24 August 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

The secrets of Mapungubwe Hill

As generous as Mapungubwe is with its heritage, beauty and diversity, there are some secrets only the landscape knows.

Cedric Setlhako has been up Mapungubwe Hill more times than just about anyone else. As a Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site cultural heritage guide, he has been taking groups of visitors up the hill once or twice a day for over 6 years (he initially started out as an archaeologist’s assistant before being employed by SANParks – and what an asset he is). And while I’ve known him a long time, I’ve never done the Cultural Tour with him.

This is surprising as I’m totally in love with Mapungubwe. I have been ever since I 1st visited it. My then-to-be husband was living there, on the banks of the Limpopo, when I met him 6 years ago, and my relationship with the park is inseparable from my relationship with him. We got married there in August 2009 and I have spent countless hours exploring it – but never with Cedric as my guide. 

Articulate and professional, Cedric ushers us into the game-drive vehicle for our 8km drive to Mapungubwe Hill. 

At this time of year, the park’s characteristic sandstone formations radiate countless shades of gold, amber and ochre. Light animates the sun-burnt hues of the dry mopane leaves, the silver slivers of shepherd trees, the light yellow bark of fever trees, the exuberant lime of giant euphorbias, and the understated greens of resilient ilala palms. At the right time of day, the sun paints the contours of the giant, bare-branched baobabs, accentuating their bulk. It catches in the dusty air and beatifies impala, eland and gemsbok.

Amid all this natural beauty, there is nothing visible that makes Mapungubwe Hill stand out. It’s what you can’t see that makes it one of South Africa’s most important archaeological sites. We walk from the vehicle to the base of the hill, where a covered excavation site serves as our introduction to the area. Cedric does a fantastic job of explaining what we’re looking at and why it is significant. There are hardly any structural remains of the site, which pre-dates Great Zimbabwe by about 200 years. It is most famous for its gold artefacts, such as a golden rhino. Today it is a representation of South Africa’s heritage and a source and symbol of immense pride.

It’s what you can’t see that makes it one of South Africa’s most important archaeological sites.

As no written records of the site exist, it has been up to archaeologists to piece together its history from fragments and remains and oral histories. There is no final consensus on who lived here, where or why they moved, or even who their descendants are. Cedric is a knowledgeable orator, but also a careful one when talking about contested aspects of Mapungubwe's history.

As we climb the 147 steep, but carefully constructed steps to the top of the hill (which is about 30m high), Cedric points out holes in the sandstone where the original residents placed their rungs. A fig tree clings to the rock face and you can’t help but wonder what prompted the king of the community that lived in this area to move up to the top of the hill with his family and entourage. Security from people and animals? Status? The unbelievable view? Possibly a combination of all 3? Mapungubwe Hill still has many secrets and it’s not likely we will learn many more of them.

A short walk confronts you with evidence of how life was lived on top of the hill. There are pot shards visible, along with grinding stones, the bases of homesteads, possible storage vats bored into the rock, and even the earliest of board games, known in East Africa as Bao.

We spot some eland down below, exchange some speculative banter with Cedric as to how the king arranged his household, admire a dolerite dyke, and enjoy the amazing sense of place and privilege. As Cedric has reminded us from the start of the tour, this hill is also the final resting place of the ancestors of the civilisation that lived here. As such, it is a respected, even sacred, site. We sit in silence for a while, contemplating life here a thousand years ago.

I won’t share more of the area’s history or Cedric’s anecdotes with you; book the tour next time you’re in the park (it has superb accommodation facilities in its eastern and western sections).

Also visit the impressive interpretive centre (with award-winning architecture), which does its best to make the unseen seen, revealing some of what's known about the hill and its history, as well as the area more generally, housing imported glass beads, rock art, tools and other artefacts that reflect life here through the ages.

It also references its amazing wildlife and biodiversity (and threats to it); that is another story in itself.

Category: Culture & History


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