- In one week, President Thabo Mbeki will officially open a new cultural site close to Johannesburg that aims at becoming one of South Africa's leading tourist destinations. At the Maropeng World Heritage site, the world's richest fossil site termed "Cradle of Humankind", a new underground innovative visitors centre guides tourists through mankind's history.
Maropeng, which means "the place we come from", even before it will be opened next week recently won an international award as best new tourism project worldwide. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, the "Cradle of the Humankind" is situated in the north-west of South Africa's Gauteng province - which includes Johannesburg. It is one of the world's richest fossil sites, yielding about 30 percent of hominid fossil finds globally.
On 7 December, President Thabo Mbeki and Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa will officially open the new Maropeng Visitors Centre. The visitors centre is a modern tourism installation aimed at making the fossil ground accessible to large numbers of visitors without destroying the fragile site.
The visitors centre, which is expected to receive over 500,000 visitors annually, is a vast, mostly underground building, unlike anything South Africa has seen before. It has an underground lake where visitors can take a boat ride through the primal elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The boat ride journey leads into an underground virtual cave in which extraordinary interactive exhibitions as well as original fossils will be on display. Innovations such as a kiddies cave, together with an amphitheatre, restaurants, conferencing facilities, a viewing deck and a boutique hotel "promise to make the building an extraordinary day out for local and international visitors alike," The Gauteng provincial government promises.
A unique aspect of the building is the way in which it reflects the human journey from ancient beginnings to an unknown future. The architects had ensured the Gauteng government that the building itself "reflects the human journey by being both ancient and modern."
Maropeng is just 45 minutes from Johannesburg and Tshwane (Pretoria) and thus is easily accessible as a day trip from these major South African cities. It is also described as "an area of outstanding natural beauty within driving distance from the city, with a wide range of leisure offerings including outdoor adventure, arts and crafts and game lodges."
The new visitors centre is the product of a public private partnership of the Gauteng government and the University of the Witwatersrand with Maropeng a'Africa Leisure Ltd. The Gauteng government has invested rand 163 million in Maropeng's development, as well as in new facilities at the Sterkfontein Caves, which are about ten kilometres away from Maropeng.
According to a statement issued by the office of Gauteng Premier Shilowa, the new tourist centre is the product of the Gauteng Provincial Government's programme to "invest in infrastructure that will help stimulate economic growth, create jobs, alleviate poverty and promote sustainable livelihoods."
Maropeng is estimated to create at least 1,200 permanent jobs and serve as "an important catalyst to further boost tourism-linked employment in the area," according to the government. "The development of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site as a world-class tourism destination has begun to transform what was previously one of Gauteng's poorest and economically depressed areas into one of the most promising areas in the province," the statement adds.
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