The South African Experience
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
This is part one of a seven-part series which will look at some of the amazing experiences our beautiful country has to offer.
Roots & Culture
From the beginning of humanity to ancient African kingdoms and a more recent history of glittering diamonds and shimmering gold, to the rise and fall of apartheid, South Africa has no shortage of visitor experiences for those interested in delving a bit deeper into what made us who we are today.
Where it all began…
The Maropeng and Sterkfontein Caves are home to what most of know as the Cradle of Humankind. This is one of nine designated World Heritage Sites in South Africa. UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation) describes a World Heritage Site as “places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.” It’s a big deal.
The Cradle of Humankind may be the most important archaeological site in the history of humankind, literally. It is the site where some of the oldest fossils of Hominids, the ancestors of modern humans, were found. Hominids first emerged about seven million years ago, in Africa. Significant finds include the famous “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot” fossils. Our species, Homo-sapiens, evolved from Hominids. In a way, no matter where on Earth you were born, you will always have roots in Africa.
An Ancient City
The ancient stone city of Mapungubwe rose up between the Limpopo and Shashe rivers on the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. This complex Shona society was at its peak from around 1050-1270 AD with an estimated population of 5000 people. It is thought to be the most important inland historical settlement in Southern Africa. Mapungubwe means “the stone of wisdom” in Shona. This site has also been granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. The Mapungubwe National Park hosts safari tours and historical tours to the ancient site.
The Rain Queen
Traditional folklore tells the story of the Balobedu tribe who settled in what is today Limpopo province in the early 1600s. The Balobedu migrated from the north, most likely from Zimbabwe. Men were the rulers of the tribe until a Chief, claiming prophetic guidance, impregnated his daughter who gave birth to a girl and thus the next ruler of the Balobedu people.
The first Rain Queen was named Modjadji, meaning “Ruler of the Day”. This began a long line of female leaders of what was to become the first and only Queendom in South Africa. Lacking the military and technological advancements of larger tribes in the area, the Queen ruled with mysticism, claiming to hold the power of rainmaking. The Balobedu tribe had settled on a particularly wet area of Limpopo, this strengthened the tribes air of power and other tribes did not want to anger the Queen by attacking but instead sent gifts and tributes asking for rain on their own lands.
The last Rain Queen was Makhobo Modjadji VI who passed away in 2005 leaving behind a 5-month old daughter who will be the next Rain Queen when she turns 18 in 2023. She will rule over a hundred villages of the Balobedu Tribe. Visitors to this lush area can experience something of the mystique of the Rain Queen at the nearby Modjadji Cycad Reserve, which contains the world’s largest concentration of a single cycad species, known as the Modjadji palm. There are walking trails and accommodation available at Modjadji Camp, and visits to the royal homestead can be arranged.
Of Spears & Gunpowder
The KwaZulu Natal hinterlands played host to some of the bloodiest battles in the history of South Africa. From the early 1800s to around 1905, the northern lands of KZN were drenched with the blood of warriors of the Zulu Kingdom, Britain and Afrikaner people all fighting for control of the land and over each other.
The famous Battle of Isandlwana was where the heavily armed British were defeated by a far larger force of Zulu warriors during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. This battle is famous more so because of the fact that it was Britain’s greatest military defeat by a technologically inferior enemy. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift tells the story of a small group of British soldiers who repulsed a subsequent attack by a much larger Zulu force. This battle was later depicted in the famous British movie “Zulu” that was released in 1964. Her Majesty’s soldiers were all but defeated, holed up in an old house within a good defensive position. Heavily outnumbered, the young soldiers held out in the dead of night, inflicting severe damage to an enemy they could barely see but who had little protection from lead bullets. Eventually, the Zulu Generals sounded the call to retreat not knowing that the British would have been overwhelmed if the onslaught had kept just a few minutes longer.
Later, the South African War, also known as the Anglo-Boer War, was fought between British and Afrikaner soldiers fighting against British rule. A well-known battle site is at Spionkop which saw the bloodiest bit of the war with the Siege of Ladysmith which took place at the end of January 1900. This was one of the earliest known battles to involve trench warfare. The British would go on to win the war in 1902.
The Battlefields Route is situated around 4 hours from Durban. You would need a specialist tour guide to get the best experience on your visit. Fugitives’ Drift at Rorke’s Drift, for instance, has achieved international recognition for its exceptional battlefield interpretation and re-enactments.
All that Glitters is Gold
It was a chilly day in June 1884, Jan Gerrit Bantjes saw something glitter in the sun on the banks of a farm stream, he picked it up. Gold. This began the Witwatersrand Gold Rush which would eventually bring about the establishment of the city of Johannesburg and thrust South Africa into the spotlight as the world’s biggest producer of gold.
Gold Reef City is built upon an actual gold mine which was decommissioned in 1971. It is the largest theme park in South Africa situated just 8km from Johannesburg’s city centre. The park is unique as it is one of the only historical themed amusement parks in the world, a living museum. Visitors can embark on an underground mine tour, gold panning or even witness the pouring of an actual bar of gold! The park also has the standard entertainment offerings such as a casino, hotels and a plethora of fun activities for the little humans among us. For a more sobering experience, one could also visit the Apartheid Museum to learn more about this beautiful country’s turbulent past.
A Township in the South West
Soweto was created just before the outbreak of World War II, in the 1930s. The government at the time saw fit to begin physically separating black and white people. Black people were moved away from the city of Johannesburg and placed on the outskirts south-west of the city, an area that was soon to become the oldest black township in South Africa. In 1959, the Ministry of Non-European Affairs initiated a competition of sorts to give a collective name to this patchwork of settlements. Eventually, the acronym SOWETO (South Western Township) was settled upon, numerous black name suggestions were submitted but not approved.
Soweto became internationally known when police killed 176 and injured over a thousand protesting students in 1976. The protests were against the use of Afrikaans the medium of teaching in black schools. The township was home to numerous struggle icons including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
Attractions and points of interest include the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the third largest hospital in the world, the Orlando cooling towers which host a bungee jump platform and the FNB Stadium, built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Soweto is also a hive of both modern and traditional activity. Visitors can enjoy traditional beer tasting at one of the many “shebeens” or “shisa-nyama” (barbequed meat) at a local eatery.
A Little Rock Out at Sea
When the Dutch rounded the tip of Africa in the late 1490s, they encountered a tiny little piece of land trying its best to stay above the sea. Populated by thousands of seals, it was a sailor’s feast! Aptly named Robbeneiland, Dutch for Seal Island, the little rock just under 7km from Bloubergstrand in Cape Town would come to host several different eras of human suffering and despair. From the time of its discovery more than 500 years ago, the island has been used as a maritime contact for confinement and banishment, oppression and hard labour, torture, segregation and discrimination. It has also served time as a military post, a WW2 garrison, leprosarium and mental health facility, a prison for common law criminals and, most notably for political prisoners. An interesting fact, although Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, he only spent 18 of those years at the Island, the remaining years were shared between Victor Verster Prison, Pretoria Local Prison and Pollsmoor Prison where he was released.
The Island is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited single attractions in South Africa. This protection and conservation have led to a rich biodiversity on the island with vast colonies of seals, penguins and sea-birds calling it home. The island has been healing in a sense, since the fall of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela, it has been a symbol of our dark history dating back hundreds of years but also of how even the darkest of places can return to the light.
Visitors can book a tour to the island directly online with The Robben Island Museum, be sure to book early as possible. Trips to the island are weather dependant, if the weather isn’t playing along then your booking will be moved to a different day. The fairy can be a little bouncy so pack some motion sickness pills!
A Big Hole in the Ground
If you’re on a road trip from Johannesburg heading to Cape Town, you might come across a rather large hole in the ground. You might also come across a town named Kimberley. So, which came first? The story began when young Erasmus Jacobs was playing along the banks of the Orange River near the family farm in what is today the Northern Cape. A shiny stone caught his eye. It was a little later that his neighbour identified the stone as a diamond.
As with the Witwatersrand Gold Rush, this led to a diamond rush of sorts and the mining camp of Kimberley began taking shape. Before the city got its current name, it was known by a Dutch name Vooruitzigt and then “New Rush”. The then Secretary of State for the Colonies, John Wodehouse, 1st Earl of Kimberley did not appreciate either of these names on the basis of not being able to understand nor pronounce the Dutch name and deemed “New Rush” to be terribly vulgar. Colonial Secretary J.B. Currey had the idea that Kimberley would be an appropriate name as the Earl of Kimberley would surely know how to pronounce and spell it! Thus, New Rush became Kimberley, by Proclamation dated 5 July 1873.
Records reflect that between 1871 and 1914, 50 000 miners fell upon the dirt of Kimberley and hand dug what is today known as The Big Hole, popularly believed to be the largest hand-dug mine in the world with an estimated 22 million tons of dirt being excavation. During that period, the mine yielded close to 3000 kilograms of diamonds, which were mostly held by the De Beers Mining Company.
Today the Big Hole is a popular attraction with guided tours and a simulation of a mining shaft. The areas around Kimberley also boast spectacular Bushmen Rock Engravings and famous historic battlefields from the Anglo-Boer War. All in all, a cool stop on a road trip!
Hello! My name is Dominic Naidoo, I am a qualified Tour Guide and owner of Travel Bug Tours. If you're visiting Durban and would like to experience the city as the locals do, give me a call, I'd be happy to show you around!