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Caught up in an ancient river bend following a flood, hundreds of drowned animals were covered by river silt and left to remain, perfectly preserved, for millions of years before a mining operation uncovered this fossil treasure. The place is the West Coast Fossil Park outside Langebaan in the Western Cape and the findings have proved to be substantial in understanding the terrain, climate and animal life during the Pliocene era, over 5 million years ago.
Mining of phosphates began in the area in 1943 and it was 50 years later that operations ceased through a lack of profitability. During this period, one can only imagine the amount of fossils that went unnoticed and were unwittingly destroyed. However, the river bend has produced an amazing quantity of diverse fossils, from short-necked giraffes to African bears. Much of the area, including the mined section, has been declared a national heritage site.
On arriving at the West Coast Fossil Park, visitors are given a tour of the facility and taken to a covered dig site to see the exposed remains of countless fossils. At the site are sifting pans too where visitors are invited to search through the rubble for fossils. Expect to find ancient frog bones, parts of jawbones and other interesting items. The search is purely for enjoyment purposes and any discoveries may not leave the premises. Once the tour is concluded, visitors are free to browse the fossil displays in the education centre and enjoy a light meal at the restaurant.
The park has a number of established mountain bike routes and hiking trails, and it’s a surreal experience trampling these paths in the knowledge that this dry area was once a verdant subtropical region filled with many long-extinct animals.