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FFive 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 4-tusked elephants called gomphotheres and 3-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 became fossilised bones when they 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 The West Coast Fossil Park opened in 1998.
This museum has 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 150km from Cape Town (a 2-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.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
West Coast Fossil Park
Tel: +27 (0)22 766 1606
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 2 hours.
Best time to visit
The West Coast Fossil Park is open right through the year, closing only for Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. If you'd like your visit to coincide with the glorious spring flowers, best showcased at the nearby West Coast National Park, come here in August, September or October.
Things to do
Other places nearby that are well-worth visiting include the Langebaan lagoon, Elands Bay, Velddrif and Laaiplek along the Berg River mouth.
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.
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).
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.