At the helm of the spoor
Correspondent Bob Hopkin spoke to an ex-pat South African returning to help unlock the ancient secrets of the Southern Cape.
While enjoying the forests, marine life and birds of the Garden
Route, locals know not to expect the Big Five - with the possible exception of an elephant or two in the Knysna forests. However, a medical doctor, hailing from Great Brak River but now resident in Canada, has evidence that the Southern Cape was once home to an abundance of large wildlife as well as early man.
Charles Helm, of the African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience, recently gave a riveting talk to members of the Wilderness Ratepayers and Residents Association about this ancient wildlife that left tangible traces of their existence in the form of spoor impressions in rock formations, overlooked for centuries. Helm is now resident in a declining coal mining town in the Canadian Rockies called Tumbler Ridge where, by chance, the mining activities exposed dinosaur tracks and bones. Although having little interest in archaeology up to that point, he became so absorbed by this find that, along with other volunteers, he helped develop the site into a major draw card for both palaeontologists and the public. It was declared a Unesco Global Geopark in 2014.
Having this newfound motivation, and returning to South Africa periodically, he and his wife and sons chose to start exploring the coastal rock formations of the Southern Cape.
“By this time we had developed what we choose to call ‘The Eye’ for spotting unusual features in rocks and realised that all rocks tell a story, not only of their own formation but, when they are in a semi-fluid state, of the living beings that pass over them,” he said.
They also discovered that the mostly soft rocks along the coast that show these impressions, erode easily as, within a short time, high spring tides destroy the evidence adding urgency to plotting locations, taking impressions and pictures of the finds.
He added that most of the tracks they have found date from the late Pleistocene era, about 90 000 to 130 000 years ago, and show the presence of elephant, a multitude of buck, giraffe, rhino, turtles as well as extinct species such as longhorn buffalo and giant horses. “Compared to the sites in Canada, the frequency and diversity of our finds along this coast from
Still Bay to Plettenberg Bay are extraordinary. It truly is the mother lode,” he said.
Helm has been in touch with Western Cape Premier Helen Zille who is enthusiastic about his findings.
He says she plans to visit some of the more exciting sites, and is exploring the possibility of establishing a Southern Cape Heritage Route.
(This article was first published in CXpress on 10 October.)
A rhino passed this way 90 000 years ago.
Ancient turtle tracks heading to the sea.