Country Life, October 2007
by Julienne du Toit
Like many other Karoo farmers, JP Steynberg has ‘fossil eyes’. Back in 2000, as the estate agent was showing him around Ganora Farm near Nieu-Bethesda, JP spotted a thick band of fossil-rich mudstone beside the clear Wilge River and promised himself a closer look. He bought Ganora – and now he can study the fossils in the veld at his leisure.
The farmer (and amateur palaeontologist) developed an aptitude for spotting old bones when he was a boy following his dad on jaunts through the vast Karoo and he has passed his fascination with them on to his wife, Hester, and their sons, Louis and Renier. As the Ganora website says: “In one day, we can give you a lifetime experience starting 240 million years ago.” Unique rock paintings and a poignant Anglo-Boer War history add to the experience. The famous Steynberg Meerkats have become a tourist drawcard too. Hester told us about them over supper one evening. While they were living on a farm on the eastern side of Graaff-Reinet, someone brought her a meerkat that had been injured. Somehow she nursed it back to health and gradually people in the area got to hear she had a knack with the little creatures. Soon Hester was known as something of a meerkat foster mom.
“They are so endearing that people think they must make good pets,” she says. But meerkats need the company of their own kind and when they become teenagers they often start biting their human minders. Their tricky diet also means they suffer easily from dehydration.
So meerkat owners would call Hester or bring their meerkats to her on the farm. Others left them in boxes at her children’s school – a bit like leaving an orphan child on the steps of a convent. “But they were often almost dead from dehydration by the time I found them, so the people should really rather have called me,” says Hester.
At first light the next day we went on a bone safari with JP Morning light fell on the farmhouse, nestling in a fold of the Wilge and shaded by willow fronds, with Sutherlandia frutescens in exuberant flower all around. A Blue Crane uttered its imperious croaking call in the nearby veld – a classic early spring morning in the Karoo.
We drove past the sheep kraal into the hills, crossing the Wilge several times and admiring its tumbling waterfalls. It rises high on the nearby Kompasberg, that proud-standing Karoo Matterhorn, and flows into the Gats, which is a tributary of the Sundays, the fastest-flowing river in the Eastern Cape.
JP showed us where, 255 million years ago – give or take a million or so – a fearsome-looking gorgonopsian died, trapped in mud. In those days the Karoo was a lush wetland of unimaginable size. Long before the land dried out and the sea floor buckled to form peaks like the Kompasberg, the gorgonopsian’s bones had turned to stone and lay buried beneath the surface. Now erosion and weathering have exposed its jaw.
The gorgonopsian lived at a time when certain cold-blooded reptiles were starting to develop into warm-blooded proto-mammals, about 50 million years before Jurassic dinosaurs roamed the world. Artists’ impressions of it show an inelegant creature with an ungainly waddling posture and long canine teeth – a bit like the love-child of
a croc and a Staffie. I find it hard to believe that these unlovely beasts were among my ancient ancestors, but the experts are quite firm on this point.
Palaeontologist Robert Broom wrote in 1932:
“The mammal-like reptiles of South Africa may be safely regarded as the most important fossil animals ever discovered, and their importance lies chiefly in the fact that there is little or no doubt that among them we have the ancestors of the mammals, and the remote ancestors of man.”
Each fossil that we visited, including remains of ancient cynodonts and dicynodonts, was protected by a pile of stones. This is because once a fossil has been exposed it can be quickly destroyed by weathering, or even washed away.
Later we visited the exquisite little museum the Steynbergs have created in an old outbuilding. Appropriately, the stoep is covered with flagstones that bear the ripple marks of the Karoo’s ancient rivers. Inside were Bushman artifacts, stone tools, potsherds and hundreds of fossils, including the fearsome skulls of long-extinct creatures.
The crown jewel in the collection is a complete fossil fish with exquisite scales and stubby fins. Named Kompasia delaharpi, it was found by Louis and Renier on Ganora and is the only complete fossil fish of its kind in the world.
By now the meerkats, notoriously late risers, were up, and Louis and JP went off to hunt for them. Meanwhile Hester told us how Kolle – one of the family’s Jack Russells – became a meerkat mom.
“For some reason she’s always gone through false pregnancies. Her belly swells up and her nipples fill with milk – but there are no puppies. Then one day a baby meerkat
I was looking after latched onto one of Kolle’s nipples, and that was it. An instant bond.”
The baby meerkat, named Meerie, thrived and has grown up to become the matriarch of the particular colony we were looking for. Kolle still adores her and the last time they were together Meerie was delighted when Kolle licked her from nose to tail.
Finally, we heard JP call. He’d found them on top of a hill, just above the farmstead.
Meerie was now the mother of six bright-eyed youngsters. She and the other meerkats were completey relaxed in human company, to the extent that the ‘sentry on duty’ often used Hester’s shoulder as a lookout point. “That’s why I like wearing fleecy jerseys,” she said. “They can climb up more easily.” Their trust in Hester is such that they often delegate her to be their sentry. Close to the farmhouse is a little overhang cave with a double history. Thousands of years ago it was used by San shamans who decorated it with mystical images, such as an eland with a snake’s head and a man with a wolfish head. There is also the only known San painting of a tortoise in the country, said Hester.
Hester pointed out trance figures and their chakra points. Bushmen believed the body had four such energy centres, with the most important being at the back of the neck (Eastern mystics say there are seven).
Above the cave is a poignant relic of the Anglo-Boer War that the Steynbergs only fully understood when the Davel family, who lived in these parts long ago, dropped in for tea a few years ago.
It seems the British took a dislike to one of their ancestors, a Dutch-speaking farmer who was popular in this English-controlled area. They looked for a reason to remove him and found one when Afrikaans rebels seeking horses came to the Davel farm. Finding no horses there, they stole some from an English-speaking farmer nearby.
It was enough of an excuse. Soldiers came, accused Davel of urging the rebels to steal British horses, jailed him, and sent his wife and daughters to a concentration camp in Port Alfred.
Their son, J. A. Davel, ran away and hid on Ganora farm, and during the long and lonely hours he spent there he etched the figure of a woman praying before a crucifix in the sandstone above the overhang, along with the poignant words: “Nooit sal ons weer mekaar die liefde kan bewys tot in die hemel want dit te laat wees.” Roughly translated, “Never again can we prove our love for one another until in heaven, when it is too late.”
Another bit of Ganora history – etched in stone.