Welcome Home! So says Mike Worsnip at the Sterkfontein Caves where a media group begin a visit to the Cradle of Humankind with a tour of the Sterkfontein Caves.
“Welcome home”, he says again at the end of the visit later that day at Maropeng, the visitors’ centre whose name means “returning to the place of our origin”.
To complete the symbolism of the journey home, outside Maropeng we ceremonially place stones bearing our names on an isivane – a pile of stones which would traditionally be left at the entrance to a village marking those who have journeyed there.
The notion of “home” is significant, in that Africa has been shown to be home to the human species, with the remarkable fossil finds at Sterkfontein and other caves in the Cradle of Humankind providing the best evidence found anywhere in the world of our ancient human history, explains Mr Worsnip, who is the director of Maropeng.
I’m not alone when I confess that, while not my first trip to the Cradle of Humankind area, I’d never been to Maropeng, despite always meaning to do so.
Janine Muthusmay, who heads up marketing for Maropeng, said she found the same thing when she asked shoppers at the nearby Cradlestone Mall if they had ever explored the real Cradle down the road, and found that most had not.
It’s a shame, as the area, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, holds international significance.
Beyond key historical and archaeological sites one can visit, there is a growing range of activities that nature and adventure lovers and families can enjoy at the site, which is within easy reach of Pretoria and Joburg.
When one enters the Cradle, it is hard to believe that beneath the gentle Highveld grassland lie such fossil-rich dolomite caves.
Look out for green spots, especially wild fig trees which cling to the rocks, says Lindiwe Mahlangu, our guide at Sterkfontein, and that’s where you may find the entrance to a cave.
The dolomitic caves began to form an estimated 20 million years ago, but records of its discovery date to Italian miners looking for limestone in the late 1880s.
While they destroyed many of the limestone formations, the stalactites and stalagmites, during their blasting, it is the discard of the hard cave breccia (or debris from the caves) that ultimately led to the fossil finds there, Ms Mahlangu says.
There’s a good exhibition giving the history of Sterkfontein Caves and major fossil finds at the start of the tour, with detail filled in by the guide once one has descended (about 100 steps) into the cave. In 1947, Robert Broom, a palaeontologist based at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, discovered a perfectly preserved hominid skull fossil, dating back 2.3 million years.
This was the Australopithecus africanus (nicknamed “Mrs Ples”). Australopithecus (or “southern ape”) was an upright-walking hominid which had human-like teeth and hands, and various species lived in eastern and southern Africa between 2 and 4 million years ago.
Another important treasure of the Sterkfontein Caves was Little Foot, a fossilised skeleton of an early form of Australopithecus found in the Silberberg Grotto. Palaeoanthropologist professor Ron Clarke and his team worked for four years from 1994 to 1998, to excavate this fossil, the oldest known hominid from the Cradle.
Says Mr Worsnip: “You see the fossil (Little Foot), you can see the enamel on its teeth, and you are looking at 3.5 million years of our history. It’s spine chilling.” A model is on display at the exhibition.
Talk inevitably turns to Homo naledi, the remarkable find in 2013 by Professor Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand and a National Geographic explorer.
Homo naledi (named in 2015) is an extinct hominin – or early human species believed to be up to
2 million years old.
Bones from about 15 individuals were excavated from the virtually inaccessible Dinaledi chamber in the Rising Star, and readers will recall the striking image of a reconstruction of Homo naledi, standing about 1.5m tall, or an impressive display table of skeletal bones so painstakingly arranged and now at Wits’s Origins Centre.
This is one of the most dramatic and important scientific stories of our time, though not without controversy, as Professor Berger believes this species could be the first to bury its dead.
Mr Worsnip hints that before the end of the year we can expect a further announcement from Professor Berger about Homo naledi and its final resting place, though what that is he too must wait to find out, but it does add to the imperative for South Africans to visit the Cradle of Humankind to get better acquainted with our human history.
Aside from the fossil finds, another fascinating aspect of the cave is its vast underground lake, and with the chill of the cave around you, Ms Mahlangu tells the story of how an exploration by divers in 1984 to find out more about this lake ended in tragedy when Pieter Verhulsel was separated from his companions.
His body was found days later by a rescue team who also surveyed new passages in the caves, but diving is now forbidden, as is taking water from the lake or throwing anything into it.
Ms Mahlangu points her torch upwards to where the limestone formations above the lake are untouched, and one gets a sense of the awe for these caves and what they stand for.
Maropeng’s Tumulus building, a few kilometres away from Sterkfontein, was built as a visitors’ centre and also has conference facilities. The main permanent exhibition is self-guided and traces the development of human ancestors over millions of years, with a short time-travel boat ride symbolically taking one through the ages. My least favourite part of the tour, but probably a hit with children. Numerous displays, some interactive to appeal to children, reinforce what one has learnt during the day.
Sterkfontein and Maropeng go hand in hand, so when you plan a visit, it is best to make a full day of it and buy a combined ticket (R190 for adults and R125 for children).
Be sure to consider a lunch break at the Tumulus restaurant at Maropeng with its lovely views. It serves light meals and a satisfying buffet lunch on Sundays and special days. Maropeng hosts conferences and events and is a popular destination for school trips, with group accommodation available at Hominid House.
Should you want to extend a visit for a complete getaway, there are many highly rated hotels, but the four-star Maropeng boutique hotel near the visitors’ centre where our group stayed overnight is perfect for its convenience and style.
There are many other offerings in the area, and a new association involving about 200 players and backed by Gauteng Tourism has been launched to reposition the Cradle of Humankind brand (as opposed to only Maropeng) to boost tourism and jobs. A popular activity is mountain bike routes and trails, with a cyclist in our group confirming there is no better place to ride.
We settled with a drink, reflecting on the day, and watched the sunset over the Magaliesberg from the hotel lounge before enjoying a delicious three-course meal in the hotel restaurant.
This was followed by a talk on the night sky before we headed out, wrapped in rugs, for some star-gazing.
The weather wasn’t great, but we did get to see close-ups of the moon’s surface and view Saturn through a telescope, before heading to our rooms for a peaceful sleep.
What you need to know
●Sterkfontein Caves and Maropeng are open 9am to 5pm, Tuesdays to Sundays (and Mondays during school holidays and on public holidays).
●The website www.maropeng.co.za has really good background about the sites, useful for tourists and educational purposes.
● To find out about the Maropeng Hotel, call 014 577 9000.
●To find out about MBT routes, pick up the new Cradle of Humankind map (with its theme “A Whole lot of Living where Life began”). Go to www.magaliesbergmap.co.za
●To find out about other activities in the Magaliesberg, Hartebeespoort dam and Muldersdrift area, go to www.thecradletourismcompany.net.
How do you like to travel and explore South Africa?
There are almost as many ideas and favourites as there are people in this beautiful country of ours…and now you can make your voice heard about the tourism experience you want.
SA Tourism would like to know about you and local travel so it can help develop strategies and programmes to promote local tourism. This is part of the organisation’s new #TourismForAll campaign which sets the stage for Tourism Month in the whole of September.
So have your say!
Go to http://shotleft.co.za/tourism-for-all