People of Joburg: Pay attention because I’m about to let you in on a seriously good travel secret.
Most of you have probably heard of the Vredefort Dome. But if you’re anything like me (up until a few days ago), you have only a vague idea of what it is.
You might know the Vredefort Dome is a big meteorite crater, that it’s geologically significant, and that it’s somewhere near the town of Parys, about an hour south of Joburg. You might know the Dome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and maybe you’ve thought about visiting. But, if you’re anything like me, you probably googled the Vredefort Dome, didn’t immediately find much tourism information, then moved on to something else and forgot about it.
If you’ve ever wondered about the Vredefort Dome in this way, then wonder no more. I finally visited the Dome last weekend and my mind exploded like a two-billion-year-old meteorite. I can’t believe South Africa has been keeping this geological treasure a secret from me for so long.
Here are some mind-blowing facts to get the asteroid rolling:
- The Vredefort Dome is the remnant of a giant meteorite impact, called an astrobleme, which happened more than 2 billion years ago. The impact predated complex life forms — algae was the only living thing back then — and predated the existence of Africa or any of the continents as we know them today.
- This astrobleme (I love that word) is the oldest and largest that we know of on Earth. Because the astrobleme has been eroded over billions of years, it no longer looks like a crater or dome. What’s left is a semi-circular mountain range called the Dome Bergland, with an ancient river (the Vaal) running through it.
- The Vredefort impact did not kill the dinosaurs. That event happened in modern-day Mexico, about 66 million years ago, and was about half the size of the Vredefort impact.
- The meteorite that created the Dome was anywhere from 8 to 23 kilometers (5 to 15 miles) wide, and the impact crater is about 360 kilometers (225 miles) wide. In comparison, the 200,000-year-old Tswaing Crater north of Pretoria is 1.8 kilometers (about a mile) wide.
- The Vredefort impact was millions (maybe billions) of times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb, and made a 70-kilometer-deep hole in the earth.
- The wider Vredefort impact zone includes the city of Johannesburg. More on that later.
A Weekend at the Vredefort Dome
I could continue spouting Vredefort facts, but I’m not a scientist. I really just want to tell you about our weekend so you can go learn the facts for yourself. So let’s get into it.
Where to stay:
There is a town called Vredefort in this area, but don’t go there to explore the Dome. The best places to stay are around Parys, a popular antiquing town less than 30 minutes from the Dome, or Venterskroon, a tiny, historic settlement inside the Dome. The roads are primarily dirt and gravel once you get outside Parys, so take a sturdy car for this getaway.
Thorsten and I stayed near Venterskroon, a former gold-rush village with a super quirky, uniquely South African vibe. I loved it.
We stayed at Knopberg, a self-catering guest farm a few minutes’ walk from Venterskroon. Knopberg is nothing fancy but it served our purposes: peaceful, quiet except for the honking geese and baying sheep, and we hardly saw another human. We had our own fire pit for braaing, a nice view, and an insanely spacious bathroom. The internet didn’t work at all (mostly a good thing).
Thabela Thabeng, a more upscale lodge with chalets built into the sides of the mountains, is just up the road from Knopberg. I tried to book there but all the chalets were full — maybe we’ll stay at Thabela Thabeng next time. Otters’ Haunt, which I’ll talk about more below, also has accommodation.
Where to eat:
We self-catered most of our meals and ate the rest of them at the Venterskroon Inn, a quirky restaurant/bar and the only place to hang out in Venterskroon. The Venterskroon Inn was super weird in all the right ways.
Thabela Thabeng has a restaurant too but we didn’t manage to eat there. There are also lots of places to eat around Parys.
What to do:
1) Graeme Addison’s self-driving tour.
Visiting the Vredefort Dome isn’t like visiting Victoria Falls or the Grand Canyon. You can’t look at the Dome and easily understand what you’re seeing. Understanding the Dome requires expert guidance, and we found that guidance with Graeme Addison.
Graeme — a retired university professor and expert on the Vredefort Dome — and his wife, Karen, run an eco-retreat near Parys called Otters’ Haunt. Graeme offers a variety of tours and educational programs on the Dome, one of which is an on-site briefing followed by a self-drive tour.
We met Graeme at Otters’ Haunt, on the banks of the Vaal River, and he explained the Vredefort astrobleme by throwing a large rock into the water. The splash is like the impact, Graeme said, and the water that pushes upward after the splash is the dome. The ripples that expand outward, followed by bubbles, are like the rings of mountains and hills that we can still see today. The inner ring is the Dome Bergland and the outermost ring is the series of ridges upon which Johannesburg is built.
This is the most interesting thing about the Vredefort Dome, at least for a Joburg enthusiast like me. When the meteorite hit, it pushed a whole bunch of gold deposits down below the surface of the earth. If not for that meteorite impact, two billion years of erosion would have washed the gold away long ago, to be lost at the bottom of the sea. Instead the gold stayed right here, underground, until its discovery in 1886. That discovery prompted the founding of Joburg, in what was previously a very sparsely populated area, and this is why we all live here today.
Graeme gave us our map and packet of literature about the Dome, and off we went.
The briefing costs R95 ($5) per person and the map, accompanied by a bunch of other literature about the Dome, costs R340 ($18). You can also book hosted tours with Graeme, as well as a geological canoe tour along the Vaal. We might go back for that. To book a tour, contact Graeme at +27-84-245-2490.
2) Hiking in the Dome.
There are lots of hiking trails in the Dome, including at least one multi-day hike. We did two short, six-kilometer hikes — one at Thabela Thabeng and one at a place called Koedoeslaagte, and really enjoyed both. Hiking at Thabela Thabeng costs R150 ($8) per person for a day pass (which I thought was a bit steep) and Koedoeslaagte costs R50.
I really loved this trip and I’m going to make it my number-one recommendation for Joburg weekend getaways. I hope more people will go and give the Vredefort Dome the attention it deserves. Yay for astroblemes!