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Afrikaans hamlet is site of oldest meteorite crash More articles...

You would be forgiven for not knowing where the town of Vredefort is but this tiny Afrikaans village with a slow, timeless existence in the middle of nowhere in South Africa is fascinating scientists around the globe because one of the oldest meteorite impact structures has been discovered there.

Less than 200 meteorite impact structures have been discovered on earth and while most people are aware of the Mexican Chicxulub and the Canadian Sudbury sites, little is known about the Vredefort dome, the largest of these three, which are more than 150km wide.

Scientists captivated by the extraordinary landscape around Vredefort that was formed by the cataclysmic and intergalactic events millions of years ago, are currently documenting the 'crust on the earth' sightings along the 27th parallel latitude and the Achaean basement of the Vredefort Dome (see photo above). They believe this dome was the result of a meteorite colliding with earth prior to the existence of higher life forms at a time when only algae existed.

Now this 200-million-year-old meteorite crater in North West Province near the Free State border is destined to become a major tourist attraction thanks to efforts on the part of the North West Parks and Tourism Board.

Dubbed a 'unique geological site' this little Vredefort hamlet earned its name, meaning 'peace over the fort' after the Anglo Boer War in 1898. Curiously the local inhabitants of Vredefort are so locked in to the short history of their village and Afrikanderdom that they are seemingly indifferent to events millions of years ago when the earth heaved and melted with a rippling global effect.

It is believed that environmental disasters following the 65 million-year Chicxulub impact caused the mass extinction of fauna and flora, such as the dinosaurs. Scientists writing the 4 billion year history of the earth believe the Vredefort impact event may have been twice the size of Chicxulub involving a meteorite approximately 10km in diameter.

Besides enchanting geo-scientists worldwide, the deeply eroded Vredefort site has also become a 'must see' for many travellers wanting to be part of the unfolding history of Earth. It is reachable by journeying south from the hub of Johannesburg, locally known as, Egoli, city of gold, on a little used alternative route, though it once was one of the main routes for Afrikaners in their trek from the Cape to the old Transvaal.

The first sightings of something prehistoric in the hilly and rural agricultural landscape are molten rock outpourings, which locals refer to as 'rivers of stone' - like fossilised lava after a gigantic eruption. Early Bushmen and San hunters targeted these rocks around 2000 years ago.

The Vredefort Dome has been identified as a tourist icon and will be launched this month as a key tourism development project by North West and Free State provinces according to Mpho Motshegoa of the North West Parks and Tourism Board. "The unique selling point is the astonishing unspoilt beauty geology and biodiversity created by the meteorite, estimated to have been 10km in diameter. The original crater, now eroded away, is estimated to have been 300km in diameter and the site is regularly visited by geologists from around the world," Motshegoa says.

Not too far away scientists are also fascinated by an impact crater north of Pretoria, formed when an asteroid collided with the earth 200 000 years ago. Called Tswaing (see photo right), an African name for saltpan or 'lake of salty water that fills the centre', it is similar to the well-known Berringer meteor crater in Arizona.

It is estimated that the asteroid weighed around 300 000 tonnes and today the crater with its indigenous trees and bushes and wide variety of birdlife is fast becoming a popular backdrop for tourists.

Photos courtesy of: Department of Geophysics, Witwatersrand University, South Africa, and C. Ferreira/Mintek.

Cheryl Stevens is a freelance writer in South Africa.

 

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