Ancient crater right on Pretoria’s doorstep
By LERATO TSHIPE
Pretoria - Tswaing Meteorite Crater is 40km northwest of Pretoria central and ranks among the most historically significant sites in South Africa.
The 2000ha heritage site is managed by Ditsong Museums of South Africa. It is surrounded by settlements inhabited by more than 1 million people, including Winterveld, Soshanguve, Mabopane and New Eersterus.
The main features of Tswaing - Tshwana for place of salt - are a meteorite impact crater, wetland, a variety of ecosystems and what remains of a factory that produced soda ash and salt there.
However, the most arresting feature of all is the meteorite crater.
About 220 000 years ago, a blazing stony meteorite of about 50m in diameter slammed into the Earth’s crust.
The aftermath of the impact was a huge crater 1.13km in diameter and initially 200m deep, which is filled with reddish, salty water.
Meteorites - rocks that fall from outer space - originate from other planetary bodies, mostly the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. They don’t have a specific orbit path; so they move randomly without a specific direction.
It is only when they come closer to Earth that they are attracted by the force of gravity. Without being slowed sufficiently by the atmosphere, they have a very high impact velocity.
However, not all meteorites could fall on Earth. It all depends on their size - if they are very small, they disappear before reaching planet Earth. People are familiar with meteorites and commonly refer to them as shooting stars.
Meteorites can occur anywhere on Earth. Luckily, when a meteorite hit the Earth’s crust at Tswaing, there were no human species there.
Research by local and international palaeontologists indicated the meteorite caused the surrounding areas to shake, which could have killed people if there was human life in the vicinity.
However, they said that animal species such as giant zebra, elephant and red hartebeest were killed. Human beings only moved into the area long after the crater had formed.
The water in the crater is 13 times more salty than sea water, and as a result, there is no life found in it. But only red algae survived and are still in the water, causing it to be red.
The crater was of economical benefit back in the day - at least about 1 000 years ago when early Tswana and Sotho communities inhabited the area.
Legend has it that the women heated clay pots on fire to let the water from the lake evaporate and so they produced salt. The salt was then used for consumption or to preserve biltong.
The crater does not only attract tourists, but people from the surrounding communities have religious beliefs about it.
They collect water from the lake for healing proposes and stones for steaming, while some go there for overnight prayers. Traditional healers visit the crater for rituals.
Apart from the tours, people can enjoy the wildlife near the chalets, bird watching and the hiking trail.
Another large known meteorite-impact crater on Earth is at Vredefort and is between 250km to 300km in diameter, formed about 2020 million years ago.
The others are the 200km Sudbury Structure in Canada formed approximately 1.850 million years ago, and Chicxulub in Mexico, which is 180km in diameter and was formed 65 million years ago.
Recommend a key point to be featured:
There is a 7.2km trail, one of the few meteorite hiking trails in the world, which leads to the crater floor.
Guided crater walks for schools, adults, families and other groups.
One of the best birding spots in Gauteng, with 240 recorded species.
Game such as kudu, impala, hartebeest and zebra are there. Smaller mammals like velvet monkeys and mongoose, and a variety of reptiles, amphibians and insects can also be seen.
1910: People moved from the area by the then government of the country.
1912-1956: SA Alkali Ltd produces soda ash and salt from the site.
1956: Water from the lake turned red and SA Alkali closed down.
1958-1992: The place was developed into experimental farm for cattle breeding.
1993: The place was then developed into an ecotourism destination. The aim was to conserve the crater, plants, remaining animals and mining.
Ditsong Meteorite crater is situated at plot 149 JR Soutpan on the M35 or Soutpan Road.
Entrance fee for adults is R30, children at R15 and pensioners at R20.
A guided trail walk to the crater is offered at R250.