About the time of the Dark Ages of Europe, the royal court at Mapungubwe in Limpopo welcomed traders and men of influence from Arabia and the Far East. Only in recent decades have the fascinating details of this ancient city been uncovered.

Did you know?

The University of Pretoria's Mapungubwe Museum displays the largest archaeological collection of gold artefacts in sub-Saharan Africa.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe was once the capital of a country as large as Swaziland, surrounded by more than 200 satellite towns.

Now the stones and bones and venerable baobabs of Mapungubwe are at rest in the Limpopo Valley, and today form a World Heritage Site and national park.

Archaeologists have been carefully picking over the ruins for decades, and they tell us the rule of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe extended from about 1050 AD to 1270 AD, just as Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages and dealing with a rampant Genghis Khan.

They say a mini Ice Age stripped the area of its resources, effectively bringing the kingdom down. Not long after the demise of Mapungubwe, the fortified city of Zimbabwe (capital of the Monomotapa Empire) rose to the east.

Mapungubwe Hill lost many of its treasures over the years.

Even so, there was enough for archaeologists at the University of Pretoria to slowly piece together the story of Mapungubwe. They found human skeletons lying in seated or foetal positions, often with artifacts like beads, ivory, animal bones and pots. Burials on the hill were obviously those of royalty, and vast quantities of gold were found with their remains.

The most intact gold artifact still under safekeeping at the university is the small figurine of a gold rhino.

The beads found at Mapungubwe 'are thought to originate from India, Egypt, Southeast Asia and the Middle East', says Sian Tiley, author of Mapungubwe - South Africa's Crown Jewels. It was a commercial network that would make today's globalised traders envious.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

SA National Parks Reservations
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111

Mapungubwe National Park
Tel: +27 (0)15 534 2014

Mopane Bush Lodge
Tel: +27 (0)15 534 7906
Email: mopanebushlodge@limpopo.co.za

How to get here

Drive north on the N1 to the Limpopo town of Musina and turn left (west) on the R572 for about 90-km til you reach the gates of the park.

Best time to visit

From March to October, the conditions are temperate. Mid-summer can be extremely hot.

Tours to do

Book for a walking tour of Mapungubwe Hill at the central office within the park.

Get around

The park is perfect for self-drives, but there are organised game drives available.

What will it cost

Camping costs around R200 a night while cottages start around R950.

Length of stay

To fit in a morning tour of Mapungubwe Hill, it would be best to stay for at least two nights.

What to pack

Pack for the African bushveld: outdoor gear, jacket, big hat.

Where to stay

You can camp, stay in a safari tent or book in to a more luxurious chalet or bush lodge. A short distance outside the park is the semi-luxury Mopane Bush Lodge, which also offers tours.

What to eat

Barbecue (braai) is the most convenient form of catering in the bush, and the most fun.