I went to visit my ancestors on a wild stretch of coastline four hours’ drive from Cape Town. More than 1,000 of my great-great-great-grandparents lived in the De Hoop Nature Reserve. Like yours.
About 100,000 years ago, an estimated 300 families of Homo sapiens survived the drastic meteorological changes that made much of Africa uninhabitable and moved to this coastal microclimate, taking advantage of the bounty of the sea and land.
The water was pure, malaria free, native tubers gave them carbohydrates in digestible form, animals roamed in abundance, and the ocean provided all the seafood they would need. In caves along this coast, archaeologists have found nests of shells that they say are the first evidence of food stores.
Thus, our ancestors no longer had to survive merely as hunter-gatherers and could stockpile food. This meant they had time on their hands to make stone tools, create works of art on the walls of their caves, and socialize and communicate.
They even discovered chemistry and realized that when they heated a rock to a high temperature, the composition of the silcrete changed, making it a sharp-edged cutting tool. These tools are now trashed along this coastline.
Many travelers to Africa will tell you that they have a strange sense of belonging or have been here before. Colin Bell, creator of Lekkerwater Beach Lodge in the heart of the reserve, says it’s perfectly understandable that deep down in our collective souls we all acknowledge that we come from Africa.
“The whole narrative that Africans developed to become modern humans after leaving Africa is a fallacy,” says Bell. “Africa is the heart of modern man. And this is its center.
Bell is kind of a legend in these parts. It is one of the driving forces behind the luxury safari boom in South Africa, two brand leaders in high-end game viewing, creating Wilderness Safaris in the late 1970s and Great Plains Safaris in the 1990s.
He now runs Natural Selection, a not-so-high-end operation that includes Lekkerwater in its portfolio. A fiery scarlet is often at the center of fierce wildlife conservation discussions and passionately believes that tourism contributes to the conservation of African wilderness.
Lekkerwater is something different for Bell. He bought the property in 2015 believing it invested in a slice of South African political history. This is the Camp where former South African president FW de Klerk effectively ended apartheid through a series of secret meetings in the early 1990s, leading up to Nelson Mandela’s release and his inauguration as the country’s president. It was David. “We thought the story here was also about Klerk, and then we discovered it was about Homo sapiens,” Bell says.
Within 24 hours of arriving in Lekkerwater, I was caught up in stories of those old people whose genes I carried. We took a morning walk along the shoreline in front of Lekkerwater camp with two of Colin Bell’s assistants – Jannie van Wyk and Tim Wells, both marine biologists.
We soon dived into what they call the “slow Serengeti,” where there are severe predator-prey situations only on a microscopic scale compared to the African plains. Here, in a beachside rock pool, we watched a dog snail (50 pence size) prey on sea snails.
While it didn’t have the epic qualities of a lion hunting an antelope, it was still fascinating. The dog snail has radular teeth that run along the shell of its prey — like a conveyor belt — and picks a spot and punches a hole in it.
The snail extends its sharp proboscis into the hole, immobilizing the sea snail and injecting a digestive enzyme into it. The dog snail then slurps it as if it were running through a cane. As Van Wyk and Wells pointed at the two creatures—predator and prey—in the rock pool, the sea snail caught the hunter’s scent and sped away. The hunt was over, just as on safari the intended prey had slipped out of reach.
It was this rich, diverse ecosystem that provided our ancestors with the nutrients that filled their cellars. Seafood, large and small, fed them and also freed them from the cycle of hunting and gathering. The anthropological facts unearthed here lead us to Prof Chris Hinshelwood, an international archaeologist who grew up in this area and discovered the now famous Blombos and Klipdrift caves very close to Lekkerwater at the age of 10.
Through the University of Bergen in Norway, where Hinshelwood is a practicing academic, he has raised more than €650m (£570m) to study the area. There was the added benefit of meeting the ancestors on this visit to Lekkerwater.
We would sit on the deck at sunset and watch the whales gather, breach and play around. Many whales. This is where two great oceans meet – the Indian and the Atlantic – and has created the perfect breeding ground for humpbacks and southern right whales before they head south to Antarctica for the winter. It is extraordinary to think that our ancestors once sat at this very spot and watched the same thing.
I had come to Lekkerwater expecting a long weekend of whale watching and beach walks, but I left three days later with a strangely realized sense of self.
There’s something eerily familiar about this place, and it’s easy to imagine our distant ancestors sitting here contemplating the ocean and living with sea creatures. After all, 100,000 years is not so long ago.
Graham Boynton was a guest of Ultimate Travel Company (020 3733 0002; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk), which offers car rental from Cape Town plus three days of accommodation from £1,060 per person including food, activities and beverages. Flights are subject to extra charges. Lekkerwater is a small 14-bed campground, so it’s important to book in advance.