Johannesburg is a new city by human standards, having been founded 125 years ago in 1886. But just a short drive from Joburg lie the remains of some of the oldest human descendants on earth.

The Cradle of Humankind, 20 kilometers from town, is a 47,000-hectare World Heritage Site that produced the first adult australopithecine fossil, “Mrs. Ples,” discovered in 1947. Mrs. Ples is believed to be between 2.8 and 2.6 million years old. To date, more than 850 hominid fossils have been discovered in a series of dolomitic limestone caves scattered throughout the Cradle.

The Cradle of Humankind is made up primarily of privately owned farms, nature reserves, and hotels/conference centers. Its status as a World Heritage Site means there are tight restrictions on how the land can be developed, which has resulted in a pristine chunk of country that looks much the same as it did 3 million years ago.

Saturday morning in the Cradle.

I’ve ridden through the Cradle several times and visited NIROX, an arts foundation within the Cradle’s boundaries. But I hadn’t really explored the site until yesterday, when I went with my tour-guide friend Chris Green. (Read about my tour of Pilanesberg Game Reserve with Chris.)

Chris and I, along with a nice British chap named John, took off early Saturday morning for the Cradle. We admired the turquoise winter sky and rolling countryside — it’s amazing how far away from the city you feel after a 30-minute drive. Chris pulled over to give us a fascinating lesson on the history of man-made rock implements, and demonstrated the length of human evolution by unwinding a roll of toilet paper on the shoulder of the road. Rest assured that if you take a tour with Chris, you will learn A LOT. His knowledge of the natural world, and of everything in South Africa, is astonishing.

Our first destination was the Sterkfontein Caves, where Mrs. Ples and several other important fossils have been found. Sterkfontein is run by Witwatersand University and includes a small museum. You can also view the excavation site where Mrs. Ples was discovered.

The cave is beautiful but my cave photography isn’t ready for prime-time. I did get decent a shot of this statue of Dr. Robert Broom, who discovered Mrs. Ples, which stands at the exit of the cave. Dr. Broom’s hands and his nose are extra shiny; visitors are supposed to rub either the hands to gain wisdom or the nose to gain good luck. I went for the nose.

There are several other caves to visit in the Cradle, as well as Maropeng — the official visitors center for the Cradle of Humankind. But we decided to check out the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, a privately-owned, 1,200-hectare park filled with a range of wild animals.

I had mixed feelings about the Rhino and Lion Reserve, as did my companions. I’m glad I went there because I saw things I’ve never seen before. But I have reservations about going back.

Chris describes the Rhino and Lion Reserve as a cross between a zoo and a nature reserve. Most of the animal enclosures are large and feel “wild.” But the predatory animals — lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, and others — don’t hunt for their food. Their keepers feed them once or twice a week and the primary feedings take place on Saturday afternoons.

I had never seen African wild dogs, among the most endangered mammals on earth, and there is a good-sized pack living at the reserve. I wasn’t disappointed. The dogs are fed every Saturday at 1:00, and we got there early for a prime viewing spot. The dogs knew they were about to be fed and cavorted around the parked cars waiting for feeding time.

Dog crossing!

Aren’t they beautiful?

The keepers pulled up in a bakkie (pickup truck) with a dead cow on the back. They threw a few pieces to the dogs, who swarmed and chowed down. It was thrilling.

The bakkie then headed off to the cheetah enclosure, where the cycle repeated itself.

Cheetah crossing.

Cheetah begging for cow.

The white lions were last to be fed. White lions, which carry a rare recessive gene that causes their color, exist mostly in zoos and nature reserves, where they are bred specifically to create more white lions. (White lions are considered divine by some traditional cultures.) This practice has caused inbreeding among white lions, but the ones we saw feeding here were healthy.

The lions got most of the cow.

After the feedings, we continued our drive through the reserve and saw several more interesting animals.

Scavengers: An immature Cape Griffon Vulture (he may look huge, but the downy feathers on his neck mean he’s a just a youngster) and a crow hang around the remains left by the wild dogs.

The ostrich did not want to share her food (a type of grass called lucerne, left by the keepers) with these cheeky warthogs.

Our final stop at the reserve was a kind of zoo area, where there is also a small restaurant and a children’s play area. There were several marabou storks on guard at the entrance.

These guys will nip you if you get too close.

There were all kinds of animals — lions (including inbred white lions with unnaturally short legs), tigers, hyenas, crocodiles, hippos, and birds — in small enclosures. I didn’t take many photos because I was a little depressed. These caged animals were a jarring contrast to the “free” animals we had seen feeding just a few minutes earlier.

There is also an area where you can pay a fee to play with lion and tiger cubs. I’ve heard of this practice before and I must admit that it sounded like a cool thing to do. But when I saw it happening, I was a bit freaked out. We didn’t partake.

These people are taking photos of a tiger cub. Those paws look pretty big, right? I’m not sure I’d go in there even if you paid ME.

After a quick sandwich at the reserve, we made our final stop at the Cradle Restaurant, reportedly one of the best places to eat in Gauteng Province. We couldn’t afford a meal at the Cradle, but we went anyway for the view. Chris and I had tea and John ordered a Castle lager. We watched the sun go down and enjoyed a stunning view, which has changed very little since the beginning of human history.

A pair of lovebirds enjoy the view with a glass of champagne.

Sunset over the Cradle of Humankind.

If you’d like to book a tour with Chris, you can contact him at chriscashan@gmail.com.

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