A guided tour of Mapungubwe Hill is thought-povoking.
A guided tour of Mapungubwe Hill is thought-povoking.
Elephant are one of the main attractions of Mapungubwe, which is a trans-frontier park.
Elephant are one of the main attractions of Mapungubwe, which is a trans-frontier park.

The heat is already bleeding slowly from the afternoon – very slowly, as it does in “hell’s waiting room”, or the Limpopo Valley as it is known by some – and the wind has dropped to a mere whisper. Here, in the rugged sandstone outcrops, it is like being in a church.

There is an aura, an atmosphere, of forgotten voices, of people past, of spirits perhaps? As if in a place of worship, we walk slowly, carefully, and talk with muted voices. We will obey the instructions on the sign which proclaims Kaoxa’s Shelter – an overhang under a small cliff – to be a protected place. It is protected – by the SA Heritage Resources Act – because of the precious rock art which is there: for more than 3 000 years, these painted images have withstood the forces of nature… and the whims of human beings. You may not touch them, you may not put water on them, to make them easier to photograph, you may not walk on the rock ledges.

As I read, I feel slightly ashamed. I remember, as an 11-year-old, going with friends to a rugged granite outcrop near where we lived to check out the “Bushman paintings”. I can’t remember that we defaced them, but we did, like most white people, have a giggle because the representations of animals and people looked crude to our modern, Western eyes.

Our guide Andrew Rae, from nearby Mopane Bush Lodge, explains that the site is one of the most important in southern Africa for rock art. It was named after Kaoxa, the being believed to be the lord of the animals by the San hunter-gatherers, who once lived in this area.

The San believe that around Kaoxa’s house in the sky live a host of animals and insects. On the flat smooth walls of the shelter there are paintings of 16 animal species. But, uniquely, because they have been found nowhere else, there are 13 images of locusts.

Rae, who is trained as a field guide but who has a consuming passion for the history and art of this country, says there are at least five different painting styles in evidence at the shelter.

But then he continues, in his articulate and engaging style, to demolish one of the beliefs we have carried with us for years. He says we think of the San (or Bushman) paintings as a literal record of their lives, an ancient newspaper, if you will.

Not so. Rae then details the recent work carried out by archaelogists with the San of the Kalahari, exploring and documenting their gatherings where their shamans go into trances. Observing these closely, the scientists believe that constant dancing around a hot fire causes extreme dehydration, which leads in turn to an “altered state” in the minds of the holy men.

The trances are so all-consuming that the shamans often bend over and spew blood from their nostrils. Interviewed after the trances, the shamans reported that, when they crossed over into the trance, they “became” the animal which is their totem.

The new interpretation of this old rock art has it that the paintings are not a reflection of what is actually happening around the artists but of how they see the world and how they voice their spirituality. In other words, says Rae, this may have been the forerunner of what we know today as religion… and this may have been one of the world’s first “churches”.

It’s an awesome thought.

Throughout the Limpopo Valley and particularly here, in the area of Mapungubwe, there are hundreds of such rock art sites, one of the main reasons Unesco has declared this region a World Heritage Site. And there is no better guide than Rae, who has the knack of explaining things in everyday language. Also, Mopane Bush Lodge has unique access to the rock art site through permission of the owner. (See accompanying story.)

The rock art, sadly, often gets lost in the excitement about the nearby Mapungubwe settlement, which is also part of the heritage site. The following day, we get to see the Mapungubwe historical legacy, under the guidance of SANParks guide Cedric Sethlako, a smiling dreadlocked fount of information.

We learn that, although the San were in the area thousands of years ago, there were strong, organised communities of people living in and around what is now known as Mapungubwe Hill, an imposing sandstone massif which has only one, very difficult route to its top plateau.

Sethlako says that a royal family occupied the top of the hill. Estimates are that this family and their attendants lived up there from around 1220AD to 1290AD, while there is evidence that the area below was inhabited for at least 200 years before that.

The only access to the top is through a narrow fissure in the rock. The inhabitants of Mapungubwe cut holes into the rock on either side to accommodate poles which served as steps and could be drawn up if there was danger of an enemy attack.

In 1932, the site was “rediscovered” by white people – treasure seekers first, followed by University of Pretoria scientists.

Among artefacts they found on the top plateau was a beautiful gold-clad wooden rhino, which has now become the symbol of this special place. The original is still in the custody of the university but the excellent visitor centre at Mapungubwe has a copy, and a host of other artefacts recovered from various diggings.

The accepted theory is that Mapungubwe was home to the first of the African kings (who lived at the top of the hill) and that the settlement was the capital of their kingdom. Evidence of glass beads and other foreign-sourced items are an indication that Mapungubwe was doing an extensive trade with outsiders… most probably Arab traders who landed at the port of Sofala in Mozambique.

Around 1300AD, however, Mapungubwe ceased to exist as an occupied centre, as its people moved off. The theory is that they moved north and west to establish the settlement which is today known as Great Zimbabwe. Quite why this happened is still a subject for debate. One theory is that the area may have been the victim of some early form of climate change, with a “mini ice age” suddenly turning the sky dry and forcing the crop-raising Mapungubweans to move. Another possibility is that they moved their capital to Great Zimbabwe when their trading partners, the Arabs, moved the original Sofala port further north.

The history of Mapungubwe, and of South Africa, is far from settled and, for me, the most fascinating thing about our country at the moment is the way we are re-examining what we thought we knew about the past; about what may have been forgotten, or may have been deliberately buried for political and ideological reasons. Mapungubwe, and its sister settlement at Great Zimbabwe, are now offering a challenging alternative to the accepted teachings of colonial historians.

The new views of rock art are also food for thought.

Going there, to the hot, harsh region where South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet (at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashi rivers) is a must for any South African who seeks to understand where we came from.

Visiting any World Heritage Site is a privilege and one as rich as this is truly one of Limpopo’s (and this country’s) treasures… waiting to be uncovered.

If You Go...

l Mapungubwe National Park

Tel: 012 428 9111

Fax: 012 426 5500

[email protected]; www.sanparks.org

l Mopane Bush Lodge

Tel: 015 534 1054, 083 633 0765

[email protected]; www.mopanebushlodge.co.za

l Wild Dog Eco Tours

Tel: 015 434 2986

Fax: 015 534 0971

[email protected]

Mopane an ideal base

Mopane Bush Lodge is a reasonably priced (around R1 375 per person per night sharing, all in) four-star small bush retreat. It is on Mapesu Nature Reserve (about 60km west of Musina), a 6 000-hectare property owned by the Hatty family, who raise wildlife.

The lodge has eight secluded twin-bedded thatched chalets with en-suite bathrooms, eachsituated in its own kraal with an exclusive veranda and outdoor shower. All chalets have an uninterrupted view over the mopane bushveld to the distant horizont.

And, trust me, watching the sun come up (with a cup of coffee in hand) or the sun set (with glass of wine nearby) is one way to remind yourself that it is a privilege living in Africa.

The lodge is the ideal place to explore Mapungubwe National Park, if you don’t like the self-catering or camping options which are all there is in the park itself. Mopane Bush Lodge guides will take you on game drives in the park and you can also go on the SANParks-guided tour of the historical sites (this is the only way to see them).The lodge also offers rock art tours and special visits for birders. - Saturday Star