On the trail of a little gold rhino that lay buried for centuries on a koppie near the Limpopo river, I wasn’t surprised to arrive at a peaceful, stone structure melting into a low ridge. It was the scene through the break in the contour of the ridge as we drove to the Mapungubwe visitors centre that caught my breath.

The Transfrontier park plunges into the Limpopo gorge, carpeted with sand and Mopani bush and broken only by lone sandstone sentinels and great big baobabs.

At the launch of the SANParks National Parks Week, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, also officially opened the award-winning interpretive centre at the Mapungubwe cultural heritage site.

When Molewa unveiled the plaque, she also revealed a community-based project that should prove to be a lasting legacy for the local inhabitants and a sustainable venture to offset the development of the Unesco World Heritage Site.

“The Extended Public Work Programme’s (EPWP) main objective is to leave the people with skills – it is a preparatory stage for people to become self-reliant long after the project.”

The building features stone walls and wooden walkways made from material farmed in the valley, built by 170 community members over 27 months.

The centuries-old stories passed down by word-of-mouth and the familiarity of the guides with everything about Mapungubwe is what makes a visit so special.

Beyond the dome roofs of the interpretive centre, the park offers a number of outdoor activities, such as a 400-metre treetop tour and a hilltop tour of Mapungubwe hill, the site where numerous artefacts were unearthed in the 1930s.

After a bumpy ride north, Johannes Masalesa, rifle in hand, led us in single file up past the rock fig tree, assuring us it took 147 steps to summit the mountain. Under a hot sun, he showed us how the stone-age royal family lived before abandoning the site in about 1300. Their remains were found buried in clay pots with gold and glass beads and other fabulous finds.

Masalesa told us that white prospectors who had heard about a royal burial site were eventually assisted by a little boy who, facing away, pointed with two thumbs at the mountain, as he had been warned not to look at the hill for fear of the ancestors.

Mapungubwe also has 154 rock art sites scattered across its 12 000 hectares, and a view area that overlooks the confluence of the Shashi and Limpopo rivers.

Like the outdoor tour, the interpretive centre is also best appreciated in the company of a guide. Alie Chauke relies not only on his family anecdotes, but a learned appreciation for the treasures carried down from the hill, past the rock fig tree, by Pretoria University researchers.

“The centre allows everyone to see the whole cultural landscape of Mapungubwe,” said Chauke.

If you go:

Mapungubwe is in Limpopo and has a number of accommodation options. There are also many local lodges.

Visitors pay R40.40 (adults) and R20.20 (children) for a guided tour which takes about an hour. The added bit is a community levy.

A hilltop tour costs R160 a head.

Book on www.sanparks.co.za - Saturday Star