A rocky cliff face a mile from the Limpopo river, on South Africa’s northern border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, and the only way to the top was by rope. The year was 1991, the final days of apartheid, and at the top of that cliff lay “royal tombs” of an unlauded 12th century pre-colonial State, with gold trading links to the coast of East Africa. Found here, amongst the burials, were countless gold beads, a gold sceptre and a small golden rhino.
Twenty-five years later, and the memories of that visit, as part of the South African Archaeological Society, remained fresh – the incredible view across the landscape, lunar-like sandstone formations, riverine forests and those magnificent baobab trees. And of course the exhilaration of abseiling down Mapungubwe Hill each night. The area was now a fine National Park, with UNESCO World Heritage status, with an award winning Museum housing the artefacts, including the gold rhino, and giving due weight to the cultural history of the area. I was determined to return.
A 6 hour drive from Johannesburg and the landscape became rugged and dry as we neared Mapungubwe National Park. The baobab trees were as imposing as I remembered them.
210 million years ago, plant eating dinosaurs roamed its 28,000 hectares. Today many mammals roam freely through the rugged terrain.
There are walkways and viewsites overlooking the Limpopo river for birdwatching, crocodile spotting or just daydreaming.
Access to Mapungubwe Hill itself is strictly controlled and at 8am we drove with our guide along rugged tracks, followed by a 3km walk in temperatures hovering at 35C. And then ahead of us stood Mapungubwe Hill, just as I remembered it; thankfully no more abseiling, but a stone staircase followed by steep wooden steps to the top.
On Mapungubwe Hill (meaning”hill of the jackals” although it may be linked to the bateleur eagle), the view over the veld below is breathtaking.
Here, high-ranking individuals were buried with golden objects, there are grinding stones visible, grain storage facilities and, interestingly, a series of carved holes for the two-man game of morabaraba.
Below us, trundling through the bush, we caught a glimpse of three rhino … reminding me that I had yet to see that golden rhino.
The excellent Mapungubwe Museum at the Park filled out all the historical details as well as the flora and fauna of the Park. But no gold rhino? Was this housed at the University of Pretoria with the other archaeological artefacts?
No. It was currently on show at the British Museum in London as part of the “South Africa Art of a Nation” exhibition….
On a chilly February morning in London, prebooked ticket in hand, I eventually got to see that elusive golden rhino. 25 years of waiting. A round trip of 12,000 miles.
I think you’ll agree it was worth it!