questions, the new Sterkfontein museum is the place to find the answers. Expertly revamped, the displays of human prehistory and how we came to be is brought to life in a way that’ll appeal to both young and old. Fossils, dioramas, displays and text will transport you from the days of Gondwanaland through the millennia to the many incarnations of modern humans. It tells a compelling story of human evolution.

The Maropeng attraction

‘Maropeng’ in Setswana means ‘returning to the place of origin’. It highlights the fact that humankind originated from Africa. It is just five minutes’ drive from the Sterkfontein Caves.

‘Maropeng at the Cradle of Humankind is not only part of our national pride,’ says Erica Saunders from Maropeng. ‘To the world it denotes the universal relevance of the Cradle of Humankind as the ancestral home of all - no matter what colour, culture or creed.’

From the moment you wander up the processional way, it’s obvious that the history of humankind is to be discovered below ground. The skyline is dominated by the tumulus. This is a recreation of an ancient burial mound, which leads you down into the bowels of the earth. First up is a Disney-style underground boat ride that’s meant to speed you through four billion years in geological time as the earth evolves through the basic elements of water, air, fire and earth. Kids will be sure to squeal and shriek at the falling water and rumbling earth. Adults will learn little until the ride offers more info and less theatrics; an upgrade that is apparently in the pipeline.

Don’t be disheartened by the slightly superficial boat ride; the main exhibition hall is one of the most innovative museums South Africa has to offer. Exciting visual displays such as ‘Birth of the Cradle’ explain the concept of evolution and how the caves were formed. ‘The Path to Humanity’ manages to compress four billion years of human development into a more digestible 60 minutes - from prehistoric Australopithecus to Homo sapiens.

The museum is a sensory overload and is perfectly suited for kids. Exhibits can be pulled, pushed and whirled to make palaeontology palatable to pre-teens. Exhibits like ‘Dial-a-Dodo’ – where you can ‘listen’ to extinct animals talking – manage to make a usually dry topic fun to explore. ‘What It Means to Be Human’ explores the shared characteristics that separate human from ape.

Reinforcing the words of Marshall McLuhan that ‘there are no passengers on Spaceship Earth, we are all crew’, the display ends with a thought-provoking exhibit on sustainability. It is a sobering reminder that planning for the future is as important as exploring the past.

Want to spend more time exploring? Maropeng also offers a 4-star boutique hotel, with 24 stylish rooms. In summer the pool deck overlooking the distant Witwatersberg and Magaliesberg mountain ranges is the place to be. Or you can simply soak up the winter sun while enjoying a meal at the chic restaurant.

Nightjar Travel