Did you know?
During the Triassic era, there were no grasses, flowers, birds or true mammals.
The story of dinosaurs is writ large in human consciousness. But what came before them?
The Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in the Karoo town of Nieu Bethesda tells the story of the ‘wildlife’ that roamed the great watered plains that were here 260-million years ago and more.
On the museum wall is a mural showing an otherworldly land. Where there is now semi-desert, the mural shows a land green, moist and full of ferns and cycads. Little herds of cynodonts (half mammal-half reptile creatures with doglike teeth) roam here and dicynodonts walk about cropping the vegetation with their beaky mouths and overgrown tusks.
Tiny diictodonts with their big eyes, tusks and parrot-like beaks lurk close to their burrows, casting anxious eyes at the scary gorgonopsian hovering at the edges.
The gorgonopsians were nightmarishly ugly predators, killers with the fangs to prove it. You’ll see a fossilised skull in the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, and a recreation of what it looked like (scary), along with other denizens of that time.
One of the more notable creatures was the Lystrosaurus. Not much larger than a rabbit, this burrowing creature was one of the very few species to survive the mysterious Permian extinction around 253-million years ago. The cause, whatever it was, was far more devastating than the giant meteor that is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs about 188-million years later, about 65-million years ago.
The museum is named for James Kitching, one of the most astoundingly talented fossil hunters this world has ever seen.
When he was seven years old, he discovered his first fossil, new to science. Later on, just after World War II, he collected no fewer than 200 fossil skulls in five months after he was commissioned for the task by the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Appropriately enough, this museum was started by the current head of that respected institute, Professor Bruce Rubidge, who was mentored by Kitching and his own fossil-hunting grandfather, Sidney Rubidge.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
The nearest airport is at Port Elizabeth, and the whole journey from here will probably take you about three to four hours on reasonably good roads. From Port Elizabeth, take the N10 north towards Cradock, but turn left onto the R63 at Cookhouse. Go through Somerset East and Pearston to Graaff-Reinet. Half an hour north of this town, you'll see a turn-off to Nieu Bethesda. The village is tiny and you'll easily find the fossil centre.
Best time to visit
Nieu Bethesda experiences extreme temperatures, so try to avoid midsummer (December to February) and midwinter (June to August).
Around the area
The historical town of Graaff-Reinet is nearby, surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park and its iconic Valley of Desolation. Only 10 minutes out of Nieu Bethesda is Ganora Guest Farm, which has an excellent fossil collection.
Tours to do
One of the resident guides will take you to the nearby dry riverbed to see fossils in situ. Alternately, you can go on a donkey cart tour of the little town. Ganora Guest Farm outside Nieu Bethesda also has a compelling fossil tour.
One of the delights of Nieu Bethesda is that you can walk or cycle almost everywhere through quiet, dusty streets.
Length of stay
Nieu Bethesda is a good day trip from nearby Graaff-Reinet or Cradock. But it has a quiet magic that may persuade you to experience this quintessential Karoo town overnight or over a weekend.
Where to stay
Outsiders has a number of upmarket (and downmarket) options, including houses that you can rent.
What to eat
There are a number of good restaurants, including the Karoo Lamb, the Village Inn and Two Goats Deli (at the Sneeuberg Brewery).
The Fugard Festival, a drama festival named after the legendary South African playwright Athol Fugard, is held in September – a delightful season when there are plenty of lambs in the fields and the pear trees are in blossom.
The local Sneeuberg beer is excellent, as is the goat's cheese.