Visitor centre at crater caused by meteorite impact 2bn years ago never opened, and infrastructure is in poor condition
Vredefort Dome witnessed the biggest bang in the history of the world. The Vredefort Dome in South Africa marks the spot where, 2bn years ago, a meteorite around 10km (6 miles) in diameter smashed into the earth. The cataclysmic event, some scientists believe, changed the course of evolution.
Yet far from trumpeting it as a major tourist attraction, officials have been accused of allowing the site to fall into ruin. A visitor centre was built six years ago but never opened, and now has leaking walls, cracked windows and virtually no exhibits. The roads around the dome are badly maintained.
James Vos, shadow tourism minister for the opposition Democratic Alliance, said on Thursday: “The mismanagement of Vredefort Dome, given its significance in our nation and how visitors to our country and domestic tourists perceive it, gives rise to serious concern.
“Unesco declared the dome a world heritage site in 2005, and promised it would be protected by the international heritage convention after it was proclaimed by the government and given legal protection. This proclamation has not been enforced stringently enough of late.”
The impact at the site in what is now Parys, 120km south-west of Johannesburg, was many times greater than anything the world’s entire nuclear arsenal could produce. It left behind the oldest, biggest and most deeply eroded complex meteorite impact structure on earth, according to Unesco. The Vredefort site is better preserved than other meteorite craters and offers invaluable evidence of the earth’s geological history.
The dome is only the central part of the impact crater, which was about 300km wide. It is known as a dome because the rock layers were bent into the shape of an inverted bowl 90km across.
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A group of geology students examining quarried granite at the site. Photograph: Andy Nixon/Getty Images/Gallo Images
Concerns over its preservation have been raised by Uwe Reimold of Humboldt University in Berlin. The visitor information centre, “inaugurated with much fanfare in August 2008”, never opened its doors, “which is probably – but sadly – a good thing, as it had begun to collapse prior to admitting the first visitor”, Reimold wrote in Geobulletin, a publication of the Geological Society of South Africa.
The centre has suffered water damage because of leaks during thunderstorms. Most of the planned exhibits are still in storage at Wits University in Johannesburg. Information is scarce, and visitors’ movements are restricted by private fencing and poor-quality roads.
Reimold added: “Official ignorance and mismanagement have resulted in the complete breakdown of development in this world-renowned site.”
Roger Gibson, professor of structural geology and metamorphic petrology at Wits University in Johannesburg, was commissioned in 2009 to develop an exhibition to fill the centre. “This would be only the fifth impact-cratering-focused museum in the world and the only one in the southern hemisphere,” he said. “Samples and materials have been donated from all over the world by the impact-cratering scientific community, which is very enthusiastic about this project.
“Unfortunately, before we could start installing the exhibition, flaws in the building rendered it unsafe and we’ve been in limbo ever since.”
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Some of the granite thrown up to the surface by the impact 2bn years ago. Photograph: Andy Nixon/Getty Images/Gallo Images
Gibson, who has worked in the dome for 25 years, described it as “arguably one of the top 10 geological wonders of the world” and said it is “most certainly under-utilised” for education and tourism.
The Vredefort Dome is not the only heritage site in South Africa in need of rehabilitation. Roger Dixon, a geologist at the University of Pretoria and former member of the Geological Society’s site preservation committee, said: “It’s a really big problem in South Africa. The moment you label and advertise and promote something, you get vandalised. You put up a sign and it gets stolen for scrap metal.”
Dixon, who enjoyed fleeting fame as an expert witness at the Oscar Pistorius murder trial last year, added: “Unfortunately, there are not enough people sufficiently interested in these things to make them continually sustained and viable. Now, with a lot of historic sites, the people in the know are aware of it, and that’s it.”