Our ancestor – the ape man in South Africa


I’m sure if Mrs Ples’ husband had told her that in two million years she’d be splashed across the covers of glossy magazines she’d have told him to stop being an idiot and go and kill something tasty for dinner.

But having been unearthed in South Africa’s Sterkfontein Caves in 1947, she’s one of the reasons that a 47,000ha region 45 minutes from Johannesburg is now a Unesco World Heritage site.

The area is known as the Cradle of Humankind and Mrs Ples is the affectionate term for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus (our ape-man ancestor) found in South Africa.

Since this major find, the region has produced more than 600 hominid fossils, making it one of the world’s most bountiful palaeontological sites. The area’s two main attractions are the caves themselves, where you can take a guided tour and learn more about the finds in the on-site exhibition, plus the award-winning Maropeng visitors’ centre, an expansive space that explores human evolution.

Although it’s possible to visit on a day-trip from Johannesburg or Pretoria, one accommodation option in the area has become an attraction in its own right. Set in a 600ha private game reserve, Forum Homini is a five-star, 14-room boutique hotel whose design and ethos has been inspired by its location within the Cradle of Humankind.

After turning off the road from Jo’burg, we follow a track for 7km past grazing springbok and zebra to the property’s entrance, where we are confronted with a striking sculpture of layered skulls showing how humans have developed over the past five million years.

From here, a path lined with stone sculptures and footprints _ depicting our evolution from quadruped to biped _ leads into a tunnel and, for a moment, I wonder if I’m supposed to arrive at reception wearing a loincloth and carrying a club. The theme continues throughout the property: a granite wall in the communal lounge has imprints of rudimentary tools, light fittings resemble DNA spirals and a giant mural in the conference room shows humans in varying stages of development.

At times it feels a bit Disney (the stalactite light fittings were a mistake) but on the whole it’s an unusual and striking theme.

Each of the property’s 12 standard rooms has been built with thick stone walls and a grass roof to give the impression of staying in a cave. Thankfully, the decor inside is far from cave-like and includes a king-size bed with a silk canopy. Balcony doors lead to a private deck to take advantage of the sweeping views.

The very large shower has glass walls that overlook the plains, which means I shower while being watched by a distinctly unimpressed impala.
Roots, the establishment’s restaurant, has twice been rated one of South Africa’s top 10 eateries. It specialises in degustation menus and even breakfast is a five-course affair. Guests are advised to allow two hours for breakfast, three for lunch and at least three for dinner. The cooking style is French with African and Oriental influences.

It can be very difficult to rouse yourself for a five-course breakfast. I thought I was doing well to polish off the champagne, fruit smoothie and croissants but I’m beaten by the chocolate-dipped fruits, chocolate-chip porridge and vegetable frittata.

Sated, I sit back and gaze across the very same plains Mrs Ples once called home. I can’t help but wonder what she would think if she could see us now.