The Cradle Boutique Hotel – situated within 9 000 hectares of spectacular nature reserve just outside of Johannesburg – is a unique ecotourism destination and the only hotel in the world situated on an active paleoanthropological site.

Situated in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind, which was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1999, it is also home to the Malapa Museum which houses fossils found on the property’s two world famous active fossil dig sites Gladysvale and Malapa. The exclusive guided Malapa Human Origins Tour allows those taking part the chance to visit these world famous locations.

The Cradle of Humankind has proven to be one of the richest sites in the world to date. Robert Broom found the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus in 1947. She was named Mrs Ples although there is uncertainty as to the gender of the skull. In 1994, Ronald Clarke recognised some bones in a box as being of hominid origin. This turned out to be Little Foot, an Australopithecus Prometheus (although not all experts agree). Professor Lee Berger found two Australopithecus africanus teeth at Gladysvale in 1992 but after finding nothing else there he moved areas. In 2008 his young son inadvertently found bones from Australopithecus sediba at the Malapa site, and in 2013 two cavers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, found what became a massive collection of bones belonging to Homo Naledi.

Krynauw Nel Associates’ design of the Malapa Fossil Cave cover and viewing platform at the Cradle of Humankind has won a number of major local and international awards. The  architects involved found their inspiration in the nature of the scientific work done on the Malapa site: “The nature of the human skeleton became the frame of reference for this insect-like structure. Fossil shapes were used in the finer detailing of the steel structure. This ensures that the structure offers an educational experience as well.”

Visitors on the Origins Tour – which should be on the bucket list of anyone interested in evolution and anthropology – may just spot a vibrant young woman with gleaming plum-coloured hair. She’s Dr Keneiloe Molopyane, affectionately known to her friends and colleagues as Bones and has been dubbed ‘South Africa’s underground astronaut’. She’s the principal investigator at the Gladysvale fossil excavation site and the first woman of colour to head a dig in the Cradle.

Last year the National Geographic Society named her one of its 15 Emerging Explorers for 2021. Molopyane did her first degree at the University of Pretoria. Then it was on to York University in the UK for a master’s degree and back to South Africa for her PhD at Wits.

Molopyane jokes that she want to prove her mentor Professor Berger wrong: “At Gladysvale we are, as they say, putting new eyes on the site, overcoming the observational bias that creeps in if you’ve been at it for too long. We are looking again in case something was missed or not recognised. We are looking at every single breccia block in our search for hominids.”

And early indication are that Molopyane and her team are going to be successful.

The Malapa Human Origins Tour is the only private guided tour designated to conduct an exclusive and unforgettable journey of storytelling as you walk in the footsteps of ancient human relatives and learn more about the story of human origins, as well as learn about the geological interactions that led to the Cradle of Humankind being a famed repository of hominin fossils. The reserve  also protects some of the largest and most pristine areas of the high altitude dolomitic grasslands — which are second only to the Cape Floral Kingdom (Fynbos) in terms of floral diversity.

Meanwhile visitors to the Malapa Museum – which sits adjuscent to the Cradle Boutique Hotel and is sponsored by National Geographic, the Cradle Nature Reserve and the Lee R Berger Foundation for Exploration – will learn about the geological origins of the region and gain a deeper understanding of the three million year fossil bearing history of this wilderness situated at the heart of the World Heritage site. Visitors will also learn about such famous fossils as Australopithecus sediba. They will also view reconstructions of the ancestor of wild dogs, false sabre tooth cats, and giant hyena’s that once roamed the dolomitic hills of the highveld and whose fossils have been found in the caves of the region. With films, interactive displays, dioramas and reconstructions of the landscape and animals of the past, the Malapa Museum Experience is a not to be missed introduction to our deep human journey.

All the proceeds from the Malapa Museum Experience go to the Malapa Motsetsi Foundation and the Lee R Berger Foundation for Exploration supporting Science, Exploration, Conservation and Education in the Cradle Region.

Cradle Boutique Hotel, Route 540, Kromdraai Road, Cradle of Humankind Johannesburg, 1739, South Africa. Cradle Boutique Hotel: Bookings on 087 353 9599. Malapa Museum: 087 353 9599