Encountering the ancient history of Mapungubwe

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Now that I have been there, when I think of that magical word — Mapungubwe — it is no longer the grey-scale photograph of a golden rhino sculpture from my matric history textbook that appears, or the burnished cover of a Zakes Mda novel.

No, supplanting these recollections, is the day of our arrival: the deathly heat, the rocks crumbling towards the Limpopo, baobabs clawing at the ashen sky. And the breathless silence — summer’s dry husk waiting to be filled by the reprieve of rain.

Cell phone reception fizzled away as we slowly traversed the gravel track from the entrance of the national park to Leokwe, its main rest camp — a collection of thatched rondavels tucked between boulders.

We swam in the milky turquoise of a pool carved out between rocks, then drove towards the river — to a long wooden walkway sliding through the top of a forest ravaged by elephants. Recent floods had swept away the bird hide that looked out onto the river at the walkway’s end: a few sticks barred access to the final planks, which now lurched abruptly towards the sandy riverbed.

Mapungubwe National Park

We climbed back in our car, and went to the confluence view point — a sequence of decks overlooking the meeting point of two rivers — the Shashe and Limpopo — and three countries — South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The sun slunk between brassy clouds as we drank beers and felt the heat of the red sandstone around us soften. Far down below, elephants were drinking from the ribbons of water curling through the wide sands. A pole with a Botswana flag jutted out cheekily from an island marking the confluence’s exact point.

That night the rain did not come. We sat in our boma, staring at the braai’s flames. The darkness pressed in on us: lions roared; thunder crackled.

We got up early the next morning — to the confluence again, to watch the sun come up. It was quiet; there were no animals — just the rocks and finger-like fossilised termite mounds. We consulted the map. Proclaimed in 2004 (a year after the area was declared a World Heritage Site), this young park is tiny — former farms and game reserves quilted together; a work in progress, really, with two sections split by farmland, and a bunch of land claims complicating its future. We were in the eastern section of park. Maybe the map wasn’t too scale; maybe the area was bigger than we thought. But as we bumped along a loop that would eventually bring us to the park’s entrance, we realised we were running hopelessly behind schedule for our guided tour of Mapungubwe hill. The bird books and binoculars lay abandoned in the back; we went faster, a little faster than we should have. We veered away from the river, its sheer rocks and grand trees, climbing up and then, already late, there it was — a gemsbok.

Of course we stopped. It was the first time I had seen the animal — it loomed above the road, graceful, majestic, with angled, interminable horns. We continued. Being late didn’t matter quite so much anymore.

Our guide, Cedric Setlhako, drove us to near the base of the hill. Forgotten about for centuries, this unassuming, flat-topped koppie was home to the earliest recorded kingdom in southern Africa. Although archaeological work (which began in the 1930s) provides evidence of Iron Age settlements in the area from as early as 600 AD, it is believed that the kingdom’s zenith was between roughly 1220 and 1270 AD, predating the rise of Great Zimbabwe. The royal family lived on top; nobility lived on its slopes; the peasants and workers lived on the bottom –the first recorded class-based system in the region.

After we saw the excavations — where University of Pretoria researchers carefully scooped out aeons of history — we climbed to the top. Setlhako pointed out the grooves where wooden rungs were placed to enable access in those ancient times. On the summit, there are further clues that this was once a thriving settlement — smooth round basins carved out of the soft stone — used for the storage of water and food.

Later, we went to the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre near the park’s entrance: a conglomeration of timbrel vaults (built with more than 200,000 locally-made tiles) which pop out into the sky like stony bubbles. Designed by Peter Rich Architects, the structure won World Building of the Year in 2009 at the World Architecture Festival.

Inside, some sense of a once immensely powerful kingdom can be made. Implements, pottery shards and Chinese glass beads are showcased. What is manifestly obvious here is not only great skill and wealth — but also the way in which this kingdom was connected to a massive trade network that extended to east Africa, Arabia and beyond.

Then there is the gold! The kingdom was renowned for its gold-smithing; there are exquisitely crafted pieces of jewellery, necklaces, and, of course, the most famous artefact of all: the golden rhino — small and unexpectedly delicate when seen up close.

* * *

Afterwards, we travelled to the park’s western section, to spend a night at the Limpopo Forest Tented Camp — well-equipped tents between enormous, shaggy Nyala trees.

The clouds darkened; the first rain started to splatter as we went for a drive through the forest — past giant ana trees, yellowy fever trees, twisty apple-leafs. We tracked the river, alongside the old border defences. A leopard gazed at us nonchalantly. We continued to follow the massive coils of barbed wire and a once-electrified fence (now with plenty of chunks missing).

The rain continued throughout the night and was still going when we left the following morning. Even though it was dark and grey now, I was reluctant to leave this place — tempted to hang around to witness the veld’s transformation into verdant green.

And so it is with Mapungubwe. A history once forgotten and ignored has been reborn: today it is a backdrop to new imaginings of our ancient past. Here you can connect to a bigger, profounder narrative — one far more poignant and consequential than the roiling machinations that unfold daily in our newspapers on and TV. Wrenched away from the immediate, we can be reminded of our smallness and the transience of both ourselves and the kingdoms that rule over us.

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