Many tour operators and guides are curious about the Vredefort Dome but have never had the opportunity to have it explained by a professional colleague with knowledge of the area.
On Thursday 18 February a group of nearly two dozen tour guides joined Prof Graeme Addison, a qualified Dome guide, for an educational visit to this spectacular area. The group was assembled by the Institute of Professional Tour Guides in South Africa (IPTGSA) led by their chairman Mr. Johan van Biljon.
On the course of the day, the group met Mr. Christo Meyer and were driven on 4x4s to the viewpoint over the Dome at Kopjeskraal Lodge.
"The Vredefort region is the best-kept secret near to Gauteng," Prof Graeme told the Gazette. "Until quite recently very few South Africans were even aware that the world's oldest and largest visible meteorite impact crater - a Unesco world heritage site - is right on their doorstep. Indeed, Johannesburg residents live on the third or outer ring of the crater and most don't know it.
"This educational event was designed to open up awareness and transfer knowledge to professional tour guides. They are always looking for places to take their clients. As Parys - the real tourism centre of the area - is just over an hour from Oliver Tambo airport, it's an attractive country venue for those entering or leaving the country.
"Now, of course, during the pandemic lockdowns and border closures, there are very few foreign tourists. Our tour guides depend on the domestic market but in order to bring them to the Dome they need to know what it's all about."
The full-day IPTGSA event kicked off at Crater Coffees in Bree Street where the group enjoyed delicious aromatic beverages and pastry snacks. They then proceeded to a scenic location from which to view the Dome Bergland and Vaal River Valley.
Popular science writer Prof Graeme Addison is a national tour guide and trainer/assessor of guides, who is also a site guide for the Dome. After the short scenic drive, the group visited Graeme's rustic lodge, Otters Haunt, on the banks of the Vaal. The unique role of the river in the Dome story was told. Not only is the Vaal one of the oldest rivers on earth but it is also the only major river to cross an impact crater - the largest such crater, at that.
An introductory presentation and map briefing explains the importance of the area scientifically and historically. The group then drove into the Bergland (inner ring of the crater), stopping for short walks to see significant features of the impact. Christo Meyer gave an insightful talk about the inception of the conservation effort, designed to prevent open cast mining of the Bergland.
The Bergland forms part of the gold-bearing Witwatersrand supergroup. Of key importance is the link between South Africa's gold wealth and its modern history, shaped by the impact of the gigantic asteroid some two billion years ago. Without the Dome structure, prospectors might never have discovered the gold reef sticking out of the main Wits ridges at Johannesburg.
"South Africa would not have become the country it is today, built on gold wealth and migrant black labour. The socioeconomic forces that gave rise to mining capitalism shaped the modern racial politics of the country," says Addison.
Scientific controversies surrounding the Dome were highlighted: the original theory that the Dome was a volcano was discounted, but there are still some who believe it was formed by a" crypto explosion" out of the Earth's crust. The overwhelming consensus among geologists is that the Dome is the centre of an asteroid (or possibly comet) impact crater.
Resources in the form of an information pack were provided for further study while arrangements for bringing tour groups to the Dome were discussed. Lunch was at the picturesque Old Imperial Inn in Venterskroon. The afternoon ended at the Schoemansdrift Bridge, currently closed to traffic, where Addison described the exploits of Boer General Christiaan De Wet, one of the greatest guerilla leaders of the 20th century.
The Dome can play host to a great variety of tourism activities ranging from geological tours to rafting and hiking, battlefield tours, antique hunting, and eating out.
"The feedback I have and via social media is that the tour was a great success and people enjoyed it very much," says Johan van Biljon. He is looking forward to another educational at midyear on the Dome Battlefields. From the Voortrekker wars with the Matabele to the destabilising activities of the Wit Wolwe in recent years, the Dome has been a Crucible of Conflict. But also it is a growth point for peaceful development.