Mapungubwe World Heritage Site

“Nissan Main Dealer? Didn’t he used to be the president of South Africa?” quipped Mark…. In the last few days we’ve visited Mapungubwe World Heritage Site, taken the NAVI-SOK for his 15,000 km service, and travelled a good distance south back into Kwazulu Natal.

Overview: 4 days, 1001 km

We arrived at our next destination, Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site, by lunchtime on Tuesday. It was the World Heritage that had brought us here, so we wasted no time in booking ourselves onto the 4pm tour.

That left us with a few hours to explore a small part of the National Park. We drove to the viewpoints overlooking the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers:

This is another confluence marking the boundaries between three countries, in this case South Africa (in the front of the photo), Zimbabwe (beyond the Limpopo to the right of the Shashe) and Botswana (beyond the Limpopo to the left of the Shashe).

On the treetop boardwalk, Mark was frustrated that he could hear a woodpecker but couldn’t see the woodpecker!

We saw a surprising range of wildlife during our brief incursion into the park – wildebeest, zebra, impala, giraffe etc. We might have planned to stay longer if we’d realised that we needed time to look at the wildlife as well as the history….

The Mapungubwe culture flourished in this region between around 900 and 1300 AD. They were farmers (growing sorghum and millet in the fertile soils created by the regularly flooding Limpopo and Shashe rivers), hunters, and traders. Arab merchants trading along the east coast of Africa would supply cloth and glass beads in return for gold and ivory (“seems like a good swap” said Mark wryly).

Over time, the Mapungubwians (what a name – you’d swear they’d appeared on Star Trek….) developed a highly ritualised separation of royalty from the rest of the population.

Remains of three capitals have been found in the area, the last one being at Mapungubwe Hill. You can see the attraction – if you’re going to separate royalty from everyone else, at some point you’re going to spot a nice hill and think it’d be a great idea for royalty to live on top of the hill, commoners at the bottom, and never the twain shall meet….

It turned out that we were the only people on the afternoon tour to Mapungubwe Hill, so at 4pm, off we went with our guide for the 7-8km or so drive to get there.

After parking, there was a short walk to get to the bottom of the hill. The guide went first, carrying a rifle…. There’s nothing like adding a bit of excitement to your World Heritage, I always say…..

The move to the new capital at Mapungubwe Hill happened around 1220 AD (so around the same time as Magna Carta in England). The hill is a long flat-topped sandstone hill about 300m long, 30m high, and between 15 and 50m wide. A stone wall (not visible nowadays) was built around the top of the hill and soil carried up from the bottom to create a soil depth of around 1.5-2 metres on top of the hill.

The guide explained that the soil served three main purposes:

1) bare rock is very hot! Soil made the hilltop a more bearable place to live.

2) the posts to support buildings could be placed into the soil for support. We saw numerous round post holes cut into in the bare rock (the soil on half the hilltop was removed during archaeological excavations and not put back) and you could clearly see where some round huts had been.

3) you can dig graves in soil. We’ll come back to those….

Mapungubwe was suddenly abandoned around 1290 AD (due to drought, according to our guide) with the population of 5,000 – 9,000 moving north to Great Zimbabwe. The stone city of Great Zimbabwe, another World Heritage site, looks absolutely fabulous but unfortunately, it’s situated in modern-day Zimbabwe so we won’t be going there…..

Mark with a game board – the indentations held game pieces (stones), and the objective was to capture your opponent’s pieces:

We saw where 23 graves were found on top of the hill. Twenty of them are thought to have been of minor royals, but three were special:

1) an older woman (40-60 years old) with over 100 gold bangles, 12,000 gold beads (weighing 2.2kg), and 26,000 glass beads (most of which were black)

2) a middle-aged man with a necklace of gold beads and a gold sceptre

3) a young adult (25-45 years old) of unknown gender with a gold bowl and a 12cm long gold rhinoceros.

The gold rhinoceros, bowl, and sceptre weren’t in fact made of solid gold but were carved in wood and covered in gold foil. Nevertheless, in a country without much in the way of artefacts like this from before the arrival of the Europeans, the gold rhinoceros is a big deal.

Unfortunately, all the original artefacts from the site are held in a small museum at the University of Pretoria. We won’t be going to Pretoria this trip, so there’s no chance to stop by and take a look.

It would’ve been worth climbing the hill just for the view from the top. Mark reckoned he could have stayed up there for hours watching the animals below:

Getting back to the vehicle after our tour of Mapungubwe Hill, the guide started putting his rifle away and Mark asked to take a look at one of the bullets:

“What calibre is that?” asked Mark. “.458” came the reply. “ooooh” said Mark, “look at the rounded tip on that”. “eh?”, said I. Mark explained that the rounded tip is for “stopping power”. “yes”, said the guide, “for elephant”.

Well, forgive me for being dim, but it wasn’t angry elephants that had been occupying my imagination as we walked to that hill. I’d found the idea of a big cat creeping up on me (they have lions and leopards in the park) much more worrying!

Mapungubwe National Park is a bit unusual in that it’s split into two parts by privately-owned land (which the owners refuse to sell). We had to leave the park and drive 40km around the edge to get back into the park in the section where the camp site is located. We really liked the small camp site here

We could’ve spent longer at Mapungubwe. We hadn’t realised how nice the National Park aspect of it would be – they have all the big 5 here except buffalo, and the scenery is lovely.

Unfortunately, though, we had a date in Polokwane, the main city in the Limpopo region, first thing on Thursday morning. The NAVI-SOK was due a 15,000 km service and had been booked in at the main dealer there. We couldn’t really complain too much as we’ve got another month of vehicle hire and a lot of kilometres yet to do…..

We found an interesting camp site on the edge of Polokwane – the Igloo Inn and Camping. It was a really nice place – the loos and showers are in the rather strange fibreglass igloos to the left of the photo below. It was incredibly cheap too (about half what we’ve been paying in other places). The only problem was the noise.

One guy had appeared to chat to us on Wednesday evening and told us about how he drills bore holes for a living. Apparently you can get machinery repaired at any time of the day or night in Polokwane, and he tends to stay overnight here whilst waiting as it’s so cheap. Rather than accommodating tourists, the place does seem to mainly accommodate young workers.

As it turned out, there were quite a lot of to-ings and fro-ings during the night. No loud music or anything like that – it was more like staying in an airport hotel. When Mark first headed out of the NAVI-SOK the next morning, we discovered what the hushed voices we’d been hearing for the previous hour were all about – the car next to us in the photo had appeared, been jacked up, and had a wheel removed by that point (5.30am)! By 6.30am, just before we left, young guys were appearing from all directions and jumping into the back of pick-up trucks, clearly off to work.

It was whilst I was arranging the NAVI-SOK’s service with the hire company by email (call me paranoid but I like to have things in writing) that Mark suddenly quipped “Nissan Main Dealer? Didn’t he used to be the president of South Africa?”.

It got better. Unknown to Mark, the Nissan main dealer in Polokwane is called B.B. Auto. So instead of “Freeee Nelson Mandela”, from now on, the 1984 song is to be sung “Beeee Beeeee Nissan Main Deala”.

Our instructions regarding the service were very vague – to arrive “early”. We’d looked up their opening hours online, saw that they opened at 7am, and arrived five minutes before. We were among the first customers but all the staff seemed to be there and busy. It felt like a long wait: we were there until 11.30am.

The coffee was OK but not up to the standards of the Mercedes garage in Krakow in September 2017 (where Mark was given a cappuccino with a chocolate sprinkle Mercedes logo on top). Mark entertained himself by going for wanders around the nearby streets, successfully managing to source a heavy-duty needle and thread with which to repair his sandals, and checking out the new vehicles in the sales section.

Advertising quite often passes me by, but this page from the “bakkie” (pick-up truck) brochure really had me perplexed.To me, the message it’s conveying is that a Nissan NP300 is a pile of rubbish?

After finally escaping the garage with a newly serviced (and washed) NAVI-SOK, it was time to start heading back south. We made it to a nice camp site about 40 km north of Middelburg on Thursday night. Here’s Mark enjoying his Friday morning cuppa:

The reason he’s grinning is that he’d been looking at our neighbours’ caravans. “You wouldn’t sell many of those in the UK”, he said….

He tells me that he is now looking out for a South African caravan model called the “pikey”……

Friday was a travelling day. We passed a few collieries south of Middelburg; the road was absolutely full of coal lorries, full ones heading in the same direction as us and empty ones coming back the other way. Thankfully, we eventually came to the power station where all the coal lorries were headed, and the roads were much quieter thereafter.

We arrived in Dundee, back in Kwazulu Natal, which is our base for the next couple of days, around 4pm – just in the nick of time. The thunder started as I was in the office paying, and we’d barely got parked up and plugged in before the rain arrived…..

Confined to van, Mark decided to get on with fixing his sandals:

You wouldn’t think it from Mark’s attire, but we’ve got huge hailstones thundering down outside (and bouncing about 5 feet in the air off the grass!) – together with thunder, lightning, and pouring rain:

Now I know why the zulus carried big shields – it’s to protect them from the hailstones round here. They could do real damage if they hit you on the head….


  1. Hi to both of you.
    Thank you for posting your blog it’s very inspiring.
    Couple of questions to ask, we like trekking when we travel, is there any opportunity to get out and about? Probably a stupid question ie big cats.
    When you are taking you photos are you in your van?
    What are you missing in this van compared with your van?
    Last question before I edit the first statement, what would work better to view the wildlife that this van doesn’t have?
    Thank you


    1. Hi John,
      Re trekking, Drakensberg sounds like the place to go – we’ll be heading there in a couple pf days’ time so we’ll be better able to update you then.
      Yes, the vast majority of the photos in Kruger were taken from the van, the only exceptions being the odd photo taken at picnic sites (where you’re allowed out of you vehicle) or at the rest camps.
      Re vans, it’s horses for courses really. The NAVI-SOK is great for what we’re doing over here. Our van (SOK) is designed for travelling Europe and would probably be shaken to bits by some of the roads here! Getting back in SOK will feel like luxury though – lots more space, a shower, better cooking facilities etc.

      Liked by 1 person

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