When I first started my trip across South Africa and Lesotho in search of fossils with my family in tow, I would have told you that five million years in the past was a long, long time ago and that dinosaurs were the coolest of all living creatures ever to have graced this earth.
My son, a T-Rex fan of note, would certainly have agreed.
But apparently they are not. Not as far as Dr Pippa Haarhoff, curator of the West Coast Fossil Park near Langebaan is concerned.
“Five million years ago is just yesterday,” she told us whilst crawling through a large pile of bones situated at the bottom of a meter deep pit “And if you were to travel back in time to five million years ago, you wouldn’t find dinosaurs. They’d all be long gone by then. Wiped out by a meteor that hit the earth some 60 million years beforehand. What you would find, however, would be an altogether different and quite remarkable set of animals, not too far removed from those that we see today.”
But in many ways, very different…..
“Look here,” she said pointing to a huge fossilized jaw protruding from the ground “That’s part of a giant short necked giraffe. And this here is an extinct species of dolphin.”
She indicated pieces of calcified whale bones, the remains of a giant hippo and an unknown species of penguin, all of them piled upon one another at the bottom of a ditch.
“We did have a giant predatory bear terrorizing the neighborhood, and that, in my books, is far more interesting than any old dinosaur.”Dr Pippa Haarhoff
“Five million years ago,” said Pippa “Although just ‘yesterday’ The Langebaan area was quite unlike the landscape you see here today. Back then, this dry and arid place was a lush mangrove swamp, teaming with marine and terrestrial animals.There would have been elephantswith 4 not 2 tusks. There were also Hyena, hominids, seals, sabre toothed cats, dolphins, turtles and frogs: all long gone now.”
“So no dinosaurs?” I asked
“No,” she replied “But don’t be disappointed. We did have a giant predatory bear terrorizing the neighborhood, and that, in my books, isfar more interesting than any old dinosaur.”
We then left the excavation pits with the jumbled carcasses that had been deposited there by a catastrophic flood some five million years ago, and moved instead to the Park’s small museum where bones, skulls and replica models lay on display beneath a plethora of glass cases.
“No one expected to find a bear in Africa,” said Pippa. “Let alone a giant like this one.” She gently opened a case and lifted up a huge yellowing jaw bone. “At 750 kilograms. It was the largest predator of the time and had the most devastating jaw pressure of any animal.”
“Did it eat humans?” asked my son with a glint in his eye
“Well yes,” said Pippa. “Although, technically speaking, people weren’t truly human back then. They were hominids, but I’m surethey lived in fear of this great ferocious beast.”
We all looked at the wickedly curved fangs, and then at the scaled model of a bear in the next display case and wondered what it would have been like for our early hominid ancestors living alongside these shaggy massive beasts.
Scary no doubt. As scary as any Tyrannosaurus rex or velociraptor.
“Coooool!” said my son in tones of shock and awe.
We stayed a day at the west coast fossil park, learning all about the prehistoric life forms that had once roamed our lands. We had played at being paleontologists by digging up pretend fossils in a sand pit laced with cow bones, and we had met some of the students and staff who are still, to this very day, discovering new specimens in the fossil rich sands aroundLangebaan.
But we did so want to see Dinosaurs!
“So, travel east,” said Pippa. “And you are sure to find evidence of dinosaurs in the much older rocks of that region.”
And so we did, all the way up to the Morija guest house, a quaint little villa set among the rolling hills of western Lesotho where we met Kefuoe Namane, a local cow herder turned amateur fossil guide.
“See the three toes?” he said, pointing out a line of very distinct footprints etched into a huge boulder. “Looks like a giant ostrich passed this way doesn’t it?”
“You can find dinosaur footprints on public roads in Lesotho, on the sides of almost any cliff.”Kefuoe Namane
We had taken a short stroll from the back of the lodge into the surrounding countryside in search of Lesotho’s famous dinosaur footprints and it didn’t take long before we found some.
“These would have been left behind by a Massospondylus, One of the first true dinosaurs,” he told me. “They are perhaps 190 million years old.”
Wow, I thought to myself, that certainly puts Pippa’sfive million year old bear in its place. But as I was to discover, even at 190 million years old, these fossil footprints were still quite young when compared to others that have since beendiscovered.
“Lesotho has many such fossil sites,” Kefuoe told us as we later visited the world famous Quthing display, a protective weatherproof hanger under which resides one of the most intact set of dinosaur footprints ever to be found.
“You can find dinosaur footprints on public roads in Lesotho, on the sides of almost any cliff. Even on the roofs of caves and on the stone carved steps of churches. But this one is special.”
He pointed out a wonky line of small chicken feet shapes.
“These were made by our very own Lesothosaurus. A dinosaurno bigger than a goose but probably at least 18 million years older Massospondylus.”
“Looks like a giant ostrich passed this way, doesn’t it?”Dr Pippa Haarhof
So now we had gone back to around 210 million years ago; a figure hard to conceive; but try counting that much! Assuming you count once every second (and don’t pause to eat or drink or sleep) it would take you 6.6 years (give or take a day or two).
A long time ago indeed, one would think? But is it truly?
A few days later, wetravelled to Golden Gate National Park and Clarens in the Free State where we met David and his father, the eminent palaeontologist, Dr Gideon Groenewald.
“210 million years ago?” he said when I told him about the footprints of Lesotho “Hmmm, that’s not all that long ago.”
We were taking a stroll with the father and son team alongside a small dry river bed just outside of town. A river bed pock marked with various footprints of long dead beasts.
David was busy pointing out footprints and drag marks, whilst his Dad offered up all sorts of commentary on what it was we were seeing.
‘This was an Antetonitrus,” he said, placing his hands and feet into four big fossilised holes in the ground “Possibly the first of the long-necked sauropods.
And this is the direction it walked in.”
He began ambling along the track on all fours like a tortoise. Hisson followed suit.
“During the 70s, the oldest known nest of dinosaur eggs in the world was unearthed just next door in Golden Gate National Park.”David Groenewald
Step by step these two affable dinosaur experts brought a flat piece of rock to life by miming the creatures which had passed byhundreds of millions of years ago. I closed my eyes and saw it all. The ponderous four-legged giants with their long swan like necks and tiny little heads, the agile bipedal lizards, strutting around like oversized chickens, and the smaller scuttling lizard like creatures that would have no doubt kept to the shadows to avoid being squashed or eaten by their larger bretheren…
I asked David then about actual fossils. You know: skeletons and skulls with big spikey teeth and not just a series of left behind footprints.
Could we go see them anywhere? But he told me that most South African dinosaur fossil finds have ended up being housed in collections and museums
“During the 70s, the oldest known nest of dinosaur eggs in the world was unearthed just next door in Golden Gate National Park,” he told me. “But you would have to travel overseas if you wanted to actually see them.”
What a shame, I thought, but then David told us about the fossils of the Karoo.
“Go to Neiu Bethesda or the Karoo National Park if you want to see real fossilised bones,” he said. “There’s no shortage of them there, but don’t expect dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are way too young for the Karoo.”
Dinosaurs young? What could be older than a dinosaur?
“Cynodonts!” said David. “They’re positively ancient.”