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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The West Coast Fossil Park: Treasure of Langebaanweg

Since the dawn of time the face of the earth has been in a constant state of change. Words such as epochs, periods, and cataclysms were coined to separate different distinctive eras of being but, as climate change in our own time demonstrates, we are constantly evolving and devolving to the next one. There are a few places on earth where conditions exist to create virtual snapshots, time capsules preserved for us to be able to take a peek back at what came before. Langebaanweg on the Cape West Coast is one such place.

I decided to write this blog as an expose of a feature of one of our trails, the Berg River Canooze. The folks at the Fossil Park kindly allowed us to join a group of students for a tour of their facility, so off went our intrepid explorer, Danelle van Daalen, with a notepad, a camera, and high hopes. A few fun facts, a few photos. We’d have our promotional material for the consumption of anyone interested in paying us, or the Fossil Park, a visit. Little did we imagine how rare and precious this site would be, how impacted we’d be by the staff’s passion for unearthing these treasures, or how much pride we’d feel at having a facility such as this in our Biosphere. We were also struck by how we almost lost this place, and how the foresight of a handful of people saved and preserved this piece of our history – our heritage.

In the late 1950’s the first fossils were identified at a CHEMFOS phosphate mine near Langebaanweg Airforce base. From then until 1993, when the mine closed, three different quarries were opened up. 80% of the fossils were destroyed due to the mining, but the remaining 20% was enough to paint a picture of what the West Coast could have looked like long ago. Over 200 species have so far been identified, making this area the richest fossil spot of this time period  in the world. ‘C’ and ‘E’ quarries of the New Varswater mine proved to be a treasure trove of Miocene-, Pliocene-, and Pleistocene- Period deposits, going back to about 10 million years ago. One is necessarily in awe of what has been learned about the changes that have been experienced in this small part of the world over that time period; the ebb and flow of the ocean, the rise and decline of animal- and plant- species. Ultimately, it was the sense of humility at how recently we humans arrived on the scene that struck us the most – and how profound our impact has been, little of it for the better.

I thought of perhaps writing a blow-by-blow of our visit as per the notes I received. After all, our gracious guide, Wendy Wentzel, had told us so much about what has been-, is happening-, and was hoped for- at the site. We were told of species long extinct, others that had adapted and survive to this day. We were shown examples of different geological features and were told  what could be inferred from them. Then there was the museum, necessarily an edifice to- and testimony of- the passion of those people who had made a contribution to this place and had made it possible for anyone to visit and explore it for themselves. To say that it captured the imagination would be a gross understatement.

Ultimately, the Fossil Park’s greatest gift to people can be nicely illustrated by the response we got from Krige Binneman, a tourism student from Boland College, who had also been on the tour:

“I thought it (the tour) was very interesting. Before I came here, I wasn’t very interested in this field (Palaeontology), but after being here, even during the tour, I found it really interesting. People shouldn’t bypass this place, because I feel that people are currently driving past because they don’t know what to expect to see. I learned many new things that I never thought I would.  My favourite part was the excavation site. It’s so much different to see the fossils in real life compared to pictures thereof. It really is amazing. I would definitely recommend the West Coast Fossil Park to other people.”

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