“We’re all African, and I’m going to show you why…”
Mark Tennant, wildlife guide, television personality and a man with perhaps the most energy I have ever encountered literally bounces up and down on the spot with excitement as he leads the way towards a steep set of stone steps which disappear into a gaping chasm in the surrounding rock.
We’re at Sterkfontein Caves, deep in the heart of the Magaliesberg and the centre of South Africa’s growing palaeo tourism industry. This is Gauteng’s Cradle of Humankind, a Unesco World Heritage Site where some of the earliest remains of our distant ancestors have been unearthed, rewriting the book on the ascent of man and proving without a shadow of a doubt that this is where we, meaning all of us – black, white, blonde, brunette – began.
Tennant is leading a small group of eager tourists who have paid a premium on this particular Cradle tour to have both the pleasure of his company and his incredible knowledge on matters relating to palaeo anthropology, which he studied under the world-renowned Professor Lee Burger of the University of the Witwatersrand. It was Burger who made headlines recently with his discovery of a completely new kind of ancestral hominid – australopithecus sediba.
The day began at the University’s outstanding Origins Centre, where Tennant – better known for his daring exploits on television thanks to Animal Planet’s “Mad Mike and Mark” series – introduced everyone to human evolution. His engaging, if not slightly eccentric enthusiasm, used to spectacular effect when getting extremely up close and personal with predators on a kill, adapts perfectly to the centre’s interactive displays.
Sat on the floor, with a drawer of replica fossils at his fingertips, Tennant’s buzz is infectious, if not a little exhausting. Nevertheless, it sets the scene for the rest of the day’s adventures and fuels expectations for our descent into the abyss which is Sterkfontein.
Armed with our experience at the Origins Centre, we are soon completely immersed in the subject at hand as we explore the subterranean labyrinth where, in 1947, Dr Robert Broom found the remains of a 2,1- million-year-old hominid – Australopithecus africanus – nicknamed “Mrs Ples“. In the late 1990s, the same cave system also yielded up the “Little Foot” Australopithecus find. And “Sediba” was found not far away, at the Malapa cave system.
Our next port of call is even more spectacular. Rising out of the dolomite hills which have made this area such a rich archaeological treasure chest, the Tumulus at Maropeng is the main visitor centre at the Cradle of Humankind. It looks, at first glance, like some sort of ancient burial mound. But its secrets are hidden three floors below the surface in a series of incredible exhibits which rise, level by level, back to the light of day.
Maropeng is quite simply outstanding and uses every tool in the box, from fairground-style entertainment in the form of a subterranean river ride to the latest interactive and digital technology to get the evolutionary message across. The result is a world-class museum of humankind and the culmination of a tour that has rocked the socks off yours truly.
Three hours later, over a meal at the excellent Roots Restaurant at the Forum Homini hotel, everyone, Tennant included, is finally catching their breath.
“A day spent exploring the Cradle of Humankind is not just a ripping day out for tourists local and international, it offers fabulous food for thought on our own, particular place in the greater scheme of things,” says our fearless tour guide, wrapping up his day’s work with a huge, satisfied grin.
What’s more, methinks, by combining education with the pure theatre of Maropeng, the thrill of Sterkfontein Caves and the fount of knowledge that is the Origins Centre, a day in the Cradle is an important journey of discovery into what makes us human. And it’s a journey everyone should take.