Maropeng and Sterkfontein Cave – Meeting “Mrs. Ples”

Since we had only 2 days in Joburg, Thope had suggested a visit either to Maropeng or Sun City. Google it, she had said, referring to Maropeng.

I’d never heard about Maropeng but when I discovered its background and that it had been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, there was no doubt where we’d go.

About an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, Maropeng, the “Cradle of Civilization” is the area where our ancestors lived for more than 3 million years. The earliest human fossils, the most famous of which, “Mrs. Ples,” believed to be a distant relative of humankind, were unearthed in the nearby Sterkfontein Caves.

Mrs. Ples

Samples of some of the fossils line the path leading to the museum, which rises like a dome out of the ground.

Entrance to Maropeng

Maropeng houses several interactive exhibits that chart our evolutionary journey.

The elements – air, water, fire, Earth – are represented throughout the exhibits. For me, the highlight was the underground boat ride that took us back in time to the Ice Age.

As we exited the boat at the end of the ride, a photographer snapped our photos and, for a fee, we got to select the ones we liked as well as a background/border. When it was Sandra’s turn to select her photo and border, the technician took his pointer and, without saying a word, pointed to the similarities in her features to those of the lineup of ancestors in one of the available backgrounds. The resemblance was so uncanny that we couldn’t stop laughing.

After lunch, we traveled the short distance to the Sterkfontein Caves, a series of underground caves that descend 60 metres (approximately 200 feet). The entrance, now fitted with wooden steps, would have been an invisible trap to humans and animals alike.

Entrance to Sterkfontein

Cool but not damp, even with an underground lake, the cave is well-lit with bulbs placed strategically throughout. Good thing too, as in some areas, the roof was quite low.

We had been moving along at a nice pace, stopping from time to time to view things of interest, that the guide pointed out, like the spot where Mrs. Ples was discovered, when, unexpectedly, the procession came to a halt. It took us a little while to figure out why. We had come to the lowest and narrowest part of the cave. Not only did we have to go single file, we had to come up with the best way to go through without cutting or scraping ourselves on the rocks. When it was my turn, I decided to crouch down, then inch forward feet first. I wondered how the pregnant woman – about 6 or 7 months along – would do. But, trooper that she was, she navigated it with relative ease. Her husband seemed to have a more difficult time as he had to carry their other child strapped to his stomach. His face was dripping wet when I saw him after.

Shortly after that, we arrived at the sun-dappled exit and sat to catch our breaths. We hung back and chatted with the guide, marveling at her ability to do several tours a day when many of us (okay, so we’re definitely older and clearly not as fit!) could hardly finish one without feeling winded.

Catching our breaths after the tour

Our Impromptu Tribute to Michael Jackson

Later that evening, Stefan brought out several bottles of Tall Horse wine, and a bottle of Grunberger-Rosenlese, Judith’s new favorite. As he loaded up his iPod and Michael Jackson’s voice flooded the room. Someone pointed out that it would have been the deceased pop star’s birthday and our sing-along turned into an impromptu celebration as we rearranged furniture to make room for dancing.

Several glasses of wine later, we decided to go to a club that Thope had recommended. But we didn’t stay long. We were tired and the crowd turned out to be younger than we expected. It was near 3 a.m. when we returned to Shepherd’s Court and we were booked to leave for Victoria Falls at 11:00 a.m. the following morning.

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2 comments on “Maropeng and Sterkfontein Cave – Meeting “Mrs. Ples”

  1. I am deep in memories from reading this. Remember also that we stopped at McDonald’s, the only restaurant open at that hour of the morning. We were all so hungry. We took the loot back to Shepherd’s Court and we had burgers, fries and WINE. What a way to end an evening. I am still in awe from our live changing trip. xo

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