Year in the Wild Blog

Marvelous Mapungubwe

When I say that I’m going to Mapungubwe National Park, most people have no idea what I’m talking about! “Mupp…what?!?” they ask me quizzically. Well, to be fair, I also had very little idea about Mapungubwe when I first heard about it a few years ago. But it’s one of the most interesting and beautiful of our national parks, AND it’s one of our country’s seven World Heritage Sites!

It’s time that everyone in South Africa – and around the world – visited this fascinating place. I’ve been here four times now, and it’s certainly one of my favourite national parks, offering a diverse mixture of cultural, archaeological, scenic and wildlife attractions. Elephant, lion, leopard and rhino are all found here, but no buffalo (because of the worries about foot-and-mouth disease infecting the cattle on the Zimbabwe side of the border).

It is a relatively new national park, opened in 2004, and is still in a development stage, although the accommodation and tourist facilities are fantastic, including a brand new interpretive centre which has just opened and is brilliant at explaining what Mapungubwe entails. (There’s also a new restaurant which adds a much-needed element to the area, because there isn’t much in the way of restaurants up here!)

The national park is situated on the far northern border of South Africa, about 70kms west of the town of Musina, on the border of Zimbabwe and Botswana, at the confluence of the Limpopo and the Shashe Rivers. It’s at the centre of the huge Greater Mapungubwe transfrontier conservation area – a so-called Peace Park – that straddles the three countries. The scenery is romantic and atmospheric – straight out of an old classic movie.

Just a few kilometres from the confluence lies Mapungubwe Hill. The sandstone hill itself is about 30 metres high, 250 metres long and about 30 metres wide, and is just a few kilometres from the river.

Although the local Venda, Shangaan and Pedi people have always known about the hill, they have actively avoided it, believing to be inhabited by their ancestors. In fact, even just looking at it is considered taboo, and certainly no-one went out of their way to talk about it. So when the first white settlers heard about it, there was no concrete evidence of its existence, other than rumours and myths.

In the 1930s a group of farmers “discovered” the hill, along with its graves and attendant riches which included hundreds of gold artifacts, such as beads, bowls, a scepter and a beautiful golden rhino which has subsequently become the symbol of Mapungubwe (which can be seen in all its glory at the new interpretive centre, along with many of the other valuable items).

It was the richest archaeological find in South Africa yet its discovery had enormous political implications, and the apartheid government did their best to keep it quiet – here was concrete evidence of a powerful “black” kingdom, something that would make an obvious mockery of the racist government’s propaganda that black people were inferior to whites. The enforced secrecy of Mapungubwe was one of the reasons why it didn’t receive the recognition it deserved, and why so few people today know of it. (Fortunately, that is all changing!)

Around 1250 AD, Mapungubwe was at the centre of southern Africa’s first formal, urban society. Experts know that the Limpopo River floodplain had been occupied by nomadic Bushman for several thousand years (like the rest of the southern continent), but around 200AD the first migrants from the Niger delta in West Africa came into the area.

These were the first “black” people to enter the region, and today the Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Sotho, Tswana and other Bantu linguistic groups all owe their origin to the people of West Africa. They were Iron-age pastoralists, farmers and traders, and unlike the wandering Bushmen, preferred to settle down rather than wander around.

From around 900AD to around 1500 AD, the Limpopo Valley area was inhabited by these original settlers, and several of their sizeable towns have been discovered by archaeologists. Four of them (known as K2, Schroda, Mapungubwe and Thulamela – read my blog on Thulamela here) were all on the southern side of the Limpopo River, while the ruins of Khami and Great Zimbabwe were further north in present-day Zimbabwe.

Each of the settlements were occupied at different times, the people moving with climatic changes or political upheaval. They were all centred on a lucrative trade route – in those times there was a continuous migration of people moving in a north-south direction from central Africa to southern Africa, while the Limpopo River provided a route to the coast of present-day Mozambique, where Arab traders would bring goods from the Middle East, sailing in their dhows on the trade winds.

The “Mapungubwians” were among the wealthiest of the various settlements in the region. (“Mapungubwian” is my term, because experts haven’t found any evidence of a written language, they don’t know for sure what language the people spoke, although some suggest it was an ancient form of Shona, one of the languages that is spoken in Zimbabwe today.)

They traded local ivory and gold for porcelain from China and glass beads from India, all of which has been found in the archaeological digs. The wealth probably created divisions within society, and instigated the formation of the first social classes in the region. Soon, certain people became wealthier than others, and money became a decisive factor in segmenting society. The wealthier people became the ruling class, and isolated themselves on top of Mapungubwe Hill, away from the 5 000 odd commoners who lived on the floodplains around the hill.

But enough history from me. The best thing about visiting Mapungubwe National Park is that the history comes alive. My guide on several occasions has been Cedric Sethlako, who takes visitors on a two-hour tour of Mapungubwe Hill, and explains expertly the the history and nuances of the place. A tour with Cedric has been a highlight in my year.

What makes this national park fascinating is the mix of wildlife and culture. You can stand on top of Mapungubwe Hill, and look down on elephants browsing in the mopane veld, and in the distance you can hear lions calling. It reveals that people have lived in relative harmony with Africa’s wild animals – in fact, there would have been far more elephants and predators during the time of Mapungubwe’s kingdom.

The elephants must have proven a real nuisance to the crop growers, and the lions to the cattle… but most probably they tolerated the presence of the wild animals, accepting that some of their produce or cattle would be lost. And of course, they would have hunted the elephant for their ivory…yet realised that it had to be sustainable for ivory was one of the cornerstones of their trading economy.

In fact, they probably revered wild animals – witness the beautiful gold rhino which was found on the hill. No doubt they considered it a creature of significant meaning and importance, and perhaps even included it as part of their worship and spiritual beliefs. How different to modern times!

Mapungubwe is a World Heritage Site, declared as such in 2002 by the United Nations for its “cultural landscape”, meaning it’s a globally important example of how people have interacted with a natural landscape over hundreds of years.

SANParks guide Cedric Sethlako overlooking Mapungubwe Hill. The "royalty" or ruling class lived on top of the hill, and it was where the golden rhino was found in one of the graves discovered in the 1930s. Around the base of the hill lived as many as 5 000 commoners.

This is the heart of baobab country...at least thirty huge specimens stand around Mapungubwe Hill...I believe that the early people would have chosen their settlements based on the same aesthetic choices as we would...

Cedric with one of the milling stones that was found on top of Mapungubwe Hill

Cedric and guests in one of the archaeological digs underneath the ground at the base of the hill

Cedric describing the game of Moruba, or Mofuvha. the holes of which were carved into the rock by the ancient "Mapungubwians"; the game is still played today all over Africa

The route to the top of Mapungubwe Hill passes a rock fig, which was growing during the time of Jan Smuts in the 1940s. Jan Smuts was instrumental in the declaration of the Dongola Wildlife Sanctuary in 1947, although the incoming Nationalist Party promptly deproclaimed the area in 1949, and gave it to cattle farmers, despite the arid area being totally unsuitable for ranching.

The interpretive centre at Mapungubwe National Park, recently opened to the public.

Inside the new interpretive centre are some excellent explanatory exhibits, that contextualises Mapungubwe and its importance to the region.

Old map of Mapungubwe and the surrounding region

Old photos of Pretoria University archaeologists working at the site

Cowrie shells and beads on display in the interpretive centre

Ostrich shells which have been crafted into beads...

Some of the beads have been traced back to India and the Middle East, indicating a healthy trade with these countries, way back in the 1200s.

A variety of beads are on show at the interpretive centre

Figurines discovered at Mapungubwe...experts are still not sure of the role the figurines played...

The famous gold rhino that was discovered, one of several, but the only one that was reasonably intact...it was crafted by moulding golden plates around a wooden carving of a rhino. The wood had subsequently rotted away over the years, leaving the golden foil in place.

Inside the new interpretive centre...

An elephant made from clay...

School kids getting the low down on Mapungubwe...I've been impressed by all the groups of kids who have come to see Mapungubwe.

The new restaurant at Mapungubwe's interpretive centre

Despite the enormous influence of the original black settlers, the area was originally inhabited by Bushmen, who left several good examples of rock paintings.

The Limpopo River valley saw plenty of action during the border war of the 1980s, and several insignia from the different South African batallions were painted onto the rocks, and in fact one of the forts still stands in the national park near the river.

More rock art near Mapungubwe

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