Down on Earth and up in the Sky in the Karoo

Field trip with Dr Juri van den Heever and the honours students from the Department of Botany & Zoology at the University of Stellenbosch.  17 – 22 March 2014

This is a diary of the six day event with lots of pictures to illustrate the text.  I must first give some background about the tour and its origins to put all readers in the picture.  Juri van den Heever, the architect of the tour, moved from the South African Museum to the Department of Zoology at Stellenbosch in 1987.  In 1988 he took the first of these tours as part of the Honours course and has been taking them ever since.  I had been with the Department of Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University since 1985 and, as Juri and I had been at school together, we were able to renew our friendship when he came to Stellenbosch.  This led to him asking me if I would like to participate in the tours and fill in on the Biochemistry of plants as well as some other aspects.  The tour provides the students with information on Geology, Vertebrate anatomy, Palaeontology, Plants and plant usage, Insects, Birds, Ecology of the areas visited, History, Culture, Geography, Astronomy and, last but not least, the opportunity to participate in discussions on science in general and the philosophy of science and being a scientist.

So, from around 1994 or so, we have been in this together, although I skipped one or two due to pressure of work at Biochemistry or some other immovable commitment.  Over the years we have also taken members of the public, high school learners and fellow colleagues at the University on these tours, whenever there have been seats open in the vehicles.  These “outsiders” have very often made valuable contributions to the range and depth of the topics touched on during the tour.  One interesting feature of these trips over the years has been the large number of our University colleagues who have annually committed themselves very enthusiastically to participate in the next trip only to pull out at the last minute.  This year we had 14 students from the Department of Botany and Zoology and one member of the public, Peter Müller, a retired Wood Technologist.

Monday 17th March

Just after 06:30 on Monday the 17th of March, Lynnette dropped me off at the University’s vehicle park where Juri was already inspecting the two Toyotas and completing the paperwork.  We hooked on the two trailers and shortly before 07:00 we were parked outside the Department and the students could begin to load their gear, the supplies and other equipment for the week.  Shortly after 07:00 Juri gave the first briefing and then we embarked and headed out of Stellenbosch toward the West Coast Fossil Park near Langebaanweg.  Our route took us through Malmesbury, which has a tepid, sulphur chloride spring that once attracted many ailing Capetonians to a Sanatorium that was built there.  A shopping centre now covers the site.

After turning off the N7 onto the R45, our route took us across the undulating hills of weathered Malmesbury shale that form the wheat fields of the Swartland (Black Land), These were once covered in Renosterbos (Elytropappus rhinocerotis), which is the signature plant on weathered shale and mudstone throughout our area.  Its dark colouring, when seen from a distance, was probably the origin of the name Swartland.  Once past the Moorreesburg turnoff, the countryside gradually changed to alluvial sand covered in restios interspersed with small and medium sized shrubs.  Just after the small settlement of Koperfontein we passed the brand new 66 MW Hopefield wind farm owned by Umoya Energy.  The farm became operational in February 2014 and develops sufficient energy to power 70 000 low-income homes or 29 000 medium-income homes, when the wind blows. Go here to read a short article on this wind farm.

The R45 bypasses the town of Hopefield, a fact which has turned the town into a virtual ghost town. Between Hopefield and the Air Force Base at Langebaanweg, the markers of the pipeline bringing water to the West Coast from Voëlvlei dam can be seen at intervals on one’s right and, shortly after Langebaanweg, we turned off the R45 into the Park.  The Park was originally a Chemfos phosphate mine, but after the closure of the mine in 1993, it was declared a National Monument Site in 1996.  The Park, now covering about 700ha, was officially launched in 1998. It is currently under the control of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, and is managed by Pippa Haarhoff.  It has recently been declared a National Heritage Site.  The following site gives more information on the Park.  The fossils date back about 5.2 million years to the late Miocene/early Pliocene era.  Go here for more information on this exceptional area.  After some refreshments at the visitors centre we got back into the vehicles and followed the guide, Wendy Wentzel, down to the dig site.

Wendy briefing us on the background of the area and the dig site
The group lined up listening to Wendy. Angus is to the left out of the picture and Peter to the right also out of the picture

The dig site is in the old ‘E’ Quarry area and displays an astounding array of fossils.  Wendy ran us through an informative description of the various animals found at the site, the conditions thought to have existed when the animals died and the methods used to uncover the fossils.  The majority of the bones visible seem to be those of the short-necked giraffe or Sivathere but there is evidence of wales, seals, various elephants and different sabre toothed cats as well.  The only bear south of the Sahara was also found at the Park in the smaller dig site adjacent to the larger one visited by the general public.  Shark teeth found here are evidence for the existence of a behemoth that would have dwarfed the infamous cinematic Jaws.  After the talk we moved outside to the sorting trays where everyone had a go at finding the fossil remains of the smaller animals such as mice, frogs and moles.  Then back to the vehicles to return to the visitors centre for a quick bite to eat, something to drink and a visit to the essential amenities before departing on the next leg of our journey.

Dismay, amazement and indifference? I do not really think so but you’d best ask Claire, Benjamin and Dale yourself
5.2 million year old carnage. The bottle does not date back that far
A reconstruction of the Southern African bear. Check out the size comparison with a human
The short necked giraffe or Sivathere compared to a human. This was a big animal and, judging by the bones here quite common too
Wendy instructing the group on how to find the really small stuff

We retraced or route past Hopefield and shortly after Koperfontein we turned left to Moorreesburg.  On that stretch of road we had an excellent view of the ancient termite mounds or “heuweltjies” that give the fields such a lumpy appearance.  These mounds were already alluded to by the 18th century Astronomer and Geodesist, Nicolas-Louis De La Caille.  Go here to read the section in Dr. Ian Glass’s book on De la Caille. For a more recent and scientific coverage of the topic you can go here to read an article published by the Department of Soil Science at the University of Stellenbosch.  We passed through Moorreesburg which considers itself the “heart” of the Swartland wheat industry and actually boasts a wheat industry museum, one of only three in the world.

We then headed for the twin towns of Riebeek West and Riebeek Kasteel.  Just outside the former we passed the cement factory of PPC (Pretoria Portland Cement) where one can visit the restored house in which General Jan Christian Smuts was born.  Smuts, educated at the Victoria College, later the University of Stellenbosch, and Christ’s College at Cambridge University, went on to become State Attorney of the Transvaal Republic, a successful general in the Anglo-South African War and eventually Prime minister of South Africa.  Daniel Francois Malan, the first Prime Minister to actively apply the basic principles of institutionalized apartheid after the 1948 elections, was also born in Riebeek West. These two towns lie on the slopes of the Kasteelberg.  From these two towns one has a sweeping view of the Northward tending arm Cape Fold Mountains from the Limietberg behind Wellington through the Winterhoek west of Tulbagh and on into the Cederberg where the peak of Cederberg Sneeukop can just be made out.

We left Kasteelberg behind, crossed the Berg River and just after passing the hamlet of Hermon, we turned left on the R46.  Our route took us past the blockhouse that once guarded the railway line during the Anglo-South African war and then Voëlvlei dam, one of the major sources of water for Cape Town and the West Coast before passing into Nuwekloof through which the Little Berg River exits on its way to join the Berg River several kilometers beyond the village of Gouda.  In 1739 the head and right hand of the infamous Estiénne Barbier were placed in this area after his execution as a gruesome warning to anyone contemplating an uprising against the VOC.  In Nuwekloof one can still see the dry stone wall supporting Andrew Bain’s road which was in use for more than a hundred years until it was replaced by the present road in 1968.  The road then passes into the Land of Wavern, south of Tulbagh and heads up the valley of the Little Berg river with the Witzenberg rising on the left and, on the right, the Elandsberg which is replaced by the Watervalsberg once one has crossed the watershed at Artois. It then swings to the left, passing North of Wolesely and shortly afterward entering Michell’s Pass.

Lunch al fresco in Michell’s Pass on a section of Andrew Bain’s old road
The after lunch lecture in Michell’s Pass

In Michell’s Pass we stopped on the only section of Andrew Bain’s road that has been preserved.  Out came the tables and food and, while a light lunch was enjoyed, Juri spoke at length about Bain, the founding of the town of Ceres and the true origins of the town’s name as well as the tremendous importance of the pass at the time it was constructed.  After lunch we packed up before inspecting the impressive dry stone walls of the old road and then drove the last bit of the pass into Ceres where we filled up with fuel and everyone had an opportunity to visit a small supermarket.  Our next stop was the pharmacy to so that Benjamin could buy medication for the Otitis Media he had developed.  We finally left Ceres heading for Eselfontein, the farm of Gideon and Janine Malherbe where we would look for fossils in a quarry and spend the night in their Ecocamp.  Driving out to the farm the road ran across extensive beds of Bokkeveld sediments with the Skurweberg’s younger sandstone layers sloping down under them from our right.  In the distance on our left were the cliffs of Gydoberg and the Waboomsberg rising high above the northern edge of the Ceres valley.

The quarry on Eselfontein with typical Renosterbos veld in the background and students in the foreground
Benjamin’s Trilobite find.
The campfire at the Ecocamp on Eselfontein with the pointers to the Southern Cross prominent in the night sky in the background

We spent time in the quarry giving everyone the opportunity to experience the thrill of finding a fossil.  That special feeling when you crack open the rock and see it, knowing you are not only the first human but the only human to ever have seen the creature that has been entombed in the sediment for several hundred million years.  Many shell imprints were found from a variety of families as well as several fragments of trilobites.  The prize find of the afternoon was Benjamin’s trilobite.  Fairly late in the afternoon we packed up and drove up the fairly rigged road to the Ecocamp where we unpacked and set about preparing supper.  Benjamin and Dale did their first of several stints at the fire on the trip, grilling the chicken to perfection.  Benjamin’s approach is that he would rather cook every evening than wash dishes.  Juri, Claire and Sheree’s potato salad went down very well too.  Unforeseen problems with the water supply meant that we all had to wash in the adjacent mountain stream.  There was very little interest in astronomy as most people were pretty tired after the long day but, nevertheless, the Moon, just one day past full moon, rising behind the pine forest made quite a spectacular site.

Tuesday 18th March

At 07:00 Juri started the day by getting everybody up and moving in the direction of breakfast after which we packed up, packed everything into the vehicles and the trailers and set off on the first leg of day two.  This entailed a short drive in the direction of Lakenvlei dam, then past Matroosberg to Okkie Geldenhuys’s farm Matjiesrivier, where we collected our annual allocation of peaches.  With the sandstone of the Cape fold mountains behind us, but still standing on Bokkeveld sediments, the view to the north of the farm gave us our first view of the Witteberg sediments.

Early morning at Eselfontein with the moon peeking between the branches of a Protea bush and the morning sun touching the mountains in the background.
Juri delivers the morning talk on what the day has in store for everyone
We start moving out of the Ecocamp on Eselfontein
The historic homestead on Matjiesrivier

Shortly after leaving the farm we picked up the R46 again and headed East toward the N1 and our first fossil stop of the day near the game farm Aquila.  On the way there we passed Verkeerdevlei, the original water supply for Touws River and a forlorn looking Dakota aircraft parked amongst some scraggy looking pines in a military training area.  About 300m before reaching Aquila, we pulled over and got out to look for Zoophycos, one of the few fossils one finds readily in the Witteberg sediments.  After finding some examples and making sure everyone knew what it looked like we departed.  As we drove away, we had a good view of Aquila’s huge automated solar energy installation that produces 60 kW of electricity by means of a Concentrator Photovoltaic system.  The area around the solar panels also houses the lion rehabilitation pens as a deterrent to would be thieves.  This system forms part of an eventual 50 MW installation currently under construction.  Go here to read more about this exciting installation.

Roadside talk on the Witteberg sediments and the fossils the group might expect to find there
The panels of the Solar installation just across the road from the Game Farm, Aquila.
They are probably wondering where to start

Our next stop was Touws River for acquiring refreshments and use of the amenities and then we were off again headed for the Logan Cemetery on the N1.  Although the mountains around us were all Witteberg deposits, we were soon driving on the frist of the Ecca deposits and about 10 km north of the town the first patch of Dwyka tillite, a glacial deposit, appeared to the left of the road.  Also fairly abundant along the N1 was the yellowish Kraalbos (Galena Africana), a pioneer shrub that takes over in disturbed or overgrazed areas.  It can, however, proliferate to the point where it suppresses the regrowth of other plants.  As we progressed in the direction of Matjiesfontein, we saw more and more  Dwyka tillite on either side of the road and the Witteberg Mountains to the south also became more and more prominent.  When parked at the Logan cemetery one can see good examples of Ecca, Witteberg and Dwyka.

The group gathered around Andrew Wauchope’s gravestone. An identical one was erected at his birthplace in Scotland
Major-General Andrew Gilbert Wauchope was a much admired officer in the British Army
Jimmy and Emma Logan’s gravestones
A memorial from friends and colleagues to John Grant who was killed in an accident during construction work on the railway

At the cemetery Juri discussed the mystery surrounding the burial of Major-General Andrew Gilbert Wauchope (known as Red Mick) in this spot.  He was the commander of the 3rd (Highland) Brigade at the Battle of Magersfontein on the 11th of December 1899 in the Anglo-South-African War and was killed in the opening minutes of the battle.  His wife Jane gave instructions that he should be buried where he fell – at Magersfontein – and yet he lies here.  Also buried here is James Douglas Logan, the founder of the little town of Matjiesfontein, owner of the farm Tweedside and Member of the Cape Parliament, his wife and several family members.  A little further away is the grave of George Alfred Lohmann a phenomenal English cricketer of the late 1800’s who, despite several trips to recuperate at Matjiesfontein, eventually lost his battle against tuberculosis.  After taking a look at the obelisk commemorating Wauchope higher up on the hill and examining the Dwyka tillite on the hillside, we left for Sutherland.

Juri and the students gathered around the memorial commemorating Andrew Wauchope. Note the pointy outcrops of Dwyka tillite on the hillside
George Alfred Lohmann’s gravestone
A most appropriate symbolic indication that a great cricketer had finally been bowled out
In memory of private Doyle of the Royal Scots Greys. One wonders how many of these grave markers are scattered across the world commemorating young men who died “For King/Queen and country”

On the way to Sutherland we took note of the various sizes of the drop-stones in the cuttings through the Dwyka tillite and also pointed out the various outcrops of the Whitehill Formation, a distinctive stratigraphic unit near the base of the Ecca group and stressed its importance as a repository of Mesosaurus, fish and insect fossils from the early Permian.  As we progressed northward we crossed the Collingham Formation, a section of volcanic ash and eventually arrived amongst the Beaufort or Karoo sediments which were deposited on land by huge meandering rivers in a gigantic basin that stretched right across the present day South Africa.  At a deep cutting about one km after crossing the Tanqua River, we stopped to look at the exposed mudstone and sandstone beds so typical of the Karoo sediments and also to explain to the students how the early Karoo Basin was filled in.

In Sutherland we visited Mr Eddie Marais, who in his youth had the privilege of collecting with Dr L. D. Boonstra.  Mr Marais has a collection of artefacts that Juri used to explain to the students what they could expect in the field the following day and how to distinguish between calciferous nodules and actual bone.  He also took the opportunity to discuss the development of the Karoo fauna and explained the gradual transition of true reptiles to mammal-like reptiles and later to true mammals which could be observed in the fossil record of the Karoo sediments.  After enjoying the refreshments graciously supplied by Mrs Marais, we left to refuel the vehicles.

Everything nicely set out by Mrs Marais in her garden and all we now needed were the people to enjoy the spread
The pet graveyard in the Marais’s garden; pet rooster on the left followed by three cats

On our way to Fraserburg we passed the SAAO site where SALT and all the other South African telescopes are situated.  On arrival at Fraserburg, we unloaded and Karin showed us to our rooms and as soon as the children in the hostel had left the dining hall, we moved into the kitchen to prepare supper.  The end result of the kitchen team was a delicious pasta dish.  After supper there was some astronomy discussion with various members of the group and most of the group went to bed in preparation for a long day on Wednesday.

Pasta supper on the first evening in Huis Retief, the School hostel in Fraserburg

Wednesday 19th March

We were in the dining room shortly after eight to have breakfast and then we set off for the local museum which is housed in the old Pastorie of the Dutch Reformed Church.  The very friendly person in charge of the museum, Don Pedro Malan welcomed us at the museum and Juri set about giving a detailed explanation of the fossils on display.  His explanation also covered the development of the various groups of animals that had been present in the Karoo basin during the period when it was filling up. After his talk everyone had the opportunity to look more closely at the fossil display and look around the museum in general before we set of to Droogvoetsfontein, where we met up with Mr Pieter Conradie.  We all piled onto and into his pickup for a trip into the veld and then back to our vehicles which Juri and I then drove to the next stop while Pieter ferried the students there.  Juri and I then rejoined the crowd on the pickup for the trip to where he had found a fossil, or at least bits of a fossil.  As with many of the fossils in the Karoo lying exposed on the surface the elements take their toll and this one had not fared any better.  All that was left, were a few scraps of nondescript bone not worth collecting and the surroundings also suggested that these had probably washed in from elsewhere in any case.  Back on the pickup and back to the vehicles for a short drive before we dispersed in all directions to look for the elusive fossils.  After about two hours I had found some pieces of rib bone and others had found another badly weathered fossil on the slope of a hill.

The Old Pastorie Museum in Fraserburg
Jurie running through the fossil display in the museum and explaining the relationships between reptiles, dinosaurs and mammal-like reptiles


Benjamin and Dale discussing the day’s programme, or are they planning the evening’s braai?
Pieter Conradie (snr) and Johannes closing the gate. Juri and I still had to clamber aboard
The immensity of the Karoo dwarfs members of the group as they scour the veld for fossils
Some members of the team found something but, unfortunately, not worth collecting
Lunch is served under the trees on the farm Dagbreek

Back to the vehicles and off we went to Pieter’s farm, Dagbreek, where we prepared a light lunch in the shade of a tree.  The new-born lambs were an immediate hit with the students.  After lunch we set off again, but this time with Pieter on his motorcycle leading the way.  After an interesting drive, we arrived at the next farm, Onderplaas, disembarked and set off on foot down a riverbed with scattered pools of water and muddy patches amongst the grass to trap the unwary.  What was left of this fossil was still firmly embedded in the rock, but most of it had been worn away by the perennial flooding of the river.  Disappointed we trudged back to the farmyard, said our goodbyes and set off for our next contact, also Pieter Conradie, the son of the first Pieter Conradie.  He and his wife Marisa were waiting at the appointed place with their three lively children and our prickly pears.  Pieter excitedly led us up a hill to look at his fossil, which unfortunately turned out to be a collection of calciferous nodules; his disappointment was quite tangible.

A fossil at last on the farm Onderplaas but also to far gone to make it worth trying to take it out

Our group did a quick recce, found nothing and then set off after Pieter Jnr for refreshments at his farm Middelfontein a few kilometres down the road.  Refreshments, in addition to cool drinks, consisted of chilled prickly pears, ice cream and various delicious liqueurs to be used as toppings.  I, for one, made an absolute pig of myself with the prickly pears and ate 50 of them!  After some small talk with the Pieter and his wife and their three cats, we said goodbye and headed back to Fraserberg, anxious to get there before the shops closed as the beer supply was running low.  We rounded the day off with a congenial braai, once again executed by Dale and Benjamin in a masterly fashion.  We did some astronomy too for those who were interested and then went to bed.

Chilled prickly pears and ice cream on the farm Middelfontein courtesy of Pieter Conradie (jnr) and his wife Marisa
A braai back at the school hostel rounds of the day

Thursday 20th March

Today is the autumn equinox when the sun is exactly over the equator on its way north and the day and night should be the same length.  It also signals the start of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and spring in the Northern Hemisphere.  These facts did not really seem to impress anyone, so I didn’t push the matter.  Anyway, we were packed up and finished with breakfast shortly after eight – at least most of us were!  Then we set out on the Williston road to the palaeosurface on the farm Gansefontein.  It is very sad to see the systematic deterioration of this site when we visit it every year.  All Coenie De Beer’s efforts since he took a month’s unpaid leave from the Geological Survey in Pretoria 25 years ago and came down here on his motorcycle to map and measure the then freshly exposed surface, have been in vein.  Well, not quite in vain, because an insurance company donated money to put a fence around the site and put up a notice board.  What is really needed is a building to cover the existing site and money to uncover more of the surface around the existing site, but as things stand now, the non-preservation of this site is actually a disgrace for South Africa.

Breakfast discussion on the last morning in Fraserburg and Juri explains how high we will have to climb
The palaeosurface on the farm Gansefontein. The white markers outline the areas one should not walk on
The Geological Society of Southern Africa’s notice explaining what may be seem on the palaeosurface
Juri interprets the bones. Sorry, that should be traces and tracks
A great, great, great, great, great, great, great – and then a lot more greats – grandchild of the animals that made some of the tracks at the palaeosurface

After the visit to the Palaeosurface we made a quick stop for biltong and dried sausage and then set off down the R356 toward the Theekloof Pass and our next destination.  Theekloof Pass is potentially one of the most spectacular passes, if not in the country, then most certainly in the Western Cape Province.  After the obligatory stop for photos half way down, we continued our descent into the lower regions of the Karoo.  The pass also affords one an unprecedented view of the layered nature of the Karoo sediments with their alternating sandstone and mudstone layers, broken by dolerite sills and dykes in many places.  Upon arrival at Rooiheuwel, the farm of Flip and Marge Vivier, we were enthusiastically welcomed by the Jack Russels and an overzealous Boxer before being taken inside for a welcome cool drink.  Once that was done, we set off to look at a fossil on a neighbouring farm, which was “just around the corner”. Those of you who do not know the Karoo, should beware as this phrase could mean anything from 15 to, as we have experienced, 40 or more kilometres.

Tafelkop and Spitzkop with the vast expanse of the Karoo spread out southward as seen from a vantage point in Theekloofpass
A view up the pass with some of the group members perched on the edge of the kloof
The house of Flip and Marge Vivier on the farm Rooiheuwel
I found a new species of goat – a Zebra Goat

When we finally stopped and disembarked, Flip indicated that the fossil was “just over there”, pointing at a fairly distant hill on the other side of a dry riverbed, so of we went,  The fossil was also a disappointment.  Almost definitely a Pareiasaurus, but apparently lying on its left side with the tail, pelvic girdle, right limbs and ribs all missing.  The head was very probably also no longer there, so we decided to leave it there to continue its losing battle with time and erosion.  Back to the vehicles and to Rooiheuwel for a quick lunch and then a short drive to a place where we could get into the veldt to look for fossils again.  Once again no luck, so we drove off to explore for likely fossil sites.  One problem on this farm is that the vegetation cover is quite dense and the potential fossil areas are well hidden until you are right on top of them and finding traces of bone would then be doubly difficult too.  We returned to the farm, said goodbye and drove to Merweville, our overnight stop.  Juri’s vehicle was running low on fuel so he drove quite slowly to conserve what he had, but eventually we got there.

Juri pronouncing judgement on the fossil remains of a Pareiasaurus.on the farm De Krans
Juri holding a single vertebra and one can clearly see how badly it has been eroded. The bone surface has been removed exposing the spongelike inner structure
Our ever hopeful band of searchers combs the hillside on the off chance they will find a skull or perhaps a tooth or two
In the far distance Tafelkop and Spitzkop which lie just below the Theekloofpass
Rule in fossil hunter’s guidebook: It always takes longer to get back to the vehicles from the site than it took to get to the site from the vehicles when you didn’t find anything
The usual lunch in the shade of a tree, but this time on the farm Rooiheuwel
Yet once again we return empty handed
Juri and our host on Rooiheuwel, Flip Vivier, in a serious discussion
Sunset from the grounds of the school hostel in Merweville
Beware! In Merweville they have thorns, lots and lots of them

At Huis Mervia, the local school hostel, we unloaded and Juri set off to find the local parson of the Dutch Reformed Church, who had promised the group could go up into the church tower and out onto the catwalk to admire the view.  He found him and off they went.  In the meantime, the braai-maestros were getting the fire ready for their next culinary tour de force.  As an entrée, we had slices of bread from two huge farm loaves baked by Mrs Blom, the hostel matron, and then it was Karoo lamb a la Dale and Benjamin, with onions and butternut wrapped in tin foil and grilled to perfection on the fire.  Some astronomy after supper and then most of us turned in for the night.

Opuntia infestation, the scourge of the Karoo, on the grounds of the hostel in Merweville
Huis Mervia, the school hostel in Merweville
The clan is gathering for the evening’s festivities in Merweville
Merweville and the two iconic symbols of all small Karoo towns, the windmills and the church tower

Friday 21st March

It was a public holiday which we assumed would not affect us, but it eventually did.  I went into town to refuel my vehicle, came back and had breakfast before we packed up and left to visit our fossil on Hendrik Botes’s farm Jakhalsfontein, which is spelt oddly as you can see.  Juri thinks the fossil might actually be on Vaalleegte and we should really resolve the discrepancy someday. En route we passed the turnoff to the tragic Englishman’s grave, but that story will have to wait.  Once on the farm, we unhooked the trailers for the long drive to our fossil dig site where we have been letting successive groups of students systematically excavate, what we hope is a fairly complete Pareiasaurus.  It is quite a long walk from where we park the vehicles, but once there, we rotated and some hacked away with hammers while others scoured the area for other fossils.  About two hours of hacking away and Juri decided to call it a day and head back to the vehicles.  Eventually everyone was back and aboard so we could turn round, drive back, hook up the trailers go to an unoccupied house further down the road and his house is definitely on Jakhalsfontein.  We had lunch on the veranda or, as it is called locally, the stoep.  During the lunch break, some quinces were picked under Juri’s expert tutelage so we could have stewed quinces and cream for dessert that evening.

And into the veld once more led, as usual, by Juri. The fossil is just over that far hill
Some hacked and some searched. Our Pareiasaurus is under that white lump of plaster of Paris in the centre of the seated group of hackers
The Karoo is vast – have I said that before? Peter Müller is just visible centre right and in the background the blue line of the Swartberg Mountains. One can just make out the gap where Seweweekspoort is and, just to the right of that Seweweekspoort Peak and, a little further to the right of that the magical  mountain,Towerkop
Home we go until we bring the next group in 2015, maybe
It might be a long way to Tipperary but I think it’s further to those vehicles
Zoomed in on Towerkop . Now see if you can find it on the previous photo
Lunch on the stoep of the old Jakhalsfontein house

After lunch we made a quick stop at the café in Prince Albert Road and an essential pit stop for some members of the group before hitting the N1 and heading south to Laingsburg.  This took us out of the Karoo sediments and onto the Ecca which were laid down just offshore in huge estuaries.  We arrived at Laingsburg to find the liquor store open, but the supermarket closed so we had beer but no cream and we also needed sour cream for the potjiekos Dale was going to prepare for supper.  We checked some of the other obvious possibilities for cream and sour cream, but none produced the goods.  So we drove to the sports fields where we were going to spend the night in the clubhouse and, after unloading, I went and investigated one more possible source for the cream and sour cream, but that also turned out to be a dead end.  Dale had found ways to improvise his way around the sour cream, but the prospects looked grim for the stewed quinces.

It is a pity the Flood Museum commemorating the disastrous flood of 1981 was closed as I would have liked the students to see it.  If you visit Laingsburg pay the museum a visit and then drive down to the railway bridge, get out of your car and stand under the bridge.  When you look up consider the fact that, on that fateful day, the water was lapping the rails on top of the bridge before the embankment at the eastern end gave way.  Just for a moment consider the entire valley filled to that depth with churning, muddy water. It is a chilling thought I can assure you.

Dale’s potjiekos and rice was excellent.  Actually it wasn’t, it was superb!  After lots of philosophical discussions, there was some down to earth stuff too, we tidied up and went to bed.  As I was having the last conversation with Juri, before we finally went to bed, he remembered that he had forgotten to cook the quinces.  I had actually wondered about this after supper, but assumed the lack of cream was to blame.

Hows that for camouflage
Relaxing outside the Clubhouse at the Laingsburg Sports-fields
The streak of light is Dale buzzing around his potjiekos in the background

Saturday 22nd March

While gathering the troops, it turned out that rather than make their own breakfast, everyone was in favour of picking up coffee and whatever from the local Wimpy and heading south as quickly as possible.  A few kilometres outside Laingsburg, we crossed into the ancient lake basin again and could clearly see the tell-tale white slopes on either side of the road.  Before long we encountered the first of the Dwyka tillite and shortly after that, the Witteberg Mountains came into sight on our left.  Just before Touws River we encountered the first of several stop-and-go sections where the National Roads Agency was undertaking extensive road works all the way down to the Hex River Pass.  Topping the rise just before the farm Kleinstraat, we had a good view of Aquila’s second solar farm with 1 500 panels, being built by the French firm, Soitec, which was nearing completion.  The installation will provide 50 MW (peak DC) power and provide a 36 MW AC output to the local grid.   This makes it one of the largest plants of its kind in the world.  Go here to read more about the installation about the installation.  You can also go to this link for more information.

Loading up to move out from Laingsburg on the last morning
The whole group with a high hill of Ecca sediments in the background.

From this point we were on the Bokkeveld shale again and, as we navigated the Hex Pass and skirted De Doorns and Orchard, we moved further and further into the sandstone layers of the earlier deposits.  By the time we exited the Hex River Valley we had left the Bokkeveld behind us and the sandstone layers towered high above our heads.  Shortly after leaving the Hex River Valley, we pulled into the De Wet Cooperative Winery where we traditionally stopped to sample their Muscadels and Ports.  Just across the road from the winery was an impressive hill of Malmesbury shale lifted upward by the rising magma millions of years ago.  As the magma cooled and formed granite, the heat baked the otherwise fairly crumbly shale into a hard metamorphic rock the geologists call Hornfels.  This is mined in a quarry on the Worcester side of the hill and produces the blue-grey chips ubiquitously used in road making.

At De Wet Cooperative wine cellar. On the immediate left is a high hill of Malmesbury shale and the mountains in the background are younger sandstones of the Table Mountain group
Sampling the fruit of the vine at De Wet Cooperative Cellar on the N1

From De Wet we took a back road via Nonna, Overhex and Aan de Doorns to Eilandia and the quarry where we hoped to find more insect fossils and perhaps a fish or too and just maybe a Mesosaurus. At the quarry Juri and I were somewhat concerned by the fact that there had been considerable excavation since our last visit, and access to the specific section that usually produced the insects, was quite precarious; in fact rather dangerous.  Apart from Juri having a rather nasty fall, it all went well.  We came away with several Notocaris imprints, a fantastic leaf imprint thanks to Robyn and section of Mesosaurus backbone courtesy of Nombuso.  A snap vote before we left decided against stopping for lunch so we would head straight back to Stellenbosch.  One got the distinct impression that the students felt it was a case of “Home James, and don’t spare the horses”.

Final briefing of the trip from Juri before we tackle the quarry in the Whitehill Formation at Eilandia
This is really a very tricky site to work in now that it has been escavated to an almost vertical slope
Take the fence post just left of centre and measure three lengths of that post down from the top edge of the slope. There is a thin grey line of bentonite there. The insects are usually found just above the bentonite
Up we go for the last dig and hack of the trip
The exceptional leaf imprint Robyn found
The section of Mesosaurus backbone found by Nombuso
The circular patches caused by the termite mounds. They change the soil’s composition and structure creating micro-habitats that are preferential growth areas for specific plants. These areas then stand out against the surrounding vegetation

I stopped to take photos of the clearly visible termite mounds on the slope of a hill that we passed. Our route took us past Brandvlei dam and then through Rawsonville and Du Toit’s Kloof Pass where Juri elected to avoid the Huguenot Tunnel and drive over the pass, which is the route to take if you want to enjoy a spectacular view.  After unloading at the Department and saying all the goodbyes I went and dropped off the trailer and then delivered the vehicle to the vehicle park, where Lynnette was already waiting.  We stowed all my gear away and then went back to the Department to pick up Lona, who also lives in Brackenfell and had asked if we could give her a lift home.

Unloading in front of the Department and 2014’s trip has come to an end
Juri ticks off the all important hammer register as everyone hands back their geological hammers

All that was left for me to do, was to work through all 500 photos that I had taken and write this report.  The report writing was seriously disrupted by the need to complete our application for a National Science Week grant from the NRF via SAASTA.