My yearning began a year ago, when my son downloaded photos of Aztec ruins for his history project. The pictures seemed such pale representations of a once-vibrant culture. I longed to let him climb the steps of Aztecs' temples and I even found myself investigating airfares to Mexico City.

So when Patrick, 11, chose Mapungubwe for a second history project, I knew that this time he would touch the rock of kings and admire the golden rhino from all sides.

We were heading for Mapungubwe, SA's new national park and a World Heritage Site.

Although Mapungubwe Hill lords over the borders between SA, Botswana and Zimbabwe, its iconic golden rhinoceros is housed hundreds of kilometres to the south, at the University of Pretoria.

We were disappointed to learn that the national park, which opened in 2004, still had no campsites. Patrick agreed to trade the pleasures of pitching a tent for a chalet, as long as he could still make a campfire.

Departing from Joburg, we timed our arrival in Pretoria for the 10am opening of the Mapungubwe Museum, which would still allow us five hours to reach the park in the afternoon light. The rows of fever trees and the bronze impalas on the campus reminded us that we were not quite in Mapungubwe itself. Still, we did climb stairs to reach the two rooms of the museum, just as the craftsmen who made and traded these artefacts would have climbed Mapungubwe Hill to present them to the king. Pride of place is given to the golden rhino, raised on a pedestal, shrouded in Plexiglas, and bathed in spotlights.

"It's a lot smaller than it looked in the pictures," Patrick noted, "but it's still really cool."

Meticulously constructed from sheets of gold foil tacked onto a wooden core, the sculpture is indeed a marvel. Each tack holding the foil in place is topped with a gold head. Two of the nails have enlarged, spherical heads that form the rhino's eyes.When Tukkies archaeologists found the rhino, in a royal grave, its wooden structure had disintegrated over seven centuries. Experts at the British Museum in London restored the rhino to a very close approximation of its former glory.

Other windows display multiple strands of gold necklaces, gold earrings, and the golden bowl and sceptre. But we were equally entranced by the humbler clay figurines of giraffes and livestock. Arrowheads, spearheads and hoes of these Iron Age people, tell archaeologists that Mapungubwe was a nation of hunters and farmers, rather than warriors.

Clearly these were the work of specialist craftsmen, part of the first complex society in southern Africa. On the other side of the room, an enormous bowl filled with beads from India and Southeast Asia attests to the extensive trade networks that made Mapungubwe great.

One day, some of these artefacts will be reunited with the landscape that gave birth to them. A new interpretive visitor's centre is under construction and should be completed early next year. In the meantime, we were happy for the one-hour diversion. "We're off to a good start," Patrick declared.

The N1 led us to Polokwane, where we split straight north on the quiet R521. The road lifted us over the western Soutpansberg and through the remote towns of Vivo and Alldays. Just 12km before the Limpopo River and Botswana border, we turned for Mapungubwe National Park. Stout baobabs greeted us at the gate, and they would become a totem of the park for us.

Patrick called out spectacular tree sightings as though he were spotting rhino and giraffe. Just past any of the tight turns that negotiate among the park's russet boulders and cliffs we might happen upon a baobab of such girth that in Kruger Park it would have merited a sign and a note on the map.

At reception, we declined a night drive to allow time for the promised campfire, but registered for the first trip up Mapungubwe Hill the next morning. The archaeological site is tightly controlled, and may only be visited with a park guide.

The teeth-chattering gravel road to Leokwe Main Camp offered us expansive views of the Limpopo Valley. My Honda Jazz was more than adequate for the roads that led to our camps and view sites, though some remote routes in the eastern half of the park require a 4x4.

As with the rest of our drives in the reserve, game sightings were notable for their variety. We watched zebra, impala, eland, duiker and the majestic gemsbok searching for food. Patrick, who had been repeatedly advised during trips to Kruger Park that he should scan each koppie for klipspringer - to no avail - was amazed to find that here, his scrutiny of the rocks was actually rewarded with sightings of the nimble antelope.

Leokwe Camp was a revelation. It calls to mind the communities built in the shadow of Mapungubwe Hill 700 years before, but with 18 huts, instead of 1 000.

The earth-toned rondavels are entirely in harmony with their surroundings. Could this have been built by the same organisation that built row upon row of concrete rondavels at Kruger's Olifants Camp, and then painted them all hospital green? Where were the grey cement sidewalks, the manicured lawns? Brush and decaying leaves were left in place in the unfenced camp, an open invitation to birds and small creatures to share the space with intruding humans.

Even the camp's swimming pool gave the impression that we had happened upon a rock pool in a mountain stream, an impression that the waxbills and finches drinking there seemed to share.

We had just enough time to visit the intriguingly named Treetop Walk before night would cover us. About 4km from Leokwe, we parked next to a literary sign quoting Rudyard Kipling and reminding us that we had come at last, "to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees".

From ground level we ascended a long incline of planks into the trees as the ground fell away beneath us toward the river bank. By the time we reached the hide at the river's edge, we were in the canopy of towering fig and fever trees.

In the twilight, we could just make out pairs and threesomes of bushbuck on the ground below us. The screeching voices of baboons pierced the half-light, interrupted by the deep wa-hoo-ing of dominant males. One troop descended a tree in advance of our steps, pausing on the walkway before reaching the ground. I scanned the limbs above for lurking leopards. A rising wind swayed a tree trunk that creaked against the boardwalk.

"That tree freaks me out," said Patrick, so I took his hand as we headed back toward the car. "Are baboons carnivores or herbivores?"

"They're omnivores."

"Do they kill to get meat, or do they eat what's already dead?"

"They kill."

"What's the biggest thing they can kill?"

"Oh, maybe a baby buck."

"How big is a baby buck?"

"Smaller than you."

"That's good."

Back near the comfort and security of our spacious double rondavel, a braai beneath a million stars served as a satisfactory campfire substitute for an 11-year-old pyromaniac. Then an open-air shower washed away the dust, before we settled in for an early night.

By 7 the next morning, we were ready to embark on a journey to the past, skippered by park guide Ali Chauke at the helm of an open Land Rover. A road marked with a no-entry sign dropped us steeply into the Limpopo Valley, passing near the basin known as K2, where the predecessors of the Mapungubwe kings had kept their capital of about 1 500 people.

As agriculture flourished on the Limpopo River floodplains and trade in ivory and gold expanded, those K2 leaders took on more importance and increasingly distanced themselves from commoners. They were no longer just royalty, they were deity. As Ali steered us toward our destination, we could see what any god/king in the year AD1220 would have noticed: Mapungubwe Hill is fit for a king. Surrounded by steep ramparts five to eight storeys high, the hill looked nearly impenetrable.

Ali warned us we would need to climb 147 steps to reach the top. One member of our group, recovering from a hip replacement, decided to appreciate the hill from below.

Before we could rise above the plains, however, we descended into the earth to see history writ in the layers of soil beneath the hill. An archaeological excavation hole has been preserved and annotated.

It shows the gradual accumulation of sediments from the 6th century through the K2 period, when a small number of villagers lived at the foot of the hill.

At the line marking 1220, those villagers' huts were burned and sediments built up rapidly as the plains surrounding the hill were crowded with up to 9 000 commoners. Southern Africa had never before seen a town of such a size.

Still in the hole, Ali also pointed out 1930s photographs of the site's early explorers. As Ali tells it, Jerry van Graan was a schoolteacher who became obsessed with finding a legendary lost kingdom with its hill of ancient African gold in Limpopo Valley. He walked and walked in the region until, one hot day, he happened upon an old, partially blind man named Mowena. The thirsty prospector eagerly accepted water from Mowena, who told him of a sacred burial ground on a hill.

Silver coins could not tempt Mowena to help Van Graan find the hill. But a younger villager risked displeasing the ancestors and walked Van Graan toward Mapungubwe Hill. Ali demonstrated for us how the fearful youngster faced away from the hill and indicated it by pointing backwards. As soon as van Graan reached the top, human bones and gold beads told him that his search was over.

We had one significant advantage over Van Graan: wooden steps and a handrail to help us to the top. But where he found treasures, we found strikingly little. About the only visible remnants of the Mapungubwe royal court were post holes, a granary, and a cistern, all carved into the sandstone.

For Patrick, one artefact redeemed the scarcity of royal evidence. Ali showed him a game board etched into the rock. Here, members of the court played mefuvha seven centuries ago. Ali gave my boy a quick overview of the rules, and soon Patrick joined the distinguished lineage of Mapungubwe mefuvha players. Patrick declared it the highlight of his trip.

I had booked our second night at Limpopo Forest tented camp, on the western side of the reserve. Our drive through mopane bushveld was broken up by elephants crossing the gravel road in front of us. As we approached, a riverine forest of leadwood and mashatu (nyala) trees replaced the stunted mopanes .

The verdant camp was a contrast to the red cliffs of Leokwe. Each luxurious double tent rests under the boughs of a mashatu tree. When I snuck out of my tent at dawn the next day, the dusty road behind my car was covered in prints of hooves, paws and claws.

We did our water-watching at the Maloutswa Hide, set at the edge of a waterhole. A man in the hide told us that we had just missed two giraffe drinking. We settled for a pair of spoonbills sweeping from side to side as they worked their way through the sediment. And a pair of bushbuck stopped by. The next day we tried Maloutswa again.

This time we were rewarded by a herd of thirsty eland.

"That was sooooo cool," enthused Patrick, "there were 36 eland, 25 impala and two warthog; they just kept coming and coming."

For us, however, it was time to be going. On the way home, Patrick began recording his memories for the history project. Taking a break, he enjoyed a game of chess on my cellphone. But I had to believe that after this weekend, those make-believe bishops and kings seemed rather mundane.

For he had played a board game on the very rock of kings.

  • Mapungubwe Park 015-534-2014, www.sanparks.org.za/parks/ma pungubwe
  • Mapungubwe National Park has subsequently opened a campsite.