James Kitching: fossil hunter of the Karoo
Did you know?
James Kitching is celebrated in Nieu Bethesda and in a University of the Witwatersrand gallery, among other places.
As you walk around the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in the Karoo village of Nieu-Bethesda, you will see, amongst all the grinning skulls of ancient beasts, a battered old hat on display under glass.
That was the hat of the man who helped confirm the theory of continental drift, that Africa once belonged to the same land mass as Australia, Antarctica and the Americas. That same man had an ancient lizard-like species named after him when he was only a lad of seven. He was also known as the ‘grand old man of Karoo palaeontology’. He was James Kitching, South Africa’s ‘Indiana Jones’ of old-bone detectives.
He grew up in what is generally known as the ‘palaeontological paradise’ of South Africa, the mountains and valleys around Nieu Bethesda in the Eastern Cape. His dad was Croonie Kitching, a local road builder, who was always collecting bones and stones during his working day.
Croonie roped young James in to hunt for fossils, and he soon found his first new species, which was then named Youngopsis kitchingi.
After World War II, James Kitching went to work as a fossil hunter for the brand-new Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. But his real ‘office’ was 800km south, in the vastness of the Karoo.
For decades, working on more than 900 sites, Kitching and his devoted field staff combed the Karoo for fossils. He was also famous for growing fresh vegetables and sourcing the best meat cuts wherever he camped. Visitors would describe a Kitching camp as being a beautiful little patch of green in the middle of the brown Karoo.
James Kitching developed a deep insight into life in the Permian Period, populated by mammal-like reptiles called therapsids. He was almost super-human in his ability to spot a fossil lurking deep in a rock formation. This was a crucial time, more than 251-million years ago, when reptiles were about to evolve into mammals. And Kitching was onto their case.
At one stage there was a lot of debate about whether Gondwana (South America, southern Africa and Antarctica in one continent) had ever existed. So Kitching was recruited to fly down to Antarctica and look for fossils common to both continents.
And it was there, on a rocky shelf with snow falling all about, that he found the fossilised skeleton of Thrinaxodon, just like the one he had found near Bethulie in the southern Free State province of South Africa.
Interviewed by the prestigious New Scientist magazine in 1996, Kitching had this to say about the length and breadth of his travels: ‘My colleagues here tell me I've walked the equivalent of three times round the globe, but I don't believe them. I'd say it was only about once round the world...’
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre
Contact: Bruce Rubidge
Tel: +27 (0)11 717 6682
Tel: +27 (0) 49 841 1642
How to get here
Nieu-Bethesda lies 30km west of the N9 between Middelburg and Graaff-Reinet. Going south from Middelburg, you drive 55km before turning right at the sign to Nieu-Bethesda. The Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre is in Martin Street, right next to the famous Owl House.
Best time to visit
Nieu-Bethesda looks lovely in the mid-winter (July) snowfalls, but then there is often no access to the village at this time. Best times to visit are spring (September to October) and autumn (April to May).
Around the area
Go on a day drive to Graaff-Reinet and the Mountain Zebra National Park outside Cradock.
Tours to do
Karoo Connections does tours to the Valley of Desolation outside Graaff-Reinet and other destinations.
There are bus tours that occasionally pass through Nieu-Bethesda, but it's probably best to have your own car.
What will it cost
General admission to the centre: R20; Admission to the Owl House and the centre: R45.
Length of stay
Set aside an hour for the centre – set aside 3 days if you can for Nieu-Bethesda and environs.
What to pack
If it’s summer, go light. In winter, pack lots of very warm clothes. Nieu-Bethesda enjoys extreme weather, depending on the season - it's very hot in summer and very cold in winter.
Where to stay
Ian and Katrien Allemann at the Karoo Lamb Restaurant in Martin Street have a number of self-catering accommodation options available – including a popular backpackers’ lodge.
What to eat
Breakfast at Karoo Lamb, lunch at Two Goats Deli or Aunty Evelyne’s, possibly dinner at the Tower Café.
Check the listed Nieu-Bethesda website for details of their mid-winter party, the Fugard Festival and the New Year’s Eve Lantern Festival.
Draft beer from the Sneeuberg Brewery is always a wonderful purchase.