Year in the Wild: Mapungubwe National Park
By Scott Ramsay
Put yourself in school teacher Jerry van Graan’s shoes. It’s New Year’s Day 1933 and you have just discovered the richest treasure in Southern Africa. Several kilograms of ancient golden jewellery and ornaments lie at your feet. You have two choices: keep it for yourself or hand it over to experts for preservation.
Here, in a remote corner of South Africa on the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe, herds of elephant wander through mopani woodland and between baobab trees. And near the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers is Mapungubwe Hill, the site of an ancient kingdom.
The disappearance of its people in AD 1300 was shrouded in mystery. Over time, fact merged with myth and no-one was quite sure which was which. For six centuries the local Venda, Tswana, Shona and Sotho people kept well away from the hill.
‘To them, it had always been taboo, a place of dread,’ wrote historian Leo Fouché in 1934. ‘They would not so much as point at it and when it was discussed with them they kept their backs turned carefully towards it. To climb it meant certain death.’
Most European settlers stayed away from the area because of its intense heat, frequent droughts and poor soils, but a few knew of Mapungubwe’s reputed riches, and in 1933 Van Graan and some friends decided to explore the area.
Setting off one summer’s day, they underestimated the heat and stopped to ask a local man at a kraal for water. The man – known only as Mowena – offered them cool water from a ceramic bowl. Van Graan quickly realised the bowl was unlike anything he’d seen. He asked Mowena where he’d found it.
It had come from a place called Mapungubwe, Mowena replied, a place where kings are buried. Take us to this place, Van Graan urged. Mowena refused. The group returned a few months later, again urging for directions to the secret location. Again, the old man refused. Instead, Van Graan persuaded one of Mowena’s young sons to act as a guide.
On approaching the hill, the boy shivered with fright and wouldn’t go any closer, but he pointed out a narrow cleft on one of the cliffs, which Van Graan and his friends climbed. Their digging at this spot unearthed several shallow graves, one of which contained a golden treasure of more than 20 000 beads, a sceptre, a vessel and several totems including a rhino, a feline and a bovine, each about 15 centimetres long and about five centimetres high.
It was high-quality gold, 92 per cent pure. The group decided to collect as much of it as possible, split it equally among themselves and take it home. However, Van Graan’s guilty conscience soon kicked in and within days he’d sent a few small pieces of gold along with a telegram to Leo Fouché, his former history professor at the University of Pretoria. By doing so, he set in motion the beginnings of the archaeological study of Mapungubwe. Fouché and Van Graan persuaded the others to hand over their gold to university researchers and the government bought the land on which the hill was situated to ensure its protection.
On 8 April 1933, the Illustrated London News ran a front-page article announcing ‘a remarkable discovery in the Transvaal, a grave of unknown origin, containing much gold work found on the summit of natural rock stronghold in a wild region’.
After six centuries, Mapungubwe’s famous treasure had been revealed. In the following decades archaeologists discovered several thousand more artefacts across 400 sites in the region.
Fast forward seven centuries
Present-day visitors to what is now Mapungubwe National Park can stand on top of the hill, and admire the same views as Van Graan and his friends.
‘Three of these were royal graves,’ ranger Cedric Sethlako explained after we’d climbed the 30-metre hill at the same cleft in the rock. Around us were 27 graves (near the original sites Van Graan discovered) where the skeletal remains had been re-buried after several years of being studied in university laboratories.
‘These contained all the gold, nine kilograms of it. One of [the graves] was a man’s, and two were [of] women. They wore the gold as symbols of power and most probably believed it had magical properties.’
The ruling elite would have lived on top of the hill, while about 4 000 people lived around the base.
Cedric explained that Mapungubwe’s empire began in AD 1200 and was the last of a series of regional empires, which had their origins around AD 900. These communities grew increasingly wealthy by trading gold and elephant ivory for glass beads, Chinese porcelain, cowrie shells and other exotic products.
‘Local traders followed the Limpopo River to the coast at Sofala in Mozambique, where they met up with Swahili and Arab traders who sailed their dhows on the monsoon winds.’
Having bartered their goods, the Mapungubweans would make the 500- kilometre return journey to their home farmlands at the confluence of the rivers.
Nowadays, the Limpopo River flows strongly only in summer, but climatologists believe the rainfall in AD 1200 was higher and there was enough water all year round. The Mapungubweans planted sorghum and millet in the alluvial soils, while their cattle grazed among the wildlife (archaeologists have discovered extensive evidence of a big cattle kraal at Leokwe, which is now the site of the park’s beautiful rest camp north of the main gate).
Then, abruptly, everyone disappeared. After just 70 years, Mapungubwe dissolved in AD 1290 and thousands of people migrated northwards across the Limpopo River to places such as Great Zimbabwe near Masvingo, or eastwards to Thulamela in presentday northern Kruger National Park.
‘[The cause of the migration] was most probably a combination of a shift in political power and drought,’ Cedric said. ‘Rainfall dropped considerably, the crops died and the cattle couldn’t survive. This area has always had a variable climate, situated between the arid Kalahari and moist eastern Lowveld of South Africa.’
Meaning of Mapungubwe
This lost kingdom remained hidden for hundreds of years until archaeologists from the University of Pretoria started excavating after Van Graan’s discovery in 1933. The national park was declared in 1998, and Mapungubwe was proclaimed as a cultural World Heritage Site in 2003.
‘As South Africans, we ought to be very proud of Mapungubwe,’ said archaeological chief curator Sian Tiley-Nel of the University of Pretoria, which still manages the extensive collection on behalf of the country.
‘Mapungubwe was the first formal, wealthy, hierarchical Iron Age society in the region. It was, and still is, the richest and largest gold collection ever discovered in Southern Africa. Mapungubwe is equivalent in global significance to the Great Wall of China or the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci.’
Now, the sacred site is at the centre of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area, a 5 000-square-kilometre cross-border initiative that aims to protect this landscape and its cultural significance from destructive development. It includes the 300-square-kilometre national park in South Africa and Botswana’s Tuli Block.
Wild animals can move freely from one country to another, as they did for thousands of years, and although the plateau above the Limpopo River comprises dry mopani woodland, the broad river beds are lined with riverine forest, lush and full of life; it’s a good birding area and reputed for sightings of Pel’s Fishing owl.
Impressive tree species such as fever (Acacia xanthophloea), ana (Faidherbia albida), cluster fig (Ficus sycomorus) and nyala (Xanthocercis zambesiaca) grow on the alluvial soils – one of the largest nyala trees in the country grows between tents five and six at the park’s Limpopo Forest Tented Camp near the river – but today this forest is no longer in a pristine state. The extraction of water upstream and downstream from the Limpopo River by farms and mines has reduced winter flows to a trickle and elephant herds have damaged trees by uprooting or ring-barking them.
Interspersed within the transfrontier conservation area along the river are several irrigated farms. On the Zimbabwean side, cattle compete with wildlife for grazing and people sometimes cross the dry riverbed into the national park in search of a better life.
Mapungubwe is still visited by treasure seekers, but they bring earth movers instead of spades. Coal and diamond mines operate within close proximity of the wildlife, baobab trees and heritage sites.
Despite several years of opposition from conservationists, farmers and archaeologists, the opencast Vele Coal Mine has carved out mopani woodland near the park’s eastern border.
‘The long-term effects of mining near the World Heritage Site are certainly not only detrimental to the environment, but also puts the cultural heritage at great risk,’ explained Tiley-Nel.
The opencast Venetia Diamond Mine to the south is one of the country’s richest. Its storage dam lies in the national park, drawing water from the Limpopo, and piping it underground to the mine. (It’s important to note that the owners of this mine, De Beers, founded the 36 000-hectare Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve, which is part of the transfrontier conservation area.)
The magic of Mapungubwe
Despite these challenges, Mapungubwe is unique and offers a sense of place that is not easily matched elsewhere. Perhaps it’s the sacred spirits of an ancient civilisation or the thousands of Khoisan rock paintings, some dating back 15 000 years to a time when early humans made their home here, long before people from central Africa arrived in AD 200.
Wherever it comes from, this ethereal atmosphere is best experienced at the four viewing decks above the Limpopo Valley. Here, visitors are treated to some of the finest views in the country, looking out over the confluence of the rivers and into Botswana and Zimbabwe.
At sunset one day, as a thunderstorm rumbled across the horizon, I was alone at the lookout decks, taking photographs. A silence descended just as the sun said goodbye and the earth turned to face the dusk. A breeding herd of 100 elephants crossed the dry riverbed like ants on Africa’s massive tapestry. I quickly took a few photographs, then gazed at the phantasmagorical panorama.
I wasn’t the first person to be captivated by scenes like these. Back in the 1930s, when statesman Jan Smuts was pressing for the proclamation of Dongola Wildlife Sanctuary (the precursor to Mapungubwe National Park), he met severe opposition from farmers who wanted more land to graze their cattle. He spoke eloquently of the greater perspective.
‘I look forward to the time when the rage of destruction will have disappeared, when the senseless slaughter of the wild fauna will be as criminal and contrary to public opinion as cruelty to humans, and when those who love the wilds, their shy denizens and intimate ways will come from all parts of the Earth to find peace and refreshment in Africa,’ Smuts said.
‘Africa, in spite of all chance, will still remain Africa, and its most distinctive features among the continents will continue to be its untamed wilderness, its aloofness and solitude and its mysterious, eerie brooding spirit. Why destroy this?’
What does ‘Mapungubwe’ mean?
The name was first mentioned by Mowena, the local man whose son showed Van Graan the location of the hill. No-one knows for sure the meaning, explained archaeologist Sian Tiley-Nel. ‘Because there are no written historical records from that era, we don’t know what language the people spoke, although it was probably an ancient form of Shona, Sotho or Venda. Today, there’s no exact equivalent term in any of those languages.’
There are three possible meanings: ‘place of jackals’ from pungubye (Sotho) and pungwhe (TshiVenda); ‘place of venerated stone’ from the Shona suffix -bwe, which means venerated stone; or ‘place where molten rock flowed’ in the Lemba language, referring to iron and gold smelting.
Getting to Mapungubwe National Park
Mapungubwe lies in the far north of South Africa at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers at the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. From Johannesburg, travel about 500 kilometres north on the N1 to Musina, then turn left on the R572 and continue for about 68 kilometres to the main gate.
Mapungubwe National Park gate times
The main gate is open from 06h00 to 18h00 (April to August) and 06h00 to 18h30 (September to March).
Where to stay at Mapungubwe National Park
Leokwe Camp offers several two- and four-bed self-catering chalets, each with a fully equipped kitchen, bathroom and outside shower, a large stoep and a braai area. From R940 a unit a night.
Limpopo Forest Tented Camp comprises eight self-catering safari tents in the deep shade of nyala trees. Each is fully equipped with a kitchen, outside braai area and bathroom and costs from R885 a two-sleeper tent a night.
Mazhou Campsite has 10 sites, communal ablutions and a kitchen. From R185 a site for two people (R65 an additional adult, maximum six people).
Book out the luxurious, self-catering Tshugulu Lodge which sleeps 12 in six bedrooms, with en-suite bathrooms, and has a swimming pool. From R2 735 a night for four people (R546 an additional adult, maximum 12 people).
Vhembe Wilderness Camp in the east of the reserve is just a few minutes’ drive from the Limpopo River, and is spectacularly located on a ridge overlooking a small valley. From R1 145 a night (for four people). Additional adults pay R314 and kids R157.
What to do at Mapungubwe National Park
Two-hour guided walks of Mapungubwe Hill leave every morning at 07h00 and 10h00 and cost R160 a person. Three-hour morning drives leave at 06h00 and cost R290 a person, while sunset and night drives cost R190 a person. The recently opened interpretive centre near the main gate provides an excellent overview of Mapungubwe. Here visitors can see the iconic gold rhino, as well as thousands of glass beads, ceramic pots and other artefacts. Guided tours are conducted every morning. The centre is open between 08h00 and 16h00 and entry costs R40 for adults and R20 for children.
Useful contacts for Mapungubwe National Park
Source: Getaway Magazine