Sterkfontein: one for the bucket list

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iol travel oct 23 sterkfontein3 IOL Halfway through the walk, the cave opens up into a magificant cavernous cathedral of stalactites (hangs from above and downward like an icicle) and stalagmites (below and sticks up). Pictures: Marchelle Abrahams

Johannesburg - Just an hour’s drive from Joburg are the Sterkfontein Caves, declared a World Heritage Site in the 1990s.

I’d heard about the caves when reading up on our greatest archeological discoveries, but never actually had a chance to visit. It’s kind of what Robben Island is to Cape Town - one of those places you have to visit but never get around to doing it.

Finally while on a media trip to the Magaliesberg, I got a chance to explore them.

If ever there was place called God’s playground, this would be it. Somehow it seems as if some divine hand used the Maropeng site as an ancient playpen to bury secrets that modern folk would one day dig up and proclaim “Eureka! I found our ancestors.”

Home to “dramatic discoveries that changed the way we view humanity and the history of human development”, according to its official website, the Sterkontein Caves is an educational odyssey which takes scientific facts and breaks them down into bite-size chunks.

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), which owns the site, is credited with many of the famous discoveries including the world famous “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot” - an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton dating back more than 3 million years.

Our guide Maropeng (no, he’s not from Maropeng as far as I know) was an all-round joker and I take my hat off to him for doing a commendable job of taking us through the history of the caves with little anecdotes thrown in to lighten the mood.

The caves hold many mysteries within their underground caverns, many of which still have not been solved. One such mystery is the source of the vast underground lake system. It’s the stuff Hollywood suspense films are made of - only this one is very real.

According to Maropeng, a group of three divers were sent by Wits into the underground lake, which we happened to be standing near while listening to the story. Their job was to trace the source of the lake or at least follow it a reasonable distance.

The story went something like this: In 1984, Pieter Verhulsel and two companions went diving in the Sterkfontein Caves. Apparently Verhulsel turned into a side passage and got lost. And this is where the story gets spine-tingly interesting - it’s still unclear whether he left the harness that connected him to the other divers or if it snapped as he went in further.

A few weeks later Verhulsel’s body was found in an air chamber by rescue teams which also discovered and surveyed 892m of new passages in the caves. He died of hypothermia.

As a result of the tragic incident, diving is no longer permitted in the caves and the depth of the lake remains unknown.

The main thing that interested me about the caves is that the temperature stays a constant 18 deg C, no matter what the weather is outside. Think of it as Mother Nature’s own aircon. This could be the reason why so many discoveries have been made of almost perfectly-preserved fossils.

The most important and most famous of these is “Mrs Ples” - the popular nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus specimen. The jury’s still out on this one, and it’s caused an uproar in scientific circles. Apparently the sex of the skull isn’t 100 percent certain, so Mrs Ples could infact by a Mr Ples.

The labyrinth of intricate chambers joined together by narrow passageways and stairs is not for the fainthearted or those who suffer from claustrophobia. But, even if you’re a little short of breath ten minutes into the tour, try to make it to the very end - it will be worth the strenuous exercise. Halfway through the walk, the cave opens up into a magnificant cavernous cathedral of stalactites (hangs from above and downward like an icicle) and stalagmites (below and sticks up). It’s a breathtaking sight to behold and one that is indigenous to limestone caves.

Sterkfontein Caves underwent a complete transformation in 2005, and now boasts an exhibition centre, which is an added bonus for school trips. The current exhibition showcases the finds of hominid fossils “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot” - something that I think all school children should see.

Sterkfontein Caves provide the missing link between our future and past, and that’s why it’s important for every one of us to visit the site at least once. If ever you want to know where you fit into the bigger scheme of things, Sterkfontein Caves could put things into perspective for you. Add it to your bucket list...

Important facts:

* The Cradle of Humankind covers an area of over 47,000 hectares of privately owned land in the north-west corner of Gauteng

* Wear comfortable shoes when going to the caves and leave your handbags and other luggage behind.

* There are a number of tight spots and pathways to negotiate in the caves, and it’s not advisable to do the tour if you are claustrophobic.

* The Sterkfontein Caves are a sister site to the Maropeng Visitor Centre which is just a few kilometres away.

* The most famous fossils found in the Sterkfontein Caves tell us much about the precursors of modern humans, Homo sapiens.

* Visit www.maropeng.co.za/index.php/sterkfontein/ for more info - IOL

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