The Global Importance of Mpumalanga’s Geotrail

04 June 2015 by Katy Johnson

How did life on Earth come about? What did it look like? Are we alone in the universe? 

If there was life on other planets, what might it look like?

These are amongst mankind’s biggest questions, and Professor Christoph Heubeck of Jena University, Germany, believes the Makhonjwa Mountains outside of Barberton holds some of the answers.

He has been coming to the Makhonjwa Mountain Range since 1989 and is considered a world authority on the area. “I cannot stress how significant and unique these mountains are. It is a fluke of nature that they did not sink back into the Earth’s hot mantle and was lost other rocks of their age around the world were. There are only two places in the world where you can see rocks like this, rocks that show how the Earth’s surface looked like 3.5 billion years ago. Rocks that tell us of the conditions in which the first life forms on Earth evolved.”

Every year Professor Heubeck brings a group of keen geology students from Germany to Barberton’s Makhonjwa Mountain Range, which he believes is “at the frontier of scientific understanding”. A place where he believes his students can expand the knowledge of humankind. “These mountains have yielded the earliest life forms visible to the naked eye. They have shown that 3.5 billion years ago Earth experienced volcanic eruptions more powerful and hotter than anything we see now. That the meteorite impacts back then deposited up to 1 meter thick of debris across the world; to put that in context the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs only left 1 centimetre!  That the oceans during that time would have turned orange as primitive life allowed iron to oxidized for the first time. All this we have seen in these rocks!”

This is why the professor is thrilled by the construction of the Geotrail, which he hopes will be the first of many in this area. “We need to share this unique, important and amazing asset with the public. From school children to Nobel Prize winners, everyone should have access to it.  Once you start explaining what these rocks show, how they help explain who we are, where we come from and what life might look like on other planets, people are genuinely fascinated.” The Geotrail makes these rocks and the secrets they hold accessible to everyone and preserves them for future generations.

Preserving the Makhonjwa Mountains is imperative. Forestry, mining and human development have all made their mark on these mountains; in the future, the pressure on them will only increase. The establishment of the Geotrail has assisted in the process toward achieving full World Heritage Status, which in turn will help preserve the unique environment of the Makhonjwa Mountains. In the professors own words, “South Africans need to be made aware of how unique this asset is and take on its responsibility to mankind to preserve it”. The Geotrail is the first step in doing this.