West Coast Fossil Park, Western Cape
Did you know?The teeth of the fossilised animals found here tend to be malformed, either by environmental stress or excess fluoride.
Five million years ago, the arid West Coast of South Africa looked exotically different to the way it looks today. Back then, strange creatures roamed a land that was green and well-watered.
There were four-tusked elephants called gomphotheres and three-toed horses. There were stocky short-necked giraffe called sivatheres. There were sabre-toothed cats and there were great big African bears.
Alongside this startlingly different wildlife, there were an assemblage of smaller beasts very like the frogs, chameleons, lizards, moles, molerats and fish we know today.
The Berg River once flowed here, a mighty watercourse that swept all before it. All the creatures mentioned above become fossilised bones washed up in a jumble along its former banks.
These fossils might not have been discovered were it not for a phosphate mine started here in 1943, but the importance of the bones was not appreciated until much later. The mine was closed in 1993, and this museum opened in 1998.
The West Coast Fossil Park is one of the world’s richest fossil deposits from 5 million years ago, the late Miocene and early Pliocene era.
It has attracted scientists from all over the world to study the extinct creatures whose bones lie here.
In total, the remains of 200 animal species have been uncovered. The majority of the fossilised bones come from giraffe-like sivatheres. There must have been vast herds of them roaming around here. Did they suddenly become extinct? Or was it a slow extinction because their necks were too short for them to browse nutritious leaves? Did the climate change?
The West Coast Fossil Park is about 150 km from Cape Town (a two-hour drive or so), not far from the West Coast National Park and the beautiful Langebaan lagoon. It is particularly interesting because the exhibits are not just bones under glass. This is a working museum; you are able to ‘take part’ in the dig too, and go to the actual place where excavations are taking place. You feel part of the process of discovery.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
West Coast Fossil Park
Tel: +27 (0)22 766 1606
Fax: +27 (0)22 766 1765
How to get here
Head out of Cape Town on the N1 north, and
after about 5km, take the R27 and proceed for about 110km. You’ll see a large
fuel garage and a few kilometres after that, take the road signposted Langebaan
Airforce Base. It is about 15km from here. Detailed directions can be found on
the West Coast Fossil Park’s website. Your drive from Cape Town will take you about two hours.
Around the area
Other places nearby that are well-worth visiting include the Langebaan lagoon, Elands Bay, Velddrif and Laaiplek along the Berg River mouth.
Tours to do
At the West Coast Fossil Park you can join a tour every hour on the hour most days. Check with them on their schedules and hours, which can change according to season.
Most people just walk once there, but you could also hire a bicycle for R60 (bring your own and pay only R20) to take one of four mountain biking trails. In addition there is a lovely self-guided walk you can take along the Restoration Trail.
What will it cost
Entry to the West Coast Fossil Park costs approx R10 per person, with an additional payment of R50 for adults if you’d like to go on a guided walk (highly recommended).
Length of stay
You could happily spend a very entertaining half day at the West Coast Fossil Park.
What to pack
Wear comfortable shoes and bring a camera.
Where to stay
There are many guest houses and other accommodation options at the nearby town of Langebaan and even houseboats at the West Coast National Park, less than half an hour away.
What to eat
There is a restaurant at the Fossil Park, called The Sivatherium. It serves light meals and baked goods as well as other refreshments.
Along the nearby coastline, especially at a town called Velddrif, seek out bokkoms. They are dried mullets, a salty snack that goes down well with beer.
The West Coast is one of South Africa’s most beautiful regions, combining wildflowers with long beaches, surfing waves, fish restaurants, history, lighthouses and turquoise lagoons.