Layers of the past

2013-11-01 00:00

THE Maloti Drakensberg Route, the longest recognised route in southern Africa, incorporates the high-lying areas of the Eastern Free State, Lesotho and the Eastern Cape Highlands, embraces the fabled Maloti Drakensberg and the extended uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, a World Heritage Site.

The awe-inspiring scenery here is of deep valleys, steep-sided gorges, and the high mountain passes that reveal layer upon layer of rock formed over 260 million years ago. It is within these layers that the story of the animal and plant life that once existed here is revealed — etched forever in stone.

It is important to understand some of the geology and indeed the geography of this land in years gone by to appreciate the treasure trove of imprints left for us to enjoy. The eastern part of southern Africa was once covered, for the most part, by giant marshes upon which sediments settled over millions of years, forming rocks that we know as the Beaufort Group. The continents then were joined into one landmass known as Gondwanaland and, where the Maloti Drakensberg now stand, was far from the ocean. In the south and east of Gondwanaland, huge snow-covered mountains prevented this area from drying out as the melt-water from them fed the inland marshes and sustained animal and plant life here for a period of over 60 million years. In these sediments, the rocks of the Beaufort Group, are found the traces of two reptiles — Dicynodont and Lystrosaurus. Slightly higher in the red rocks of the upper Beaufort Group are found the burrowing mammal-like reptile Trirachodon.

Above this layer is the Molteno Formation of glittering sandstone where fossilised ferns are found in abundance. The region became far less hospitable about 200 million years ago when the drying climate reduced the water supply from the mountains, although silt was still deposited into the marshes from the diminishing rivers. The red-orange rocks of the Elliot Formation were the result. These three layers, the Beaufort Group, the Molteno and Elliot Formations, comprising sandstones and mudstones, were deposited in the marshes over a period of 260 to 190 million years ago.

As the years progressed, between 190 to 180 million years ago, the climate became drier still and the whole area became covered in sand dunes seen today in the distinctive yellow of the Clarens Formation. Fossils indicate that many animals still inhabited the region, including the dinosaurs Massospondylus and Lesothosaurus. Massospondylus was a bird-like reptile approximately six metres in length living near the rivers and marshes, and laying eggs in the sand — similar to today’s crocodiles.

The oldest known fossilised embryos in the world are believed to be a cluster of six eggs found in 1978 in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. It is thought that just prior to hatching, a sandstorm buried them.

Lesothosaurus was a small carnivorous dinosaur and fossilised remains of these are found mostly in Lesotho. A small, burrowing shrew-like animal called Megazostrodon also inhabited this region, and its remains are sometimes found in the Elliot and Clarens rocks.

Around 180 million years ago the super-continent, Gondwanaland, began to break apart. Volcanic activity and intermittent eruptions over the next 45 million years deposited layers of liquid basalt resulting in a layer up to three kilometres covering much of the land we know as South Africa today.

Weathering and erosion since then have removed much of it — the thickest layers remaining being the high mountain land of Lesotho and the Maloti Drakensberg.

There are many areas that are accessible, and where visitors are welcomed to explore the relics and history of this past. Golden Gate Highlands and Qwaqwa National Parks have some of the most important geological sites in the world, and with a guide the famous site where the fossilised eggs were discovered in 1978 can be seen.

The Maloti Drakensberg Route embraces some of the most spectacular geological, historical, cultural and scenic sites and experiences in the world, and encourages all to experience them.

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