Rock the Cradle (of Humankind)

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 [email protected]

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54 Comments

  • Reply Today's World In Pics May 29, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    Amazing post. Keep up the great work. I think this is my favorite post I have ever read.

  • Reply eremophila May 30, 2011 at 12:41 am

    Thanks for your honesty in reporting on the animals.
    Love the shot of the bird and the sign – cross him at your peril!

    • Reply 2summers May 30, 2011 at 9:42 am

      Yeah, those storks are hilarious. They look like 90-year-old men with wings.

  • Reply eremophila May 30, 2011 at 12:41 am

    Thanks for your honesty in reporting on the animals.
    Love the shot of the bird and the sign – cross him at your peril!

    • Reply 2summers May 30, 2011 at 9:42 am

      Yeah, those storks are hilarious. They look like 90-year-old men with wings.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough May 30, 2011 at 4:07 am

    Incredible post, Heather! Incredible!!!!!!!!!
    Kathy

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough May 30, 2011 at 4:07 am

    Incredible post, Heather! Incredible!!!!!!!!!
    Kathy

  • Reply [email protected] May 30, 2011 at 8:48 am

    My kind of outing! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    I am glad that the area is now a World Heritage Site. When I was in high school we went to the Sterkfontein Caves on field trips. Nice to know that the area is not being developed.

    I share your reservations about the small game parks that are found just outside our cities. Although they do provide educational opportunities for people who are unable to travel to the bigger game reserves. And in some cases they run breeding programmes for endangered species.

  • Reply [email protected] May 30, 2011 at 8:48 am

    My kind of outing! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    I am glad that the area is now a World Heritage Site. When I was in high school we went to the Sterkfontein Caves on field trips. Nice to know that the area is not being developed.

    I share your reservations about the small game parks that are found just outside our cities. Although they do provide educational opportunities for people who are unable to travel to the bigger game reserves. And in some cases they run breeding programmes for endangered species.

  • Reply Derek Smith May 30, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Heather – I dunno if you are aware of the fact that the caves also has a very sad incident that happened there in the mfd 1980’s – read on:

    “It is estimated that the caves were created some 20 to 30 million years ago at a time when the water table in the region was higher. The slightly acidic water began to erode the dolomite at a level of 50 to 60 metres below the surface, slowly dissolving out the calcium carbonate and gradually forming an underground network of caves. The looming pinnacles in the Elephant Chamber and Milner Hall show the stark and intriguing effect of this form of erosion.

    In some parts of the caves beautiful crystalline growths cover the walls reminiscent of the chidlren’s story of Alladins cave, filled with treasures. Where lime-charged water dripped down onto the cave floor stalagmites would grow up, like a fierce row of teeth, sometimes joining up with the icicle-like stalactites forming fragile pillars and shimmering curtains.

    Unfortunately few of these underground treasures remain in the section of the Sterkfontein Caves open to the public. Many were mined by the lime-quarry workers, and others were destroyed by souvenir hunters and vandals.

    The slowly receding underwater lake in Milner Hall is mesmerising. Like the dimly lit caves we’ve been through it begs to be explored… but our guide has a tale that reminds us to err on the practical side of caution. It is a sobering story about a South African diver by the name of Peter Verhulsel.

    Verhulsel went diving with two companions to explore the depths of the under water caves. Apparently he became intrigued by an unknown chamber. It is unclear whether he left the guideline tying him to the surface or whether it snapped, but he went swimming off in exploration with his curiosity driving him forward – and unable to find his way back, Verhulsel never returned.

    The stricken diver found his way to the surface in an unknown cave, but died of starvation before rescue teams were able to find him.

    Diving is not permitted in the caves as a result of this incident, and the unknown depths remain largely unexplored.”

    • Reply 2summers May 30, 2011 at 11:19 am

      Hi Derek,

      Yes, our guide did recount this story when we were in the cave looking at the underground lake. I didn’t realize the diver died of starvation though. That’s absolutely horrible. I must admit, caves scare me! Luckily we only had to crawl through a couple of tight spots in Sterkfontein.

      • Reply @injoburg May 30, 2011 at 7:41 pm

        Interesting story as always. I don’t know much about it, but I hear that the young lions that are used for the petting zoo section of these parks are destined to die – when they grow stronger (after only several months) they’re too dangerous to be near humans, and too domesticated to live in the wild, so I heard most are sold to hunting ranches and shot for trophies… ‘canned hunting’. I need to read up on this sometime soon to get the facts right though.
        As for the diving tragedy, South Africa also has several sinkholes where extreme deep diving is done by only a handful of madmen worldwide – google Boesmansgat for more horrifying underwater stories…

        • Reply 2summers May 30, 2011 at 7:54 pm

          I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right. There’s no way those lions can grow up normally under such circumstances. It’s really sad. I can see why people want to do this, but…jeez.

    • Reply Colette Verhulsel September 3, 2013 at 8:51 am

      Thank you so much for remembering my brother, Peter Verhulsel on this site. It seems that many sites with very clear, reports about this tragedy were removed. That is all old news by now I guess. My brother did in fact die of malnutrition. He had no light – his battery had died and he wrote a message to his wife of 3 months on the wall of the cavern he was in. If even one cave diver can read this and take on board how life saving it is to keep in touch with your fellow divers and to NEVER disconnect from the main line – my brothers death will have served a valuable lesson.

      • Reply 2summers September 3, 2013 at 10:05 am

        Such a tragic story…I’m glad you were able to find this post. And thanks to Derek for commenting about Peter’s story.

  • Reply Derek Smith May 30, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Heather – I dunno if you are aware of the fact that the caves also has a very sad incident that happened there in the mfd 1980’s – read on:

    “It is estimated that the caves were created some 20 to 30 million years ago at a time when the water table in the region was higher. The slightly acidic water began to erode the dolomite at a level of 50 to 60 metres below the surface, slowly dissolving out the calcium carbonate and gradually forming an underground network of caves. The looming pinnacles in the Elephant Chamber and Milner Hall show the stark and intriguing effect of this form of erosion.

    In some parts of the caves beautiful crystalline growths cover the walls reminiscent of the chidlren’s story of Alladins cave, filled with treasures. Where lime-charged water dripped down onto the cave floor stalagmites would grow up, like a fierce row of teeth, sometimes joining up with the icicle-like stalactites forming fragile pillars and shimmering curtains.

    Unfortunately few of these underground treasures remain in the section of the Sterkfontein Caves open to the public. Many were mined by the lime-quarry workers, and others were destroyed by souvenir hunters and vandals.

    The slowly receding underwater lake in Milner Hall is mesmerising. Like the dimly lit caves we’ve been through it begs to be explored… but our guide has a tale that reminds us to err on the practical side of caution. It is a sobering story about a South African diver by the name of Peter Verhulsel.

    Verhulsel went diving with two companions to explore the depths of the under water caves. Apparently he became intrigued by an unknown chamber. It is unclear whether he left the guideline tying him to the surface or whether it snapped, but he went swimming off in exploration with his curiosity driving him forward – and unable to find his way back, Verhulsel never returned.

    The stricken diver found his way to the surface in an unknown cave, but died of starvation before rescue teams were able to find him.

    Diving is not permitted in the caves as a result of this incident, and the unknown depths remain largely unexplored.”

    • Reply 2summers May 30, 2011 at 11:19 am

      Hi Derek,

      Yes, our guide did recount this story when we were in the cave looking at the underground lake. I didn’t realize the diver died of starvation though. That’s absolutely horrible. I must admit, caves scare me! Luckily we only had to crawl through a couple of tight spots in Sterkfontein.

      • Reply @injoburg May 30, 2011 at 7:41 pm

        Interesting story as always. I don’t know much about it, but I hear that the young lions that are used for the petting zoo section of these parks are destined to die – when they grow stronger (after only several months) they’re too dangerous to be near humans, and too domesticated to live in the wild, so I heard most are sold to hunting ranches and shot for trophies… ‘canned hunting’. I need to read up on this sometime soon to get the facts right though.
        As for the diving tragedy, South Africa also has several sinkholes where extreme deep diving is done by only a handful of madmen worldwide – google Boesmansgat for more horrifying underwater stories…

        • Reply 2summers May 30, 2011 at 7:54 pm

          I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right. There’s no way those lions can grow up normally under such circumstances. It’s really sad. I can see why people want to do this, but…jeez.

    • Reply Colette Verhulsel September 3, 2013 at 8:51 am

      Thank you so much for remembering my brother, Peter Verhulsel on this site. It seems that many sites with very clear, reports about this tragedy were removed. That is all old news by now I guess. My brother did in fact die of malnutrition. He had no light – his battery had died and he wrote a message to his wife of 3 months on the wall of the cavern he was in. If even one cave diver can read this and take on board how life saving it is to keep in touch with your fellow divers and to NEVER disconnect from the main line – my brothers death will have served a valuable lesson.

      • Reply 2summers September 3, 2013 at 10:05 am

        Such a tragic story…I’m glad you were able to find this post. And thanks to Derek for commenting about Peter’s story.

  • Reply carol hahn May 30, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Hi Heather,
    My brother Chris told me to look at your blog. Wow it is amazing. Such kind words about my favorite brother, he is a real gem. Makes me miss South Africa so much. I live in Ontario Canada now. Keep up the good work
    Regards Carol

    • Reply 2summers May 30, 2011 at 7:51 pm

      Thanks so much, Carol. Your brother is a great tour guide and a wonderful friend. Come visit us here in SA — would love to meet you!

      Cheers,
      Heather

      • Reply carol hahn May 31, 2011 at 7:43 pm

        Hi Heather I am coming to SA in December, really looking forward to meeting you and of course smelling “Africa” again.
        regards
        Carol

  • Reply carol hahn May 30, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Hi Heather,
    My brother Chris told me to look at your blog. Wow it is amazing. Such kind words about my favorite brother, he is a real gem. Makes me miss South Africa so much. I live in Ontario Canada now. Keep up the good work
    Regards Carol

    • Reply 2summers May 30, 2011 at 7:51 pm

      Thanks so much, Carol. Your brother is a great tour guide and a wonderful friend. Come visit us here in SA — would love to meet you!

      Cheers,
      Heather

      • Reply carol hahn May 31, 2011 at 7:43 pm

        Hi Heather I am coming to SA in December, really looking forward to meeting you and of course smelling “Africa” again.
        regards
        Carol

  • Reply chris green May 30, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Thanks for such nice comments ! I blush, you know! Heather, your blogs have been so inspirational to so many people, as evidenced by the following you have. They are all thought provoking, honest and balanced, a delicate matter to get right. The photos are always fresh and interesting and I know that Joe is a master at cleaning up images, you make a good team!
    The Cradle area is one I have had the good fortune to know well, my parents had friends who lived out there and Barbara still does. I lived there too and had other friends there. The connection goes back… hey! Not thaaat long! The caves story is a real adventure, I first went there when I was seven or eight , I am 58 now, it was different then, one had to bring your own torch and the person who ‘guided ‘ you gave you a hard hat like they used on the mines. The actual mining that destroyed the
    stalagtites and stalagmites and opened up the cave altering the microclimate and drying out the atmosphere inside was a tragedy. The damage is permanent, we can only look at other caves that are extant and wonder at what was lost.
    Chris

    • Reply 2summers May 30, 2011 at 9:25 pm

      Chris, thanks for the nice comments and the great tour. Looking forward to the next one!

      • Reply chris green June 5, 2011 at 1:10 pm

        Sure Heather,

        Always welcome, I have been back at the Pilanesberg this week and to Pretoria! Pretoria is a wonderful place to explore, we had an unexpected airshow as the SAAF had their handover of new aircraft! Pilanesberg included a COLD camp out! Minus 5 and a kettle full of frozen coffee from the previous evening. ever had a freezochino in a single block of ice? Still a great reserve, we saw elephant, both black and white rhinos, jackals heard lions roaring found their fresh track and lots more besides!
        Chris

  • Reply chris green May 30, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Thanks for such nice comments ! I blush, you know! Heather, your blogs have been so inspirational to so many people, as evidenced by the following you have. They are all thought provoking, honest and balanced, a delicate matter to get right. The photos are always fresh and interesting and I know that Joe is a master at cleaning up images, you make a good team!
    The Cradle area is one I have had the good fortune to know well, my parents had friends who lived out there and Barbara still does. I lived there too and had other friends there. The connection goes back… hey! Not thaaat long! The caves story is a real adventure, I first went there when I was seven or eight , I am 58 now, it was different then, one had to bring your own torch and the person who ‘guided ‘ you gave you a hard hat like they used on the mines. The actual mining that destroyed the
    stalagtites and stalagmites and opened up the cave altering the microclimate and drying out the atmosphere inside was a tragedy. The damage is permanent, we can only look at other caves that are extant and wonder at what was lost.
    Chris

    • Reply 2summers May 30, 2011 at 9:25 pm

      Chris, thanks for the nice comments and the great tour. Looking forward to the next one!

      • Reply chris green June 5, 2011 at 1:10 pm

        Sure Heather,

        Always welcome, I have been back at the Pilanesberg this week and to Pretoria! Pretoria is a wonderful place to explore, we had an unexpected airshow as the SAAF had their handover of new aircraft! Pilanesberg included a COLD camp out! Minus 5 and a kettle full of frozen coffee from the previous evening. ever had a freezochino in a single block of ice? Still a great reserve, we saw elephant, both black and white rhinos, jackals heard lions roaring found their fresh track and lots more besides!
        Chris

  • Reply artistatexit0 June 5, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    Completely fascinating post! I wonder if our ancestors who huddled together eons a go in fear of the world’s wildness…had any inklings that life would turn out the way it did with those Sunday feedings.

    • Reply 2summers June 5, 2011 at 6:15 pm

      Thanks! Yep, the Cradle of Humankind is a really interesting place. Thanks for checking out my blog.

  • Reply artistatexit0 June 5, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    Completely fascinating post! I wonder if our ancestors who huddled together eons a go in fear of the world’s wildness…had any inklings that life would turn out the way it did with those Sunday feedings.

    • Reply 2summers June 5, 2011 at 6:15 pm

      Thanks! Yep, the Cradle of Humankind is a really interesting place. Thanks for checking out my blog.

  • Reply barbaramattio May 14, 2012 at 2:01 am

    Wow, your description and photos totally blew me away. What an amazing experience you have had.
    Good for you. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply 2summers May 14, 2012 at 9:22 am

      Thanks Barbara, I’m glad you liked the post.

      • Reply barbaramattio May 14, 2012 at 10:49 pm

        I hope you will continue to share with all of us

  • Reply barbaramattio May 14, 2012 at 2:01 am

    Wow, your description and photos totally blew me away. What an amazing experience you have had.
    Good for you. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply 2summers May 14, 2012 at 9:22 am

      Thanks Barbara, I’m glad you liked the post.

      • Reply barbaramattio May 14, 2012 at 10:49 pm

        I hope you will continue to share with all of us

  • Reply kialeygilliam October 3, 2016 at 2:34 am

    I love it

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