Despite what the history books often tell us, Africa’s human history goes back to more than 2 million years ago. There’s a lot that we don’t know yet about the time between then and the arrival of modern humans to regions all over the world. But there’s also a surprisingly large amount that we do actually know, starting with the fact that humans originated right here in Africa. There are few places better to learn about this history than the Cradle of Humankind, a large area about an hour’s drive north-west of Johannesburg. The Cradle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; some of the oldest, most important and best preserved fossils of humans ever found were discovered right here near the tip of Africa.
There’s a surprising amount more to discover at the Cradle than just old bones. For starters there is a huge network of limestone caves that spread out under the roads, farms and homes of the area. Known as the Sterkfontein caves, they’re home to one of the richest collections of fossils in the world. Amazingly, Sterkfontein is only one of 12 sites in the Cradle area that have been excavated so far, and there are many, many more left to explore. Who knows what remains buried in the dark tunnels and soils still waiting to be uncovered and teach us something as yet unimaginable about our ancestors? It’s unsurprising then that Sterkfontein is also the site of the longest continuous dig in the world, which is still far from over- it’s been going on 62 years and counting.
Bust of Robert Broom outside the caves, who discovered many of the most famous fossils at Sterkfontein.
Tours of the cave system run every half hour of every day from 09:00 to 16:00, and visitors get to walk past active archaeological dig sites, discover the immense underwater lake system millions of years old, and be awed by the sheer size of vast open caverns like the Elephant Chamber, named for the animal the main rock face apparently resembles (it takes a pinch of imagination to really see it). The best part of the experience is the amazing knowledge of the local guides, who can answer any question ranging from the makeup of every rock in the caves to the stories of the people who spent their lives dusting fossils out of those rocks.
About 10km away from Sterkfontein is Maropeng, the Visitors’ Centre of the Cradle of Humankind. Maropeng itself is a feat of architecture, and one of my personal favourite buildings in the Johannesburg area. Designed to blend into its surrounding landscape almost entirely, the centre also prides itself on being one of the most environmentally friendly tourist attractions around. Inside too, Maropeng never ceases to disappoint. On the ground floor sits an extensive museum exhibit showing the history of the planet and its inhabitants from the very start of time until the present. I won’t ruin it for you, but will just say that there are interactive displays that not only the kids will find fascinating – I’ve seen it bring out the inquisitive and playful side in the most composed of adults. When you reappear into the bright sunshine on the other side of the building you’ll be greeted with a stunning view of the surrounding farmland. If you’re lucky (like we were) you might even see some wildlife in the nearby veld (we saw a proud female Kudu). Throw in a small trek to the top of the beautifully designed building if you’re feeling energetic or want an even better view. Half way up or down you can reward yourself with a meal at the smart-looking (and air-conditioned- a huge relief in summer) Tumulus restaurant (for about ZAR pp. They also offer a Sunday carvery).
A morning or day trip out to the Cradle is one of my favourite activities to do with visiting friends and family in Johannesburg. A quick drive from the northern suburbs of the city, and not much further from the southern ones, the Cradle provides a relaxing and beautiful day in the country as well as a fascinating trip into the distant past. I recommend starting the day at the caves, which require a bit of energy to duck, dive and scramble through the tight tunnels. Take a lunch break at the restaurant or the more informal café at the Maropeng centre, but rumour has it your time is much better spent at the nearby Le Sel restaurant, which looks out on a spectacular panorama and which I’ve heard has a great (but pricey!) menu.
There’s also plenty else to do in the area, especially if you feel like staying the night in the country before returning to the big city. There are hot air balloon rides, game drives, hiking and incredible stars to gaze at on a clear night. There’s also the Wonder Caves, a similarly rich archaeological site but apparently even more beautiful.
Wear comfortable shoes – there is some dipping and crawling involved – and be aware that having severe claustrophobia would not make for a very enjoyable undertaking. The entire experience is extremely kid-friendly but also surprisingly interesting for all age-groups, something unique in a city where tourist attractions often seem designed for families with young kids.
In fact, a visit to the Cradle seems like far more than just a fun day out for any type of visitor, it appears to me to be a vital learning experience for every human being. Each time I’ve gone I seem to have learnt something new, and mind-blowing, about the history of our species and the nature of the world we live in. The beautiful surroundings, flawless tourist experience, and wealth of activities are just the cherry on the top!
To visit the Cradle of Humankind I highly recommend renting a car, as I am not aware of any public transport that will take you there (though private tour buses certainly would). They are close to Lanseria International Airport. To get there from Joahannesburg, head north on Beyers Naudé Drive/M5 and follow the signs. It is located just off the R563 Hekpoort Road, Sterkfontein, 1911, South Africa.
The GPS coordinates are -25°58’01.5528″, 027°39’45.0252″.
For details call +27 (0)14 577 9000.
Le Sel restaurant is located at Route T9, Kromdraai Road, The Cradle Of Humankind, Lanseria and costs about ZAR 245 pp. They are open Thursday to Sunday.