Contrary to the way the West Coast looks today, millions of years ago the area was dominated by riverine forests and wooded savanna, and animals that today are long extinct wandered the land. We know this because phosphate mining operations at Langebaan during the late 1950s exposed one of the richest fossil sites the world has ever seen, and since then the bones of some 200 different kinds of animals, some of them hitherto unknown to the world of science, have been recovered.
In 1993 mining operations stopped, and a 14 hectare area within the former mine property was declared a national heritage site, run today by the Iziko Museums of Cape Town. The West Coast Fossil Park lies on the R45 close to the Langebaanweg Air force base, roughly 120 kilometres north of Cape Town. Today the heritage site is recognised as containing the deposit of possibly the greatest diversity of five million year old fossils in the world, and over 70 scientific papers have been published about the fossils.
For the visitor, the highlight of the West Coast Fossil Park is the ‘live' exhibit of an ongoing excavation of early Pliocene fossils (fossils from 5 million years ago). There are daily guided tours that give a background to the fossils and the climatic changes that happened in the region. But the park is not about fossils alone. There are also several mountain bike trails in the park that include rides for the whole family. Four different trails cover varying distances, and there are some tricky sections for those intent on adventure. It is a great way to appreciate both the prehistoric aspects of the park, and the views from the northern end over Saldanha and Vredenburg.