I have always been fascinated about where we might have originated from. As a child I had happily explored the many caves that are situated around our country, including the Cango caves, Sudwala and Echo caves, and of course closer to home the Sterkfontein caves in our very own Cradle of Humankind.
I have followed the growth of the Cradle complex over the last 18 months and was really keen to go and see for myself how the facilities in the area would cater to the disabled sector of our tourist community. I must stress that prices have been geared to the incoming tourist market, and sadly could be quite costly to locals. Another cause for my favorite subject of a tiered cost system, charging three different rates: one for locals, one for African residents and the last for everyone else! But I digress!
On an extremely hot Sunday I took myself off to check it out. The Cradle actually extends over a large area of the northwest of Gauteng, and includes the natural wonders of the caves, amongst some of the oldest known rock formations in the world. There are many new facilities such as game parks, lodges and hotels, and of course, the flagship Maropeng Conference and Information center.The grass-covered ‘UFO’ lookalike building is well signposted from all major routes and is situated just outside the town of Magaliesburg.
On arrival you will be asked to pay R10 per car entrance fee. There are 6 disabled car bays, but the parking area is about 200m from the entrance, with a bothersome slope in and out of the concession shopping centre at half distance. Here, local art and crafts are on sale, with a well-stocked curio shop and small restaurant that offers standard fare like burgers & chips, breakfasts, toasted sandwiches and beverages.
If you’re travelling alone, you could call the reception to arrange for someone to assist you.
Entrance fees are R60.00 per adult, R35.00 per child and R50.00 for pensioners and people with disabilities. Besides the circular staircase, there is a lift that goes to all levels of the complex. The Cradle of Humankind display is on the lowest level. Once the doors open, you make your way along a dark corridor into the first experience, a boat ride showing how the earth was formed! I had to clamber (with help) into a circular four-seat ‘boat’. Luckily the boats are controlled by very friendly staff, ready to help when necessary.
The boat ride is reminiscent of the old ‘chamber of horrors’ funfair rides, but instead of cheesy monsters, demons, witches and skeletons, you get to see icebergs shrouded in mist, eerie caverns and flowing lava. There is no commentary, so anyone not familiar with the Big Bang theory will find it a little confusing. Small kids will love it.
Once back on dry land, you enter what in my opinion is the best part of the entire exhibition. It is a huge area that is filled with the most fascinating inter-active games and exhibits imaginable. These are all at child or wheelchair height, and fun and easy to use, and include old-fashioned telephones that offer info on endangered species of our land, question and answer exhibits and wonderful artifacts that appeal to the ‘kids’ in all of us.
Scattered throughout the venue are toilet facilities, baby-changing rooms, and spacious unisex toilets for the disabled.
After testing your knowledge, skills and senses, you emerge into the daylight at the far back end of the facility to wonderful views of the Magaliesberg fold mountain range. There is a look-out point, the usual refreshment corner and a kiddies cave.
It is quite a walk back to the entrance up a steepish slope, or you can re-trace your steps through the exhibits to the lift. Other facilities in the building include ground floor conference rooms, and a restaurant and cocktail bar situated at the top of the dome. Above the restaurant, the topmost viewing deck is accessible by stairway only, and the wall is too high to see over from a wheelchair. But the restaurant’s patio has metal railings so you can enjoy the view from there. The restaurant is only open on the weekends, or for conferences, and serves a buffet or set menu at a cost of R125.00 per person.
There is a hotel some way from the Maropeng Center. Unfortunately, due to time constraints I was unable to visit this, as I had to dash to the Sterkfontein caves.
The caves are said to be the oldest known in South Africa. This is where the world famous Australopithecus skull known as Mrs Ples was found in 1947 by Robert Broom. The facilities have certainly undergone a remarkable facelift since I was last there as a child! The parking lot has 4 disabled bays and again there is a steep slope to get up to the visitor centre, which has an auditorium, a small curio shop and kiosk which also sells snacks and refreshments. There is a large covered patio and a restaurant with the same menu as the restaurant at Maropeng.
There’s a walk-through exhibition centre with floor to ceiling display cases, and the info printed on the glass is at a comfortable height to read.
From the air-conditioned exhibition, the group was ejected into the blazing higheld sun where our guide Wes-Lee, an archeological student, said there were 180 steps going down and 200 steps coming up. So, if you have cardiac or respiratory problems, or use a wheelchair, you’ll probably need major assistance or stay behind. I decided to tag along to the entrance of the caves and found the information from our guide and the granite slabs that are placed along the path most enlightening.
Once the rest of the party descended into the caves, I carried on along the path, up the wooden walkway to the top of the hill and the archeological diggings.
There are several viewpoints with information boards and photos, and various other caves and points of interest are indicated. It was beautifully quiet up there, with only the sound of the breeze in the grass. Thirst and the sun eventually forced me back to the shade of the centre, where a welcome bottle of water and ice cream assuaged my needs while I waited for the group of cavers to return.
From there it was on to the Rhino Park, where you can see unusual species like the rare sable and roan antelope, as well big game like rhino and lion. There’s a special section housing a wild dog population, and a hide near a cliff for viewing raptors. The park is well set out and the animals are reasonably accessible. Opposite the entrance is another walkway to enclosures housing lion cubs, and even a tiger pair that the park is breeding. Please note that entry to this park is quite pricey.
Among the many facilities that have sprung up in the area is the Letamo game reserve which houses the Forum Homini hotel & conference center. It is a beautiful, modern and accessible venue featuring a fantastic restaurant called Roots, run by patron chef Phillipe Wagenfuhrer. He has worked all over the world and offers a fusion of African, Asian & French classical food, using natural, local and seasonal produce.
The other center that stands out is the Cradle restaurant, which also has a chapel and conference center. The building is accessible by golf cart from the parking lot, or you can pre-arrange to be dropped off there. There are facilities for people in wheelchairs.