Travel – Cradle to the cave

2014-10-24 18:45

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Just a stone’s throw from Johannesburg, the Cradle of Humankind is one of SA’s most interesting sites. Firdose Moonda spelunks through the Sterkfontein Caves, dines on fine cuisine and sleeps in luxury accommodation

Whether it happened almost 3?million years ago or just the other day, the thought of a tiny creature tumbling through trees and thrashing in panic remains terrifying, especially if you’re standing where it touched down.

Look up. The thicket of branches appears menacingly maze-like. Look around. Darkness envelopes almost everything.

This is where Little Foot – the hominoid who disappeared into the hole in the Sterkfontein Caves – died, but you will walk perfectly safely in his footsteps to discover how the human race came into existence.

The caves are the main attraction of the Cradle of Humankind, a humbling place of birth and rebirth 50km northwest of Joburg. As you enter, an engraved stone reveals that life began in Africa.

You are home. Inside the Tumulus building, you will learn why.

You will travel through the ice age in small boats on an indoor river, go through the stone age by familiarising yourself with the tools our ancestors used, and experience the big bang. A vortex provides the effect of a universal explosion and you will emerge from it dizzy and a little dazed, almost like you had been woken from a dream.

And all this before you’ve even seen Mrs Ples.

Origins of mankind

Mrs Ples, the iconic fossil dug up in 1947, remains the most complete skull discovered in South Africa. The original is often not on display at the Cradle of Humankind, but there are enough replicas to give you the idea.

Some are in a room with other remains – a tooth, a shin bone, an arm – and others are suspended from the ceiling in transparent balloon-shaped containers in a room that seems filled with fantasy.

The interactivity is designed to be educational, which makes this an ideal destination for school excursions – but the surrounding area is perfect for an adult getaway too.

If its luxury you’re after, stay at Forum Homini, a five-star hotel designed to melt into the environment. It stands on sand-coloured stone walls and grass covers the roof.

Back to your roots

Because it does not come cheap, you may choose only to visit the Roots restaurant, which is an experience in itself. Run by executive chef Adrian Maree, it is an exploration in fine dining that makes use of local ingredients to create fusion cuisine.

Starters might include a slice of squid-ink bread; the first course could partly consist of parsnip soup served in an eggshell; and the mains will take you on a taste journey through fish, venison, beef or lamb with intriguing accompaniments.

Keep space for dessert, which will likely feature a crumble and ice cream. Remember, coffee comes with mini macaroons that melt in your mouth.

Twice a month, the restaurant hosts food and wine pairings in which the estate represented explains their beverages and how they couple with the meals on offer.

The comfort of canvas

Don’t worry if you overindulge and are not booked into the hotel. The drive home can wait until morning because there is other accommodation on the same estate.

The Impangele Game Lodge consists of six luxury tents – imagine an entire hotel suite in the comfort of canvas. The tents have a small living area, a large bed, a sunken bath and an outdoor shower in a space large enough to host a party. The only thing missing is a heater, but there’s got to be some roughing it in the bush.

That is really the secret of this place – it is countryside close to the city. You don’t even need a game drive to spot zebra and impala.

The Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve is also in the area and can be combined with a visit to the Wonder Caves, which has massive stalactite and stalagmite formations.

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