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South Africa: Sterkfontein Caves

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Sterkfontein Caves | South Africa | Africa

[Visited: August 2014]

When I read about Sterkfontein before going there, I got the impression that it would be possible to see fossils several millions of years old. The drive to get to Sterkfontein is a little more complicated than expected, driving over secondary roads, until we find a clear sign saying Cradle of Humankind. It feels like driving back in time. At the information booth, we learn that there is actually a second site, Maropeng, which is a 15 minute drive away. We are halfway the afternoon, and realize we probably have to choose. After talking to a few compatriots who have visited both sides and who label Maropeng as a Disney-like experience, the decision is quickly taken, and we walk through the small exhibition before our guided tour of this World Heritage site starts.

Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): Torch shining into a translucent stone in the Sterkfontein caves

A friendly girl with a wonderful name, Felicia, presents herself, and takes us for a walk up the hill. Along the trail: several plaques representing the formation of the continents, pre-historic creatures, as well as the major finds of Sterkfontein: Mrs. Ples (who later on was supposed to be an adolescent man), and 3.3 million year old Little Foot, a predecessor of homo sapiens with a much smaller body, as well as a differently shaped foot, which allowed him to climb trees much more easily than we do. So far, hundreds of fossils of both humans and animals have been recovered at Sterkfontein. Near the entrance to the caves, Felicia shows us a sun clock. Then, we descend into the earth over a staircase. Our eyes adjust to the low light conditions after the bright sunshine outside, and we see formations on the walls, also thanks to the torch Felicia is using while explaining what we see. We pass the cave where the owner of Little Foot had fallen into through a hole in the ceiling. Trapped inside, he had no way to escape, and millions of years later, he would become famous and a valuable link in the research into the origins of humankind.

Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): The underground lake, with pure water, is the lowest spot of the Sterkfontein cave complex

At the beginning of our explorations of the caves, we see large spaces, with ceilings tall like halls, where the guide points out easily recognizable shapes. There is an elephant: not only his head, trunk, ears, and tusks, but even his entire body, four legs, and tail. There are a man and woman, and several more shapes that can only really be seen in the light of the torch. We descend to a lake, at 43 metres the lowest point of the cave complex. The water is incredibly clear, without any contamination: we can see the bottom wherever the light shines. A team of divers once went inside to explore, but one of them did not survive the dive. We now reach an area with much smaller spaces through which we have to squeeze ourselves, but they are easily passable, until we find ourselves outside again. We find a sculpture of Dr. Broom, one of the paleontologists who has worked intensively in Sterkfontein in the 1930s and 1940s, holding the skull of Mrs. Ples, one of his most famous finds. Rubbing his nose supposedly brings good luck, while rubbing his fingers would bring you wisdom; she added that rubbing both would result in bad luck.

Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): Sculpture in memory of Dr. Broom and his most important discovery: Mrs. Ples
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): One of the large caves has all kinds of shapes; here, the elephant
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): The way to the inside of the cave complex at Sterkfontein
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): The cave complex at Sterkfontein
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): Cave with all kinds of formations
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): Formation in the caves in close-up
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): The entrance of the Sterkfontein caves
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): Trail around the cave area at Sterkfontein
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): One of the most important finds of Sterkfontein, Little Foot was done in Silberberg Grotto; the unfortunate guy probably fell through the opening in the roof
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): Part of the caves have high ceilings and staircases
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): A section with low ceiling through which you need to squeeze yourself
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): Mrs. Ples, the most famous find at Sterkfontein, commemorated on a plaque on the way to the entrance of the caves
Picture of Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa): Excavations are still going on at the top of the caves at Sterkfontein

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