Drive about 90 minutes north of Cape Town and you’ll find a strange place where giant creatures roamed long before the appearance of man on Earth. Here at this heritage site a fascinating journey has been quietly waiting more than five million years for you. Find out why you should visit the West Coast Fossil Park.
Sivathere, a short-necked giraffe, and some of her buddies are trying to cross a river swollen with flood waters, convinced the grass is greener on the other side. It’s a mistake. Many of them get swept away by the current and drown.
But instead of being washed out to sea, their bodies become trapped by an outcrop of phosphate rock. You might think Sivathere is this story’s main character, but she’s not. The outcrop is – because if it didn’t trap the bodies here none of the story would be known today.
Hyenas and vultures have a field day, feasting on the flesh of Sivathere and her friends, and exposing the bones. Years pass. Sediment covers the bones and protects them from the elements. Over the next hundred years or so the sea level rises steadily and water floods the valley. The bones are buried deeper under layers of sand.
There they lie for millions years, bone slowly turning to stone. And that’s how the West Coast Fossil Park’s story began.
Fast forward five million years to 1976 when some of these buried fossils were uncovered during phosphate mining. Although mining stopped here in 1993 it’s thought that many tons of fossils were crushed up with rocks before anyone knew they were there. ‘We estimate what we have is only about 20% of what there once was,’ guide Pieter van der Merwe told us. Since the phosphate rock was turned into fertiliser, you or your parents may have spread crushed five-million-year-old fossils on your lawn without knowing it.
Although about a million fossil specimens were collected and stored in the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, some of the larger bones were left on site for visitors to marvel at. Iziko Museums and the mining company became partners to form the West Coast Fossil Park, which opened in 1998. Then in 2014 it was declared a National Heritage Site.
It’s a painstaking process, digging with a trowel while being careful not to damage the fossil bone or tooth – both of which can tell palaeontologists a great deal – then using a paintbrush to carefully brush away the sand. Once the fossil is revealed, it still needs to be identified and catalogued.
‘Bones of a long-necked giraffe were also found here, as well as an animal related to the okapi that still occurs in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] where it moved when global warming changed the climate here on the West Coast from subtropical to Mediterranean.’ In all, the bones of some 250 species of animals have been found in three different quarries.
1. Fossils have proved that now-extinct animals used to live here, like sabre-toothed cats, short-necked giraffes (called sivatheres), African bears and three-toed horses.
2. The African bear stood 3m high when on its hind legs and weighed up to 750kg. Given that the grizzly bears of North America today are about 2m on their hind legs and weigh around 300kg, the African bear must have been pretty darn intimidating. In fact, it was probably the biggest land-based carnivore in southern Africa in the last 15 million years.
3. A mammoth also lived here, the earliest known ancestor of the more well-known woolly mammoths of the Northern Hemisphere. So mammoths had their origin in Africa.
4. The West Coast used to have a more subtropical climate, with lush riverine forest and open grasslands. Scientists know this because pollen fossilises well and they’ve identified various subtropical plants from these deposits.
6. The area is one of the richest fossil bird sites in the world that are more than two million years old.
7. Some 10 000 fossil bird bones from some 80 species have been found, from tiny birds to an ostrich slightly bigger than the one we know today.
8. Honeyguides and some other birds appeared in the fossil record for the first time in this area; there are no known earlier fossil records of these birds.
9. At least four species of penguins used to live here, not just the single species that survives in the southern Cape today.
10. The diversity of birds found here – including sub-Antarctic marine species – shows that the environment and climate changed around five million years ago and the winter rainfall pattern of the Western Cape was possibly established during these times.
- Take a guided fossil tour to an actual dig site to see bones of the short-necked giraffe and other animals where they have been uncovered. You also get a chance to see the laboratory and take up a trowel and paintbrush at the mock dig, to learn what it’s like to be a palaeontologist. The young tourism students on our tour really enjoyed this part of the morning and I’m sure kids do too.
- Enjoy coffee or lunch at the pretty little coffee shop, either indoors or in the shaded garden. On the menu are dishes like toasted sarmies, burgers and bobotie. The day we visited there were also fat slices of lemon meringue on the counter waiting to be devoured.
- Let the kids play at the play park at the visitor centre and enjoy the fresh West Coast air.
Although the current visitor centre in what used to be the phosphate mine’s offices is cramped, by early 2017 a new museum, education centre and restaurant should be open. Built with R67 million from the lottery, it’s already a thing of beauty, standing on a rise overlooking the dig site.
I can’t wait for it to open – a great excuse to make another visit to a place that holds the keys to unlock the deep history of the West Coast.
- Find it on the R45, 23km northwest of Hopefield, just beyond where the R45 joins the R27 to Langebaan.
- Check opening hours and tour times, tel 022-7661606, email email@example.com.
- The West Coast Fossil Park is on the West Coast Way's Foodie Route.
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