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 attraction 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 ten kilometres in diameter, and with the original crater diameter probably close to 300 km. The South Africa is the proud host of this site which is famous the world over. The centre part of the crater or Vredefort Impact Structure which has the shape of a low dome was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005.

The impact of this massive meteorite caused a rebound from the deep basement granite rocks to where these rocks are now seen at the surface. In the process the normally gently inclined overlying geological formations which included the gold-bearing sedimentary Witwatersrand Supergroup formations deposited more than 750 million years before the impact occurred, were overturned. These overturned layers of Witwatersrand rocks consist of hard and erosion resistant quartzites which today form the prominent arc of hills to the northwest of the centre of the dome. The Vredefort impact can probably be considered to have “saved” much of the Witwatersrand Basin and in particular the gold-bearing upper Central Rand Group from total erosion. Had the impact not occurred, South Africa could have been without its economically important gold mining industry!

Read more about the crater on http://www.vredefortdome.org/

The trendy town of Parys lies in this crater. For family holidays this was a favourite destination during my childhood, when even my well-educated parents were unaware of the significance of the semi-circular hills. The Vaal River flows through Parys, and holiday accommodation is plentiful. The coffee shops and craft shops have more recently proliferated and Parys is the home of several artists.

But along the main road of Parys, you will not see any promotion or information on the Vredefort crater, and probably won’t find many locals who can tell you about it. With the one notable exception of Mr Jan Fourie, known for his very informative tours of the crater. There is no dedicated information centre in the town, only the Tourist Information Centre which refers visitors to Jan Fourie. The small information centre created by the North-West University is on the outskirts and on the other side of a series of hills, in a miniscule town. Informative as this centre is, it should be in Parys itself as that is where most visitors to the area 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 information on him, his company and the crater.

One can speculate that the lack of publicity in Parys is due to the name Vredefort dome/crater. The closest town to the centre of the crater 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, as well as the town of Vredefort, in Parys, while investing in tourist infrastructure in Vredefort itself.

The crater itself 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.

On the web, the crater is also somewhat obscured. Someone who knows nothing about it, is unlikely to become inspired to visit it. The Free State Tourism Authority website lists it as the last of the list of ‘Top 10 things to do’ in the Free State. But there is no practical information, such as where to find visitors’ information or reference 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.

Because the crater overlaps with two provinces, and Parys is actually in North West Province, I also had a look at some Province 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.” You will therefore only find it if you know to look for it. 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, but once again, you have to know about it to find it. Jan Fourie provides information, and is referred to under Contact us, with his contact details. The following are listed with phone numbers under ‘Potchefstroom’ and ‘Tour guides’. It is not clear whether any of these tour guides actually do tours of the crater.

  • Domelodge
  • Thabela Thabeng
  • Stone Adventures
  • Kommandonek

The Vredefort crater as a whole 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.”

 

At the recent 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.

To conclude, here are my recommendations:

  • 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.