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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Blog: WHS #616: Mapungubwe

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape lies at the northern border of South Africa, adjoining Botswana and Zimbabwe. This remote setting probably accounts for its low profile and limited visitor numbers, even among World Heritage Travellers (ranking 830th out of 1052). In the nomination file it was noted that although many WHS have to deal with high numbers of visitors, the sustainability of Mapungubwe is threatened by attracting too few of them.

Approaching Mapungubwe Hill

What I found however was a well-cared-for National Park, worth anyone’s visit for a day or so. On my first two half-day trips into the park, I focused on game drives and brushed up my mammal list total: I saw mongoose, klipspringer, southern giraffe and steenbok for the first time. The park isn’t teeming with wildlife: there are no fences between the park and the adjoining zones in Botswana and Zimbabwe, so the animals migrate a lot between the three countries. Also the density of mopane bushes makes it hard to see smaller animals. But especially the dramatic landscape, with lots of old baobab trees, ridges and canyons makes the park attractive.

Mapungubwe was a large inland settlement that pre-dates the much better-known Great Zimbabwe. There’s a hint of Kernave to its story: the chief with his close allies lived in a palace on the hill, whille the common people inhabited villages below. In its heyday in the 13th century, the society is believed to have consisted of 9,000 people. While large parts of the park can be explored with your own car, that hill (Mapungubwe Hill) is only accessible with a guided tour from the park office. These 'Heritage Tours' are conducted 3 times a day, and I booked a spot on the 4 p.m. tour about two hours before. I was the only participant.

The flat-topped hill where the archaeological findings have been made lies in a startling green part of the park. Vegetation shows that a river flowed here in the past, so the Mapungubwe people had chosen their spot well. After a short drive we left the jeep behind and continued on foot. The guide was carrying a gun: this is lion and elephant territory.

Carved board game

Mapungubwe Hill is where the royal family withdrew at a given time, and where three graves with precious objects have been uncovered. It is a natural fortress, the walls are so steep that no one could approach unseen. From photos that I had seen beforehand I thought it would be a single outstanding inselberg – but in fact whole Mapungubwe National Park is full of this kind of eroded hills. At neither of the two game drives I had recognized Mapungubwe Hill.

In the past there was only one way up, via a ladder. We used the same approach. It took some 10 minutes climbing steep stairs (modern wooden ones fortunately), and then we were on the summit. Although naturally flat, it was made more inhabitable by the former residents by adding sand to it. They (the women apparently) took it from the valley below. The top still is covered with a layer of sand with grass, convenient enough to build your hut. The only visible remains are circular cutouts in the soft red sandstone. There is also a water tank and a granary. Water and grains were obviously provided to the royals by the ordinary people 'from below'.

Copy of the Golden Rhino

In 2011 a museum opened at the park to show the Mapungubwe findings. But they have not been very succesful since to lure away artifacts from the University of Pretoria Museum where most are stored. Mainly glass beads and ceramics, evidence of the position of the Mapungubwe Kingdom at the Indian Ocean trade route, are shown. The most spectacular of the discoveries is a little gold rhinoceros, made of gold foil and tacked with minute pins around a wooden core. I already had made plans to go and see it in Pretoria on my way up north, but it turns out that the Golden Rhino just moved to the British Museum on a temporary loan! It’s the first time that this symbol of post-Apartheid South Africa has left the country. There’s a copy on show in the Mapungubwe museum.

Published 8 October 2016

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