Johannesburg disappeared behind me, as colourful buildings turned into endless grasslands swathed in green and yellow. These velds, splattered with low-lying acacias and occasionally odd-shaped foliage, held the most precious of secrets—the answer to mankind, of how the world was and how it might turn out to be. South Africa’s claim to fame may lie in its rich mines, pretty grasslands, wildlife and adventure but lurking beneath is the first whiff of humanity, the Cradle of Humankind.
Located in Gauteng, the Cradle of Humankind is one of 10 Unesco World Heritage Sites in the country, the richest source of hominid fossils, and the place where they found Australopithecus africanus in 1924. Growing up, a lot of my time was spent with my nose buried in history and geography books that spoke of excavations and discoveries, of evolution and intricate timelines, from when the continents drifted apart to where we are today. In my mind, it was all very carefully constructed, and a place like this, where fossils were actually discovered, was straight out of a dream; something to cross off my bucket list.
Shaped like a burial mound, the exhibition centre in Maropeng was a museum dedicated to the nearby excavation sites; highlighting the ground-breaking research and the fossils found. Inside, we took a small boat ride through the four elements and how they shaped the planet to sustain life. It moved on to the creation of DNA, the theory of living Earth or the Gaia Principle and how our ecological footprints alter the planet.
Later, we headed to the Sterkfontein Caves, a rough-cut staircase that led us through a limestone maze. These caves are one of the longest, most continuous palaeoanthropological dig sites in the world, with a surplus of fossils still being found. It was here in 1947 that they found ‘Mrs Ples’, the only near-perfect, pre-human skull ever excavated. And later, in 1997, they dug up the 3.5-million-years-old ‘Little Foot’, a full hominid skeleton.
Our guide painted a bright picture of exciting discoveries and a chance to, perhaps, find our very own fossil (we didn’t, though). Deep into the labyrinth he pointed at the many closed-off tunnels that were still being excavated or were unsafe for tourists. It was when he quietly crept into a corner that we got curious. He ran his fingers along a small protrusion on the wall, beckoning us to do the same. There were small ridges that I felt under my fingers; a piece of fossilised spine from a vertebrate long dead.
If earlier, I was positively bubbling with excitement, now, I was overwhelmed. Close to tears, I couldn’t actually believe that I had touched a fossil. The connection to my being and to the world at large, so profound and grounding.
In the eastern part of the country, Mpumalanga—literally, in Zulu—is the place “where the sun rises”. It is also home to the world’s oldest cave system, the Sudwala Caves, which was our next destination. Over 240 million years old, this cave system has hosted humans for at least over a million years, their tools on display at the cave entrance today.
The caves have witnessed so much. Stalagmites and stalactites were found aplenty—there was Samson’s Pillar that grows sideways with two eye-like holes, a rock shaped like a fried chicken wing became the KFC corner and the Screaming Monster—the names as hilarious as the structures themselves. The cave maintained a constant temperature of 17°C with a waft of fresh air that came from an unknown source. In one of the chambers, we spotted a naturally-shaped map of Africa, then a small rainwater-fed pool lit up with lights and the Devil’s Workshop, the warmest point, with 100 per cent humidity and a temperature of 24°C.
Our guide drew our attention to the fossils of Collenia, the first oxygen-producing bacteria on the planet.
It was said that around 1902, during the Second Boer War, President Paul Kruger hid a lot of gold in the caves to protect it from the British. While no actual gold was ever found, the cave is home to a colony of almost 800 horseshoe bats, whose guano is a natural fertiliser.
Further ahead in the Mpumalanga province, we drove to the Graskop Gorge. A high-pitched scream broke our leisurely gait, and we ran towards the two-storied building facing the gorge, hoping to find the source of it. Graskop Gorge is known for its remarkable views and the pocket of Afromontane forest that nestles below. But the gorgeous scenery was not what we focused on; across the gorge, a sturdy wooden plank jutted out and on it, a man stood upright with a harness secured around his waist. An instructor strolled behind him, and on a count of three, pushed him to a 70-metre freefall that took about three seconds of infinite courage. Grasskop’s Big Swing was not only one of the world’s biggest cable swings, but also the quickest way to our destination down below.
Next to me, my friend raised her brows in question. I turned and stared back, hoping she’d get the simple message—not today. Surely, there was a more pleasant way of reaching the forest below? Graskop is known for its viewing lift with a glass front, that gently lowered us into the forest, 51 metres down. From there, we took an hour-long trail through the indigenous forest, punctuated by waterfalls, suspension bridges and interactive exhibits on insects and birds. And some giant replicas of mushrooms, that seemed to sprout randomly.
I stood near the waterfall for some time, birds chirping around as sunlight filtered through the gorge and into the forest, even the slight nip in the air welcome in a place as gorgeous as this. Peering up at the glass lift, the Big Swing, and the wall of mountain that made the gorge, it seemed quite clear to me. Truly, this is what South Africa is, a whole world in itself.
There are no direct flights to South Africa from India, but Emirates, South African Airways, British Airways and Etihad fly to Durban and Johannesburg via Dubai. The Cradle of Humankind area has plenty of activities for tourists, see more at thecradleofhumankind.net. Visit the Sudwala Cave system in Mpumalanga; see sudwalacaves.com. The Graskop Gorge Lift is a part of the Panoramic Route in the Mpumalanga province; see graskopgorgeliftcompany.co.za.