The Cradle of Humankind and Nirox Sculpture Garden


Another Saturday, another day of exploring.  This time, we headed northwest of Joburg into the area that has been labeled the “Cradle of Humankind.”  It is over 116,000 acres, with close to 300 caves. It is here that the Sterkfontein Caves are found.  These caves are considered one of the most important paleontological sites in the world and was put on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1999.  There have been over 1,000 animal fossils and over 600 human fossils discovered in them. 


In the 1890s, the caves were mined for limestone.  Limestone is used to process gold and to make concrete.  Many of the miners began finding fossils.  It is because of the mining that was done that there are very few stalactites and stalagmites found in this cave.  In this picture, you can see part of a stalactite that was probably broken during the mining process.


In 1936, Dr Raymond Dart and Dr Robert Broom from the University of Witwatersrand in

Johannesburg began digging in the cave.  Today, the university owns the Sterkfontein Cave and digging continues.  One area, the Silbergerg Grotto, is still being excavated and as you can see by this gate, is closed to outsiders.  This has been a very prolific area where two major fossils….Mrs Ples and Little Foot, were found. 


In 1947, Dr Broom, found the almost complete pre-human skull of an adult female.  Today, it is referred to as Mrs Ples, although they are not completely certain if it is a male or female.  It is estimated to be over 2 million years old.  


In 1997, Ronald Clarke discovered an almost complete skeleton, which is called Little Foot.  It took almost 15 years to completely extract because it was embedded in an extremely strong, calcified rock.  Little Foot is believed to be around 3.3 million years old.  


I don’t want to get into a religious debate but for over a 100 years, scientist have believed in the evolution theory.  The discovery of Mrs Ple and Little Foot fossil reinforce this theory.


The caves were beautiful and somewhat of a challenge in places to go through.  I have tried to do a search to see how far down we went but have not been able to find any information on the internet.  I seem to remember our guide saying “125 meters” (appx 410 ft) of climbing down into and out of the caves.  Some of the passageways that we went through were no more than 3 or 4 ft high.  There were signs warning people if they were claustrophobic, not to go on the tour.  The cave temperature stays at 66*F.  Walking through the caves, with our guide, I was impressed with all of the work that went into making it safe for tourist. It was well-lit and there were concrete stairs throughout.  It must have taken quite awhile to build the stairs and install the electricity for the lighting.  


On all the cave tours that David and I have taken, the guide points out different rock formations that resemble people or animals.  This guide was no different.  I am pleased to say (and share) that I clearly saw the elephant she pointed out.  However, I didn’t see Santa or the mother holding her child.  David and I both agree you have to have a fairly vivid imagination to see some of the images that are pointed out!


Also, as in most caves we have visited, there was a lake.  This one is extremely large but sadly, I cannot remember the dimensions.  I do remember that she said the water temperature is a constant 51*F.  Also, she shared that in 1984, 3 men explored the lake with diving equipment to see what the depth was.  Sadly, one got separated from his line and was lost.  He was found dead 3 weeks later.  To this day, they do not know if he left the guide line or it broke.  To this day, the depth of the lake is unknown and since the accident, no one has been allowed to enter the lake.   


Leaving the cave, there were statues to honor Mr Tobias, who excavated the caves from 1955 to 2005 and Dr. Broom.  On Dr Broom’s statue, the nose and fingers were rubbed shiny.  Our guide shared that people rubbed the nose for good luck and the fingers for wisdom.  She explained that you could only rub one, but not both, as that would be bad luck.  I decided that I needed more wisdom than luck, so rubbed Dr Broom’s fingers.  Unfortunately, there was no sudden revelations like Scarecrow had, in the movie Wizard of Oz, when he got his brain 🙂


Along with the cave visit, there was a small, but very well presented, exhibit explaining about the formation of of earth and mankind.  One fact that I found interesting is that the jellyfish was among the first form of multi-cellular life.  The exhibit also showed copies of the various fossils discovered in the caves including Mrs Ple and Little Foot.  


With over 300 caves to be explored in this area, there is no doubt in my mind that more amazing discoveries will be found.


We decided to drive around and explore the area a little before heading home.  The gentle rolling hills covered in dry, brown grass reminded us of central California landscape where we lived in 1999. I wonder if those hills will be covered in lush, green grass once the rainy season starts here.  

Traveling along, we passed a couple of horse farms with beautiful, healthy horses in the pastures.  In the distance, off to our left, I noticed a lone “horse” in a fenced pasture. As we got closer, I realized that it wasn’t a horse but a zebra!   It must have been in one of the game preserves advertised in the area but it was still surprising to see a zebra in a field.


Shortly after the zebra sighting, we passed a walled area with a parking lot.  We pulled in to see what it was and I am very glad we did.  It was a lovely oasis of the Nirox Sculpture Garden.  It is on 37 acres of land and has lovely ponds, bubbling streams, relaxing waterfalls surrounded by green grass and beautiful larger-than-life sculptures.  It was such a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city and brown landscape of the countryside.  


This sculpture made us chuckle and reminded us of the Dominican Republic. It is of plastic chairs.  There were so many of these chairs throughout the DR that we often commented that we wish we had bought stock in the company!  Now, we know where the used ones end up 🙂
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

This is another favorite sculpture of mine.  I love the colors and how they were incorporated with the trees.  They swayed in the breeze and I believe that the trees were standing a little taller as they felt proud to be decorated so beautifully. 

I loved the peacefulness this place offered. Saturday was a beautiful, sunny day,  much like an “Indian Summer” day back in Maine in October.  We walked around and looked at the sculptures, sat by the brook and enjoyed listening to the water as it gurgled by.  It was so calming and relaxing. I am so grateful that we discovered it as I have not seen anything about it in any brochures or guide books that we have. 


Throughout the year, they offer concerts.  The next one, Guitar Giants, an acoustic guitar concert, is to celebrate the winter solstice. My “North American” mindset is thinking December 21.  No, we are reversed from the states and winter solstice here is June 21!  We have our calendar marked to go and enjoy that day at the Nirox Sculpture Garden.   

Leave a Reply