Unearthing a lost city of gold beneath Mapungubwe's bone-dry plains
Straddling the borders of SA, Zimbabwe and Botswana, the starkly beautiful national park is a window into a civilisation that thrived 1,000 years ago, writes Maureen Girdlestone
Mention Mapungubwe and you will likely get some puzzled looks. "Where on earth is that?"
Mapungubwe National Park is situated at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, where the borders of SA, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet. It is part of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area, which encompasses protected areas in all three countries.
There, without fences, animals roam far and free.
We found it to be a place of enormous expanses of drought-stricken, bone-dry plains, and sandstone hills seemingly carved into sculptures. There were giant baobab trees with trunks gouged by the tusks of hungry elephants, abundant game, and a silence almost deafening to ears used to city din.
Mapungubwe - which means "hill of the jackals" - was home to a civilisation over 1,000 years ago.
It was founded around the same time as the first people migrating from central Africa crossed the Limpopo to the south. It was the centre of the largest known kingdom on the African subcontinent around 1200AD, predating Great Zimbabwe.
Today Venda, Sotho and Shona people all claim ancestry.
Its existence was lost in the sands of time until a few decades ago when history unfolded itself like the petals of a flower. Artefacts - pottery, beads, gold bangles, and the now famous Golden Rhino (read more below) - were recovered from the hill, proof that the kingdom's artisans were smelting gold.
Mapungubwe was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 2003.
GOING FOR GOLD
We drove from Lanseria airport, up to Polokwane and then onto a road pocked with crater-size potholes - hairy stuff if you value your vehicle's shocks or axles.
Then into Mapungubwe National Park itself. Our destination was SANParks' Leokwe Camp, a collection of well-equipped rondavels with ochre walls and dark-grey thatch. Withered bones were a sign of the two-year drought but the game was abundant.
We visited the hill early the next morning, with rangers in an open game-viewing vehicle.
Our guide, Johannes Masalesa, armed with a rifle, had us follow him in single file through the grassland below the hill, which is only accessible via two very steep paths. As we gasped from the climb and the sudden altitude, the view from the top took any remaining breath away.
Masalesa told us the story of the discovery. His ancestor, Mokwena, had led local farmers to the hill. The Van Graans, curious about a jug from which he had poured them water, had asked him the way.
However, Mokwena's courage failed as he approached, as he feared disturbing the ancestors. His cousin led the Van Graans right to the hill, before his fear too led him to flee.
The Van Graans' "discovery" brought palaeontologists, archaeologists and historians from all over the world.
Carbon dating, visible to us in an excavated pit, showed layers of ash of ancient fires, decayed bones of cattle, as layer upon layer of sand buried them over centuries. Some of the sand transported to the top of the hill by the servants of the ancients was used in vegetable gardens for the leader above.
The kingdom flourished from trade with East Africa - cattle and skins for beads and pottery. Even remnants of Chinese ceramics were found.
Mapungubwe developed as a class-based society. The leader lived at the top of the hill with his wives. Remnants of stone walls showed how soldiers would protect the hilltop. The elite lived immediately below on terraces, while the commoners lived further out on the surrounding plains.
Gold must have been mined and smelted in the area, with craftsmen creating such treasures as the now-famous Golden Rhino - a wood carving covered with gold foil. There is also a golden crocodile and gold bangles.
Up on the windy hilltop, Masalesa showed us an ancient, chess-like game, played on a rock with carved notches and pebbles for pawns.
Next day we strolled on a boardwalk on the cliffs overlooking the rivers. We could see all three countries.
Rudyard Kipling once described the Limpopo as 'great, grey, green, greasy', except it was not green or greasy but just gasping sand, joined by the Shashe, which was also barely a trickle
Rudyard Kipling once described the Limpopo as "great, grey, green, greasy", except it was not green or greasy but just gasping sand, joined by the Shashe, which was also barely a trickle.
EYES IN THE DARKNESS
That night, our bush braai was on an open sandy area in the dry riverbed. The darkness was intense.
There was only a single light visible way further down on the Zimbabwe bank. Tables, chairs and lanterns had been set out for a feast.
The cook advised us that jackal and hyena, attracted to the aroma of lamb on the braai, would be waiting in the wings to scavenge as soon as we, and the lights, had departed.
Heading back to camp, the ranger flashed his spotlight, hoping to see the glow of eyes reflecting. Maybe a leopard - he had seen one the night before. Instead we nearly ran over almost a dozen chocolate-coloured cattle, calves huddled between them, cowbells tinkling.
"They're off home to Zimbabwe," said the ranger. The herders bring them across the river to graze on fresher grass in the daytime. They go home at night.
We, sadly, left for home the next day too, yet with regenerated, peaceful souls.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
WHERE TO STAY
Leokwe Camp is the main camp. In the eastern section of the park, it is 11km from the main gate. The spacious, two-room chalets are self-catering. Rates from R1,418 per chalet.
Other options include the Limpopo Forest tented camp in the west; the luxury Tshugulu Lodge, with a private pool and eco-trail; and the solar-powered, unfenced Vhembe Wilderness Camp (not for children). Wild Card discounts apply.
Head north on the N1 from Joburg/Pretoria. From Polokwane, take the R521 to Alldays or stay on the N1 to Musina and then take the R572 to Mapungubwe (roughly 80km).
MAPUNGUBWE'S INCONVENIENT TRUTH
That a great civilisation flourished in Southern Africa long before European colonists arrived was not something a white government ever wanted to hear.
That goes a long way to explaining why Mapungubwe remained a "lost city" until after the end of apartheid - and why the treasures found on the hill are so important.
That a great civilisation flourished in Southern Africa long before European colonists arrived was not something a white government ever wanted to hear
When researchers first excavated the site at Mapungubwe in the 1930s, their findings showed that SA had not been a largely unpopulated territory up for grabs.
The truth, as various excavations have shown, is that there were thriving communities - one could call them city states - where artisans had developed advanced forms of smelting and smithing for the copper, gold, iron and tin that were being actively mined in the area.
The key artefact is the famous Golden Rhino. It is a marvellous, intricate piece of work - a wooden carving of a rhino covered in thin gold sheets fastened to the wood with tiny gold nails. If you were allowed to hold it, it would fit in the palm of your hand.
Given the current rhino poaching crisis, the golden rhino has a poignant and even talismanic quality about it.
WHERE TO SEE THE GOLD RHINO
The new Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria opened officially on Heritage Day.
It has a range of South African and African art on display and includes a section especially designed to house the university's Mapungubwe gold collection - including the famous Golden Rhino, as well as other artefacts excavated from the site.
The museum says the area will eventually incorporate virtual-reality technology that will offer visitors "a unique view of Mapungubwe Hill". - Paul Ash
• The Javett Art centre is open 10am - 5pm every day. Entrance is R150 for adults; R75 for pensioners and R50 for under 18s. See javettup.art
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