Fair Game –
a hidden history of
the Kruger National Park
Copyright © 2017 by David Fleminger
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the
express written permission of the publisher, except for the use of
brief quotations in a book review.
First Edition, 2017
Johannesburg, South Africa
Other Books by David
Back Roads of the Cape
Swaziland Travel Guide
Lesotho Travel Guide
World Heritage Sites of South Africa:
The Cradle of Humankind
Table of Contents
One: Making Kruger
Myth of the Golden City
Sotho, the Zulu, the Swazi and the Tsonga-Shangaan
of the Bushveld
Delagoa Bay Railway Line
of the Sabi Game Reserve
Sabi Reserve Resurrected
Stevenson-Hamilton meets his ‘Cinderella’
Down to Business
and the ‘Natives’
Towards a National Park
Storm Clouds Gather
Game Reserves Commission
National Parks Board of Trustees
Ties the Knot
Sites in the KNP
Two: Exploring Kruger
You Should Know
Park Data File
Part One: Making Kruger
in at nearly 2 million hectares (or 20 000 square kilometres),
the Kruger National Park is an internationally renowned wildlife
sanctuary and one of South Africa’s top tourist attractions. And
it’s not hard to see why. This vast reserve is the size of a small
country, providing an aegis for the flora and fauna of the southern
African Lowveld region. In other words, it is one of the regrettably
few game reserves on the planet where large herds of wild animals can
still be viewed in a more or less natural state. As such, the Kruger
Park is a globally important environmental asset and a priceless
heirloom for future generations.
Africans, however, the Kruger Park is more than that. It’s an
evocative symbol of national pride and an integral part of our
cultural identity. This is where we go to commune with nature; a
place where the spirit of the wild reigns supreme. Indeed, over the
last 75 years, conservation has become a way of life in South Africa
and an appreciation of game is a central tenet of our culture
(although, paradoxically, so is an appreciation of hunting and
biltong). Nevertheless, at the heart of this love of nature lies the
was not always the case. For most of our time on the planet, we
humans had a pretty low opinion of wildlife. When we weren’t
running away from them in fear, we were hunting them down. And not
just as food. In the last few hundred years especially, our strange
species also started hunting animals for sport. For trophies. For
hunters gleefully shot out the game for meat, hides, and/or
entertainment. Livestock farmers reviled wild animals as either
reservoirs for disease, or dangerous predators. And just about
everyone tended to view game as a communal natural resource that was
there to be exploited, and not always in a sustainable manner. In
short, back then, the idea of preserving nature just so you could
look at it was considered ridiculous.
told, nature conservation had a rocky start in South Africa and even
the celebrated Kruger Park has been dogged with controversy
throughout its 100 year history. Things were particularly bad during
the first 30 years of the park’s existence, when various parties
made strenuous efforts to have the reserve deproclaimed, diluted or
abandoned altogether. After all, land is a political issue and South
Africa has always been a country overflowing with politics.
we are very lucky indeed that we have any game reserves in Southern
Africa at all, let alone the mighty Kruger Park. So, let’s take a
trip back into the benighted past and track the spoor of the reserve
to see how it all came about.
Kruger and the South African
The Kruger National Park (KNP, or simply ‘Kruger’, for short) is
the premier game reserve in South Africa. Even though the
subcontinent is blessed with hundreds of beautiful and biologically
diverse conservation areas, you still find that many people have a
peculiar connection to Kruger as the greatest of them all.
primacy of the KNP in our national consciousness is so strong that it
even manifests itself in the subliminal vernacular of the local
tourist. Thus, when a South African says that they are going to a
game reserve for a holiday, they could be referring to any one of our
fine national, provincial or private game parks. However, if they say
that they are going to THE Game Reserve, odds are they are referring
international treasure that is the KNP had very humble beginnings.
Its birth was exceedingly difficult and its origins were fraught with
conflict. Most modern visitors simply aren’t aware that the Kruger
was ever anything but the popular and much-loved national treasure it
is today. Nevertheless, in the first few decades of the park’s
existence, it came perilously close to being destroyed – several
KNP is a very different proposition. It boasts rest camps of every
description, picnic spots, game drives, walking trails, an extensive
public road network, a staff of thousands and over 1.5 million
visitors annually. It is a vital economic driver in the region and a
keystone of South Africa’s tourism industry.
has all that past unpleasantness been written out of the history
books? Perhaps it no longer fits in with the current narrative – or
the previous one, for that matter. Perhaps we don’t want to be
reminded of our blinkered foolishness from 100 years ago. Or maybe
it’s just too obscure. Who wants to dwell on arcane eco-history
when the KNP has grown in size and stature to become one of South
Africa’s ‘Big 5’ tourist attractions (along with Table
Mountain, Robben Island, the Garden Route and cheap cosmetic
some things are destined to remain much loved but little understood.
Or maybe, it’s time to finally pull back the covers and reveal the
hidden history of the Kruger National Park.
Literally meaning ‘low-lying grasslands’, the Lowveld is situated
in the north-eastern part of South Africa, extending into Mozambique
in the east, Zimbabwe in the north and Swaziland in the south. It is
a region characterised by scrubby bush, comprised of smallish trees
(such as the thorny acacia and leafy mopane families), shrubs and
numerous grass species. Also called the ‘Bushveld’, this humid
region is cut-off from the cooler, high-altitude grasslands of the
interior (the Highveld) by a line of mountains that runs north to
south in a great escarpment.
spine of rocks thus separates the high plateau in the west from the
Lowveld and its adjoining coastal plains in the east. This ‘Eastern
Escarpment’ is an extension of the famous Drakensberg mountain
range in KwaZulu-Natal and, rather usefully, acts as a barrier for
the malaria-carrying anopheles mosquito. So, as a rule of thumb, if
you descend from the mountains into the Lowveld, you are in a malaria
avoiding malaria is only one reason to spend some time on top of the
mountains. The sheer face of the Eastern Escarpment is spectacular
and there are several viewpoints (such as the well-known God’s
Window) perched along the very lip of the range. Standing here on the
edge of the Berg, in clear weather, you can look out over the trees
and bushes of the sprawling Lowveld plains, nearly 1000 meters below.
The famous Panorama Route from White River to the Blyde River Canyon
takes in God’s Window and a dozen similarly scenic delights, and
can be easily incorporated into your KNP itinerary.
foot of this so-called ‘Golden Escarpment’, the flat plains of
the Lowveld spool out to the East for about 100km, until they meet
the Lebombo mountains. This rugged and remote range runs in a
remarkably straight line from north to south, roughly parallel to the
Drakensberg escarpment. The Lowveld of the KNP is thus cradled
between these two mighty massifs.
rivers and streams run across the Lowveld. Most emanate in the
Drakensberg and flow in an easterly direction through the Kruger
Park. The major rivers, moving from south to north, are the Crocodile
River, the Sabie River, the Olifants River, the Letaba River, the
Shingwedzi, the Luvuvhu (or Pafuri) River and the Limpopo, which
marks the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Where
these rivers meet the Lebombo Mountains, they carve a passage or
‘poort’ through the rocks and continue flowing through Mozambique
to end their journey in the Indian Ocean.
The bedrock of the KNP is granite. This layer of igneous rock was
formed around 3.5 billion years ago and is one of the oldest rock
layers found anywhere on Earth. The tough, weather-resistant granite
has now eroded into the koppies and rolling hills that characterise
the southern part of the park, notably around the Pretoriuskop area.
On top of
the granite, a series of shale and sandstones layers were deposited.
These contain animal and plant fossils along with deposits of coal;
indications that the land was once wet, swampy and teeming with
prehistoric wildlife. The soft shales have now eroded away to form
the flat, grassy plains that run along the eastern side of the KNP.
sedimentary shales were deposited, there was a massive outpouring of
volcanic matter that flooded the Lowveld. This flow of molten basalt
was released when the super-continent of Gondwanaland split apart to
form the southern land masses that we know today. The igneous layer
of ‘flood basalt’ has now formed into flat plains, pockmarked
with water holes.
land split again as the large island of Madagascar started moving
away from the African mainland. This caused the land adjacent to the
coast to tilt up, creating (amongst other things) the Lebombo
mountain range that runs along the eastern boundary of the KNP.
north of the park, around the Punda Maria rest camp, the geology is
characterised by sandy soils which have formed into beautiful
sandstone mountains. This area is classed as Sandveld and chemical
analysis has shown that the soil is similar to that found in the
Kalahari. It has been proposed that an era of severe sandstorms
transported this sand halfway across the country, from the Kalahari
to the KNP, about 100 million years ago.
As each of
these rock layers weather and crumble into small particles, they form
soils with different chemical compositions. These soils, in turn,
each support a distinct ecosystem with its own characteristic
assortment of plants, trees and fauna. The eco-zones of the KNP
therefore correspond with the underlying geology of each region.
Since time immemorial, wild animals have flourished in the Lowveld.
The warm temperatures and regular rainfall nurtured a remarkable
bio-diversity, and the region supported thousands of plant and animal
species. Back then, when the natural order was intact, the herds of
game would drift with the seasons. Winters were spent grazing in the
well-watered foothills of the escarpment. In summer, they migrated
eastwards into the dense bush of the plains.
puny humans, however, have always had one big problem with the
region: disease. The Anopheles Mosquito, some of which carry the
malaria pathogen, is endemic to the area. Other deadly diseases are
(or were) also common in the Lowveld, including nagana (sleeping
sickness, transmitted by the hated Tsetse fly), anthrax, foot and
mouth, dikkop, black water fever and several other tropical
took a very hardy type of hominin to settle among these pestilential
plains. But that is not to say that the Lowveld was uninhabited.
earliest evidence of human habitation indicates that Homo erectus,
one of our evolutionary predecessors, walked the Lowveld plains
around 500 000 years ago. Early modern humans (Homo sapiens) also
lived in the Lowveld, and Kruger archaeologists have identified over
300 sites containing stone tools dating from the Later Stone Age,
between 100 000 to 30 000 years ago.
As was the
case throughout southern Africa, the first identifiable human
civilisation to live in the KNP was the Bushmen (or San), who emerged
as a distinct culture around 20 000 years ago. The size of this
nomadic community of hunter-gatherers and the length of time they
spent within the boundaries of the present day national park are hard
to determine, but their unmistakable paintings and rock art have been
found at over 130 sites throughout the KNP. There are also a couple
of potential Khoikhoi rock art sites in the north of the park (the
Khoikhoi, also derisively known as Hottentots, were relatives of the
Bushmen who had adopted pastoralism from the Bantu tribes migrating
southwards down the continent – see below).
these rock art sites are on-going and, in the future, several sites
may be developed for tourism. At the moment, the best way to see the
Bushman heritage of the KNP is through the guided Bushman Walking
Trail near Berg-En-Dal camp (it is unclear whether the rock art site
near the Hippo Pools at Crocodile Bridge is still accessible).
The Iron Age
From about 4000 years ago, a new kind of African began to move down
the continent in a mass migration that came to be known as the Bantu
Diaspora. These ‘Bantu’ tribes originated in western Africa,
around modern-day Cameroon and the Niger Delta, and they spoke a root
language called ‘Ntu’ – hence Ba-Ntu translates as ‘the
people of Ntu’. But what really made them stand out were the new
technologies they had adopted from travellers plying the trans-Sahara
trade route that linked west Africa with the Middle East. These
new-fangled ideas included such innovations as metal work (iron
smelting and casting), agriculture (sowing and reaping crops) and the
keeping of domesticated animals (including cattle, goats and, later,
initial Bantu migration was probably triggered because of population
pressure and climate change in their home region but, whatever caused
the initial wanderlust, the diaspora soon gathered its own momentum.
Thus, armed with the Iron Age and pastoralism, the Bantu began to
move slowly south; travelling in several distinct streams along the
east and west coasts of Africa – slowly supplanting the Stone Age
Bushman cultures they encountered en route. .
Bantu journeyed, groups split away from the main body and established
settlements which would, in time, develop their own distinct
languages, cultures and identities. Eventually, the Bantu colonised
the entire continent and most modern languages currently spoken in
sub-Saharan Africa have their distant roots in the Ntu tongue.
arrived in southern Africa between 2000 and 1500 years ago in the
form of several early iron-age cultures that found a convenient home
along the banks of the Limpopo River (such as the flourishing
Mapungubwe civilisation, described below). Subsequently, additional
Bantu tribes arrived and moved south over the Limpopo and into what
would become the country of South Africa.
speaking, one stream of these southern migrants – the Nguni –
settled along the eastern coast of South Africa and eventually became
the Swazi, Zulu and Xhosa nations. A short time later, another stream
came through and settled across the high plateau of the interior.
They would become the Sotho, Tswana and Pedi people.
By the end of the first millennium of the Common Era, the east coast
of Africa was bustling. Arab and Asian seafarers had discovered the
seasonal trade winds, which enabled them to sail up and down the
African shore where they snapped up animal skins, gold and ivory from
the locals. Several trading stations were subsequently established at
places such as Zanzibar, Mogadishu, Madagascar and Kilwa, creating a
marine trade network that predated the European voyages of discovery
by over 500 years.
southerly trading station was Sofala, located near the modern-day
city of Beira, in Mozambique. As such, teams of African porters from
the interior would carry their trade goods to the coast, where it was
exchanged for glass beads, cowrie shells and the occasional piece of
porcelain from the Far East.
Limpopo region contained healthy supplies of wild elephants for ivory
as well as nuggets of alluvial gold in the rivers, several tribes in
the region became very prosperous. Gradually, these early
entrepreneurs began to develop a sophisticated civilisation based on
personal wealth and status. Fortunately, at the time, the climate was
in a benevolent phase and the developing kingdoms were bolstered by
fertile lands and bountiful herds.
prominent centre of this mercantile Iron Age culture was located
several hundred kilometres to the north-west of the KNP, near the
junction of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. By 1200, this society had
developed into a considerable empire, exerting an influence over
several hundred square kilometres in what is now the cross-border
region between Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
today as the Mapungubwe civilisation, the capital city was built
around a distinctive flat-topped hill on the southern side of the
Limpopo River. On the summit of the hill lived the king and a small
entourage. At the foot of the hill lived several thousand citizens,
who literally looked up at their king as a sacred being. Clearly, the
idea of politics as an Ivory Tower is nothing new…
the king was not allowed to mix with the common folk and access to
the royal personage was strictly controlled. Stone walls were also
erected on top of the hill to further enhance the king’s isolation.
These were built using a distinctive dry walling technique, whereby
stones are cut and stacked on top of each other without any kind of
mortar. This dry-stone walling became a hallmark of the culture.
of Mapungubwe were also skilled craftsmen who fashioned beautiful
objects and delicate beads from gold and ivory. The most famous of
these artefacts include a miniature gold rhino, a gold bowl and a
gold mace or sceptre. Meticulously created by hammering thin gold
foil around a wooden base, these treasures are often called ‘South
Africa’s Crown Jewels’ and are held by the Mapungubwe Museum at
the University of Pretoria.
years, the people living around Mapungubwe Hill flourished. Then,
quite suddenly, the civilisation collapsed. It does not appear as if
the hill was invaded by an external force, but climate change and
drought may have forced the people to move on. Whatever the case,
circa 1290, Mapungubwe was abruptly abandoned.
tribes who subsequently lived in the area considered the hill to be
taboo. It was said to be the home of ancestors and cursed would be
the man who attempted to climb the hill. Mapungubwe was therefore
shunned and the story of its people remained shrouded in mystery for
only in the 1930s that white farmers in the area heard of the
forbidden hill and, unconcerned with native superstition, climbed up
its steep flanks. Their re-discovery of several royal graves on the
hilltop, complete with golden grave goods, sparked off a 70 year
excavation that is still on-going.
Mapungubwe is safely located in the beautiful Mapungubwe National
Park, about 100km to the west of Mussina. Guided tours up Mapungubwe
Hill are a fascinating excursion, the accommodation is lovely, the
interpretation centre has won international awards for its unique
design, and a visit to the region is highly recommended. More
information can be found at the SA National Parks website.
After the collapse of Mapungubwe, many of its people moved north and
east, where they joined another iron-age settlement that came to be
known as Great Zimbabwe. Assimilation proved to be fruitful and the
locals quickly embraced the culture, technology, spiritual beliefs
and trading connections of the new arrivals.
next 200 years, the power of Great Zimbabwe grew and an impressive
capital city was constructed using those distinctive dry-stone
walling techniques. Like Mapungubwe, the royal entourage lived on top
of a large hill, with the common population living below, but the
scale of Great Zimbabwe was immense. The settlement covered several
square kilometres and boasted towering stone walls, monuments and
large public enclosures. Many of these colossal structures still
stand, near the modern city of Masvingo, and Great Zimbabwe is truly
one of the wonders of the ancient world.
around 1450, Great Zimbabwe also collapsed – probably because of
poor climatic conditions and over-population. The inhabitants
abandoned their great city and scattered. Several new stone cities
were founded in modern-day Zimbabwe and Botswana, such as Khami and
section of this population also moved south of the Limpopo once again
and established a number of stone citadels in South Africa. One of
these, Thulamela, is located in the north of the Kruger Park and it
is an amazing place to visit. The associated Dzata ruins (home of the
legendary ‘Sleeping Drum’ made of human skin) can also found to
the west of the KNP, close to the Venda capital of Thohoyandou.
displaced people of Great Zimbabwe would later mix with other tribes
and ultimately became the Shona and Venda nations, among others. The
Sotho-Tswana tribes also subsequently adopted the practise of
building dry-stone walls and constructed many sprawling settlements,
such as Kaditshwene near Zeerust (which lasted into the 1800s and
contained up to 18 000 inhabitants).
In 1983, a
KNP ranger named Philip Nel was doing a foot patrol in the far
north-west region of the park, between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu
rivers. This part of the KNP is wild and mountainous and, on top of
one of these rocky outcrops, Nel stumbled upon thousands of evenly
shaped stones, scattered in roughly linear heaps. It was clear he had
found the remains of a stone wall that had once been part of a large
reported his find, but it was only in 1991 that the first proper
archaeological survey was conducted. The importance of the site was
soon confirmed and a full excavation and reconstruction project began
in 1993. Operating under the auspices of Sydney Miller, the project
ran for four years.
Miller and his crew carefully cleared away the grass and bushes
around the various enclosures. They then set about the painstaking
task of rebuilding the stone walls, using only stones found on the
site. No mortar or cement was used, as the original walls were
piece, the stone citadel was resurrected. All in all, 350 meters of
walling were reconstructed, consisting of about 2000 metric tonnes of
rock. The restored complex was opened to the public in 1996.
Life at Thulamela
tribes living in the area knew little about the hill, but they did
call it by a rather singular name – Thulamela. According to David,
my site guide, ‘Thula’ means to rise above and ‘Mela’ means
to germinate, to give birth, or to grow. A more direct translation is
‘place of giving birth’.
historical details are still sketchy, it is now accepted that
Thulamela hill was originally inhabited around 800 years ago by an
early tribe of uncertain provenance. After the fall of Great
Zimbabwe, around 1450AD, some of the refugees from that city moved
south and settled at Thulamela, either absorbing or transplanting the
original inhabitants. According to some oral histories, these new
arrivals were the Nyai division of the Shona-speaking Lembethu.
1450 and 1550, Thulamela became a wealthy trading centre and, as was
the case at Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe, the citizens built an
impressive series of enclosures, surrounded by high dry-stone walls.
The layout of the site also suggests that the king was considered
sacred and was isolated from the population.
there is evidence that the Thulamela-ites smelted gold and metal, and
were skilled craftsmen. They were also astute businessmen with links
to the Muslim traders at Sofala as well as indigenous settlements in
southern and central Africa. This is evidenced by the gold artefacts
and glass beads found in the graves, along with further evidence of
trade that was uncovered from the settlement’s ancient midden (a
communal rubbish dump that was a common feature of many iron-age
height, Thulamela was home to about 2000 people. The king and his
entourage lived on top of the hill, of course, while the commoners
probably lived close to their fields around the foot of the hill. The
fertile soil was thus used to grow a variety of crops including
sorghum, millet and cotton, which was spun on clay spindles and woven
on ‘low flat looms fixed to the ground’. Despite its wealth and
size, however, the settlement appears to have been abandoned between
1650 and 1700.
fall of Thulamela, several smaller stone-walled settlements were
built in the vicinity. The remains of some of these sites have now
been identified by researchers, and there is a possibility that they
will be excavated and rehabilitated in the future. Although none of
these more recent ‘towns’ reached the size and power of
Thulamela, local history does record the names of a couple of the
kings who lived in the area – most notably the cruel and lazy
Makahane who terrorised the people from atop his small stone palace.
Thulamela is generally acknowledged as a Venda heritage site, but
some Tsonga-Shangaan historians also lay claim to the citadel. They
could well both be correct. The heritage of Thulamela is expansive,
forming an essential but neglected part of our modern understanding
of African history.
for this lacuna is that, until recently, colonial and apartheid
narratives portrayed Africa’s pre-European past as savage and
featureless. Accordingly, for previous generations of school kids,
the history of southern Africa only began when Bartolomeu Dias sailed
around the Cape in 1488 and kicked off in earnest with good old Jan
Van Riebeeck landing at the Cape in 1652. But the discoveries from
sophisticated iron-age communities such as Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe
and Thulamela have shown that this was not the case. There is a rich
African history that extends back several centuries before the
Europeans pulled themselves out of the Dark Ages.
Jordan, then minister of Environmental Affairs, said in his speech at
the opening of Thulamela, “On the foundations of this African
civilisation, we will build a better future for all South Africans.
Our true origins have been captured by Thulamela and not by
colonialism, which was just a passing phase in our history”.
Queen Losha and King Ingwe
course of Thulamela’s excavation, two significant skeletons were
found. The first was discovered in the centre of the King’s Hut –
a small circular enclosure with a wonderful view out over the valley.
It was named King Ingwe (leopard), because a leopard was seen
prowling around the archaeologists’ vehicles during the exhumation.
closer inspection, the king’s bones had been carefully arranged in
their grave; the spinal column on one side, the ribs next to the
spine and the skull next to the ribs. The spinal column had been
snapped, suggesting that the king may have been stabbed. Another
possibility is that the skeleton was exhumed from another grave and
reburied at Thulamela.
Venda tradition, when one king dies, another moves into the same hut,
so it is possible that there are more skeletons buried underneath
King Ingwe. But nothing has come to light so far.
important skeleton was a woman, found buried under the fireplace in a
hut on the opposite site of Thulamela. Measuring around 5 foot 7
inches tall, this comparatively robust female had strong bones, which
suggests that she led a very active lifestyle. Considering her
physical condition and the prestigious location of her grave, she is
thought to have been the first wife of a king.
reasoning for this assumption is as follows: traditionally, the king
can only trust his first wife and it would have been her job to
prepare the food, make the beer and fetch water from the river at the
foot of the hill. This would have made her a very fit wife
(literally). It is also telling that the Queen’s hut is overlooked
by the hut of the King’s mother, who would have wanted to keep a
beady eye on her daughter-in-law. Some things never change…
skeleton was named Queen Losha, as she was buried on her side, with
her hands tucked under her cheek – similar to the position you
sometimes take when you are going to sleep. This is a traditional
Venda posture, called ‘Losha’, and it indicates respect. There is
a possibility that the Queen’s Hut also contains the skeletons of
other queens, but none have been found thus far.
king and queen were buried with impressive funerary goods. These
included hundreds of tiny gold beads, delicate ornaments made from
ostrich eggs and glittering gold bracelets that were wound around the
the lookout for a good story, the media usually presents King Ingwe
and Queen Losha as a cosy iron-age couple who ruled over Thulamela
together. Unfortunately, this romance is unlikely. Dating of the
king’s bones has shown that he died some time before Queen Losha.
gratifying to note that the excavation of Thulamela was conducted
with the participation and support of the local communities. Every
effort was made to respect the cultural significance of the site and
the tribal authorities were consulted whenever possible. This
approach stands in contrast to the excavators of old, who used to run
roughshod over the sensibilities of the local people.
request of the local tribes, the skeletons of King Ingwe and Queen
Losha were ceremonially re-interred at Thulamela after the laboratory
studies had been completed. Some artefacts and implements from
Thulamela are on display at the National Cultural History Museum
(formerly the Transvaal Museum) in Pretoria.
reconstructed Thulamela is a wonder to behold and a must-see if you
are ever up in the north of Kruger. It is only accessible as part of
a guided tour that leaves daily from Punda Maria rest camp. This
restriction is necessary because Thulamela is a fragile
archaeological site located in a wilderness area, and you really need
an informed guide (armed with a rifle) to make the evocative location
journey from Punda Maria to Thulamela takes about 90 minutes. The
bush is thick in this part of the KNP, dominated by forests of Mopani
trees. Nyala antelope are commonly seen grazing among the
appropriately named Nyalaberry trees, and our guide also spotted
Crested Guineafowl in the dense woods.
about an hour, we left the main tar road and headed west into the
mountains on an unmarked gravel track. The narrow path now twists
through the tall trees, crossing several small streams as we ventured
further into the deepening valleys. After several kilometres, the
vehicle stopped in a small clearing at the foot of Thulamela Hill and
we all clambered out. A bush toilet has been erected nearby, in case
up the hill is short but quite steep. It’s very manageable,
however. The path is well maintained and there’s no rush as you
stroll beneath the awesome bulk of ancient baobabs that grow
inexorably out of the hillside.
gain the summit, the views are wonderful. Lush valleys cut through
the sandstone hills, the sun plays on the red-rocked ridges and the
golden stone walls of Thulamela run along the crest of the hill. It
is a visually thrilling and emotionally resonant sight.
enter the actual enclosures of Thulamela, however, you’ll probably
take a seat on the bulging roots of a particularly huge baobab to
hear the story of Thulamela from your guide. Under the towering
canopy, you’ll be told about the history of the site and the
lifestyle of Thulamela’s inhabitants. The guide may also describe
the lengthy and intricate site rehabilitation process, if you are
interested. Then it’s time to enter the portals of the citadel...
approach, it becomes clear that the walls are much higher than they
look, reaching heights of more than 2 meters. They are made of
light-yellow stones, each one carefully cut and placed together like
an elaborate jigsaw puzzle made of masonry.
wends its way through the various living enclosures, each with its
own function and status. Appropriately enough, the King’s hut is
strategically located at the summit of the settlement, and it has
beautiful views. A large circular courtyard stands a short distance
away, which was probably used for public gatherings and as a stock
all, Thulamela is a remarkable construction that bears testament to
its builders, both in its original form and in its reconstructed
state. Even though it’s far off the usual tourist path, the tour of
the hill is highly recommended.
for the Thulamela tour must be made at Punda Maria rest camp. Tours
usually leave at 07:00 in the morning and the round trip takes about
5 hours. Basic refreshments may be served as part of the tour but you
should bring along your own drinks and snacks to supplement the
rations. Please note, for the sake of your own safety and the
preservation of the site, you are only allowed to visit Thulamela as
part of the guided tour. It is advisable to arrange your booking a
week in advance to make sure there is availability.
Along with Thulamela, Masorini is the other major iron-age
archaeological site in the KNP. It is located on the H-9 tar road,
12km from Phalaborwa Gate and 39km from Letaba Rest Camp, at the foot
of a prominent hill.
after a former chief, Masorini is a later Iron Age settlement that
was inhabited by the Sotho speaking BaPhalaborwa people during the
1700s and 1800’s. Like the earlier people of Thulamela, the
BaPhalaborwa had a sophisticated understanding of iron smelting
technology and were able to skilfully mine and process various
metals. Spearheads, arrowheads and agricultural implements were among
the items they manufactured.
Phalaborwa region is fantastically rich in copper and other metal
ores, and local tribes have been mining these valuable minerals for
at least 1000 years. Since copper was once a popular form of currency
(carried about in the shape of a copper rod, or Lerale), the
Phalaborwa region used to enjoy some degree of wealth and fame.
during the time of the BaPhalaborawa, Masorini was part of an
extensive trade network that included dealings with the Venda to the
north and the Portuguese on the East Coast. Copper was thus exchanged
for exotic glass beads, ivory and other trade goods, and the
settlement of Masorini grew to be quite prosperous.
town of Phalaborwa is a significant mining centre and boasts one of
the world’s largest open-cast copper mines. First ‘discovered’
by a South African geologist named Hans Merensky in 1938, this
colossal mineral deposit was based around a hill named Loolekop
(situated about 20km to the west of Masorini). Subsequent
investigations of Loolekop revealed that a number of shafts had been
dug into the hillside by local tribes many hundreds of years
ancient, horizontal shafts (or adits) were generally around 20 meters
deep and about 1 meter in circumference. There were no supports and
it must have been a dark, dusty and dangerous job to scrape out the
ore. Loolekop was clearly a very active iron-age mining site, but it
was all blasted away in the name of progress when the modern copper
mine was established. Much valuable archaeological evidence about the
early African miners was thus destroyed.
preservation of Masorini, within the confines of the KNP, is
therefore of considerable importance. When the settlement was first
identified, there were only a few scattered artefacts and ruins to be
seen. Now, it has been reconstructed into an impressive open-air
museum that attempts to re-create an authentic iron-age settlement.
is attractively laid out along the slopes of the hill, and there is a
full complement of huts to admire and explore. Agricultural
implements are displayed and the distinctive dome-shaped furnaces,
used to smelt iron, have been restored.
is open to visitors throughout the day and guided tours are
available. It’s a fascinating stop and an excellent way to get to
grips with the society and technology of a typical iron-age village.
It is also a convenient picnic spot and gas braais can be hired.
The Myth of the Golden City
Soon after the Europeans landed on the shores of southern Africa from
the 1500s onwards, stories began to be told about a fabulous city of
gold, located somewhere deep in the wild African interior. The myth
varied with the telling. Some legends mentioned a great stone city of
immeasurable wealth, ruled over by the fearsome Emperor Monomatapa.
Others spoke of a white Christian king, Prester John, who ruled over
the savage Africans and kept the whole enterprise organised in a
suitably European fashion. In all cases, the story of a ‘golden
city’ was told to explain the steady supply of gold nuggets that
inexplicably dripped out of the dark continent.
a rich story to tempt them, the Europeans made several attempts to
find this African El Dorado. In the wake of Vasco da Gama’s
exploratory voyage of 1492, the Portuguese had a head start on this
quest as they quickly usurped older Arabic trading posts along the
Mozambique coast or established their own, such the fort of Lourenço
Marques (now Maputo) on Delagoa Bay.
in 1512, they sent out an exploratory mission into the interior, led
by a former convict named Antonio Fernandez who reported finding a
‘fortress which he now makes of dry stone’. Several other
expeditions were sent out between 1532 and 1575, and the Portuguese
eventually established a relationship with the ‘Mwenamutapa’ –
the ruler of a stone city in the north.
Dutch arrived at the Cape in 1652, they too heard stories of the
mythical golden city. Over the years, various expeditions were sent
out from the Cape into Namaqualand and the interior, but all were
unsuccessful and several met with outright disaster.
1719, the Dutch established Fort Lydsaamheid on the shores of Delagoa
Bay (Bay of the Lagoon). From this fresh vantage point, they decided
to try and find the elusive city of gold once more. And so, in 1723,
the authorities duly appointed Jan Stefler to set out on an
expedition into the wild hinterland. This adventure ended badly for
Stefler, who was killed in an altercation with native villagers near
later, in 1725, another attempt was made, under the leadership of
Frans de Kuiper. De Kuiper left Delagoa Bay with several dozen
well-armed men and journeyed across the coastal plains towards the
Lebombo mountains. After crossing the mountains through a poort
carved out by the Komati River, de Kuiper and his crew crossed the
Crocodile River and entered what is now the KNP. Their destination
was the famous ‘iron mountain’ at Ciremandelle (Phalaborwa) where
they hoped to find out more about the locals’ productive copper
a short distance to the north of the modern-day Crocodile Bridge,
close to the banks of the Sabie River, the party was attacked by the
warriors of Chief Dawano. The expedition suffered heavy losses and
was forced to retreat back across the Lebombo. Disheartened, De
Kuiper returned to Delagoa Bay, where he died 2 years later of
malaria. The Dutch would eventually abandon Fort Lydsaamheid in 1730.
Sotho, the Zulu, the Swazi and the Tsonga-Shangaan
As we’ve mentioned, endemic malaria prevented the Lowveld from
supporting a large, permanent human population. The cyclical waves of
tsetse fly infestation also made the area hazardous for domestic
animal stocks. Nevertheless, the history of the area’s indigenous
people is intriguing and vivid.
turn of the nineteenth century, the Lowveld was inhabited by several
different tribal groups. In the north, the shifting populations of
Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Thulamela had evolved into the Venda
and Shona nations, including the Pafuri tribe. In the south-east,
around the foothills of the Drakensberg, lived Sotho-speaking tribes
that had spilled over from the interior, such as the Lobedu, Podile
and Maake. In the south, Swazi people controlled most of the land
between the Crocodile and Pongola rivers. The central Lowveld was
also inhabited by several loosely affiliated clans who shared a
common culture and language.
to James Stevenson-Hamilton, this latter group included the Nondwane,
Nkuna, Nwalungu, Hlangane, Hlabi, Hlengwe and Loyi. Later, the Zulus
would collectively and contemptuously name these tribes ‘BaThonga’
(the slaves – now transliterated to Tsonga). Although they were not
a prosperous people, these original Lowvelders often acted as
go-betweens, facilitating trade between the coast and the wealthy
tribes in the interior.
usually peaceful arrangement of tribal authorities was rudely
shattered in the early 1800s by the exploits of the incorrigible
Shaka Zulu. Born around 1785, Shaka was the illegitimate son of
Senzangakhona, the chief of the small Zulu tribe that lived in the
Stanger/KwaDukuza area (about 70km north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal).
time, the humble Zulu polity operated under the auspices of King
Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa nation. Despite (or perhaps because of)
his ignoble birth, Shaka was determined to become a success and
worked his way up the Mthethwa military hierarchy with ruthless
efficiency. Soon, he was leading the Mthethwa army and, when
Dingiswayo was killed in a battle with his arch-rivals, the Ndwandwe,
Shaka took over as leader of the Mthethwa nation and renamed them as
the Zulu – the people of heaven.
Shaka built up the Zulu army into a fearsome fighting force;
militarising social structures and developing new and brutal methods
of warfare. After finally defeating the Ndwandwe, he embarked on an
ambitious and often violent expansion policy in which he approached
neighbouring tribes with what has been described as an ‘open-door’
policy. Basically, this consisted of an unpleasant choice between
either joining the emergent Zulu nation or being conquered by force.
chiefs bowed to Shaka’s will, took on the Zulu name and paid their
new king many heads of cattle as a tribute. Others vowed to fight,
and a series of bloody confrontations broke out across the region.
Those that didn’t want to fight had little choice but to flee,
often displacing other tribes in the process. The end result was an
era of war, migration and instability that affected the entire
southern African region. Shaka was later titled ‘the Black
Napoleon’ by European historians.
controversial period of history is known in isiZulu as the Mfecane
– the crushing (in Sesotho, it’s called the Difaqane – the
scattering). Although traditionally the Mfecane was blamed
mainly on Shaka and his imperialist impulses, the reality is that
there were many causes with roots dating back decades before Shaka’s
rise. Population pressure, tribal aggression, drought, labour raiding
by slave traders from Mozambique, and other socio-economic factors
all contributed. In any event, the Mfecane soon enveloped the
once placid Lowveld and several decades of chaos would ensure.
purposes of our story, however, things now get a little bit
complicated. You see, the study of South Africa’s indigenous
history was often neglected or adulterated during the Apartheid era.
Furthermore, much of the information we have about this pre-literate
era has been handed down in the form of oral histories.
integrity of these oral histories was weakened by the cultural
ravages of the twentieth century. Even in the best of times, verbal
record keeping has a reach of only a couple of hundred years before
things get hazy, and certain tales may become unreliable through the
partisan attitudes of the teller (the latter being a pitfall that
often affects written history as well). As a result, there are often
conflicting reports about events during this time and such is the
case with what happened next.
Best I can
make out, the basic are as follows: After years of bitter conflict,
Shaka finally defeated Zwide – chief of the Ndwandwe – around
1820, at the Battle of Mhlatuze River. In the aftermath, one of
Zwide’s generals named Soshangane (also known as Manukosi) fled the
region and headed north where he met another former Ndwandwe chief
named Zwangendaba. At first, the two men formed an alliance, but they
soon quarrelled and Zwangendaba decided to push further north (into
modern day Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania) where his people would become
known as the Angoni (or baNgoni).
meanwhile, went forth with his army into the Lowveld. They raised
hell as they marched, terrorising the local tribes, until they
finally halted on the banks of the Limpopo river. Thus encamped,
Soshangane took a look around and liked what he saw. This would make
a good place for an empire of his own, he thought, especially since
the resident Thonga tribes were too disorganised to mount a united
order, Soshangane conquered and united the disparate Thonga tribes
under a new name – the Shangaan. He then embarked on a military
campaign that extended his power base over the area between the
Zambezi River and Delagoa Bay (what is now southern Mozambique along
with parts of Zimbabwe, Mpumalanga and Limpopo). He called his new
state the Gaza (or Gasa) Empire, which he named after either his
grandfather or the Nguni word for ‘blood’.
Zulu, however, didn’t take kindly to the upstart kingdom to his
north and sent a regiment (an impi) to unseat Soshangane.
Unfortunately, the warriors got lost in the thick bush and began to
run out of food. Malaria also took its toll and when the impi
reached the broad Olifants River, they decided to return home and
risk Shaka’s wrath. Luckily for them, once they limped back into
Shaka’s capital, they found that Shaka had been assassinated by his
half-brothers Dingane and Mlangana. Such is the price of power.
was firmly installed, Soshangane’s people began to assimilate with
the Thonga people; mixing their own Nguni heritage with the local
customs. There was the occasional upset, admittedly, and Soshangane
had a tendency to run amok every few years to subdue his enemies.
These ructions caused several Thonga tribes to move to the west,
through the KNP, where they sought protection from Sotho or Venda
tribes. These refugees included the Boloyi, Maluleke, Tshauke and
Sono. By the 1850s, some Thonga travellers had settled as far west as
the Soutpansberg, where they were recruited by the influential
trader, Joao Albasini, for his network of porters.
time, Soshangane’s Gaza Empire was firmly established – his army
even raided the settlements at Delagoa Bay and Inhambane once or
twice, forcing the Portuguese to pay tribute for a time. Around 1856,
however, Soshangane died and two of his sons, Muzila and Mawewe, got
locked into a battle for succession. One was the favoured son,
nominated by Soshangane to take over the throne. The other was first
born son of the head wife, a traditional heir. Each son had their own
supporters, and the two factions battled for several years.
Succession battles of this type are a familiar part of many tribal
histories (including the fractious European kings).
Muzila held the upper hand as he was supported by Joao Albasini, the
Boers and the traders at Lourenço Marques (Maputo), who gave him
access to guns on the understanding that he would keep open the trade
route between the Soutpansberg and Delagoa Bay. Mawewe fled into
Swaziland and appealed to the King, Mswati, for assistance. Mswati
(who was married to Mawewe’s sister) obliged and sent three
divisions through the Lowveld to roust Muzila. This military force,
keening for action, devastated everything in their path. Muzila,
however, withdrew to the north and the wide barrier of the Olifants
River turned back the Swazi army.
there was a long series of destructive Swazi raids that devastated
the Lowveld. Most of the human inhabitants fled, and those that chose
to remain lived in fear for their lives. The constant war parties
also took a heavy toll on the herds of wild animals, which were
consumed by the ravenous troops.
towards the end of 1861, Muzila concluded a treaty with the
Portuguese in which he acknowledged their sovereignty over the
southern part of his realm and became, in effect, a Portuguese
subject. In exchange, an armed entourage of Portuguese settlers
helped Muzila finally defeat Mawewe at a definitive battle on the
continued to rule over the remainder of the Gaza Empire until his
death in 1884, after which he was succeeded by his son, Gungunyana.
Keen to restore his waning influence in the face of European
expansion across the sub-continent, Gungunyana rebelled in a campaign
that created new waves of disruption and migration, and brought
Gungunyane (now called the Lion of Gaza) into the Portuguese’s
in 1895, the Portuguese sent a force from Lisbon to defeat
Gungunyane. This was efficiently done and Gungunyane was exiled first
to Lisbon and then to the Azores. The next in line to the throne was
a young boy with a redoubtable name, Thulilamahanxi. He and his
regent (Mpisane) fled over the Lebombo mountains into the KNP and
settled in the foothills of the Drakensberg, near the present day
district of Mhala.
order, the Gaza Empire had been broken. Some of the remaining
citizens headed west to join their juvenile chief in the Lowveld,
others spread out into Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and
Zimbabwe. Today, the polity is known by a number of different names
but in South Africa, they are generally called the Tsonga-Shangaan
(or Vatsonga) and people who speak Xitsonga (pronounced Shi-Tsonga)
as a first language make up about 4.5% of the South African
most of the Tsonga clans currently living in South Africa do not
recognise the lineage of the Gaza kings as part of their heritage as
they claim their ancestors fled west of the Limpopo when Soshangane
first moved in. Told you it was confusing.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, several European hunters and explorers
ventured into the Lowveld in search of game, gold and/or glory (see
below). However, the first white men to really leave their mark on
the region were the Voortrekkers. Literally meaning ‘forward
pullers’ (but more often translated as ‘pioneers’) this is the
name given to a group of disgruntled farmers of Dutch origin who left
the Cape colony because they resented paying tax to their new British
overlords (who had finally taken control of the Cape from Holland in
1806). The Voortrekkers were also incensed by the recently imposed
imperial ban on slavery and vowed to establish their own land, where
they could treat the blacks as they pleased.
between 1834 and 1838, dozens of small groups (often consisting of
several extended families and friends from the same district) packed
up their ox-wagons and set off into the wild interior. This
cumulative migration was subsequently called the ‘Great Trek’.
few years, the Boers (as the Dutch farmers were known) had displaced
many black natives from their land and established several towns in
the ‘empty’ interior of the country, which was still recovering
from the depredations of the Mfecane. But the despite the lack
of indigenous resistance, the Boers were fractious and quickly
started squabbling amongst themselves about who was in charge and
where the capital city should be.
there were several different Boer ‘republics’ all jockeying with
each other for position. Yet, despite their disagreements, everyone
acknowledged that they would need a harbour outside English control
if they were ever to realise their dream of independence from the
several expeditions went forth from the Highveld into the Lowveld.
These pioneers were trying to establish a road down the mountains and
through the fever country to Lourenço Marques, which was then a
Portuguese port (named after a Portuguese navigator who explored the
upper reaches of the Baia da Lagoa – Bay of the Lagoon, later
contracted to Delagoa Bay – in 1544). Both the Bay and the port
city are now called Maputo and, although they share a common meaning,
Delagoa Bay should not be confused with Algoa Bay, near Port
Elizabeth, which is now called Nelson Mandela Bay.
The Disappearance of Van Rensburg
practical route from the Highveld to the coast at Delagoa Bay was
essential for the Boers, but it would prove to be a very difficult
task. Once down in the Lowveld, malaria stalked the white men and
nagana (sleeping sickness, carried by tsetse flies) decimated
their oxen and horses. This was indeed a deadly land, as the Boer’s
were about to discover.
Voortrekker party to try and cross the dreaded Lowveld was led by an
ambitious and determined farmer named Johannes Van Rensburg. His
party consisted of 9 wagons and they had been trekking since early
1836, alongside another party of wagons which was led by Louis
Trigard (also spelled Trichardt). As they trekked north, past what
later became Pretoria, the two parties separated and Van Rensburg
pushed on to reach the Soutpansberg mountains in the winter of 1836.
waiting for Trigard, Van Rensburg headed east and plunged over the
escarpment into the Lowveld, eager to blaze a wagon route to Delagoa
Bay and thus become a hero of the Trek. Unfortunately, his haste was
to prove fatal and his entire party disappeared into the northern
part of the Kruger Park, vanishing without a trace.
knows what happened to the Van Rensburg trek, but it was probably
gruesome. Traditionally, it is held that they were massacred by local
tribes. 30 years later, according to some accounts, a Swazi raiding
party invaded the AmaGwamba and found a young white man and woman
living with the tribe. They spoke only the local dialect and
remembered nothing of their European past. They would have been
infants at the time of the disappearance and it is possible that they
were the only survivors of Van Rensburg’s ill-fated expedition.
case, a few weeks after Van Rensburg met his maker, Louis Trigard
arrived at the Soutpansberg mountains. He decided to set up camp and
waited several months for news from Van Rensburg. But no word came.
Louis Trigard knew that it was his duty to try and find out what had
happened to the hapless Van Rensburg party. A small party thus
mounted up and rode off into the forbidding bush, following the
fading tracks of Van Rensburg’s wagons. The tribes they encountered
only offered rumours and vague threats, so the group returned to the
Soutpansberg to reconsider their options.
nearly a year later, in August 1837, that Trigard finally decided the
time was right to try again. By this time, the trekkers had done some
reconnaissance and were more circumspect. They therefore sent a
coloured servant named Gabriel Buys to Lourenço Marques with a
letter asking the authorities to open trade links with the
completed the dangerous journey and the Portuguese responded by
sending two coloured soldiers back through the bush to meet the Boers
and guide them to Delagoa Bay. Despite the expert help, the journey
was a nightmare for Trigard and his party of around 50 people from 8
problem was getting their cumbersome ox-wagons down the mountains.
Unfortunately, Trigard chose to descend a particularly difficult part
of the escarpment and it took the trekkers more than two months to
manhandle their wagons down the tortuous route.
finally arrived on the flat plains of the Lowveld, disease began
stalking the party. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes mercilessly ravaged
the humans, while nagana took a heavy toll on the oxen and other
livestock. It soon became a race against time as the Boer wagons
rattled across the treacherous 350 kilometres to the coast.
all odds, Trigard finally staggered into Lourenço Marques in April
1838. The greeting from the Portuguese commander was enthusiastic,
but the journey had taken its toll. Within a short time of their
arrival, most of the party went down with malaria and 27 of them
died, including Louis Trigard and his wife. The 26 survivors were
taken by ship to Durban, where they related their woeful tale to the
other trekkers. It seemed that the fever belt was a no-go area for
the fragile white man.
The Rivers of Joy and Sorrow
another trekker leader named Hendrik Potgieter launched several
attempts to forge a path to Delagoa Bay. On one of these excursions,
in 1844, the expedition was on top of the escarpment looking for an
easy route down. To speed things up, Potgieter took a few men and
broke away from the main party for a little recce. Several days
passed with no word from Potgieter and his people began to despair
for his safety. Finally, they decided to leave their campsite on the
banks of a river that they decided to name the Treur (Sorrow).
A few days
later, however, Potgieter rejoined his party and there was much
rejoicing. In a wonderful demonstration of the literal-minded nature
of the trekkers, the river they were fording at the time of the
reunion was named the Blyde (Joy).
enough, the rivers of Sorrow and Joy merge at a remarkable geological
formation known as Bourke’s Luck Potholes – a popular attraction
on the Panorama route. From this confluence, the joyful Blyde River
continues through the stunning Blyde River Canyon – the third
largest canyon on earth (according to some). Such is the power of
years that followed, the Voortrekkers’ quest for independence
became the stuff of legend in many other ways. Indeed, the leaders of
the Trek were turned into folk heroes and the entire period was
mythologized by the cult of Afrikaner Nationalism, which began to
take root in the early 20th century. Later, the narrative
of the Great Trek became part of the political justification for
Grand Apartheid, and it seemed that every town in South Africa was
centred at the intersection of Voortrekker Road and Kerk (Church)
By the 1840s, the Boers had established two large territories: the
Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The Free State was located
between the Orange River (named after the Dutch Royal House) and the
Vaal (tawny-coloured) River, while the Transvaal covered the region
between the Vaal and Limpopo rivers. The vast Transvaal area, which
at one point consisted of 5 competing ‘republics’, was unified as
the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) in 1852, with its capital in
Pretoria. The Free State was later declared an independent republic
in 1854, with Bloemfontein as its capital.
the terrible fate of Van Rensburg and Trigard, the establishment of a
wagon route to Delagoa Bay was essential for the Boer Republics.
Consequently, they were constantly working to find a safe passage
through the wild and unhealthy Lowveld to Lourenço Marques. Clearly
speed was of the essence, as humans and livestock were both
vulnerable in the fever belt. A railway line was seen the best