Palaeotourism In Graaff-Reinet Area – A Palaeontological Paradise
The rocks and fossils of the internationally acclaimed Karoo Supergroup document a near-continuous record of the development of life from the Late Carboniferous period (300 million years ago) to the Early Jurassic period (180 million years ago). This 120-million-year long fossil record is widely celebrated for recording the early origin of “reptiles” and for illustrating the phenomenon of “plate tectonics” (the movements of different components of the earth’s crust). Because of this remarkable fossil record, various palaeo-tourism activities are being developed in the Graaff-Reinet area in an effort to boost tourism to the Karoo.
Fossils from these rocks include some of the oldest dinosaurs and mammals, and even their distant ancestors. The Karoo is the only place in the world where such an extended fossil records of early evolution of “reptilian” life are preserved in a single basin, and tells the story of the evolutionary ancestry of mammals in remarkable detail.
Because the Karoo rocks cover a long period of time, it is also possible to study environmental change over a very long period. It is also possible to study the effects of at least two major global extinction events. The Karoo thus offers great potential for sustainable geo-tourism and palaeo-tourism.
The quaint village of Nieu-Bethesda is a popular tourist destination nestled on the banks of the Gats River along the foothills of the majestic Compass Berg. The legendary fossil hunter James Kitching was born here, and he discovered many fossils in its environs. Numerous Permian-aged fossilised animals and plants are preserved in the bed of the Gats River that flows through the town. The Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre (KFEC - www.kfec.co.za) offers tours to the fossil localities under the supervision of accredited guides, and has recently upgraded displays explaining the fossils as well as advertising other palaeo- and geo-sites in South Africa.
The KFEC tells the story of life just before and after the Permo–Triassic extinction event, the greatest extinction event of all times which occurred 252 million years ago and removed 90% of species. Explanatory exhibits depict floodplains of the huge meandering rivers that traversed the area and display life-sized replicas of the therapsids that once roamed the Karoo.