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Makapansgat and other caves uncovered

Words by . Article from Country Life Magazine July 2015.

Fiona Mcintosh went underground and back in time in one of South Africa’s most enlightening cave systems.

Country Life

I’ve ticked off all but one of South Africa’s World Heritage Sites,” came the boast from the other side of the table. “Everything except some remote cave up in Limpopo,” the tanned blonde continued in what I identified as an Australian twang. “Gotta get there before I fly home next week.”

Country Life

The first stop on our tour of the caves of the Makapan Valley is Breccia Camp. Our guide Moloko Madibana holds up the fossilised remains of a giraffe-like animal and below him the remains of the railway line and trolleys used by excavators of the Limeworks Cave.

My ears pricked up. The Ozzie, a cousin of my dinner party host, had everyone’s attention as she explained that, for the last ten years, her holidays had consisted of globetrotting the Heritage Sites. It seemed a fun way to travel. I added caving to my list of things to do on my next trip to Limpopo.

It was a good call. I’d heard of the Makapan Valley, which was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2005 as one of three components of the fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa (the others being Taung and the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site) but had never made the trip out there.

Being both claustrophobic and scared of the dark, I was never too comfortable going underground. Not that this World Heritage Site near the town of Mokopane (formerly Potgietersrus) conformed to what I regarded as a typical caving experience. Until then the only caving I’d done had involved either wriggling through narrow passages, or wandering through vast caverns filled with dripstone features, trying desperately to see their resemblance to the animals, cathedrals and other famous landmarks from which they took their names.

Makapansgat offered none of the above. There we were treated to a historic, actually prehistoric, journey back to the days of our early ancestors. During the 1920s, prospectors extracted huge amounts of limestone from the cave system, at the same time unearthing vast numbers of fossils of both animals and extinct hominids – a collection of more than 2.5-million specimens (with many more still to be excavated) that is recognised now as one of the richest and most complete palaeontological records of human evolution in the world.

Country Life Magazine

The blackening of some fossils was initially thought to have been evidence that they’d been in a fire, but it’s due to the presence of manganese.

Our guide, Moloko Madibana, met us at the entrance gate and we drove to the first site, Breccia Camp, where there were great piles of rock. “I’m originally from the small town of Senwabarwana (formerly known as Bochum) about 170km from Makapan,” he told us by way of introduction. “After getting my degree in conservation, tourism and sustainable development, I started guiding here in 2010. The Makapan Valley is just so beautiful. I love nature so I have never moved on.”

Moloko picked up one of the rocks and gave us a quick lesson in fossils and their formation, explaining that he’d been privileged to work alongside, and learn from, visiting scientists during his five-year tenure.

“The palaeontologists tell us that hundreds of thousands of years ago this valley was a marshy swamp inhabited by animals such as sabre-tooth cats, hyena and plains game,” he explained, holding up the fossilised remains of a giraffe-like animal embedded among fragments of rocks. “There are remains of our ancestors too. This is the socket joint of an ape-man, Australopithecus africanus.”

Country Life

The Historic Cave where Chief Mugombane and hundreds of his Ndebele tribe were besieged in 1854

Sadly, between 1907 and 1937, the mining of limestone to use in gold processing resulted in large-scale destruction of natural formations in the caves, as well as the fossil record, but the first excavation by Wits University in 1947, under the leadership of Professor Raymond Dart, unearthed remains that demonstrate that the caves had been inhabited by human ancestors more than 2.5 million years ago.

 

ABOVE AND ABOVE RIGHT: Evidence from the Cave of Hearths shows that humans occupied it from the early Stone Age right through to the Iron Age. RIGHT:

After we’d poked around, hypothesising on the types of animals whose calcified bones have been preserved here, it was back into the car for the short drive up to the caves. There are some 72 caves in the valley but most are not open due to instability or the prevalence of cave disease.

Country LifeMoloko led us through a dramatic, narrow-gorge entrance to the Limeworks Cave, the first of the three caves that he tours with visitors. Wooden walkways took us alongside the first chambers, where pit props had been constructed to stabilise old mine works and the current excavations. A section of the railway line and trolleys that were used to extract the limestone a century ago remain: I shuddered at the thought of the wanton destruction of the beautiful stalactites, stalagmites and curtains of limestone that fell under prospectors’ hammers.

A drip wall of green algae flanked the mouth of a large cavern where Moloko asked us to squat and inspect some small bones. “Initial exploration of these caves revealed the fossilised bones of mice here in what we call Rodent Comer,” he explained. “And now we have fossilisation in progress. A resident eagle-owl drops the bones of mice and other prey, which then become fossilised as water drips on them from the stalactites.”

Country LifeWe moved on to the Cave of Hearths – so named because it revealed the earliest controlled use of fire in Africa – for a quick anthropology lesson before continuing to the huge chambers of the Historic Cave, where we were enthralled as Moloko’s fascinating account of human habitation of the valley reached its crescendo.

At the end of 1854, following several attacks by the local Ndebele tribe on the Voortrekkers – most famously at the nearby site of Moorddrift – Chief Mugombane and a large number of his tribe retreated to this multi-level cave, the Cave of Gwasa. They had prepared it in advance, building defensive walls and house structures and stocking the cave with food, water and livestock. The Voortrekkers sought them out then laid siege, bombarding the cave with canon fire. Despite significant losses, the Ndebele held on for a month.

Country Life

Among the numerous well-preserved fossils at Breccia Camp are those of our human ancestors. This is a socket joint from Austrolopithecus africanus.

“Historians debate the actual number of those besieged,” Moloko explained. “Early accounts were clearly exaggerated but most researchers agree that several hundred Ndebele died of hunger or protein poisoning from their diet of the blood and meat of the oxen they had with them.”

In a twist of fate the Boer commander, Piet Potgieter (after whom Potgietersrus, Mokopane’s former name, derives), was shot as he peered down through an entrance at the top of the cave. “The Ndebele didn’t know that it was Potgieter at the time but, framed by the light, he was a bit of a sitting duck,” Moloko explained. The siege continued for another couple of weeks during which time Chief Mugombane escaped.

Moloko became increasingly animated as he described the two theories on how the chief effected his flight. In one account a brave tribesman dressed as Mugombane walked out with a woman and the chiefs son. As the Voortrekkers celebrated capturing and then executing the imposter, the chief was strapped underneath a cow, which was driven out with the herd to safety.

“Personally I think the other explanation – that Chief Mugombane made his way to safety through a natural passage in the mountain – is more likely,” said Moloko. This place is riddled with tunnels.”

We walked back to the car in silence, trying to envisage this tranquil, leafy valley in those bloody times that had been so vividly described on our tour. Even if you’re not ticking off World Heritage Sites, it’s not to be missed.

Makapansgat

Mark Howitt 015 491 4314/082 496 1800 Moloko Madibana 078 483 1473

More Caving Adventures

Sterkfontein Caves

Country LifeOne of the core sites of Gauteng’s Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, this is an easy half-day escape from Joburg or Pretoria. Buy

a combo ticket and visit Maropeng while you’re in the vicinity. The self-guided tour is a sensory journey from the beginning of the world through to the present day and beyond, told through wonderfully interactive displays, a boat journey back through the epochs and a sickening stagger through a vortex-like ‘black hole’. 014 577 9000.

Sudwala Caves

Country LifeVast limestone stalagmites, stalactites and columns along with the fabulously lit Fairyland are the main attractions of this extensive cave system in Mpumalanga. If you’re feeling adventurous, sign up for the monthly Crystal Tour – a muddy and fun adventure through narrow tunnels that lead off the main caves. 013 733 4152, email Country Life

 

Gobholo Caves

Even more adventurous is a tour of Swaziland’s Gobholo Caves. Climbing, crawling and wriggling through the maze of passages are for the fit and mobile only. Swazi Trails +268 241 62180, email

 

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