Johannesburg - A friend recently celebrated a milestone birthday and invited me to join her in fulfilling one of her bucket list wishes: floating above the Magaliesberg in a hot air balloon.
I agreed because visiting the area has long been on my own list.
Apart from offering hot air ballooning, animal reserves and cultural centres, it’s near the Cradle of Humankind, called Maropeng in Setswana (a return to the place of origin).
The Cradle is where our earliest ancestors’ remains were found, dating back millions of years. Its significance earned it World Heritage Site status in 1999.
The 47 000ha site contains a complex of limestone caves, including Sterkfontein, with more than 12 major fossil sites.
It was here in 1947 that Robert Broom and John T Robinson discovered the 2.3 million-year-old fossil of an Australopithecus africanus, “Mrs Ples”. Earlier, in 1924, Raymond Dart had discovered the juvenile skull of the same species, the Taung child.
We planned our trip for the long weekend in April and chose to fly into Lanseria Airport.
We booked into the Maropeng Boutique Hotel. Our special package was cost-effective as it included half-board, entrance fees to the site and a bottle of wine for R700 per person sharing.
My budget-conscious travel agent secured an excellent rate for car hire and booked our balloon flight with Bill Harrop’s company, which was not far from the hotel.
Because weather conditions for ballooning can be unpredictable, we chose a long weekend and hoped the elements would be kind.
I had last been in this area as a child on a family day trip to Hartbeespoort Dam. It has since been transformed from open veld to a developed tourist area supporting myriad leisure activities. I’m told R250-million has been spent on infrastructure here in the last decade.
Forty-five minutes after landing, we arrived at our hotel. The building blends into the surroundings well and offers great views. It’s also a five-minute walk to the tourist centre and 10km from Sterkfontein Caves.
After checking in, we headed for the visitor centre. The building is cleverly built into a hill called a tumulus which resembles a massive burial mound.
Remains of tumuli are found throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
When excavating this site for building, stone tools dating back to the Acheulin Age (between 1.6 million and 250 000 years ago) were found.
Although the site is named after Saint Acheul in France, tools of this nature appeared in Europe only about 500 000 years ago. This would suggest hominids moving out of Africa took their technology to Europe and Asia.
Tours leave every hour. Our guide was a bubbly young Zulu woman with a passion for palaeontology. The building has four levels of exhibits on the Earth’s formation and mankind’s evolution, with timelines.
The underground boat ride on level two simulates Earth’s creation by fire, ice, water and wind. There are interactive exhibits on the ground level and displays highlighting our current ecological plight as we move towards the sixth extinction and the destruction of life on Earth.
Visitors generally combine the tour of Maropeng with a visit to Sterkfontein Caves as it can be done in a day. Being in no rush, we chilled on the sundeck of the hotel in the afternoon and headed for the caves the next day.
Sterkfontein archaeological site has produced 5 000 hominid specimens, while animal and plant fossils and stone tools number in the thousands.
Our guide, another knowledgeable young Zulu woman, took us on an hour-and-a-half tour of a small section which is accessible to visitors. We donned mandatory hard hats and headed underground into dimly lit caverns. We were shown where the Taung child was found – behind a locked gate.
Being underground is magical. The rock formations and lighting add to a theatrical ambiance. There is also a vast underground water table about 40m below the surface.
At the exit are two bronze busts, of Broom and Prof Philip Thobias. Both academics have made significant contributions to the search for human origins.
On the Saturday we rose before dawn to drive to Bill Harrop’s Balloon Pavilion for our much-anticipated hot air balloon ride.
We could hardly contain our excitement. We arrived and saw five balloons on the field being fired up with propane gas. One flight uses 80kg of propane.
We were helped into our basket, which held six plus the pilot and ascended slowly and gracefully into the air. Because it was an almost windless morning we travelled only three-and-a-half kilometres.
The views were breathtaking – we could see Joburg in the distance. Birds flew below the balloon and the Earth below resembled a patchwork quilt of greens, browns and yellows. Cars and trucks on the narrow roads looked like toys.
The hour passed quickly and the landing was not as elegant as the take-off. We narrowly missed a tree and landed in marshy grassland 2km from the original site. Champagne and a hearty breakfast made up for it though.
Still excited by our balloon adventure, we went to the newly refurbished cable car station.
The queues were long and we waited patiently to ascend in a car that takes six passengers. At the top are various lookout points, a grassy picnic section, restaurants, and a jumping castle. We soaked up the sun, enjoying beers.
Later, we drove around and stopped at a quaint restaurant for coffee and home-made cake.
Our last afternoon was spent at De Wildt Cheetah Centre, where we were shown a video of the conservation work and taken on a tour of the farm. Cheetahs and wild dogs are bred here, then moved to reserves, zoos and animal sanctuaries.
It was a wonderful fun-filled, informative weekend doing all the things we had planned. The place has a lot to offers visitors. - Sunday Tribune