Sunday, 18 August 2013

My Life as a "Wanderlust" : The Cradle of Humankind and back...

Recently we had a long weekend holiday in South Africa. The "true wanderlusts" (unfortunately, which I claim to be...ahem...ahem...) don't miss out opportunities like this to wander around and absorb the local culture... but partly due to ineffective planning and partly due to laziness, my aim of going out on a long weekend was effectively shelved. The wanderlust in me was not going to give up..ah ha...not so easily, so I sat down with the internet and scoured for places to go on a day trip from Pretoria.

My criteria was simple. One I did not want to spend overnight on a trip, and two, it should be something interesting, culturally, or otherwise.

I decided to go to the Cradle of Humankind and the Sterkfontein caves in Maropeng just one and half hours' drive from Pretoria. Buoyant with the adventure ahead of us, me and my hubby slept off early and woke up to a gloomy, cloudy Pretoria morning.Now in South Africa, the sun shines 360 days out of 365 days a year, and today had to be a day when it would rain...!!! I constantly kept telling myself, and my husband constantly kept telling me, that all would be ok, once we were out on the roads. So anyhow, armed with three bottles of drinking water and a few oranges for snacks, we set off...

The total journey took us about two and a quarter hours, a little more time because, the route wasn't known to us, we didn't really trust the GPS ( which actually was showing the correct route) and it was raining torentially. On our way we made two wrong turns and had to rewind our way, if any of you do not have these encumbrances, you would make it to the Sterkfontein Caves within the stipulated time of one and half hours.

 Now a little about the Caves. Sterkfontein Caves and the adjacent Cradle of Humankind traces the journey of human civilization over millions of years to the present. It is the site of the richest fossil finds in southern Africa and one of the fossils, named Little Foot, an early ancestor of Homo Sapiens was found in the Sterkfontein caves in it's totality. It was the rarest of the rare cases where such a fossil was found in its entirety and it was this find which ultimately made Cradle of Humankind and Sterkfontein Caves to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.

If you want to know a little more about the Sterkfontein caves and the Cradle here's a site that you could visit.

It is one of the world's richest hominid sites and about 40 percent of human ancestor's fossils have been discovered here. (Source: Cradle of Humankind website)

To the people who would be going there for the first time, it's a better idea to first visit the Cradle Museum and then the caves for whatever you'll be seeing in the museum, you would easily relate to them in the caves. The Museum is half an hour's journey from the Caves, but in case you are travelling from Pretoria or Joburg, the Caves will come first and then you'll have to drive another half an hour to get to the Museum. Since we didn't really know where the Museum was located, we did the caves first and then went to the Museum.

At the caves, one can purchase tickets both for the entry to the Museum and to the caves. However if you are claustrophobic, or suffer from back pain or knee pain or joint pain of any kind, I would not advise you to go for the cave tour, because it does involve some real exercise. You can still visit the Cave Museum (that's separate from the Cradle Museum) and check out some very interesting exhibits.

After you purchase a ticket fo-
-r the Cave and the Museum tour, you join a queue for the cave tour. A tour departs every half an hour with a knowledgeable guide, who are sometimes archaeology students themselves. Our Guide called Themba, was very informative and she had a wide knowledge on fossils and dinosaurs and all sorts of ancient animal and plant life. She was both informative and fun. There will be plenty of time to ask questions and the guides will patiently answer them to your satisfaction.

When one is descending into the caves, please be aware that you are travelling into some 600 feet deep underground and deeper still. It's best to listen to your tour guide and hold the handrails and descend with utmost caution.

Inside the caves, its a different world all together. There were "Stalactites" and "Stalagmites" so varied and distinct in shape and size that it took our breadth away. Oh, an important distinction that one learns here and throughout my school life, I always got it wrong, is that "Stalactites" hang from the "ceiling", there's a C there for a reason after all...!!! and the "stalagmites" rise up from the ground, the "G" in Stalagmites...!!! Only if I had come here some years earlier, I would have been so much better at the subject.

Then there were the fossil sites themselves. The general public aren't allowed into the excavation sites but one gets a fair idea of what's happening... although we went on a public holiday, but if one goes on a weekday, one can actually see paleontologists working and history being made on the site... being a history buff myself, I found the prospect extremely exciting.

The journey through the caves is an awesome adventure in itself. There was a life fossil of an ancient antelope which for some reason hasn't being excavated yet. One can actually touch it and the folklore goes that touching the antelope fossil brings in good luck and helps you emerge unscathed from the cave itself. I don't know whether the folklore is true or not but touching a million year old antelope fossil is a huge increment. The Fossil upon touch appears smooth and cold (of course, it's been underground for millions of years) but touching which had once been alive and moving and breathing, and existed about two million years ago was pretty much awesome.

There were places inside the cave where one had to crouch and crawl on all fours, there was also another place where we had to sit and crawl. It was brilliant. When you come out in the light, there is a statue of Prof. Phillip Valentine Tobias and whose bronze nose
you are supposed to rub for "good luck" or if you want wisdom you rub his left hand, but if you are greedy and rub both, you'll be visited by bad luck...!!!

When you emerge out of the cave, you feel, as if you have come a long way and it's true. Human ancestors have been travelling a long time through evolution to become what we are today.

After half an hour's drive, one finally reaches the Cradle of Humankind. Very honestly speaking, if you have already been to the caves, this Museum pales a bit in comparison, but it is interesting nonetheless. The Museum building itself is a unique experience in architecture. It is called "the Tumulus" and is an unique example of the marriage of environment and architecture.

There is a small canteen inside and you can order all sorts of food like hotdogs to sandwiches. I can vouch the chocolate milkshake is just heavenly.

The exhibits are actually situated underground, and there is also an underground boat ride, which can be quite a thrill for kids and teenagers. It showcases the four elements of nature : Air, Water, Fire and Earth and has an interesting light and sound show. There is also a "room of illusion" and that too is quite interesting. The Museum also has original fossils of ancient hominids and paleo-mammals and birds. It also showcases different types of innovative games, I particularly liked the one which shows how your DNA was formed and what characteristics would your offspring inherit.

There are other interesting exhibits as well. The Museum is so designed that when you start your journey, you begin with the formation of our galaxy and our planet, going to the formation of the single cell organisms to the ancient plants and animals and finally journey to the formation of hominids and to the emergence of homo sapiens of today. It also goes on to showcase, the human journey throughout ages and where we are presently heading. It also has a small exhibition of South Africa's history and concludes with a World Population Clock and of course Nelson Mandela's original wax hand prints. When one comes out, one can see beautiful, breathtaking view of the Maliesberg Mountains.

A visit here is truly worthy and intoxicating. You won't have a single boring moment while you study the journey from our past to our present.

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