Lesley Thomson describes the natural beauty, ecology and ancient cultural history of Mapungubwe National Park on South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe
n the silence, the cliffs sing to you. What tales of years gone by the wind-sculptured balancing rocks could tell? Who trod the paths through the long grasses elephant now use? How many thousands of years have the baobabs reached up to the sky?
Mapungubwe National Park has a brooding atmosphere. It is as if the hills want to tell you something – and there is so much to be told of this exceptional place, for once it was home to a civilisation we are still learning about.
The landscape is a vast area of botanical, ecological and geological variation providing habitat for a rich diversity of wildlife and birds. Strangler figs with ghostly white roots that wind their way up the clefts in the cliffs, bearing sustenance to the stunted tree above, are an indication of how nature can survive, even in arid and semi-arid conditions. Baobabs, thousands of years old, are silhouetted against the skyline, as well as filling small, greener valleys. Shepherd trees that must have once offered shade to weary travellers grow along the well-beaten paths and winding tracks.
Below, on the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers, the vegetation becomes lush riparian forest. Leafy branches bow over riverbeds littered with the tracks of animals looking for shade and water in the dry sand. Then a torrent of rushing, churning water during the welcomed rainy season will carry huge branches and debris from some of these woodlands along with it, before swirling over the surrounding flood plains.
Among the old sandstone formations, the very rare transvaal sesame bush (Sesamothamnus lugardii) is found. Blooming only for one night during the month of October, they attract the hawk moths. The lack of seedlings is cause for concern about the continued life of this bush with its long, tubular and fragrant flower.
Being prime elephant country, thus providing ivory to visiting traders, and the discovery of gold, increased the power of the K2 culture. The people from the K2 society, also known as the Leopard’s Kopje culture, were thought to be Khoi subsistence farmers. They outgrew this area and relocated to Mapungubwe Hill, a massive bald flat-topped sand-stone outcrop that dominates the area.
The Mapungubwe culture was the first to use stone in building. Stone was used with wood for houses of the more important members of the society and to demarcate important areas. Thought to number 5000 residents at one stage, their leader would most likely have had a house constructed completely of stone. Surrounding the whole hill would have been a wooden palisade with most of the people living inside the western wall.
The wealth of these ancient cultures is easily recognisable by the remains of pottery, beautifully crafted ceramics, wooden and clay carvings and sculptures, ostrich shell beads and metal jewellery.
Of great interest to archaeologists is the way in which the long-gone inhabitants were buried. Most of the skeletons that have been discovered had few or no accessories and were found in the traditional Bantu burial position of sitting with legs drawn to the chest, clasped by the arms. Unfortunately, many of the skeletons discovered on Mapungubwe Hill disintegrated as soon as they were exposed to light and air.
The most famous of the discoveries is a little rhino sculpture made of wood (which has rotted away), covered with gold foil that had been tacked onto it. This rhino is the oldest known evidence of the use of gold by the indigenous people of southern Africa and symbolises the culture of Mapungubwe.
Mapungubwe National Park takes its name from this ancient kingdom. There are many different suggestions as to the origin and meaning of the name – from incorporating the evidence of jackals living there to the spirit of the bateleur eagles, which can still be seen soaring on the thermals.
The archaeological site is closed to the public, except for supervised visits and tours. However, with a guide, one can enjoy the numerous San rock paintings depicting aardvark, rhino, giraffe, impala, elephant and, most frequently, kudu. An unusual feature of these paintings, mostly done on the Karoo sandstone ridges, is that there are more women depicted than men. It is also believed that not all of the paintings were the work of San hunter-gathers, but some by the Khoenkhoen herders who also once lived in the district.
It is truly a beautiful wilderness of Africa. When the sun sets on the sandstone hills, turning them to delicate shades of misty pinks and creamy browns, and you hear the songs of the cliffs, you wonder if you ever want to leave.