10 heritage sites to tick off your bucket list

Thursday, 23 September 2021 02:00 PM

Local travel is lekker! You get to see many places, sneak in weekend getaways and enjoy long holidays on a budget, all while supporting the local economy and giving a much-needed boost to the tourism industry. With warmer weather on the rise comes a growing itch to be out and about, making it an ideal time to sight-see your way around the country. Wherever you’re headed this heritage month, experience South Africa’s rainbow culture, natural beauty, or pay homage to its rich history by ticking some of these 10 South African World Heritage Sites off your bucket list.

1). iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Kwazulu Natal

Image Credit: UNESCO

iSimangaliso, the place of miracle and wonder in isiZulu, certainly lives up to its meaning! As the first South African heritage site to make the UNESCO list, its uniqueness lies in the mosaic of interconnected ecosystems you can find in the area - from lakes, beaches, swamps, savannahs to coral reefs, wetlands, grasslands, which have attracted an abundance of wildlife. Situated close to the town of St Lucia, on the east coast of Kwazulu Natal, the park is about a 3-hour drive from Durbs and spans 280 km of coastline with several notable reserves. Whether you’re diving or snorkelling in warm, crystal-clear waters at Sodwana Bay National Park, spotting the big 5 on a safari at Mkuze Game Reserve, or going on a memorable turtle tour along the shores of St Lucia and Cape Vidal, this heritage site offers an extraordinary experience for everyone.

2). Maloti-Drakensberg Park, KwaZulu-Natal

The Maloti-Drakensberg Park is a transfrontier conservation area between South Africa and Lesotho. It was inscribed as a World Heritage Site for its incredible biodiversity and cultural significance. The site encompasses the uKhahlamba and Sehlathebe National Parks and is composed of 12 protected areas that hold the largest concentration of San rock art in Southern Africa, dating back 4000 years, high levels of endangered plant and animal species, as well as fragile ecosystems and diverse habitats such as caves, pristine rivers, valleys, basaltic buttresses and more. But, it is probably best known as the home of the highest mountain range in Southern Africa - the Drakensberg Mountains. These majestic mountains have been dubbed the “Barrier of Spears” or Ukhahlamba in isiZulu because of their dramatic peaks. As a prime tourist destination, easily accessed from Durbs, Maloti-Drakensberg has long been an adventure seeker’s paradise. Whether you’re going hiking along its many trails or tackling the scenic Sani Pass route on a 4x4, when exploring this part of the world, you’ll find natural beauty at every turn!

3). Robben Island, Western Cape

Image Credit: South African Tourism

Robben Island is one of South African's most famous landmarks, drawing thousands of local and international visitors each year. Situated in Table Bay, north of Cape Town, this tourist attraction has a 500-year-old multi-layered history as a prison, hospital for socially unacceptable groups and a military base. In the 20th century, its buildings were used as a prison for political prisoners during Apartheid, a period of suffering and injustice. It was declared a world heritage site in 1999 and became a unique symbol representing “the triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression and racism”. A standard tour of the Robben Island Museum takes 3.5 hours and includes a ferry return trip, a guided island tour and a prison tour. Booking ahead of time is strongly advised!

4). Vredefort Dome, Free State

It’s hard to believe that a meteorite as large as Table Mountain once struck South Africa. But the Free State province has all the evidence to show for it thanks to the Vredefort Dome, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The dome forms part of the oldest and largest meteorite impact site in the world. This impressive structure dates back 2 million years, with a crater over 300 km in diameter. The meteorite impact may have sparked global evolutionary changes, making it a site of immense geological interest. The Vredefort Dome is best experienced from an aerial view because the crater remnants have formed peculiar rings of small hills and beautiful valleys around the impact site. Make your visit to this heritage site spectacular with a hot air balloon ride or sky diving adventure! Recent discoveries of Khoisan carvings have brought cultural prominence to the dome. However, the area is mostly privately-owned and may require the assistance of a tour guide to access. Getting to Vredefort Dome is just a 1.5-hour drive from Jo’burg and provides the perfect opportunity to explore the nearby towns of Parys and Vredefort.

5). Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, Limpopo

Image Credit: UNESCO

The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape forms part of the Mapungubwe National Park bordering Zimbabwe and Botswana. This landscape contains a wealth of cultural and archaeological treasures, which is why it was declared the 5th South African UNESCO World Heritage site. Discover the African Kingdom of Mapungubwe, an Iron Age indigenous settlement considered to be the first Southern African city. Get a fascinating glimpse into the kingdom's society and significance as an international trade centre when exploring the unearthed artefacts (including the famous golden rhino) at The Museum and Interpretive Centre. No cultural heritage site comes without its share of local folklore, and as “the place of Jackals”, Mapungubwe's legendary tales are an integral part of the guided tours. The park itself is known for its staggering beauty and biodiversity, offering a range of outdoor activities, most of which require the assistance of a tour guide.

6). Khomani Cultural Landscape, Northern Cape

If a road trip to the Northern Cape is on the cards, then you’d want to discover one of the oldest cultures on the planet at The Khomani Cultural Landscape. Close to the borders of Botswana and Namibia, this site forms part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and is home to the Khomani San, a small community representing South Africa’s oldest indigenous people. The Khomani San have overcome many obstacles to preserve their culture, language and traditions, which has led to their area being recognized and honoured as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For an immersive cultural experience, be sure to visit the Living Museum, which provides fascinating insights into the life of the San. You can also participate in traditional activities such as craft making or try your hand at shooting an arrow! The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is also worth exploring. Its rolling red sand dunes and vast pans provide the perfect setting for a memorable wildlife adventure.

7). Cape Floral Region - Eastern Cape, Western, Cape

With stretches of gorgeous floral displays across the Eastern Cape and Cape Penninsula, the Cape Floral Region is truly a sight to behold. As one of the six floral kingdoms of the world, the region is a biodiversity hotspot that holds 20% of Africa's flora and boasts over 9000 plant species, most of which are endemic. This natural phenomenon has a worthy spot on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites and consists of 8 protected areas, each offering a unique experience of the region. If you’re in the Mother City, be sure to visit the Table Mountain National Park, where you’ll find two of Cape Town's most iconic landmarks - Table Mountain and The Cape of Good Hope. If you’re in the Eastern Cape, close to the city of Gqeberha, the Baviaanskloof Mega Reserve is a must-see marked by ancient relics, San rock art and magnificent mountain scenery. With no shortage of unspoilt beauty and overnight accommodation, the Baviaanskloof (Valley of Baboons) Mega Reserve is ideal for an outdoor adventure or an off-the-beaten-track experience.

8). Richtersveld cultural and botanical landscape, Northern Cape

Diverse plant life, a river, valuable minerals and animal life in a scorching hot desert is quite hard to come by. Add dramatic mountains to the mix, and you’ve got the surrealness of the Richtersveld. The Richtersveld has the highest diversity of succulent plants in the world - that’s over 2000 species (most of which are endemic) with rocks as old as 2 million years! The site is the last refuge of the Nama people, a semi-migrant community that has lived and grazed their livestock in the area for over 2000 years. As part of a conservancy venture with SANparks (South African National Parks) to reclaim their traditional land and preserve the site’s fragile ecosystems, the Richtersveld was declared a World Heritage Site. Located in the Northern Cape, bordering Namibia, the Richtersveld offers the ultimate rustic, off-the-beaten-track experience for visitors wanting to escape into the wild.


9). Cradle of Humankind, Gauteng

Image Credit: South African Tourism

If you happen to be close to Jozi, the Cradle of Human Kind is a stone’s throw away in Magaliesburg. This archaeological landmark is dotted with limestone caves and fossil sites where more than 500 hominid fossils were unearthed, providing fascinating insights into the evolution of humankind. Most notable finds include “Mrs Ples”, a 2.3 million-year-old fossil and “Little Foot”, a fossil over 3 million years old, discovered at the Sterkfontein Caves. And thanks to many of these ground-breaking discoveries, it was declared a World Heritage Site. The Maropeng Visitor Centre is your gateway to the Cradle of Humankind, recounting stories of human evolution in spectacular fashion. The interactive and informative tours include visits to the Sterkfontein Caves and attract visitors from all walks of life.

10). Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains (Barberton Green Belt), Mpumalanga

As the latest South African site inscribed on UNESCO’s prestigious list, the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains' claim to fame is for being one of the oldest geological structures on earth - even older than continents! Take a self-drive through the famous Makhonjwa Geotrail, and stop at the 11 geosites along the 38 km scenic route to explore the well-preserved volcanic and sedimentary rocks dating back to 3 billion years. And if that’s not enough to satisfy your historical curiosity, take a trip back to the beginning of the gold rush era by visiting the historical towns of Barberton and Kaapsehoop, birthed from the gold first discovered at the Makhonjwa Mountains. If you're up for some outdoor adventure activities, Makhonjwa Mountains offers you a myriad of ways to interact with its scenic beauty at the nature reserves surrounding the area. These ancient mountains are a 4-hour drive away from Jo’burg, so expect to find other hidden gems along the way!

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