The spirits of Mapungubwe

I’m standing on the edge of the cliff trying to wrap my head around the fact that I am looking at the point where the three most significant countries in my life meet. I am at the lookout point at Mapungubwe, which provides a magnificent view of the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. My vantage point is in South Africa, to my left is Botswana and beyond the river stretches my beloved Zimbabwe, land of my birth. So near and yet so far.

The confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. South Africa in the foreground, Botswana to the left and Zimbabwe across the river

The confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. South Africa in the foreground, Botswana to the left and Zimbabwe across the river

The landscape that we are in has an ancient, primordial feel, mainly due to the smouldering red boulders that rise ominously from the surrounding terrain. Rugged and brooding they hold the secrets of the past, for though we can surmise who once lived here, it seems that noone really knows for sure. It’s interesting that I get the same feeling here that I get when I’m at the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, as it seems that archaeologists link the two places and believe them to have been inhabited by the same group of people.

Looking out across the Mapungubwe National Park

Looking out across the Mapungubwe National Park

The landscape of Mapungubwe

The landscape of Mapungubwe

It is believed that this area, which is now a World Heritage Site, was occupied between 1200 and 1300 AD, and was once the centre of one of the greatest kingdoms in Southern Africa. From the remains that have been found in the area, archaeologists have deduced that it was originally a wealthy trading centre, and have found evidence of typical Iron Age materials such as iron, copper, gold, ivory, pottery, wood, bone and ostrich eggshells, which has led them to believe that this group of people probably traded with cultures as far away as East Africa, Persia, Egypt, India and China. With the discovery of the now famous golden rhino, the University of Pretoria has been very involved in researching the area and has a fine museum collection of artifacts. According to their website: “People were prosperous, and kept domesticated cattle, sheep, goats and dogs. The charred remains of storage huts have also been found, showing that millet, sorghum and cotton were cultivated”. With the wide flood plains of these two major rivers spreading out before me, I can believe that the area would be fertile and suitable for cultivation.

However, looking down there now, I see no sign of two legged life, but definitely have a sense that the spirits of the past still inhabit the area. It’s something to do with the silence and the unanswered questions, but it’s more than that, and this air is heavy with their presence. So when a strong wind whips up out of nowhere, blowing my hair back and  forcing me to grip the railing a little tighter, I realise that these spirits may not just be confined to the valley. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but this feels like a weird and ominous wind, so I have one last look at Zimbabwe and decide that it’s time to head back to the car.

In the car park, we do a little exploration of the area and soon realise that though, or possibly because there are no people living here, there is plenty of evidence of wildlife, like the baboon who was watching us from his lookout post…

A baboon in deep contemplation

A baboon in deep contemplation

and the piles of beetle infested elephant dung…

Swarms of dung beetles make hay while the sun shines

Swarms of dung beetles make hay while the sun shines

Two dung beetles make off with their ball of dung

Two dung beetles make off with their ball of dung

Interestingly, there is evidence in the car park that this area was inhabited more recently than the 14th Century, with several fine examples of military rock art, which date back to the latter part of the 20th Century. My knowledge of exactly why it is there is sketchy, but one can only surmise that these artworks belong to members of the South African Defence Force who were stationed here during the 1980’s to monitor movements between the three countries.

Military rock art

Military rock art

20th Century petroglyphs

20th Century petroglyphs

I am fascinated by this artwork, perhaps because of links with my own military past, but more likely because it seems so strange and unexpected in this pristine wildlife area.

Interested to learn more about the history of the area and keen to see examples of the artefacts that have been found here, we travel a few kilometres down the road and I now find myself entering a building that is both modern and organic in character. The Interpretation Centre at Mapungubwe  has been built with stones from the area, and is fascinating in that it both blends into the surrounding area, yet stands out due to its modern styling in this very ancient landscape.

The Interpretation Centre at Mapungubwe National Park

The Interpretation Centre at Mapungubwe National Park

The interior courtyard of the Mapungubwe Centre

The interior courtyard of the Mapungubwe Centre

Within the building there are arches that suggest impressive engineering

Within the building there are arches that suggest impressive engineering

The building blends into the rugged landscape

The building blends into the rugged landscape

Within the cool interior, we walk up the stairs into the museum and I am drawn to the collections of old glass beads, as well as numerous other ancient bits and pieces. There are thousands of pieces of potsherds that have been collected from the area and used creatively within the space. It is an interesting walk through history, and by the time we exit the building and move to the lookout point, I feel I understand the area a little better than I did earlier.

The view from up here is beautiful, and once again I find myself in an elevated position, looking downwards, into a valley that is dotted with sculptured outcrops. Due to lack of time, we have chosen not to go on the guided walk that would have taken us into the valley and up onto the sacred hill to view the remnants of the past, so for now I am happy to just sit and look and absorb the atmosphere of this mystical, magical place.

Impressive rock formations

Impressive rock formations

It’s time to go and we set off back down the road that will take us out of the park. As I reflect on the day I am aware that we haven’t seen any elephant, which I have been told are normally plentiful in the park, but as we head homewards we do see some strangely flattened fences, lying in a horizontal position along the main road.

In my next post, we will be visiting the rock art of the Makgabeng Plateau…

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Categories: Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “The spirits of Mapungubwe

  1. Intriguing and beautiful, Sally, as well as so sensitively told.

  2. Anthony Stidolph

    A very evocative, well-written piece. I had a very similar reaction to yours when I stood overlooking the Shashe/Limpopo confluence which is why I decided to try and paint the scene

    • It’s very inspiring, and difficult to explain to those who haven’t been there, but I look forward to seeing your creative interpretation of the area!

  3. Thanks Sally I have really enjoyed your descriptive and informative piece. Perhaps Harry and I
    will be able to make the trip one day.

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