Maropeng brings fossils to life

A short drive from both Johannesburg and Pretoria and only 10 kilometres from the remarkable Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site, a state-of-the-art visitors’ facility has risen from the red Gauteng dust.

Named Maropeng, Setswana for “the place where we once lived”, the centre is designed to help tourists, schoolchildren and others explore the rich fossil heritage of the area.

The Cradle of Humankind, encompassing the region of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and environs, has one of the world’s richest concentrations of hominid fossils, evidence of human evolution over the last 3.5-million years.

Found in the provinces of Gauteng and North West, the fossil sites cover an area of 47 000 hectares. The remains of ancient forms of animals, plants and hominids – our early ancestors and their relatives – are captured in a bed of dolomite deposited around 2.5-billion years ago.

Although other sites in south and east Africa have similar remains, the Cradle has produced more than 950 hominid fossil specimens.

Attracting fossil tourists
Lying in the centre of the Cradle area, Maropeng brings to life the history of humankind in an entertaining and educative way. It offers interactive displays, restaurants, a marketplace, an outdoor amphitheatre and, from March 2006, a 24-bedroom five-star hotel.

One of the innovative fossil displays at the Maropeng visitors' centre
One of the innovative fossil displays at the Maropeng visitors’ centre (Image: Mary Alexander)

The R347-million Cradle of Humankind development is an initiative by Blue IQ and the Gauteng government and the first public-private partnership of its kind in South Africa. The aim is to develop and manage the world heritage site as a premier tourist destination. Other partners include the University of the Witwatersrand, which owns the Sterkfontein Caves and is the major excavator of the Cradle site, while Standard Bank donated 100 hectares of land for Maropeng.

Even before construction was complete, Maropeng had garnered major awards. In early November it won the British Guild of Travel Writers award for the best new tourism project worldwide, and later in November the consortium behind the project was named Best Civil Engineering and Building Contractors and Best Public-Private Partnership at Construction World’s premier annual Best Projects Awards event.

From Tumulus to underground lake
Maropeng’s interpretation centre enables visitors to explore, by means of zones, the history of the earth and humankind. It lies on the side of a hill, where ancient rocky outcrops will mark the setting of a huge tear-shaped burial mound, referred to as the Tumulus: a partly disguised grassy mound 20m high and 35m wide.

A boat ride on an underground lake transports visitors to Maropeng's remarkable exhibition on human origins
A boat ride on an underground lake transports visitors to Maropeng’s remarkable exhibition on human origins (Image: Mary Alexander)

The first of its kind in the world, the Tumulus is designed to look like an ancient burial mound from the front and, when exiting on the other side, a very modern structure from the rear. The architecture aims to symbolise the journey through time from our ancient origins to today.

On a day’s outing, the visitor approaches the Tumulus along a walkway that covers the significance of Africa and the Cradle of Humankind.

Inside the building, a welcome area explains the orientation of the Cradle area and other attractions on offer, and position the world heritage site in context of other South African sites.

The journey continues to an underground lake, where a boat ride takes the visitor back 4-billion years in geological time through the basic of elements that make up our world: water, air, fire and earth. Dipping through waterfalls and icebergs, into the eye of a storm, past erupting volcanoes and through the depths of the earth, the visitor then emerges at the beginning of the world.

Back view of the Tumulus building
The space-age design of the back view of the Tumulus building contrasts with the ancient and organic feel of the front view (Image: Mary Alexander)

Exploring humanity’s history
From here, the journey continues through an experience highlighting the history of our world and humankind as a species, brought to life via audiovisual techniques, sound effects, theme-park technology and theatrical displays.

The Birth of the Cradle exhibit explains how the caves were formed, the emergence of life on earth and the concept of evolution as a science. The Path to Humanity explores human evolution, with models of five hominid types on display: the Homo florensiensis, Homo habilis and Homo heidelbergensis species, and the Australopithecus and Paranthropus genera.

What it Means to be Human looks at how humanity has changed over the course of evolution, how we came to be as we are now and the characteristics we all share. The Science Zone explains how we have arrived at the conclusions we have and, finally, Sustainability examines how we have modified our environment to suit us and the danger we face of actively contributing to our own destruction.

Also on display will be original fossils made available by various institutions.

Kids’ digs and conferences
Once through the centre, the visitor exits at the crest of the hill to relax with a picnic basket, taking in a view of the Magaliesberg.

At this point there’ll be a children’s cave where the kids can set up their own dig. The cave is built with local stone in a jagged wall, representing shards of broken bone.

Maropeng is also ideal for conferences, with three venues in the Tumulus building with a combined seating capacity of up to 500 delegates. There is also a 5 000-seater outdoor amphitheatre and a 150m2 temporary exhibition space within the Tumulus. Some 3 000 people are expected to visit the centre every day.

Maropeng’s main attractions include:

  • Visitors’ centre.
  • Conference facilities for up to 350 delegates.
  • Three restaurants.
  • Luxury boutique hotel with views over a private game farm.
  • Outdoor 5 000-seat events amphitheatre.
  • Accommodation for 120 schoolchildren.
  • Retail food outlets.
  • Destination retail store.
  • Visitor information points.
  • Arts and crafts marketplace.
  • Observation deck.
  • Ample parking for cars and coaches. reporter

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