Cycling back in time through the Cradle of Humankind

If you could hear Jeanne-Louise Wiese’s pronunciation of “strandhuis” she’s a born-and-bred Gauteng “boere meisie”. So we got her to reminisce about the trails that wind through the Cradle of Humankind. 

The Cradle of Humankind, west of Johannesburg, is a 53 000 hectare area and one of South Africa’s eight World Heritage Sites. It is renowned in archaeological circles as the world’s richest hominid site, with around 40% of the world’s human ancestor fossils found in the limestone caves of the Cradle. The area was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999 and includes the Sterkfontein Caves and the Wonder Cave.

Is was in The Sterkfontein Caves, in 1947, that the 2.3 million year old fossil, Australopithecus africanus (nicknamed “Mrs. Ples”) was found by Dr. Robert Broom and John Robinson. Within the last 20 million years, the Sterkfontein Caves have been sculpted into an underground wonderland within the dolomitic rock, as slightly acidic groundwater dissolved solution cavities beneath the water table.  As the water table started to drop, these caves filled up with air and allowed for the formation of stalactites and stalagmites. It’s sad to acknowledge that the area was exploited to a large extent for the mining of lime in these caves and a number of palaeontologists and archaeologists have recognised that most fossil records have been damaged or lost due to the mining activities in the area.

Australopithecus-africanus -
Australopithecus-africanus –

But you don’t have to be underground to really appreciate the Cradle, these days you can get on your bike to explore, just make sure you take your scientific savvy with you. The area straddles two provinces and stretches from the Sterkfontein Caves to Pilanesberg. Interestingly the features of the landscape originated as coral reefs in a warm, shallow sea about 2.3 billion years ago. On a bike you can explore the rolling Highveld grassland or the indigenous bush-lined valleys. Or you could follow the trails which climb their way through the textured dolomite rock formations and enjoy a lovely breakfast with a view at The Cradle Restaurant from where one of the trails start.

The landscape of this area is associated with the Rocky Highveld Grassland and supports a great diversity of common and endangered plants and animal species.  These grasslands are known as “fire climax grassland” and are constantly trying to maintain the balance between trees and grass to create a perfectly balanced habitat for animals such as various antelope, leopard, brown hyenas, jackal and most importantly, the rare Roodepoort Copper butterfly, which are endemic to this area. The caves also act as roosts and dens for animals such as owls, bats, rodents and larger predators.

Cycling Evolution
Cycling Evolution

With the area situated in the summer rainfall region of South Africa where thunderstorms are common, it is theorised that the frequent summer lightning strikes could have facilitated the initial controlled use of fire by hominids in the area, as far back as 1.3 million years ago.

The Cradle of Humankind is rich in flowering plants, and even though it cannot be compared to a Namaqualand spring wonderland, it can still present a colourful array of flowers and pleasant smells as you whisk through the grasslands. The area is matted by a network of natural springs, watercourses and streams which all feed into the Magalies and Crocodile Rivers. Unfortunately, since the 1890s the land use practices in the area have led to the degradation and loss of the natural environment to a certain extent. Waste dumping, pollution of water by agro-chemicals and over grazing have all made a mark on this beautiful landscape. Today, sustainable land use practices could help to prevent further degradation in order for our children to also enjoy this beautiful scenery on their bikes one day.

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