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IIf you’re ever passing through the Karoo town of Fraserburg, stop at the local museum and ask for a guide to the farm where you can see tracks of creatures that lived more than 250-million years ago preserved in an ancient riverbed.
On a certain day in 1968, a Karoo farmer by the name of Nic van Gass was stalking across the veld on his property, Gansfontein, near Fraserburg, in a foul mood.
His dam had burst, and water loss in the Karoo is never a laughing matter. But as he walked, he noticed strange footprints in the freshly washed rock at his feet.
Geologists were alerted, and they revealed a water course that went back more than 250-million years to the end of the Permian period, when two-thirds of present-day South Africa was under sea. This was the time that therapsids, early mammal-like creatures that preceded the dinosaurs, roamed the Earth.
The rock bed laid bare by the waters of the bursting dam used to be clay. As such, it became a fine canvas for evidence of ancient life and is now known as the Gansfontein palaeo-surface.
You can see the tiny marks left by worms as they foraged and moved about. Even the ripples made by wind over flowing water are evident, as are the small parallel lines of dots left by a brace of ancient beetles.
Wander on and you will spot the pigeon-toed leguaan-like footprints of an Anthiosaurus as it once waddled across the shallow waters. And here, see the passing of very old fish in the form of their fin marks.
Star of this display is what the kids around here call ‘the Croco Monster’ – the single right footprint of a very large Bradysaurus. It stands out so clear it could have been made yesterday.
Why is this so perfectly preserved? The theory is that a pile of soil and debris – at least a kilometre high – must have landed on this spot to turn it from clay to rock over time. What was the cataclysmic event? Some say it was a comet strike, others prefer the supervolcano theory. Either way, the skies darkened and more than 96 percent of all life on Earth simply vanished.
But as you track ancient life on the rocks of this farm outside Fraserburg, 250-million years are rolled back in a flash...
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
For tours of the Gansfontein palaeo-surface
Contact Marthinus Kruger
Cell: +27 (0) 84 873 0098
How to get here
Fraserburg is about 450km from Cape Town in the Karoo highlands, between Leeu-Gamka and Williston.
Best time to visit
Remember that the site is on private land and can be visited only on a guided tour that is pre-booked and leaves from the museum.
Things to do
Visits the nearby town of Williston, the famous observatory in Sutherland and various farms in the district.
You can drive an ordinary car and don't need a 4x4, but drive carefully on the dirt roads you encounter.
What will it cost?
The Fraserburg Museum will be happy with a donation of your choice, and you can agree a price with the guide who takes you out.
Length of stay
A visit to the museum and the site takes half a day.
What to pack
Good walking shoes, sufficient water and perhaps some picnic food because it's pretty out there.
Where to stay
Fraserburg has some B&B and self-catering accommodation options.
What to eat
Karoo fare consists of hearty meals, often centred by a lamb dish of sorts. Lamb is a specialty in this area.
Check the Karoo Info site for events in the area, including festivals.