The dramatic baobabs and rocky outcrops of Mapungubwe National Park formed the backdrop for a weekend exploring our heritage. By Lesley Stones
Deep into a debate on why South Africans terminally undervalue their own culture, I realise this is the sort of discussion you only have when strangers from diverse backgrounds find themselves sharing an experience that means something different to them all.
That’s one of the mentally stimulating and perhaps nation-building side effects of SANParks’ annual lecture series, launched to focus on the historic and cultural elements of Mapungubwe National Park. The lecture forms part of a weekend of heritage exploration, which includes a visit to Mapungubwe’s award-winning museum and a guided trail to the iconic hill.
Mapungubwe lies at the point where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana collide, and was Africa’s first kingdom where skilled goldsmiths traded with Indian, Chinese and Arabian merchants more than 1,000 years ago.
The kingdom dates from 900AD and enjoyed its heyday between 1220 and 1290. Nobody really knows why the empire declined, although some of its people moved on and founded Great Zimbabwe. Now it’s a World Heritage Site regarded as a sacred place by the descendants.
On top of Mapungubwe Hill
The highlight of the lecture weekend for me was a walk up Mapungubwe Hill, only allowed after the descendants performed a ritual to tell their ancestors that guests were coming and to ask for their blessing. It’s hard to feel much spiritual awakening or connection to the past with 140 people walking along beside you, so I slip away to feel the sun on my face and listen to the rustle of the breeze in solitude.
I end up talking to park manager Conrad Strauss, near a metal dome that pulls back to uncover excavations. Here information boards explain about the artefacts found in layers of sediment that built up over the centuries.
“I’ve been here for three and a half years and I still get goosebumps every time I walk into this area,” Conrad says. “It’s an extraordinarily special place because within this small space of 25,000 hectares you have the four of the Big Five, impressive sandstone formations, impressive riverine forest and the confluence where the Limpopo and Shashe rivers meet. But on top of that you sit with this immense cultural heritage.”
We reach the top of Mapungubwe Hill by climbing steep wooden steps safely attached to the rock face. It’s obvious why the royal family chose this flat-topped rock as their stronghold, with plenty of room for their homes and a panoramic view that allowed their guards to spot any enemies long before they posed a threat.
Our guide tells us this society operated a class distinction, with the royals living on the hilltop and the estimated 5,000 common citizens clustered on the plains below. Of the 27 graves uncovered on the hilltop, three clearly held people of immense importance. They were buried in a sitting position wearing golden bracelets, necklaces and ankles, and more than 28,000 tiny black beads and 26,000 gold beads were found in clay pots in one of the graves.
Exploring Mapungubwe’s legacy
Mapungubwe’s most important relic is the Golden Rhino, made from beaten gold pinned to a wooden model with tiny golden nails. We admire a replica of the elegant rhino in the interpretation centre. The original is still at Pretoria University, where all the artefacts were taken once excavations began in 1933. Many of the precious items were finally returned in 2011, and we admire the delicately crafted items and watch a video about the site in the attractive domed buildings that blend into the thickets with a structure of stones and sticks, glass and bricks.
The guest lecturer this year was Dr Mathole Motshekga, executive director of the Kara Heritage Institute. This was no dry lecture in a sterile hall. First we were driven in safari vehicles through the distinctive landscape studded with ancient baobabs to the dry riverbed of the Limpopo, for a traditional dinner under the stars.
Armed rangers kept patrol because the park boasts four of the Big Five. Buffalo were removed because of the risk of foot and mouth disease, but there was a chance that lion, rhino, elephant or leopard could gatecrash the party.
Dr Motshekga sparked some debate with his talk on the archaeo-astronomical and cultural history of Mapungubwe, talking of zodiacs and digging into etymology and language declination.
When the lecture ended the music began, and we refilled our drinks and let our debates continue.