A guide to the world of rocks around us

2013-11-19 00:00

“ALL children collect rocks, but I was no more interested than any other child,” says Nick Norman, author of Geological Journeys (2006) and now Geology off the Beaten Track.

He became a geologist almost by accident, only knowing when he left school that he wanted a job that wouldn’t tie him to an office chair.

“It’s one of the supreme ironies of life that you are expected to make a choice that will determine your future before you can know the options,” he says, explaining that he thought about forestry and marine biology — he enjoyed deep-sea fishing.

But Norman had an uncle who was a geologist and who lived in Canada. On a visit to Norman’s parents, he regaled the family with stories of his life and work, and something appealed to the romantic streak in Norman.

So geology it was, and although the first year at the then University of Natal was difficult, gradually he became hooked on his subject.

“It has given me a fantastic life. Flying in a helicopter over fjords in the far south of South America, or up the Amazon, I’ve had to pinch myself to remind myself that I’m being paid to do this. It makes no sense — it’s such a privilege.”

But although Norman has travelled the world, including to remote parts of the African continent, it is South Africa that features in his books.

They are written as guide books, the kind that should be kept in the car and consulted when something catches travellers’ eyes as they criss-cross the country.

The first one, Geological Journeys, which was co-authored by Gavin Whitfield, covered the main routes, the N1, N2, N3, etc.

Geology off the Beaten Track looks at the more remote areas, including the road from Gingindlovu to eMkhondo, the Richtersfeld, the roads around Barberton, rich in the most ancient landscapes, the N6 from Bloemfontein to East London, the Cape Winelands and many more.

“The whole point is to cover two things,” says Norman. “There has to be interesting geology and they have to be places where people go.”

The idea came to Norman when a friend mentioned he had just come back from the Richtersfeld and wished Norman had been with him to explain what he was seeing.

There are endless guides for birds, plants and trees, but nothing for rocks. “So,” says Norman, “I thought, why not do a book?”

He wrote and produced a mock chapter on the area around Cape Town, and tested the idea on Struik Nature, which immediately pounced on it and said it was just what they were looking for.

Geological Journeys has now sold over 20 000 copies, and Norman is hoping the sequel, which is a comprehensive guide book to what can be seen, geologically, on South Africa’s less main roads, will do at least as well.

Judging by the enthusiastic response at last week’s launch at Bookworld at Cascades Centre, the omens look good.

“I wondered at the beginning, when I was thinking about Geological Journeys, whether I had the credibility to do something like this. I hadn’t worked in a university atmosphere — at the time I was farming in Franschoek and doing a bit of geological consulting.

“I wasn’t sure what kind of reception it would get from the profession. I wasn’t writing for geologists, but they would see it and read it.

“But on the other hand, it makes it easier not being a hot-shot professor — I can make it accessible to lay people.”

Norman advises people to read the introduction, which explains the geological concepts and the terms used: how the folds and faults we can see in rock formations came about.

It also deals with the paleontological record, which is particularly rich in South Africa — footprints in the rocks of time. Once readers have got to grips with that, it is a case of using the book as you travel. It will explain what you are seeing, and will also offer ways of making your journeys geologically interesting.

• Geology off the Beaten Track: Exploring South Africa’s Hidden Treasure s, by Nick Norman, is published by Struik Nature.

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