South African history goes further back than you think. Around the time of the Dark Ages of Europe, the royal court at Mapungubwe in Limpopo, was welcoming traders and men of influence from Arabia and the Far East. But it’s only in recent decades that the fascinating detail of this ancient city have 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 over 200 small villages.

Today the stones, bones and Baobab trees of Mapungubwe are all that are left of this ancient civilisation in the Limpopo valleys.

Archaeologists have been carefully picking over the ruins for decades that 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.

There is evidence that indicates that 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 in the East.

Mapungubwe Hill lost many of its treasures over the years but enough remained for archaeologists at the University of Pretoria to slowly piece together its story. They found human skeletons lying in seated or foetal positions, often with artifacts like beads, ivory, animal bones and pots next to them. Burials on the hill were likely to be those of royalty as vast quantities of gold were found with their remains.

Thanks to a specially curated museum, you can experience this amazing story with your own eyes.

Meanwhile the most intact gold artifact, a small figurine of a rhino, is still under safekeeping at the University of Pretoria.

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

While coming to Mapungubwe National Park to discover this fascinating ancient history for yourself is something that should feature on everyone’s bucket list, there’s so much more to Limpopo than just her history. The massive Limpopo River, the sandstone hills and the wonderful scenery are also just waiting to reveal their secrets.

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.

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