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.
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.
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.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Sterkfontein Caves (South Africa). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Sterkfontein Caves.
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