Growing up, my family had a tendency to get into exciting situations on our travels. We would find ourselves in scenarios that we really shouldn’t have been in, with no clear escape route. Like during a family vacation to South Africa almost 20 years ago, when we managed to get lost, at night, deep in a township. Or later on the same trip, when we parked our safari car a little too close to an angry African elephant, causing him to uproot a tree and come after us with it full force.
My parents always did a pretty good job of downplaying the true extent of the physical danger we faced until after the fact, by which time the euphemistically named “Hoffman Family Adventures” had become the stuff of family legend.
This knack for getting into perilous situations (adventures!) has clearly been passed down to me, because Spencer and I walked right into our own “Johnson Family Adventure” this weekend.
We were in Parys, a small town an hour and half drive south of Johannesburg, to see the Vredefort Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Vredefort Dome is the side of the oldest known meteorite impact site on earth. Just over two billion (!) years ago, a meteor over six miles wide and traveling at more than six miles per second slammed into earth, creating the largest single energy-release event in the earth’s history. This was long before life as we know it existed on the planet, but the impact was world-changing , affecting the geology, atmosphere, and evolution of life on earth. In comparison, this meteorite was significantly larger than the asteroid that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs. The dome is so important to science because of the geological evidence within it holds key clues to understanding the history of earth.
So it sounded really cool. Our plan was to drive into town, stop at the visitors’ information center, and pick up a map of hiking trails. But when we got to Parys, we found the info center closed. We tried to research where to hike online, but there is a serious lack of any useful information on the internet. Deciding to wing it, we drove down a dirt road until we found a sign for hiking, picked a route off of a posted map, and set off following the marked trail.
About 30 minutes into our walk, it became clear that we were not heading where the map said we would. The trail we were on was leading us in the wrong direction and did not seem to be looping back. Instead, we decided to make our own way off trail. Spencer has an excellent internal compass, and steered us in the right direction. For awhile, this went along fairly smoothly. We followed dry creek beds, crossed an empty dam, and passed a few crumbling ruins of mud brick homes.
After a couple hours, we were ready to head back. We spotted a road and walked along it, but it eventually just dead ended at an old, abandoned farm, with a windmill that whistled creepily in the wind.
The only option left was to head straight into the bush. Braving the thorns and nettles, we took only a few steps in before startling a family of warthogs. As they came thundering out of the underbrush at full speed, all I could do was freeze and hope they didn’t run their tusks straight into me. They didn’t, but we spent the rest of the hike clapping our hands and calling out to announce our presence to any other families of the beasts that might be rooting around.
We followed animal trails for a while, wishing the whole time that we had brought a machete. Miraculously, we stumbled upon a marked trail, and started following it with excitement. Before long it became clear that this, too, was going in the wrong direction, so we cut back into the bush. Finally, Spencer’s directional skills led us to a fence that marked the boundary of the property where we had started.
Of course, the fence was barbed wire, with an electric fence right behind it. We followed the line of the fence back down the hill for a ways, but we didn’t find a gate. We were so close the end, and pretty desperate to get back, that we shimmied up a tree and flung ourselves over both fences.
We finally made it back to our car, alive. After a run-in with a cactus, lots of battling through thorn-bushes, and a close encounter with a scary looking spider, I have decided it is time to invest in hiking pants.
We could also be smarter hikers and not just assume we can find our way through the African bush without a trail, but where is the adventure in that?
For future travelers: Don’t follow in our footsteps and just wing it. There is not much of a tourist attraction to be found at the site, it is really just a big valley (most of which is private property). There are loads of adventure companies that will take you on a guided tour, but if you want to do it on your own, take the R53 out of Parys and stay on it until you see a brown sign for the Vredefort dome. Turn left at the sign, and you can follow that dirt road all the way around back to Parys. You’ll get a few good views of the dome area and the river. There are posted signs all along the road for hiking trails; they are probably much better marked than the one we took.