As locals gear up for the holiday season, taking to their cars and driving cross-country, we have a look at the 8 Unesco Heritage sites in South Africa, unique and rich destinations that are all well worth a visit.
What do Egypt’s pyramids, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Italy’s Colosseum and Argentina’s Iguazu Falls all have in common? Despite lying on different continents, these four sites, along with 1,042 others across the globe, belong to every person on the globe.
In 1972, Unesco came up with a policy to preserve the world’s heritage, by identifying ‘cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity’. Years of nominations and selections have led to 1,052 spots being heralded as World Heritage sites, and these incredible destinations now belong to ‘all the peoples of the world’, no matter where they are located.
Unesco works tirelessly to protect these sites, training local governments to look after them, providing emergency assistance if they are endangered and encouraging both local and international visitors to preserve the precious landmarks.
It’s hardly surprising that with its rich cultural and natural history, South Africa boasts eight Unesco World Heritage sites. From the awe-inspiring Cradle of Humankind to the natural beauty of the greater St Lucia Wetland Park, the country has a wide selection of unique and diverse attractions that is now shared with the rest of the world.
The Cradle of Humankind
maropeng cradle of humankind
Western Gauteng’s Maropeng, or ‘the place where we once lived’ in Setswana, is a complex network of dolomitic limestone caves where at least 40 different fossil sites have been discovered. Only 13 of these have been unearthed, yet fossil giants such as Taung Child, Mrs Ples, Little Foot and, most recently, the history-altering Naledi, have already emerged from this area. While the scenery may look barren at first glance, the Cradle of Humankind is one of the richest sources of hominid fossils in Africa.
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
In the far north of the country lies Mapungubwe, the ruins of a flourishing Iron Age metropolis. Between AD 1000 and AD 1300, the Kingdom of Mapungubwe was a key link in the Indian Ocean Arab dhow trade, and the artifacts discovered there include anything from glass trade beads to carved ivory items, and, of course, the famous Golden Rhino of Mapungubwe.
Now a symbol of the oppressive apartheid regime, Robben Island was home to exiled prisoners as far back as 1525, and through the years has been used as a criminal and political prison, a ‘hospital’ for lepers and the criminally insane, and a military base. A visit nowadays is much less daunting and will include the ferry trip from Cape Town, as well as tours of the island and the prison.
Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape
In the extreme northwest of the country lies the moonlike landscape of the Richtersveld. This dry, harsh environment derives most of its moisture through fog from the freezing Atlantic Ocean. Various plant, bird and animal species have adapted to the area, making trekking through the Richtersveld a surreal and unique experience. During August and September the dusty plains come alive with the blooms of millions of flowers.
With its dramatic mountain views and fortune of Bushman Rock Art, the 600 000 acre uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is a national sanctuary where you can truly get back to nature. The park is tailored for hikers, who are able to get up close and personal with some Bushman rock art, as well as explore other historic and natural sites such as the Didima Museum, the Battle Cave or the Game Pass Shelter in the Kamberg section of the reserve.
Cape Floral Region protected areas
The Cape Floral Region is a unique stretch of eight protected areas situated between the Cape Peninsula and the Eastern Cape. Unesco described it as ‘one of the richest areas for plants in the world’, as while it represents less than 0.5% of the area of Africa, it is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s flora. A highlight is the De Hoop Nature Reserve whose beach has towering sand dunes that plunge down to the sea, as well as the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens near Hermanus, a fynbos wonderland with a number of rewarding walks into the adjacent kloofs.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Recently renamed iSimangaliso, which aptly means ‘marvel’ in Zulu, the former Greater St Lucia Wetland Park is South Africa’s third largest protected area, and its first World Heritage Site. At 810 000 acres, the untouched park is unique in that it combines subtropical coastline, wetlands and tropical forest, thereby supporting a greater diversity of species than larger areas such as the Kruger or the Okavango Delta.
Lying 120km south west of Johannesburg, Vredefort Dome is part of a massive meteorite impact that dates back an astonishing 2 023 million years. It is unique in that it is the largest, mostly deeply eroded and oldest meteorite impact site yet found on earth. You should hire a guide for the day to take you through the Dome, as many of the best attractions are tucked away on private farms. Also, try an outdoor activity such as kayaking in the nearby Vaal River, to really appreciate the beauty of the landscape.