South African history goes further back than you think. Around the time of the Dark Ages of Europe, the royal court at Mapungubwe in Limpopo, was welcoming traders and men of influence from Arabia and the Far East. But it’s only in recent decades that the fascinating detail of this ancient city have been uncovered.

Did you know?

The largest baobab in Mapungubwe National Park has a circumference of 31 metres.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe was once the capital of a country as large as Swaziland surrounded by over 200 small villages.

Today the stones, bones and Baobab trees of Mapungubwe are all that are left of this ancient civilisation in the Limpopo valleys.

Archaeologists have been carefully picking over the ruins for decades that tell us the rule of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe extended from about 1050 AD to 1270 AD, just as Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages and dealing with a rampant Genghis Khan.

There is evidence that indicates that a mini Ice Age stripped the area of its resources, effectively bringing the kingdom down. Not long after the demise of Mapungubwe, the fortified city of Zimbabwe (capital of the Monomotapa Empire) rose in the East.

Mapungubwe Hill lost many of its treasures over the years but enough remained for archaeologists at the University of Pretoria to slowly piece together its story. They found human skeletons lying in seated or foetal positions, often with artifacts like beads, ivory, animal bones and pots next to them. Burials on the hill were likely to be those of royalty as vast quantities of gold were found with their remains.

Thanks to a specially curated museum, you can experience this amazing story with your own eyes.

Meanwhile the most intact gold artifact, a small figurine of a rhino, is still under safekeeping at the University of Pretoria.

Sian Tiley, author of Mapungubwe - South Africa's Crown Jewels , says: “The beads found at Mapungubwe are thought to originate from India, Egypt, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.” Proving that this was indeed a commercial network that would truly make today's globalised traders envious.

While coming to Mapungubwe National Park to discover this fascinating ancient history for yourself is something that should feature on everyone’s bucket list, there’s so much more to Limpopo than just her history. The massive Limpopo River, the sandstone hills and the wonderful scenery are also just waiting to reveal their secrets.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

SA National Parks Reservations
Tel: +27 (0) 12 428 9111

Mapungubwe National Park
Tel: +27 (0)15 534 2014

Mopane Bush Lodge
Tel: +27 (0)15 534 7906 or

Venetia Wild Dog Tours
Tel: +27 (0)15 575 2651

How to get here

The nearest large domestic airport is at Polokwane, which is about 3 hours' drive away. You could also drive to Polokwane from Johannesburg, which takes about 3 hours. From Polokwane, head by car for Musina and then the R572 Pontdrif road. All in all, it won't take you more than about 6 hours to drive from Johannesburg.

Tours to do

You could see the famous wild dogs of nearby Venetia Reserve.

Length of stay

Plan for 2 or 3 days at the least - and squeeze in an extra day if you'd like to do other activities in the area.

Where to stay

Mapungubwe National Park offers a good variety of choices. You could stay in a self-catering chalet, or a tented camp, or a luxury lodge with its own eco-trail, or a wilderness camp. Just outside the park is the semi-luxury, fully-catered Mopane Bush Lodge, which runs regular tours into Mapungubwe.