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By Alan Hawkins - www.astmultimedia.co.za

Imagine a four legged fish, a femur estimated to be one hundred and twenty thousand years old, a chopper pilot, a game ranger and a Master of Science all together in one place. His passion for the East London Museum evident, Kevin Cole was explaining the difference between what a visitor sees and the real assets of a museum. “Any museum is only as strong as its collections,” said Cole, head of natural science at the museum, his words resonating high into the cavernous ceilings.

We were soon gazing down at what appeared to be a small section or block of hard sand with two small lumps. “This was discovered at the Nahoon Point Nature Reserve and is one of the many reasons I am still here,” said Cole with a glint in his blue-green eyes. “This could be ‘Eve’ we just don’t know yet,” he chuckled.

With obvious pride, Cole was describing the finer points of the oldest known fossilized footprints of an anatomically modern human. Not the oldest in East London; the Eastern Cape or even Africa, but the world.

“The Reserve was established in 2004,” said Cole. “The 2.6km of coastline is a wonderful asset to the people of East London and to South Africa.”

Discovered in 1964, and dated using modern optically stimulated luminescence techniques, the fossilized prints are estimated to be 124 000 years old. Some 7000 years older than the Langebaan trace fossil footprints discovered by geologist David Roberts in 1995. Dr Roberts, of the Council of Geosciences in Pretoria, had assisted Cole in the identification of the prints. They believe these to be that of a young child of between 7 and 9 years of age as she crossed the dunes in the wet sand.

Fossilized over thousands of years and exposed more recently by wind and wave action. “They are exposing themselves rather than us exposing them,” Cole explained in his careful manner. Three weeks each year on his own, trying to track down ‘Eve’ while mankind still hasn’t identified its’ origins or the often referred to “missing link”. Near the attractive entrance of the museum is a model of Ol’ Fourlegs, as it’s fondly referred to by the locals, a dead fish with its’ distinctive four large fins. This isn’t just any fish. This large and scaly Coelacanth (Latimeria Calumniate Smith) was believed to have been extinct for some seventy million years. A local fisherman, while fishing off the coast near the Chalumna River in 1938, must have been taken aback by this strange catch.

Cole kept striding confidently, deeper into the labyrinth of the museum. Past the colourful and creative window displays depicting the frontier wars that ravaged our region for a hundred years.

covered and preserved according to Cole. “In 2009 we discovered animal tracks on the ceiling of a cave, probably a small antelope. If we had the resources to spend more than the few weeks a year, we could employ more scientists. My guess is we could use three professionals on a permanent basis to expedite the process,” Cole’s enthusiasm again evident.  

Cole explained the importance of conservation. He feels that one would have to reformulate the reserve using a best practice strategy in order to exercise traffic control. “An opportunity exists to facilitate public access, perhaps by redesigning the current boardwalk system. One could create some glass enclosed sites and designing other ways to conserve areas sensitive to increased traffic.” In addition to the potential of historical discoveries, Cole is convinced that a well managed development of the reserve will create direct and indirect job opportunities. “Eco-tourism is a huge draw-card,” said Cole.

Cole’s balanced view of the relationship between commercial needs and conservation was refreshing. Smiling when asked if he was here to stay, “I hope so,” said Cole, “Like many I am sure, I have some career regrets. I sincerely hope that the benefits of developing the reserve are soon identified by the appropriate authorities.” An aura of calmness seems to surround Cole. One hopes he will remain committed to the further uncovering of the regions secrets, and that more resources are made available toward the development of this relatively dormant tourism and historical opportunity.    

Perhaps it was on a hot summer’s day some 124 thousand years ago, the sea mist rolling toward the shore with the help of a gentle sea breeze. There was a little girl, clad in a few animal skins for protection from the sun. Her shiny skin, wet after a swim in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, glistening as she ran excitedly across the damp dune. Her arms swinging freely alongside her little body, perhaps shorter and more stoutly built than ours might be today.

 Coelacanth - the East London Museum

More East London travel information

Tourist guide and travellers information -  Coelecanth East London