World's footprints to grace improved Cradle

From next year, world leaders visiting South Africa will undergo a similar ritual to Hollywood film stars leaving behind a concrete imprint of their palms to ensure they are remembered.

They will leave behind a symbolic footprint at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, currently receiving a major makeover.

This was revealed by Gauteng’s minister for finance and economic affairs, Paul Mashatile, during a progress update on the R350-million development taking place at the site.

Mashatile said the footprints will symbolise the importance of the site, which he described as a place where the “umbilical cord of the human race lay buried”, as well as the commitment of world leaders to building the human community.

“The development at the site has taken a quantum leap and will be one of Gauteng’s premier tourism destinations by the end of the year,” he said, addressing the media at the Westcliff hotel in Johannesburg this week. “Everything is going very well.”

Developments at the 47 000ha world heritage site has been on the cards since 1999, and include a major upgrade to the Sterkfontein caves and the construction of a new centre at the location known as Mohale’s Gate.

“There has already been a vast increase in tourism at the Sterkfontein caves and they are struggling to cope with the many visitors,” said Mashatile.

The revamped caves will be officially launched in September and will boast a new five-star restaurant, conference and exhibition facilities, a walkway and a fossil-preparation building where visitors will be able to watch scientists work.

Meanwhile, the new complex at Mohale’s Gate will be open to the public from December and will include a Disneyland-style underground boat ride, illustrating the development of the human race.

This 100ha site will contain upmarket hotels, conference facilities for 500 delegates, restaurants, 2 100 square kilometres of exhibition space, craft markets and a 5 000-seat outdoor amphitheatre.

The development at the heritage site has also caused a boom in private businesses offering tourism attractions, Mashatile said.

According to research, in six years the number of businesses in the area grew from 64 to 275, currently offering 3 400 people jobs. The same survey showed that 70 000 visitors descend on the site every week.

Mashatile said the development project will create 600 permanent jobs and reduce poverty in an area previously considered one of the most underprivileged.

As the construction enters its final stages, a R20-million tender will go out for the building and running of four additional orientation centres at Muldersdrift, Lanseria, Little Falls and Magaliesburg.

Mashatile denied there are any problems with acidic water from a mine in the area threatening the underground foundation of site, as reported in the media.

Dr Trish Hanekom, CEO of the Cradle of Humankind, agreed and joked that the original plans were for the provincial minister to perform a demonstration by drinking fresh underground water at the site.

“There is no problem,” she said.

Hanekom said over the next four months, the focus will be on marketing the site and raising funds.

Also, a study of the site will be complete by the end of July and will guide the development in order not to destroy the natural environment and heritage.

After the press briefing, Hanekom said she is excited as the project nears completion.

“It’s no longer a vague concept,” she said. “It has turned out to be bigger and grander than ever expected. It is one of Gauteng’s successes.”

The Cradle of Humankind, 40 minutes’ drive from Johannesburg, is one of 800 world heritage sites and was declared so in December 1999.

Sterkfontein is the oldest and most continuous palaeontological dig in the world and home to the fossils of Mrs Ples (two million years old) and Little Foot (four million years old).—Sapa

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