A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. ― Marcus Garvey
“You see this plant?”, says Benny, our fossil guide, “this pattern of the leave was the inspiration for the netting of that bag that oranges are sold in today.”
I look at Benny, for a moment not sure whether he is joking or not. We are hiking the Mzamba Fossils and Petrified Forest Trail along the beach right next to the Wild Coast Sun in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Benny has proved himself a well of knowledge, and is passionate about the fossils in this protected locality, but his smile is always present and he is not above teasing the members of the tour group.
The Mzamba Cretaceous Deposits is a set of famous marine fossil beds dating back ± 85 million years. The fossils are exposed in a 10 metre-high headland of cliffs and overhangs known as the White Man’s Cave, consisting of sandstone and limestone deposits rich in fossil material, that are visible at low tide.
We specifically chose a day when the tide was super low and Benny has already shown us quite a few treasures. In the shallow waters of the exposed reef, he pointed out the petrified (silicified) tree trunks. Some of the trees were already invaded by marine worms before silicification was completed and the petrified worms are clearly visible.
We were astonished by the fossiled bones of what Benny described to have originated from a dinosaur and a marine worm respectively. He explained to us that the Cretaceous geological period followed after the Jurassic period, the time when dinosaurs walked the earth. This brought home the historical and scientific importance of these ancient deposits.
On the beach, Benny and his assistant started digging in the sand and right before our eyes they exposed one-half of an enormous clam (bivalve) shell. Benny explains that this size was normal for clams in the Cretaceous geological period and places a ZAR R5 coin in the shell for “digital comparison”. We laughingly speculate how many diners could eat their fill from such a giant clam if served in a modern day restaurant. As we carried along on the trail, he pointed out more of these giant sized shells.
Benny’s particular interest is the (now extinct) spirally coiled ammonites, also called ramshorns, and are comparable to present day octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish. He kneels down on the beach to make a drawing of an ammonite to show us what this marine critter would have looked like all those millions of years ago.
In the rockface, we marveled at the fossilized image of a sea turtle. Benny is pointing out the eye of the turtle.
In the ceiling of one of the series of caves, he pointed out the casting of an ancient strelitzia and then compared it to an example of a present day strelitzia lying on the floor of the cave. The similarity is clear. (See images of the Giant Strelitzia or Wild Banana Tree, as it is known locally, which forms part of the coastal growth in KwaZulu-Natal, in this previous blog post).
In the White Man’s Cave Benny invites us to sit down while he tells us the tale of the shipwrecked sailors who lived in these caves many years ago and were the first white persons ever seen by the indigenous population. Hence, the cave was dubbed and is still known as the White Man’s Cave.
He gently condemns the actions of unscrupulous people who remove the fossils from their ancient resting place and reminds us of the fossilized shark tooth that he was, after all, not able to show off, as it was carried off by one such person the previous day. Only a slight depression in the soil remained as a reminder thereof.
He talks about the effects of global warming and the large mass extinctions in Earth history during previous geological periods. Then he emphasizes the need to preserve these geological wonders for our children and all future generations.
Thank you Benny. I believe your tale about the netting of the bag that oranges are sold in. 😀
These guided tours take place from Mondays to Fridays and prospective hikers gather at the reception desk of the Wild Coast Sun at 8:30 am. The fossil beds are best viewed at low tide.