A little more than two billion years ago a massive meteorite slammed into the Free State, creating what is now called the Vredefort Dome. Sue Adams journeys to its centre…
It was an event that lasted all of 15 minutes. A meteorite the size of Table Mountain, travelling at 48 000km/hour, exploded in a 20 000°C fireball of smoke and rock as it smacked into Earth. Measuring 14 on the Richter scale, it was 100 000 times more powerful than the worst quake ever known on Earth. The 17km-deep impact caused a cloud of dust that blocked out the sun and created an Ice Age for 30 years.
And it all happened a little more than two billion years ago (when the only sign of life on Earth was algae), near what today is the Free State town of Vredefort, just outside Parys. There the remains of this collision are called the Vredefort Dome or Vredefort Meteorite Impact Crater – at 300km in diameter the largest meteor impact site on Earth – so named as the town is nearest to the geometric centre of the impact.
Today it’s listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site but needs to be proclaimed a South African National Heritage Site before it’s world status can be declared by Unesco. Whatever it’s official status, it’s a beautiful place to explore, about an hour’s drive south of Johannesburg, on the border of North West Province.
The dome (the rebound of the impact) has long since been eroded, but the area of outward ripples caused by the impact is still there. As a result it’s one of expansive, flat farmland surrounded by stunning mountains through which runs the Vaal River.
Jan Fourie, a local tour guide, has a great way of explaining this impact. “Imagine you drop a pebble into a puddle,” says Jan. “First you get the hole where the pebble falls and then you get a rebound that creates an uplift or dome. Then you get the ripples around the edge, moving outwards.”
But it’s difficult to fully realise the impact. “You’d have to see it from space – the impact area is huge and runs all the way from Welkom to Krugersdorp,” explains Jan as he waves his arms in a semi-circle.
He explains that even geologists could not see eye to eye on what caused this phenomenon. “It’s taken 100 years of research and debate among scientists to agree that this area was formed by a meteorite impact and not volcanic activity.”
One of the first geological reports was for the Republic of the Free State in the late 1800s when they were looking for coal, and the geologist at the time thought the area was volcanic. But then geologists took a second look.
“Scientists working during the Space Race began looking for shockproof materials for their rockets, and much experimentation took place. New equipment was devised for studying rocks from the moon, and revolutionary methods were developed for dating rocks.”
All this new information gave scientists a different viewpoint, and they began looking at the connections between pressure, temperature and shock. Finally it was agreed that this was the site of the largest meteorite impact on Earth, and unique in that the crater is still visible and not completely eroded or under water.
So what can you see if you visit the area? The Vaal River that flows through this fertile area is one of the oldest rivers on Earth, and people have lived here for centuries – some of the first residents looking for stone flints for their weapons, inhabitants of Iron Age sites, and miners of gold and granite.
On the farm Thabela Thabeng, Jan shows me a cave where you can pick up Stone Age flints. “Imagine the people who lived here and how they lived,” says Jan as he gives me a small flint to hold. Petroglyphs have been found depicting hippo and rhino (long extinct in the area) and the Wits archaeology department is involved in excavating a Late Iron Age site called Askoppies.
One of the things that happens when a meteorite hits the Earth is the geology changes dramatically, and in this case it created a ring of gold. Now there are gold mines from Welkom to Johannesburg, but gold was first discovered in 1887, closer to the impact centre near Venterskroon just outside Parys.
The goldfields buzzed for a short while with up to 15 000 miners. Albie de Villiers from Thabela Thabeng has a few old goldmine tunnels on his property and tour guide Jan can show you a few more in the area. “I love the history in these hills,” says Albie, as we duck our heads to enter the mine.
But low gold productivity meant miners soon moved away to richer pickings. Today all that remains of Venterskroon village is the mine commissioner’s office, the jail and the old hotel.
“We came here looking for a drink and fell in love with this little village so we just stayed,” says Leon Lindeque, owner of the Old Imperial Inn (originally the Venterskroon Hotel). It seems that not much has changed since the hotel opened more than a hundred years ago when gold miners came looking for a drink and lingered. Now Leon and his partner Pearie run a cosy pub and restaurant with a great Sunday lunch. Dogs and kids are welcome and even the rooster is friendly.
Venterskroon is a real one-street village but has some great stories. Outside the Venterskroon general dealer is the Post Office Tree, where people used to leave their letters for collection. There was an official mail runner who had to run between Venterskroon in the Transvaal and Aasvogelrand in the Free State. “The only issue was the hulking great Vaal River in between,” says Jan as we stand in the shade of the tree. “The mail runner was contracted to do the trip in 20 minutes, including swimming the river whatever state it was in.” If he missed the mail coach he was liable to be fired. Somewhat different to today.
Before 1840, vast herds of game dominated the landscape south of the Dome, with Bushmen clans roaming the area and Sotho/Tswana-speaking people living and farming here. Mzilikazi came through from Zululand, raiding cattle and women and killing the men (the Difaqane/Mfecane Wars of 1818-1835) and decimated the area.
Then came the European settlers of the Great Trek, with hunting as their main source of income. A massive trade in game and hides went on, which led to the area’s nickname of Riemland (a riem is a strip of rawhide). In 1866 alone, one company exported 156 000 hartebeest and blesbuck skins.
Jan is a mine of information about the area. He knows the little side roads with the best views, the old granite quarry where it looks like Stone Age giants have played a game of throwing building blocks, and he can tell you where the secretive otters hide along the riverbanks. He showed me where the Italian prisoners of war moulded cement plastering to look like old stone at the stables at Thabela Thabeng “When I was a little boy my father used Italian prisoners of war to bring in the harvest, and they would sing opera to us on Saturday nights,” Jan reminisces.
Without Jan, I would have missed half of what we saw in one day. In Parys they will tell you about the lovely lodges along the Vaal River banks, and where to go birding or white-water rafting. But you might not see the largest African olive forest in the world or not see the little path that leads up to one of the old gold diggings.
‘There’s gold in them thar hills,’ said the miners of old but there are also lots of secrets, and the old-timers keep them close to their chest. But if you want the inside track, just visit with someone in the know like Jan Fourie. Or stay for a drink at the Imperial Inn bar, meet the locals and you might find many more stories than just those about the shock of a rock.
Craters of Southern Africa
- Hoba Meteorite in Namibia near Grootfontein – 80 000 years old.
- Tswaing Crater (place of salt) north of Pretoria – 220 000 years old. Salt and soda ash were mined here until 1956.
- Kalkkop Crater in the Eastern Cape between Jansenville and Graaff-Reinet – 250 000 years old.
- Roter Kamm crater in SW Namibia – 4 to 5 million years old.
- Morokweng north west of Vryburg – 145 million years old – one of the 10 largest on Earth.
- Vredefort Dome outside Parys – 2 billion years old.
Where to Stay
- Thabela Thabeng Mountain Retreat, Parys – fabulous chalets perched on the edge of a cliff or on the river. Albie de Villiers who manages the resort is passionate about the area so chat to him about his best-kept secrets.
- Thaba Noka, Venterskroon – a lovely place on the Vaal River with different options. If you want privacy and peace this is it.
- Old Imperial Inn, Venterskroon – a few simple rooms in a house with great atmosphere in the pub and outdoors under the trees. Here you’ll meet a few local characters. Pet friendly.
Where to Eat
- The Dog and Fig Brewery on the Kopjeskraal Road off the Potchefstroom Road, just outside Parys.
- Old Imperial Inn – simple pub food and great Sunday lunches under the trees or at the cosy fireplace.