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SSouth African history goes further back than you think. Around the time of the Dark Ages in Europe, the royal court at Mapungubwe in Limpopo was welcoming traders from the Arabian Peninsula and the Far East. But it’s only in recent decades that the fascinating details of this ancient city have been uncovered.
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 civilization in the Limpopo valleys.
AArchaeologists 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 leading to the fall of the kingdom. Not long after the demise of Mapungubwe the fortified city of Zimbabwe (the 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 see this archaeological wonder for yourself. The University of Pretoria's Mapungubwe Museum displays the largest archaeological collection of gold artefacts in sub-Saharan Africa and 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 Mapungubwe’s trade networks were far-reaching.
While a visit to Mapungubwe National Park to discover its fascinating ancient history is something that should feature on everyone’s bucket list, there’s so much more to Limpopo than its history. The massive Limpopo River, rolling sandstone hills and the breathtaking scenery also make this province a must-see for tourists.
TTravel tips and 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
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.
The park is perfect for self-drives, but there are organised game drives available.
What will it cost?
For up-to-date information on camping and chalet costs check the South African National Parks website.
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. There are no card facilities and cheques are not accepted. ATMs are tough to find in the area so make sure you draw cash before your trip.
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 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.