Sinkholes and stromalites
Sterkfontein Cave, about a 60-minute drive from Johannesburg is one of dozens of caves within the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Sterkfontein (strong fountain) is made of dolomitic limestone, a hardened, mineral-rich sediment-rock left behind when a shallow inland sea that covered the Cradle around 2.6-billion years ago receded.
Entrance to Sterkfontein Cave
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Did you know?
Living creatures in Sterkfontein Cave include insects, reptiles, frogs, bats and occasionally birds
Sterkfontein Cave, formed around 20-million years ago, is the result of acid ground water seepage that corroded the limestone until all that remained was calcium carbonate, deposited as flowstone or stalagmites, on the floor, and stalactites, on the ceiling of the cave.
Prior to your walking tour of Sterkfontein, visit the very informative on-site exhibition centre to get your bearings.
Sterkfontein Cave near Krugersdorp is a remarkable underground grotto, discovered in 1896 by an Italian gold miner. The cave is 45-60m deep, with approximately 2kms of passages and 3 large chambers (mainly a result of mining activities) to explore.
Sadly, from 1918 to 1920, lime prospectors irreparably damaged Sterkfontein’s spectacular flowstone formations. Their chisels, ropes and even graffiti are visible in the cave today. However, the miners’ activities first exposed the fossils for which Sterkfontein is now famous.
The first section of the cave is called the Silberberg Grotto, where painstaking excavations extracted ‘Little Foot’, an almost complete 3-million year-old Australopithecus skeleton from the breccia.
The second chamber is the Elephant Hall, so-called because of a flowstone formation that looks like an elephant in profile (sans its trunk).
Next, descend the stairs to Main Lake – an underground lake of unknown depth whose source is thought to be a natural aquifer many kilometers away in the Magaliesberg.
From there, ascend the slope into Milner Hall, where Sterkfontein reveals huge stone pillars, myriad coloured rock formations and strata, and large sections of breccia – the sedimentary karst or in-fill, in which hominid remains, prehistoric animal fossils, and stone age tools have been found.
After Milner Hall, you’ll need to bend and stoop (or to crawl if you’re tall) to pass through a narrow passage before entering the Fossil chamber.
Here, look up at one of the sinkholes and it becomes clear how prehistoric hyenas, antelope and early ape-men could have fallen to their deaths, to await discovery by archaeologists and paleontologists.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Sterkfontein Cave is situated in the Isaac Erwin Stegman Nature Reserve off the R563 approximately 10km from Maropeng.
Around the area
Visit Sterkfontein’s sister site, the Maropeng Visitor Centre, the Rhino & Lion safari park that includes the Wonder Cave; the Kromdraai gold mine, the Nirox garden sculpture park (open selected months and weekends only), and go trout fishing, mountain bike riding, horse riding and hot air ballooning.
You’ll need your own car or the services of a tour operator to visit Sterkfontein Cave.
What will it cost
R120 for adults, R70 for children (4-14 years), R80 for pensioners and students.
Length of stay
Plan for ½ a day including travelling time; time to visit the exhibition centre, and a walking tour that takes about 45 minutes to 1-hour.
What to pack
Wear comfortable closed walking shoes with good grip, clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty, and bring a small torch if you like. Sun protection is recommended in summer.
Where to stay
There are literally 100s of places to stay in the Cradle. Close to Sterkfontein Cave is Makiti Country Lodge, Sterkfontein Heritage Lodge, the Cradle Lodge, the 4-star Maropeng Hotel, and Forum Homini, a 5-star boutique hotel.
What to eat
The café at Sterkfontein serves light meals and sells snacks and refreshments. A buffet-style lunch is available at nearby Maropeng.
Maropeng hosts a variety of activities throughout the year, including new fossil exhibitions, guided archaeological tours to other fossil sites in the Cradle, and stargazing evenings. Visit their website for details.