Message from NSTF Executive Director

The invisible tourist attraction

So the summer holidays are finally upon us. A time for the home town, the relatives, the children, grandchildren, parents, the beach, the ‘berg’, etc. But there are places you haven’t seen in South Africa – hidden gems that might be better known to international tourists. If we do not have time to visit some of them during these December holidays, we should make a New Year’s resolution to explore a corner of the country we’ve never visited before.

Some NSTF proSET members have produced books to guide you through the country. They cover interesting places that don’t necessarily feature in tourist guide books.

*  The South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) published ‘Travels with Civils’, which can be ordered from SAICE. This beautifully illustrated book provides information on the bridges and dams, and other feats of civil engineering in South Africa. It covers 110 years, showing achievements that are amazing to see and that make us proud as a country.

*  The Geological Society of South Africa (GSSA) published a number of books on geology and geological sites. Some of these will be of interest to the layman with no previous knowledge of geology. An example is ‘Geological Journeys’ by Nick Norman and Gavin Whitfield which is full of photographs and not too technical.

The Vredefort dome
Then there is a famous site, the Vredefort dome or the Vredefort impact crater. It’s familiar to those ‘in the know’ but I’m not sure it is part of the public’s larger awareness. You could drive in and out of it without noticing anything unusual. Very few locals will tell you about it.

So it remains invisible to all except people who are curious and those who have done their ‘online research’ before visiting the area. Once you know what to look for, your eyes are opened to an ancient catastrophic event that changed the entire earth.

This is the Vredefort dome, or the Vredefort impact crater, that resulted from a massive meteorite strike about 2 023 million years ago. The meteorite must have been about 10 km in diameter, and the crater roughly 300 km across. This site is famous the world over and South Africa is the proud host.

Part of the crater (the centre which forms a low dome shape) is on the list of World Heritage Sites. This is one of only 10 sites in South Africa. Witwatersrand’s gold reef was pushed up from deep underground by the meteorite impact, close enough to the surface for us to mine in more recent times, forming a wide circle through Johannesburg and Welkom. We have this astronomical event to thank for our country’s wealth.

Read more about the crater on www.vredefortdome.org/. For those with bags full of money and a love of reading, there is an interesting book ‘Meteorite Impact! The Danger from Space and South Africa’s Mega-Impact – The Vredefort Structure’ by Wolf Uwe Reimold and Roger Lawrence Gibson.

The trendy town of Parys lies in the crater. This was a favourite destination for family holidays during my childhood. Even my well-read parents must have been unaware of the significance of the semi-circular hills. The Vaal River flows through Parys, and holiday accommodation is plentiful. Coffee shops and craft shops have proliferated and Parys is home to several artists.

However, along the main road of Parys, you will not see any information on the Vredefort crater. One of the few locals who promotes the crater is Mr Jan Fourie, known for his informative tours of the site. There is no dedicated information centre in the town, only the general Tourist Information Centre which refers visitors to Jan Fourie.

The small Vredefort crater information centre (created by North-West University) is on the outskirts, on the other side of a series of hills, and in another miniscule town. Informative as this centre is, it should be in Parys itself as that is where most visitors go.

Jan Fourie is an excellent tour guide, not only of the Vredefort crater, but also historical markers, rock carvings and bird life in the area. He is extremely knowledgeable about the geology of the crater. See Dome Impact Tours for more information.

One can speculate that the lack of publicity in Parys is due to the name: Vredefort dome/crater. The closest town to the crater’s centre is Vredefort, a small and modest town. The investment necessary to make Vredefort a major tourist destination has not been made. It would be more practical, in any case, to market the crater (and the town of Vredefort) in Parys while investing in tourist infrastructure in Vredefort.

The crater is not immediately obvious. The hills that were forced up by the impact of the meteorite are in a half circle roughly 50km around Vredefort as the centre, the other half having been completely buried under millions of years of soil. The area has been so eroded by the ravages of time that it does not appear to be a crater.

The crater is also somewhat obscured on the internet. Someone who knows nothing about the crater is unlikely to become inspired to visit it. The Free State Tourism Authority website lists it last on ‘Top 10 things to do’ in the Free State. There is also no practical information, such as where to find visitors’ information or references to Jan Fourie. Under Tourist Information, and ‘The Free State: a Feast for the Senses’ – the crater gets a brief and enticing mention: “Go walking on the slopes of the Vredefort Dome, the world’s oldest and largest crater”, but again no practical visitors’ information. Besides, there are no obvious slopes to walk on.

Because the crater overlaps with two provinces and Parys is actually in North West, I also looked at some provincial websites. I really had to search to spot the following: “The Vredefort Dome was created by a massive meteorite, over 10km³ [sic] in diameter. It struck the earth about 2023 million years ago, near the present day village of Vredefort.” Once again, these two sentences are the only information, and there is no advice on how to see it.

Thank goodness for the Vredefort Dome website. Although, once again, you have to know about it to find it. Jan Fourie provides information, and is referred to under ‘Contact us’. The following are listed with phone numbers under Potchefstroom/ Tour guides. It is not clear whether any of these tour guides actually do tours of the crater: Domelodge; Thabela Thabeng; Stone Adventures, and Kommandonek.

The Vredefort crater should have been declared a World Heritage Site in its entirety, and it should be proclaimed as a National Heritage Site. Neither of these have happened as far as I am aware.

On the Vredefort Dome website, Jan Fourie explains:
Vredefort Dome World Heritage Site: Status: Part of the core of the crater was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural organisation), in 2005. The reason, because of its geological significance. The Free State and North-West provinces share the World Heritage Site which is bisected by the Vaal River. Size of the Area: 30 111ha. Not yet proclaimed a National Heritage by S.A. Government. Not yet declared a World Heritage by UNESCO.”

In 2015 the following article appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper, ‘Officials accused over neglect of South Africa’s Vredefort Dome’:
“A planned local visitors’ centre for the dome, built in 2008 never opened… Roger Gibson, professor of structural geology and metamorphic petrology at Wits University in Johannesburg, was commissioned in 2009 to develop an exhibition to fill the centre. “This would be only the fifth impact-cratering-focused museum in the world and the only one in the southern hemisphere,” he said. “Samples and materials have been donated from all over the world by the impact-cratering scientific community, which is very enthusiastic about this project.”… Uwe Reimold of Humboldt University in Berlin, said: “Most of the planned exhibits are still in storage at Wits University in Johannesburg. Information is scarce, and visitors’ movements are restricted by private fencing and poor-quality roads… Gibson, says it is “arguably one of the top 10 geological wonders of the world”. It is “most certainly under-utilised” for education and tourism.”

At the 2018 National Lizella Tourism Awards, Minister Derek Hanekom said:
“Tourism is now the world’s fastest growing industry with over 1.3 billion people travelling around the world. In South Africa tourism has also outpaced other sectors, contributing about 9% in total to our Gross Domestic Product… 1.5 million people are employed across the extensive tourism value chain. Tourism stands out as a beacon of hope for millions of people who are without jobs and incomes… The opportunities for new, small businesses to gain a foothold in this growing sector are huge.”

These words indicate the potential of sites – such as the Vredefort impact crater – to generate jobs, small business opportunities, and contribute to the wealth the tourism sector continues to generate.

 Recommendations
To conclude, here are my recommendations:

The planned tourism centre has to be repaired or rebuilt and opened to the public.

There should be much more marketing of the Vredefort impact crater, and more readily available information for the public.

There should be outreach to school children and teachers.

The locals should all know about the crater, be proud of it, and even stand to benefit in some concrete way from being involved. They should want to welcome tourists who want to see evidence of the crater.

Transport should be provided for the tours. (Jan Fourie currently accompanies tourists in their cars.)

Other tour guides should be trained by Jan Fourie, so that there will be tours in future. Obviously, this requires resources.

The two provincial departments and their agencies should support initiatives to promote the crater and generate small businesses based on tourism related to the crater.

Curios to promote the crater should be manufactured, crafted, sold in Parys and Vredefort, and elsewhere, including the airports.

Easy-to-read printed materials, including those for school children, should be written, published and be made easily accessible.

A convention centre is needed in the crater, preferably close to Parys, to raise awareness of the crater and create opportunities for tours and activities.

 

The opinions expressed above are those of the Executive Director, Jansie Niehaus, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Executive Committee or members of the NSTF.