Just a short ride from Joburg is a weekend escape that’ll take you back to the start of life as we know it. Welcome to the Cradle of Humankind.
‘Africa has given the world humanity – and that is no small thing.’ – Professor Phillip Tobias.
School children crowd around a guide at the Sterkfontein Caves exhibit in the Cradle of Humankind. There’s a buzz of excitement at not being stuck in a classroom and they all take turns photographing each other in front of the ape-like reconstructions behind large glass cases. In between pulling peace signs and pouting, the guide manages to grab their attention and about 20 red hard-hatted heads swivel upwards to listen. ‘Welcome home,’ she says. They all look at her confused. ‘This is the Cradle of Humankind. This is where we all come from.’
I’ve come to the Cradle to get to grips with this statement – and do my utmost to avoid a cheesy read about how I found my roots here. But it’s not easy. The Cradle is a Unesco Heritage Site, a protected area north-west of Johannesburg that’s home to over 40 per cent of the entire planet’s treasury of human ancestor fossils.
To get my head around this I start at the very beginning, before setting a foot there, with a visit to the Origins Centre at the University of Witwatersrand, where a lot of technical terms and big concepts about our origins are put into perspective at this superb museum. I realise why the Cradle is so important, as the information gathered here challenges the notion that modern culture began in Europe and tells the fascinating story about the emergence of human beings, and more importantly, I think, humanity in Southern Africa.
Did you know for example, that the oldest form of art comes from here? It’s not sitting in Paris in the Louvre. Africa has the oldest history on Earth, and even if you’re not into learning where you come from there’s so much more to the Cradle.
My first task is identifying where exactly the Cradle of Humankind is. Spread over 47000 hectares, I knew it was somewhere between Krugersdorp and Magaliesberg, closer to Joburg than Hekpoort and Skeerpoort, but definitely beyond Lanseria; and then there’s Muldersdrift, that’s where the Maropeng Boutique Hotel is listed on TripAdvisor. It takes me a Sunday morning to figure out the exact location – basically it’s where all the cycling lanes are.
Along with fossils, cycle lanes define the Cradle. I’m a complete cycling novice but I borrow a bike, source some padded shorts and join the weekend multitude that descends on the Kromdraai back roads. I forget my helmet and every passing rider reprimands me. And there are hundreds of them.
Along the way I stop at Bidon Bistro, a favourite haunt for these helmeted hordes – the car park is packed full of vehicles with bike and roof racks. I’m starving and devour poached eggs and pumpkin fritters, washed down with cold, freshly squeezed juice. Set in a garden, this country restaurant is affordable and worth the ride there. Apparently it serves over 400 people on weekends in winter, and my cycling buddies tell me this is nothing compared to the summer months leading up to the Telkom 947 Cycle Challenge held annually (this year it’s on 19 November), when the roads truly belong to cyclists.
I decide along the way that my butt isn’t built for this stuff, and so I swap one saddle for another for a ride that’s more thrilling (and far less exerting). I’m grinning widely as the machine backfires.
‘Where did you find this road?’ I shout over the sounds of the engine. Danie is manoeuvring the vintage-style Ural motorbike on a gravel road, passing tractors, cows and farm gates, kicking up a cloud of dust behind us.
‘Martie, that guy riding behind us, owns a hot-air balloon company and he checked things out from the sky. He suggested we scope out this area for good back roads.’
Seeing some of the oldest geological forms in the world from a sidecar attached to a Soviet machine is quite something. There’s a rug over my knees and my ‘chauffeur’ is wearing a pair of old-school goggles to protect his eyes from the wind and dust. You can tweak this countryside ride to add stops such as Maropeng or the Sterkfontein Caves to your tour.
I always love a visit to the caves and the small exhibit before the guided tour is one of my firm favourites. When was the last time you went underground? You’ll learn that the precursors to modern-day humans were discovered in time capsules buried throughout this cave system – fossil-rich deposits caused by debris falling through holes in the cave ceiling. My guide, who works at the nearby Malapa tour, calls the caves ‘bone collectors’. When you look up from inside the Sterkfontein Caves, you can spot various shafts of light and it’s easy to imagine how Little Foot lost his footing and fell into history.
Before you leave the caves, you’ll find a statue of Dr Robert Broom, the palaeontologist who dug up Mrs Ples. He’s now got a very shiny nose and hand for his efforts. Legend has it that if you rub the doctor’s hand, you’ll be granted wisdom, and his nose for good fortune. The catch is you can’t rub both, or you’ll be cursed with terrible luck. I figure with wisdom you make your own luck. We are overwhelmingly lucky to live in the place where humanity began – and I’m going to do my best to remind Gautengers ‘that is no small thing’.
Plan your trip
From Fourways, the easiest way to get to the Cradle of Humankind is along either Malibongwe Drive (R512) or Cedar Road (R552) towards Lanseria. Then follow the R512 (also called the Pelindaba Road) until you hit a traffic circle and the dotted yellow cycle lane lines begin. Turn left onto the R540 and you’ve hit the birthplace of humanity.
Need to know
The Cradle is a cycling mecca on weekends, and you’ll often find motorbikes and classic cars cruising the back roads too. With so many cyclists on the road, motorists need to be very alert. If you prefer, drive the N14 and R563 straight to the Maropeng visitor centre, which has fewer cycle lanes so you’ll avoid most of the two-wheelers.
Visit The Origins Centre. Explore the history of humans in South Africa from fossils to incredible rock art found throughout the country. The audio guides are detailed and informative, and the exhibitions are well displayed. Adults R80 per person, kids R40. 0117174700, origins.org.za
Make your way to Maropeng and tour Sterkfontein Caves. Maropeng’s visitor centre is aimed more at kids but very informative and worth a visit. Exploring the caves requires a bit of climbing, bending and crawling ‒ but nothing compared to what scientists had to do when they were recovering Homo naledi fossils ‒ so wear comfy shoes and practical clothing. Buy the combo ticket ‒ it’s much cheaper. Adults R190 per person and kids R125 per person. 0145779000 maropeng.co.za
Stay for stargazing. You can do this from the rooftop of the Maropeng Hotel. Once a month, there is a talk by local astronomer Vincent Nettmann (the next one is on 25 February 2017), and afterwards you can look at planets and deep-sky objects through a telescope. From R210 per person. 0145779100, webtickets.co.za
Take a ride in a Ural sidecar. This is a great way of seeing the countryside. The Cradle day tour takes about five hours and includes a buffet breakfast. R1650 per couple. 0794972416, uralsidecartours.co.za
Explore The Cradle Nature Reserve. This is your chance to see your ancestors in situ. The Malapa Fossil Tour starts with a game drive in the private reserve (home to giraffe, wildebeest, blesbok and more), then explores the Gladysvale Cave and the active Malapa fossil dig, which is currently being processed by Lee Berger (the palaeoanthropologist on Time magazine list of The 100 Most Influential People, and the name behind Homo naledi). R1985 per person. 0873533910, thecradle.co.za
Cradle Boutique Hotel has brand new wooden cabin-like units with fresh, chic interiors and a great patio looking out into the reserve. Complimentary herbal teas, gorgeous John Moore prints along with yellow design splashes in cushions and back issues of National Geographic add to the rooms. From R3130 for two sharing B&B. 0873539599, thecradle.co.za
Cradle Valley Guest Lodge offers a farm-style stay with ducks in the garden and countryish decor that’s easy on the eye. There are 12 stylish and tastefully furnished bedrooms, all with patios. You can hear the horses neighing in paddocks nearby. From R750 per person B&B. 0796973039, cradlevalley.co.za
Kloofzicht Lodge & Spa is resort-like, with over 50 rooms set on sprawling grounds surrounded by fly-fishing dams and beneath the Zwartkops Mountains. The small reserve is also home to kudu, impala and eland, which you can see on the nature trails. From R1 410 per person B&B. 0861148866, kloofzicht.co.za
Forum Homini Hotel is designed to replicate the caves that humankind emerged from ‒ but in far superior style. The eco-friendly grass-covered rooms have colourful interiors, double showers, cosy fireplaces and stalactite-like lights hanging from the ceiling. However, this getaway is very much about the food (see Eat Here, below). From R4450 for two sharing DB&B. 0116687000, forumhomini.com
Roots Restaurant is based at the Forum Homini Hotel and is an unusual dining experience. Expect concoctions such as duck with vanilla and cauliflower, pickled beetroot confit, duck cannelloni, hibiscus flower macaroons and mushroom sponge ‒ all on one plate! To round it off, I highly recommend the wine pairing. From R370 pp for a six-course meal; from R95 per person for wine-teaser pairings. 0116687000, forumhomini.com
The Cradle Boutique Hotel Restaurant has the best view in the area. The deck over-looks bushveld, and an excellent breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. Book a table before you go, as it gets popular in summer. 087-353-9599, thecradle.co.za
Bidon Bistro is one of the newest offerings in the Cradle and feeds gangs of cyclists over the weekend wanting coffee and brekkie after a good ride. Try its freshly squeezed juice and interesting breakfast options such as blackberry ginger parfait (R45) and breakfast pizza (R65). It’s a great value-for-money menu. 0760112612, bidonbistro.co.za
This story first appeared in the November 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our November issue features the next adventure frontier of Madagascar, affordable breaks in Hogsback, and what to do in the Cradle of Humankind.