My earliest memory of the Cradle of Humankind, as faint as it is, is of a school field trip to the Sterkfontein Caves way back when I was in primary school. I must have been nine or 10 years old. I remember the muddy walk from the buses to caves and I remember being fascinated by the “elephant” in the cave.
Now, I won’t tell you too much about that elephant – you will just have to come on a tour of the Sterkfontein Caves to understand what it is I’m talking about.
If you’ve read other articles about me on this site, you’ll know that I wanted to grow up to become an archaeologist (mission accomplished) .
While that initial trip to the Sterkfontein Caves did not seem that significant at the time, looking at everything that’s happened since, it turned out to be a very important visit for that curious would-be adventurer. And it wasn’t the only time I found myself at Maropeng.
Just the other day Facebook reminded me that five years ago, my mermaid twin (scuba-diving partner) and I set out on a road trip that led us to both the Maropeng Visitor Centre and the Sterkfontein Caves. Five years ago! Again, I did not think this to be a significant event. An archaeologist and heritage officer with time to spare after attending an archaeological conference were likely to find themselves at Gauteng’s only World Heritage Site.
Fast forward to the present: I’m now the curator for both the Maropeng and Sterkfontein Caves visitor centres.
So it seems there has been something about this place that has called to me, attracting my inner geek and appealing to my thirst for knowledge about the past.
Part of this appeal may lie in the fact that the Maropeng Visitor Centre is not your average “museum”. You won’t find a stack of glass cabinets containing untouchable artefacts here. Instead, this place takes you on a journey charting the development of humanity. It pieces together what our fossil heritage tells us about where we came from, connecting it to the present and the future. At Maropeng you don’t just find out about bones and stones; you are also challenged to rethink your notions of race, identity and the environment.
This exhibition space encourages you to be interactive: it is about touching, feeling and, of course, seeing the human journey.
I recently had a fellow curator from Kenya visit Maropeng and the Sterkfontein Caves. What an experience. We quickly forgot that not only are we adults, but also curators of museums and interpretation centres in two key fossil-rich countries in Africa. We were soon tripping in the vortex, having telephone conversations with a dodo and comparing handprint sizes with those of Nelson Mandela.
Bottom line: the best way to learn anything is to have fun while doing it. That’s what makes Maropeng and the Sterkfontein Caves such an important place for young South Africans to visit. It could ignite or nurture the kind of curiosity that will sustain a lifelong love of learning.
The bonus: you can have a blast at a World Heritage Site while you’re at it! Tick that off your bucket list.