Having always professed to not have a bucket list and being more of a spur-of-the-moment adventurer, a post on Facebook caught my eye immediately – a fossicking tour to the Great Karoo with accommodation at Melton Wold. Without hesitation I contacted the organisers (Friends of SA Museum) and booked my place. This would be killing two birds with one stone (as a birder and nature lover, this archaic idiom does not encompass my life philosophy, but everyone knows it is not literal), as I have always wanted to visit the oldest guest farm in South Africa and most of all, scour the koppies of the Karoo for the fossils that are so prevalent. Access to these koppies is not available to the general public, being situated on vast farms where game and sheep coexist among the sparse Karoo scrub, and an organised tour with Professor Roger Smith, a Distinguished Professor in the School of Geosciences at Wits University and Emeritus Research Associate at Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town would put me in the hands of the ultimate expert. Always learn from the master.
I’ve never been to the Karoo in the heart of winter and keeping a weather eye on night-time temperatures sent me scurrying to equip myself with thermal socks, gloves and hat for the occasion. It would be no joke to be outdoors close to 0 degrees Celsius. The first morning saw us all gathered at the 4x4s for our daily briefing on where we would be going and what we were looking for. We had been given a lecture the previous evening with slides to familiarise us with actual fossils and were aware that we would be looking for white bits in rocks. This seems elementary, but other minerals come into play and can confuse the unpracticed eye. Plumes of steam emitted from our mouths – overnight temperatures had left a film of ice over the cars – as we sorted ourselves into little groups for travelling to the site of the day’s fossicking, accompanied by enthusiastic banter. I was the only one who didn’t know the group as I don’t belong to FSAM but suffice to say that the company was erudite, stimulating and immense fun.
One of the criteria for those doing the fossicking was being able to negotiate steep slopes and rocky terrain, and that was no exaggeration. Thank goodness I chose to wear my stout hiking boots, as I would definitely have come a cropper in sneakers. The disintegrating mudstone which is the layer where fossils are found is generally a slippery 45-degree angle, and the collapsed sandstone topping provided much needed footholds as we scrambled around the contours of the koppies. We were fairly widely spaced to ensure maximum eyes on the ground – after all, we were citizen scientists in action, helping to find clues and evidence of fossils for expert evaluation. Having had a lifetime of rock collecting, I was already tuned into scanning the ground for interesting things, and it wasn’t long before I found my first fossil – 255million years old. Despite the rocks being the same age, actually finding the remains of a living creature from that long ago is quite an experience. We had to give input as to what we thought we had found – in my case it was three vertebrae and ribs, and our discoveries turned into a field classroom with a remarkable teacher whose passion for paleontology and sharing it with others was an inspiration.
Aside from fossicking, the experience of wandering far across the veld in the Great Karoo, with nothing but silence and the whispering of the wind in the soft grasses was to be treasured. Blessed by clear blue skies and vistas unhindered by signs of human habitation, it was something that spoke to the soul, and there was a hint of understanding what it must have been like to live in this land eons ago.
To be continued…