Large Jurassic dinosaurs with tiny heads lived in the Eastern Free State about 200-million-years ago, when the giant southern super-continent, Gondwana, was still intact. You can still see fossil traces of these dinosaurs in the sandstone around Clarens.

Did you know?

'Dinosaur' is the Greek word for 'fearfully great lizard', as used by Homer in The Iliad.

The first time you visit the Clarens area in the Eastern Free State and someone offers you a brace of South African dinosaur droppings for inspection, who can blame you for laughing in disbelief?

But later, when they show you a 190-million-year-old fossilised egg of a Massospondylus dinosaur that lived in the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic, a period from about 230-million years ago to about 185-million years ago, your jaw might drop in amazement.

The Massospondylus wandered about in great herds, migrating back and forth between what would millions of years later become Southern Africa and Russia, when the giant southern super-continent, Gondwana, was still intact. The rocks that were laid down during this period are called the Stormberg Group of rocks, and it is in rocks of the Stormberg Group that the fossils of Massospondylus and other dinosaurs are found.

Massospondylus dinosaurs hatched from eggs about three times bigger than a hen’s egg, but grew into giant creatures 4 to 5 metres long. They had large bodies, long necks and small heads, and long tails.

In the Karoo you will find lots of evidence of Permian and Triassic life, but the real early Jurassic-era dinosaur traces are in the Drakensberg foothills and Malutis of the Free State and Eastern Cape provinces.

One of the most exciting South African dinosaur discoveries in recent years was that of a 210-million-year-old sauropod named Antetonitrus, which came from the very beginning of the dinosaur age and was originally found in the Ladybrand District of the Free State.

The dinosaurs held sway on Earth for about 120-million years until the end of the Cretaceous Period, 65-million years ago. By contrast, the earliest homind fossils (ancient human ancestors) discovered are between 6-million and 7-million years old. Anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, have been around for only between about 200 000 and 100 000 years.

The fun of 'dino hunting' is all about being up in the sandstone cliffs of places like the Golden Gate Highlands National Park with a good guide who can point out the relevant signs for you.

Dr Gideon Groenewald, a local dinosaur expert, says his daughter, Patricia, found her first dinosaur fossil when she was 22 months old. Some people are simply blessed with 'palaeo eyes', and can pick out physical features from a seemingly innocuous pile of loose stones.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Dino-guide (Dr Gideon Groenewald)
Tel: +27 (0)58 256 1314

How to get here

Head for Clarens in the Eastern Free State, then on to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, which is less than 20km away.

Around the area

The late afternoon drive from Clarens to Fouriesburg is a stunning sight of golden sandstone formations - perfect for photography.

Length of stay

2 days in Clarens, 2 days in the park.

What to pack

Sensible outdoor gear - you're going to be walking a lot. It can be hot in summer and very cold with snow in winter, so pack light or warm clothes accordingly.

Where to stay

Clarens has a wide range of accommodation, and the park has a number of options, from a full-service hotel to self-catered options and campsites.

What's happening

If you go in November, you should visit the Cherry Festival in nearby Ficksburg as well.

Best buys

Clarens has a number of art galleries - many of them specialise in superb landscapes.