Excerpt for Fair Game - A Hidden History Of The Kruger National Park by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Fair Game –

a hidden history of

the Kruger National Park


David Fleminger

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

ISBN 978-0-620-64626-0

DogDog Publishing

Johannesburg, South Africa



Other Books by David Fleminger

Back Roads of the Cape

Swaziland Travel Guide

Lesotho Travel Guide

World Heritage Sites of South Africa:

The Cradle of Humankind

Robben Island


Vredefort Dome


Table of Contents

Part One: Making Kruger

The Lowveld

In the Beginning

Mapungubwe and Sofala


Masorini Archaeological Site

The Myth of the Golden City

The Sotho, the Zulu, the Swazi and the Tsonga-Shangaan

The Voortrekkers

The Transport Riders

Jock of the Bushveld

The Hunters

The Kruger Declaration

The Delagoa Bay Railway Line

Birth of the Sabi Game Reserve

The Sabi Reserve Resurrected

James Stevenson-Hamilton meets his ‘Cinderella’

Getting Down to Business

Skukuza and the ‘Natives’

Expanding Horizons

The Shingwedzi Reserve

The Game Rangers

Moving Towards a National Park

The Storm Clouds Gather

The Game Reserves Commission

Round in Nine

Becoming Kruger

The National Parks Board of Trustees

JSH Ties the Knot

Opening the Gates

Teething Problems

JSH Bids Farewell

Managing Kruger

Land Affairs

Crossing Borders

Heritage Sites in the KNP

Part Two: Exploring Kruger

What You Should Know

Accommodation in Kruger

Eating in Kruger

Activities in Kruger

Getting There

Quick Contacts

Kruger Park Data File

Selected Bibliography


Part One: Making Kruger


Clocking 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.

For South 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 Kruger Park.

But this 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 fun?

Accordingly, 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.

Truth be 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.

In fact, 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 Identity

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.

The 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 to Kruger.

But the 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 times.

Today’s 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.

So, why 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 surgery).

Perhaps 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.

The Lowveld

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.

A sharp 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 area.

But 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.

From the 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.

Numerous 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.

After the 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.

Later, the 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.

In the 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.

In the Beginning

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.

Weak and 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 maladies.

So, it took a very hardy type of hominin to settle among these pestilential plains. But that is not to say that the Lowveld was uninhabited.

The 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).

Surveys of 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, sheep).

The 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. .

As the 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.

The Bantu 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.

Broadly 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.

Mapungubwe and Sofala

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.

The most 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.

Since the 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.

A 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.

Known 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…

Consequently, 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.

The people 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.

For 100 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.

African 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 700 years.

It was 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.

Today, 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.

Great Zimbabwe

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.

Over the 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.

Then, 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 Dhlodhlo.

One 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.

The 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 fortification.

Nel 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.

First, 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 dry-stacked.

Piece by 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

Modern 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’.

Although 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.

Between 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.

Additionally, 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 villages).

At its 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.

After the 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.

Today, 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.

The reason 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.

As Pallo 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

During the 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.

Upon 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.

In the 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.

The second 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.

The 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…

The female 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.

Both the 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 queen’s arms.

Always on 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.

It is 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.

At the 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.

Visiting Thulamela

The 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 come alive.

The 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.

After 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 of emergencies.

The walk 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.

Once you 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.

Before you 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...

As you 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.

The tour 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 pen.

All in 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.

Bookings 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.

Masorini Archaeological Site

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.

Named 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.

The 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.

Accordingly, 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.

Today, the 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 previously.

These 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.

The 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.

The museum 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.

Masorini 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.

With such 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.

As such, 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.

When the 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.

Then, in 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 Komatipoort.

Two years 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 mine.

Unfortunately, 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.

The 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.

By the 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.

According 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.

But this 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).

At that 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.

Next, 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.

Many 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.

This 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.

For the 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.

But the 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).

Soshangane, 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 defence.

In short 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’.

Shaka 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.

Once he 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.

By this 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).

At first, 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.

Thereafter, 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.

Then, 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 Nkomati River.

Muzila 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 black books.

Finally, 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.

In short 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 population.

Interestingly, 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.

The Voortrekkers

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.

As so, 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’.

Within a 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.

Soon, 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 bloody Brits.

Consequently, 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

Finding a 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.

The first 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.

Without 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.

No-one 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.

In any 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.

Undeterred, 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.

It was 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 land-locked boers.

Buys 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 families.

The first 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.

When they 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.

Against 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

Later, 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).

Appropriately 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 emotions.

In the 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) Street.

The Transport Riders

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.

Despite 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 solution.

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