Travel – ‘Look mum, dinosaurs’

2012-10-13 14:26

Along with a curious young explorer, Yolandi Groenewald discovers some startling facts about South Africa’s dinosaur territory

The temperature is barely 5°C as a bone-chilling wind cuts through anything that moves or wants to move.

On the horizon, the snow-capped Sneeuberg mountains tower above us. My four-year-old’s shoes are soaked after plodding through the river. But he is engrossed, the July shivers of the Karoo town Nieu-Bethesda banished to the back of his mind.

“Dinosaurs, mom,” he grins, as his eyes light up like meteorites. He takes in every little detail because, ultimately, he wants to
do a little dinosaur digging of his own once left to his own devices. And, even at his age, there is no room for mistakes when you dig for these.

We had found South Africa’s dinosaur territory and the whole family was staring at the bones of a Lystrosaurus, which roamed the earth about 250?million years ago.

Who knew the Karoo now offered dinosaur fanatics a chance to see full skeletons fossilised in rock, and a centre to teach children that South Africa had its own breed of dinosaurs?

Two weeks before the town becomes a snow-covered winter wonderland and melting snow streams down the Gats River, this is the prime site for fossil spotting.

A few years back, a flood washed away rock-fall down at the river on the edge of the town, revealing the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, which is the epicentre of guided dinosaur tours.

The centre is a collaboration between the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at Wits University, Grahamstown’s Albany Museum and the national science and technology department.

Before displaying how to get fossilised bones out of rocks with a hammer, one of the tours takes visitors to the Gats River to explore dozens of Permian fossils still embedded in the rocks.

The centre, founded eight years ago, had humble beginnings in a small room next to the famous Owl House. But it recently moved to its own house, giving it more room for exhibitions and a blow-up dinosaur that attracts attention.

Our guide’s story of the unfortunate dinosaur in the rock at one point distressed the curious, young explorer by my side.

“The dinosaur was suffocated by a lack of oxygen in the air,” the guide says, “the palaeontologists believe that it was doomsday that caused this.”

She described how one species of Karoo dinosaur was as common as sheep and that they also lived in flocks.

Surrounding the centre is a host of coffee shops and restaurants, all exuding Nieu-Bethesda’s charm.

Afterwards, the big dinosaur adventure continues at our guesthouse, Ganora Farm.

It is also an excellent site for fossils, with owner JP Steynberg at hand to take visitors on an informative fossil tour around the sheep farm.

An even bigger hit was the plentiful Karoo koppies that presented the perfect opportunity for exploring and creating one’s own dinosaur dig site.

We left our dinosaur jaunt with a book about Africa’s dinosaurs, which includes an impressive statistic about the continent actually being home to the biggest flesh-eating dinosaur. Move over T-Rex.

Visit the famous Owl House
Filled with unique art, visitors flock to Nieu-Bethesda for the Helen Martin’s Owl House made famous in the Athol Fugard play.

The Church
The old Dutch Reformed Church, built in 1905, towers above this sleepy town and can be rented for weddings and christenings.

Donkey cart tours
Lifelong resident Jakob van Staden offers 20-minute guided cart tours.

Sneeuberg Brewery
A favourite to unwind. The cheese is handmade by the owner and the coffee roasted on site. Our favourite beer was the Honey Ale.

Kitching Fossil Exploration
Centre0?049?849?1733 or

» Place to stay: Ganora Guest Farm ?049?841?1302 or 082?698?0029.
Visit the website: or email:

» Ian or Katrin Alleman Nieu-Bethesda travel queries
?049?841?1642 or

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