Karoo Fossil Tour (2008)

posted: 3584 days ago, on Thursday, 2008 Mar 27 at 09:32
tags: photo diary.

I was privileged to tag along on a special tour, hosted by Dr Jurie van den Heever and Edward Foster, into the Karoo to, as I like to think of it, hunt for fossils.

Day 1: Saturday, March 15

Saturday morning, at sparrow's fart as Ed says, my luggage is arrayed on the pavement outside my house. Ed arrives to pick me up. He is chirpy as always, even at this ungodly hour. My travel luggage suddenly looks like a mountain compared to Ed's Spartan gear. Let's see. I don't own a sleeping bag, so bundle #1 is a duvet and bed sheet. Bundle #2 is an inflatable mattress, which I've used on all my biking trips, a hand pump, a stash of serviettes, and some bric-a-brac. Bundle #3 is toiletries and some other essential knickknacks. Bundle #4 is a backpack (the first I've ever owned – I'm a biker, you know, and saddle bags wouldn'tve worked) with my astronomy blanket, reading book (Antonio Damasio's Searching for Spinoza), a star atlas, pocket knife, house keys, small medical emergency kit, bottles of water, sun block, and some bird seed. Bundle #5 is a box containing a set of 20 Discover! astronomy workbooks, to hand out to the tour members. Great for learning the constellations. Bundle #6 is a long sausage (Afrikaans: 'n balsak) devoted to clothing, including two faux African shirts and a 5% recycled long-sleeve cotton shirt. The Devil is in the details. Bundle #7 is my espresso machine, two bricks of Lavazza coffee, sugar, six teaspoons, eight slabs of chocolate, a pair of mugs, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Croc-shod (but with new hiking boots in bundle #6) we set off. First stop is at Jurie's to pick up a trailer, then it's off to Ed's house where Bruhn Coetzer from Craddock is waiting. Bruhn is a quiet, stern-looking chap, and knows how to do stuff – hitch a trailer, optimally pack gear, and so forth – the kind of stuff I have no clue about. I yearn for an algorithm.

Not long after, we're outside the department of Botany & Zoology on the Maties campus. More flurried activity as the luggage logistics unfolds. Familiar faces and names begin to appear – Carol Botha ("that star gazing woman from Bellville"), Elsabé Brits (science correspondent for Die Burger newspaper) and of course Jurie van den Heever (tour leader, comedian and fossil guru). Jovial Latzo Mucina, professor of Botany, makes an entrance. A selection of students begin to trickle in. Then Nicolene Vermeulen (faculty head and lecturer at Boland College) arrives in a brand new Vito Mercedes luxury bus. With aircon. There is a god.

Ed and Jurie, with obvious expertise, get everything packed in short order. Almost everything, it eventually turns out: someone forgot to pack in the iconic hammers every fossil-hunter is kitted with.

The students bundle into the Toyota bus. Jurie is at the wheel, Latzo rides shot-gun. We retire to the Vito. Carol and I sit at the back, where the naughty children always head for. In the front row is Elsabé and Bruhn flanking Piet van Staden. He's a dominee. I look at Carol. We will have to behave.

Upfront is Nicolene at the wheel. The Vito is on her maiden voyage and the new-car smell is heady. In the passenger seat is Ed, with his new portable PA system at hand. Just two weeks earlier, after spending a fruitless day searching for it all over Cape Town, he found it in a curious little shop, "no larger than a postage stamp", in Somerset West.

At 07:21 we set off. I'm giddy like a schoolboy on a field trip to the Castle.

First stop, some 50km north, is Malmesbury, a sorry little place, where we visit the first of many-to-come liquor stores en route. Ed and Carol descend on a hardware store and buy masonry hammers. I wonder what the shop owner was thinking. Elsabé takes a smoke break. I crave quietly off-camera.

Then it's to the R45, towards Langebaan and the West Coast Fossil Park. Just two weeks earlier, Ed and I had travelled this same route to present a star party at the Park. It was cloudy.

The Fossil Park, part of Iziko, was resurrected from an abandoned phosphate mine. Expert curator Pippa Haarhof gives a fascinating guided tour. We visit an excavation (pictured below) and then spend a while sifting through heaps of debris rich in tiny fossilised bones. I find a fragment which is part of a bird. Pippa is chuffed. She likes birds.

With the odometer at about 165km we set off south-eastward along the R311, through Riebeek-Kasteel, past Voelvlei dam, skimming by Gouda, Tulbagh, and Wolseley.

Carol and I talk about making models to demonstrate astronomical concepts. We dream up a solar system, a constellation and an entire galaxy. I can't wait to get home.

Then up Michell's Pass and down into Ceres. Lots of high-speed memories of this pass, safe and thrilling on a bike. In town, we stop at a shopping centre for lunch.

Trip counter: 320km. Jurie's comedy counter: 19. Headache counter: 1. Having packed in my espresso machine last night, I haven't had any coffee. Caffeine withdrawal sets in as my nervous system punishes me for being so daft. Self-medicate with enough ibuprofen to cause an elephant to bleed internally. We buy buns and cold meat at a Pick 'n Pay. I'm sure someone went to a bottle store.

Then eastward ho, exiting Ceres via the R46 across the Warm Bokkeveld. Ten km out of town we take a side road that goes over the Swaarmoed pass. We stop at a pull-over spot. This is it. My very first fossil hunt. The rocks here are in the Bokkeveld group, between 375 and 390 million years old.

Ed and I walk up the slight incline and along the way he hits at some rocks. I stop and watch what he's up to. A few metres later, we catch up with the rest of the group, scattered like scavenging baboons over the rocky landscape. I have no way of knowing that just 40 minutes later, I would have a stash of 14 fossils of my own. Gripping.

My first find is a fragment of a trilobite, a glimpse actually, but enough to make me thrill. Then a bivalve, the graceful curve of its shell eye-catching. I handle the rock gingerly, as if it may break and be lost for all time. And more: some tentaculitids and other interesting creatures. 390 million years old. Amazing. And I'm the first person to see them. Fuck you, Dr Batten (B.Sc., Hons. Ph.D.).

Students and guests swarm eagerly around Jurie, bringing offerings of bits of stone and hoping, hoping, he will be pleased, that he will say, yes, this is a fossil. It becomes clear to me pretty soon that this man has probably seen about as many bits of stone & fossil fragment as I have seen stars. And no matter what you show him, he always has something nice to say, never dismissive. I show him my fossilized pygmy elephant. We laugh.

Nicolene and Piet make sandwiches. Then its time to go. I select a few fossils (shown below), triumphant, and wrap my cache into newspaper, a t-shirt, and then a plastic bag and place it carefully into my backpack.

We head on down the road, rejoin the R46, and soon turn off on to the R355 for 10km or so to arrive at Karoopoort. Trip counter: 380km. Fossil counter: 5

Karoopoort is a large farm house with two stately trees, smaller outhouses where a handful of locals live, and a pigsty with two inmates. Besides the kitchen and the comfortable (but singular) toilet, the remaining rooms are unappointed, except with so-called mattresses. I room with Carol, Elsabé and Nicolene. Outside on the werf, a large, elderly dog, a ridgeback I think, is the centre of attention when he attempts to kill a wayward collie. Jurie shows him who is the alpha-male and he slinks off.

As dusk deepens, we gather around a braai fire. Bruhn and Ed jostle for control of the gridded chicken. A kitten appears out of the bush and, meowing pathetically, joins the humans around the fire. When the ridgeback makes his appearance, there is all sorts of confusion – surely the kitten would make a tasty snack. Chaos and mayhem are averted when it appears the dog is totally disinterested in the cat. Go figure.

A heady and somewhat guarded conversation about religion takes place, and lines are drawn. Or at least, colours revealed. I hear Marinus talking in the background, describing Orion and a few other constellations.

Not long after, I retire to bed, making modest preparations so as not to offend the ladies.

Day 2: Sunday, March 16

Come Sunday morning and my room mates inform me, in no uncertain terms, that I snore quite disturbingly. Accompanied by the early-morning noises of the kitten's meowing, the dog's barking, and the cockerel's crowing, it must have been quite an experience.

Breakfast, the most important meal of the day. Everyone stands around in the bracing air eating the incredibly tasty peaches a nearby farmer kindly brought us the previous evening. Still, no coffee, because there's no 220V in Karoopoort today ("ons generator het gebrand, meneer"). With little enthusiasm I make some instant coffee but don't get past the first mouthful, even with generous Ouma beskuit dunkings. Later I learn a clever trick from Latzo – drink Coca Cola when you can't get your regular coffee fix.

We pack the whole shebang into the trailers and buses, back onto the R46, and head for the N1. Along the way, we stop off at a road cutting to look for delicate plant and trace fossils in rocks from the Witteberg Group. I find a spider.

We continue along the R46 past Verkeerdevlei and the Aquila Game Reserve, rejoin the N1, and then head for Touwsrivier where we stop off at the BP for breakfast. On the way to Matjiesfontein we pass the ancestral home of James Logan, marked by three large, widely-spaced gates just off the N1. We stop briefly at a roadside graveyard (10km from the town) where James Logan and several of his family members are buried.

At Matjiesfontein (trip counter: 487km) we explore the Lord Milner Hotel's impressive garden and pay homage to the grave of Billy the Parrot. Interestingly, the hotel used to be the Milner Hotel, but was rebaptized in 1970 by its new owner, David Rawdon, who is also known for establishing the Lanzerac Hotel in Stellenbosch, and the Marina Hotel in Hermanus, two venues where, on occasion, I have had too much to drink.

After gathering the flock, we head for the Sutherland turn-off from the N1. Incredibly, the road is closed as a rather unclear but large road sign states in no uncertain terms. I phone ahead to the SAAO and Glenda says that the road's only slightly collapsed and we can take it. Along the way we stop for lunch. More peaches. We zip into Sutherland, past Jurg's telescopes and guest houses. Trip counter: 597km. I google Latzo and come up with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladislav_Mucina. I don't have a Wikipedia page. Yet.

It's Sunday, mid-afternoon, and the town is closed. We head on for Frazerburg, racking up 705km trip total as we enter the dusty town. Off to the shops, where I buy 20 bananas for tonight's braai. That's what the seven slabs of chocolate were for. With the Sun sitting low, we drop off the trailers at the school hostel and head off to the farm Gansfontein, some 6km north-west of the town, to view the famous palaeosurface. We were accompanied by local Fanie Kersop, a retired farmer who is knowledgeable about the fossils of the region.

The palaeosurface, discovered in 1968 by farmer Nic van Gass, is about the size of a rugby field. It tastes like chicken. It's surrounded by a fence, but otherwise is totally exposed to the elements and really needs to be properly protected.

Some 250 million years ago, this part of the Karoo was criss-crossed with meandering rivers with extensive floodplains on which sand, silt and mud were deposited. Over time, these were compacted into sandstone and mudrock. Some of the creatures that lived and walked there, left their tracks. One such set of foot prints was made by a dinocephalian, a large five-toed mammal-like reptile. Other preserved surface markings include ripple marks, as well as worm and other trails.

As the Sun drops lower and the shadows stretch out like lazy fingers we leave the spoorveld – the northernmost reach of our journey – and return to the school hostel. Twenty or so primary school children sit in the dining room, watching TV and watch with wide eyes as Latzo, Carol, Elsabé and myself – on dinner duty – parade past to the kitchen. Pasta a la Latzo is on the menu. We figure out where the cooking utensils are, from a rather bewildered staff. I plug in my espresso machine – salvation is at hand, brothers and sisters. Carol points out the inside of the hot water urn and I make a point of using bottled water from now on. Piet, Bruhn, Latzo, Carol, Ed, and myself enjoy an americano. I feel the restorative surge of my favourite bitter white crystalline xanthine alkaloid compound working its magic, sparking across synapses, pulsing through nerve fibres. W00t!

By the time the food is ready, the hostel children are asleep in bed and we have the dining room to ourselves. Ed gives a talk on astronomy. Later, Marinus, Mark, Rafael, Carol, Ed and myself take a walk to the end of town. Even here, there is light pollution. Orion is setting and Scorpius is rising, the centre of our Milky Way galaxy just below the horizon. After about an hour's star gazing, pointing out a dozen naked-eye deep sky objects, we head back to the hostel and comfy beds.

Day 3: Monday, March 17

I get up early and take a walk through Frazerburg. It reminds strongly of Sutherland, which I know well, but yet has a different feel to it somehow. Like every small dorpie, it has an ABSA. School children trickle past on the way to their day.

Scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee for breakfast, spiced with fascinating conversation around mouthfuls of food.

Then a quick walk to the Ou Pastorie museum to view the fossil exhibition. We meet Oom Fanie Kersop there for a talk. Taxa are thrown about and I'm out of my depth. Jurie describes the dicynodont fossil, still partially encased in rock and plaster of paris. "Dicynodont" – two dog-like teeth creatures – fascinating. Carol holds out a vertebra. Mark plays air-guitar with a likkewaan. The naive pareiasaur model – perhaps a gross simplification – fascinates me. It's 3D and tangible and more "there" than a sketch or a skeleton. I re-learn a deep lesson for communicating astronomy to the public. In the adjacent room, an opened Bible is on display. Fascinating.


Back at the hostel, last check that everything is packed up, and we head south along the R353 toward the Nuweveld Mountains. The Teekloof River cuts through the mountains, and we follow the pass high above it. We stop at a look-out spot near the southern end of the pass.

Table Mountain and a hybrid Devil's Peak/Signal Hill can be seen in the general direction of Willowdene, the farm we're heading to. Latzo's foraging nets a twig of sunset-coloured berries, and I'm amazed to learn it's mistletoe. All I know about mistletoe is that it grows in England, is good for kissing and Getafix is always looking for it. Latzo holds it above Carol's head. She makes kissy-kissy noises. It's good the Colonel isn't here.


Down the pass to it's southern end and we turn off to a dilapidated farm house. Our mission for the day is to hike up the mountain to the west, looking for vertebrate fossils in the Beaufort formations. Jurie transforms into Laurence of Arabia. We set off at a brisk pace and I am soon far behind. For the next hour or so, I wander about alone on the lower slopes, then ass-slide down a sharp embankment into a dry stream bed and follow it until it joins with another stream (which empties into the Teekloof River). The course of the river tends southeast. Its bed varies from dry rocky sheet to deep wet sand, coarse and fine. Baboon spoor leap from place to place. Still pools, ever-so-slow flows and mini-rapids set a pace of their own. From across the valley the uncouth baying of baboons mingles with the tinkle-gush of the stream where it narrows and plummets centimetres into a pool. I unsling my backpack and record the sounds. Everything, everything is new. Sit and sip some water. City-child that I am, I wonder if I should dare drink the water from the stream. Next time. Up ahead, across some flat rocks, stretch shallow lakes, black with a million tadpoles. I splash in the water to see if they react, but there's safety in numbers. My splashing inadvertently washes a half-dozen up on the sun-baked rocks and they flop helplessly. Instantly I feel bad and help them back in the cool water.

Off down the river to where I sense the buses are parked. Voices up ahead and I alter course. Everyone is back, cooldrink, peaches, and fossils. Jurie inspects the harvest. I see dead things. No, wait, that's just Dmitri's collection. More peaches.

Around 15:30 we set off towards Leeu-Gamka. Ed points out that "Gamka" in /Xam means "Lion". We enter Merweville at it's northern boundary, and stop off at a shop, then to the postcard-pretty church. The compulsory stop at the liquor store. The proprietor throws in a free bottle of Zorba. It's ouzo, but not as you know it, Jim. I take a handful of free condoms.

I'm surprised at how large the place actually is. My previous visit, for an astronomy outing, was to Uncle George's house which lies on the western side of the town. I still have horror stories about the mosquitoes. This time around, I have Peaceful Sleep and Mylol to keep me snug in bed. Ha.

At the southern end of the dorp we turn off into the hostel where we will be staying for two nights. Nicolene expertly manoeuvres the Vito into a rather tight afdak. We unload and carry our stuff into the hostel. Primary school kids, all Afrikaans, mostly white, stop as we pass by. Goeiedag Oom. Hallo Oom. Ed points this out.

I occupy the Kantoor, the room at the entrance to the wing we are in. Coffee machine is plugged in and set to warm up. There is a Bible in the room. I'm already planning to use the dustbin for the coffee grinds, so the Bible goes out in the passage instead. The cheek. I take a bath – the real one, not a shower. Even this is fascinating.

Outside, campfire's burning. Laser pointer in hand, I corral Carol into giving the kids a star show. I'm rubbish with kids. She is brilliant. She even has them quietening down to listen to the stars. Twenty-five rambunctious youngsters in momentary silence. Sirius. Everyone gets a turn to point with the laser pointer. A big spieël is made of the safety – everyone stands behind the pointer, and it only points upwards. Everyone is thrilled.

I talk to several of the teachers. They're enthusiastic about the prospect of receiving star charts, posters and stuff. I can't wait. I think that at some point Carol and I will be making another trip to Merweville.

Off to bed and I almost forget the horror stories of mosquitoes; none seemed to bother me around the campfire. That night was a different matter, as it turns out. Spray-on Mylol seems to have little effect other than to leave the user with a hacking cough from the fumes.

Day 4: Tuesday, March 18

We have a quick breakfast. One of the hostel kids, Devon, comes to show me something. He holds out his hand. In it is a moth. And look at this. He hands me a large poster. An Opel Astra motorcar, from a "Wiel" magazine. Thank god because now I can say something useful, like "Het jy geweet wat die kar se naam beteken?

Trailers packed (except for the bread, as we later discover; fortunately I have a pack of Provita) we set off to Koedoeskop. Daunted by the distance and the Sun, I stay in the Vito and read. At 11:30 the fossileers regroup and Jurie evaluates. Piet finds a smiley fossil. Elsabé is thrilled to learn that her suspect offering is truly a fossil.

A bumpy ride to Findragersfontein, where we find mysterious graves and a frog where it shouldn't be. I skip the hike to the graves (not literally, I mean, I give it a miss) and explore the abandoned farmhouse and its surroundings. I miss lunch (literally) while taking photos of the frog.

Early afternoon we're at Tommy Myburgh's farm, where we explore an amazing scattered field of fossil fragments. I find a strange piece and show it to Jurie (see photo below). He thinks its interesting enough to take back to the lab for analysis. My day's made.

A bunch of the more adventurous clamber on the back of a bakkie and the farmer sets off at a hectic and uncomfortable pace into the bundu. They return, mostly unharmed.

We return to the hostel at Merweville, now a home-from-home. Coffee. Braai fire and beer. The good life.

More star gazing with the hostel kids. I run a competition – the winner gets a fossil. Then another – each round of winners gets an exotic coin. I am out of prizes but that's OK because its compulsory video watching time.

Off to bed. I spray out the remainder, about half, of the can of Mylol. My limbs drip. Early the next morning I confirm what Carol told me earlier: there seem to be two kinds of mosquitoes: those that attack early evening, and a second wave around four in the morning. I swear I could hear the mosquitoes duck-diving through the Mylol to get to my blood.

Day 5: Wednesday, March 19

The excitement of the trip is still running high and I almost don't feel a twinge as we drive away from the hostel and head to the Bothma's farm.

By half past eight, we're surrounded by fossils. Long-bones thicker than my foot. Up against a ridge, a partially exposed fossil.


Then with Mr Bothma and his son on a bumpy ride across the way to the "crocodile", another partially exposed fossil, with the vertebrae and ribs clearly visible. Ed brushes away the loose ground revealing what could be a scapula and part of the upper limb.

We say farewell to Mr Bothma and then its off to Hendrik Botes' farm, Vaalleegte, near Leeu-Gamka. Here, a large pareiasaur fossil is being excavated. I get lost on the way to the fossil and wander happily through a fascinating landscape. Finally I catch sight of a hatted figure and turn back. The excavation is impressive. The large fossil is covered in plaster of paris, and a moat is being cut into the rock surrounding it. Eventually the whole caboodle will be carted off for closer study.

Just before midday we leave, and stop at Prins Albert Road. At the cafe, there are free condoms neatly arranged in a wicker basket on the counter. Government orders. Truckers have needs. They used to be kept up on shelf behind the till, but then nobody took. Now, says the proprietor, when she turns her back or goes into the kitchen, they vanish stealthily. I take a packet.

Carol and I have another ice cream, but not mint this time. In the pub, nobody takes up my challenge for a game of pool – clearly they don't want to be publicly humiliated. For some reason still totally unclear to me I photograph the stuffed kudu head mounted on the wall.

We sit outside on the stoep snacking at the catered lunch. A 4x4 drives past and somebody waves wildly. Two of the Merweville kids, on the way to the Cape for the holiday. I wonder if in 10 years time they will remember the oom en tannie that came to talk about the stars and shot lasers up into the sky.

Back on the road, towards our last sleep-over: Laingsburg. Along the way, impressive thunder clouds stretch to the horizon. In the distance, the low wide V of Sewe Weeks Poort.

Just after two we arrive at Laingsburg, the town most famous for the disastrous flood of 1981. While the rest of the group unpack and make sleeping arrangements under the rugby pavilion, the more delicate members – myself, Carol, Bruhn and Nicolene – book rooms in a guest house. Shower and sundowners, then back to the group. Lovely campfire going with Marinus in charge of the skaaptjops. During the course of the evening, Latzo's wife collects him and he leaves us for a long drive back to Gordon's Bay.

Being the last evening and all, I give in, and ask Elsabé for a cigarette. It's just lit, and the horrible taste is just beginning to come through, when Jurie turns the spotlight on my habits. For once, I didn't mind being the centre of attention and I throw it in the fire. Well-saved.

Many beers later, and with Jurie's joke counter clocked over, its time for bed. We walk back to the B&B and in comparative luxury retire for the evening. But not before Carol and I have a lekker skinner around the kitchen table.

Day 6: Thursday, March 20

Thursday morning, our last communion. We join Nicolene and Bruhn in the dining room of the guest house for breakfast. Carol gets served four eggs while I avoid the coffee. Fortified, we join our group at the rugby stadion.

Ed, Carol and I take a walk down to the river where the rail bridge spans over.

After a last briefing, we set off, our first stop being De Wet Kelder where we taste some of their wines. I buy two delightful whites. Then it's on to more serious stuff: the quarry at Eilandia, where the very adventurous look for insect fossils in the Whitehill formation. The sides of the quarry are incredibly steep, but most everyone manages to find a place to chip away into the past. I try to find a round-about way up with limited success, but along the way the amazing tonal variation of the chalky rock strikes me. Looks like a wonderful palette for a website.

I return to the bus, where Piet, Elsabé and I talk about language, editing and creativity. All too soon, Jurie's now-familiar call to the troops bounces down from the extreme top of the quarry, and the fossileers descend. I eye-point my companions towards them – it looks like a slippery way down and I rather look away.

After a while, Ed joins us. Something is clearly wrong. He slipped and cut his finger open, a wide gash, going to the bone. Blood and flesh. Nicolene applies a bandage – now it would be a good time to get going.

Off to the N1 and homeward. A quick luggage change at Worcester, where we also say good-bye to Bruhn. Before you know it, we're in Paarl and everyone is phoning somebody else. We drop off Piet on the Old Paarl Road. Last stop: Merrimanlaan under the bridge, the one where Shofar hangs their welcoming banner each year for their latest victims. And then it's only Carol and me. Our respective lifts arrive and our paths separate. For the moment.

Our guides

Dr. Jurie van den Heever is a palaeontologist and Karoo fossil expert. Ed Foster is a biochemist and astro-tourguide. Prof. Latzo Mucina is an internationally acclaimed botanist.

Show and tell

My fossil collection. Palaeozoic Era fossils from the Bokkeveld Group, which contains diverse marine creatures.

nothing more to see. please move along.