September in South Africa means a month-long celebration of South African Heritage, culminating on 24 September, our national Heritage Day.
Inline with this month-long awareness campaign around South Africa's cultural and natural heritage, we've gone in search of the splendour of our official UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Yes, we know you know about the eight sites. But do we really know them, and know how to experience and appreciate them?
If you can't say you do, here are our suggestions to revelling in South Africa's incredible heritage.
Let's start at the beginning with South Africa's first official UNESCO's sites. Although formed in 1978, the first three UNESCO World Heritage Sites for South Africa were only listed in 1999. These included the natural wonder of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and the culturally significant sites of Robben Island and the Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa.
SEE: Bushman Art Explorations: Get in touch with your rock art heritage
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
- declared a Natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999
Being South Africa's very first natural World Heritage Site speaks for itself - especially in such a naturally rich country. But what is it that makes iSimangaliso so incredible?
According to conservation journalist and wildlife enthusiast Scott Ramsay, it's the diversity.
"While Kruger, Serengeti and Chobe National Parks are deserved icons of Africa, protected areas like iSimangaliso has, by some estimates, more species of animals per square kilometre than any other protected area in Africa," he writes about iSimangaliso.
One of the most important natural occurrences at iSimangaliso is the turtles. The coastline of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is the only remaining major nesting site in Africa where Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles still lay their eggs. These important breeding grounds have been protected by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the conservation partners of the Wetland Park Authority, for over 50 years.
Lake St Lucia, which forms part of iSimangaliso, also has the largest single population of crocodiles in the country, along with 53.4 % of all the described snake species in RSA, Lesotho and Swaziland, 30.8% of all the described reptile species and 41.5% of all frogs and toads in the region, Xander Combrink from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife tells Scott.
Stay at iSimangaliso
There's a wide variety of accommodation options available in the actual protected iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Campsites can be found at Kosi Bay, Mabibi, Sodwana Bay, uMkhuze, False Bay, Cape Vidal, Lake St Lucia Estuary and Maphelane.
Various self-catering options, ranging from safari tents to log cabins and more exclusive bush lodges are available at Kosi Bay, Sodwana Bay, uMkhuze, False Bay, Cape Vidal and Maphelane.
For catered accommodation, there's Sodwana Bay's Mseni Lodge, Coral Divers or a choice of two fully catered facilities in the Coastal Forest section of iSimangaliso, namely Rocktail Beach Camp, Kosi Forest Lodge and Thonga Beach Lodge.
What to do?
To keep busy, there's a wide offering of self-guided activities to get up to. From kayaking, birding and exploring the beaches are but a few, there are also the official guided tours that will give you a deeper insight to this world heritage site.
The Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles are the big attraction for wildlife lovers, along with the hippos and incredible amount of species that call it home. Visitors to iSimangaliso can sign up for an accredited tour with a licensed guide. Access to the beaches at night is strictly controlled, as it is considered a prime nesting site globally.
Visitors to the park can go on night-drives to view the nocturnal abundance of the park alongside expert local guides, as part of the park's offering.
- declared a Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999
This SA World Heritage Site also needs little introduction, as it is directly linked to one of the world's greatest leaders that ever lived - Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
It was here where many anti-Apartheid activists were sentenced to life-long imprisonment. Before that, it was used as a mental hospital and an outpost for people with incurable diseases.
But where it was once considered a place of exile, death and illness, it is now deemed a global landmark and symbol of the Triumph of the Human Spirit over adversity.
Staying on Robben Island
A year ago, Robben Island management unveiled plans to open the first accommodation offering on the island. Previously no visitors have been allowed to overnight on the island.
Although no official updates on accommodation have been announced to date, the original prospects included the conversion of the former governor of the island’s residence - overlooking the walkout point and the island's famous pool area - to tourist accommodation.
For now, the closest point to staying on Robben Island remains on the mainland, however. Bloubergstrand and the V&A Waterfront are great options, as you are able to see the island across the ocean from these spots.
What to do?
SA Tourism has done plenty to make Robben Island more accessible over the past two years, after the management of the island got flack for not maintaining a world-class visitor experience.
Google also got on board with listing Robben Island on their virtual travel experience and learning site, so children in classrooms and other enthusiasts worldwide are now able to visit the World Heritage Site online.
Nothing, however, beats visiting the island in real life. The guided tours are led by ex-prisoners, making the experience and stories behind the cells, limestone quarries are other sites so much more personal.
Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa
- declared a Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999
This UNESCO listing, also known as the Cradle of Humankind, is in fact a serial listing which includes the Fossil Hominin Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Environs, and the Makapan Valley and Taung Skull Fossil Site.
It's the world's richest hominid site, home to around 40% of the world's human ancestor fossils. (If you're getting flashbacks from learning about the Taung Skull at school right now, don't fret... experiencing the real thing isn't nearly as boring!)
The best part? It's only 50km from Johannesburg.
The World Heritage Site made world headlines in September last year after a new species of the human relative was announced by Wits University, the National Geographic Society and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF).
Consisting of more than 1 550 numbered fossil elements, the discovery is the single largest fossil hominin find yet made on the continent of Africa! You need to go check it out.
Staying at the Fossil Hominid Sites
If you truly want to immerse yourself in the Cradle of Humankind, booking a night’s stay in the Lesedi African Lodge and Cultural village is the best way to go.
In the village, you will encounter five traditional homesteads, each inhabited by Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Basotho and Ndebele tribes who live according to tribal folklore and traditions of their ancestors.
The people in the village are not actors and do not ‘dress up’ for the sake of tourists. A warm, traditional welcome awaits you when these locals invite you into their village.
What to do?
The Sterkfontein Caves are home to the most famous of the 12 excavated fossil sites in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, and therefore a good place to start.
Here, you will be able to see “Little Foot” and “Mrs Ples”, with whom you must be super familiar with following your Grade 10 history class...
Then, you must see the Kromdraai Wondercave. It's SA’s third-largest cave and arguably of the most beautifully decorated of them all. The cave is one single limestone cavern measuring 125m in length. It's 54m wide and 60m deep.
NOTE: These are 88 steps leading in and out of the cave, so be prepared to work those glutes!
Another favourite is to do a boat ride on an underground lake at Maropeng Visitor Centre exhibition. It takes you through the earth’s evolutionary process with the help of visual, physical and fun elements. The boat ride also lets you experience changing climates of the earth!
- declared a Mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000
This is South Africa's only mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed as such for its equally significant cultural and natural importance. In Africa, it is one of only four mixed World Heritage Sites.
It is also South Africa's only trans-boundary World Heritage Site, as it straddles both the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park in South Africa and the Sehlathebe National Park in the enclave of Lesotho.
The property covers an area of 249 313 hectares, making it the largest protected area complex along the Great Escarpment of southern Africa.
On the cultural side, this spectacular natural site contains many caves and rock-shelters with the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. They represent the spiritual life of the San people, who lived in this area over a period of 4 000 years.
Praised for its natural splendour, too, the site has exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks, and golden sandstone ramparts as well as visually spectacular sculptured arches, caves, cliffs, pillars and rock pools.
The site harbours endangered species such as the Cape vulture and the bearded vulture, while Lesotho’s Sehlabathebe National Park harbours the Maloti minnow, a critically endangered fish species only found in this park.
Stay in the Maloti-Drakensberg Park
On the South African side, staying in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is relatively easy.
There are a wide array of hotels, chalets and camping spots around. Our favourites include Champagne Castle Hotel,
READ: Wild Drakensberg: Giant's Castle
What to do?
With the dragon's spine stretching some 150km long, it's the perfect playground for adventurers of all kinds.
A particularly renowned attraction of the park is the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, a wall of rock 5km in length and 1 000m high. From its domed summit at Mont-aux-Sources spill the spectacular Tugela Falls, the second-highest waterfall in the world.
Apart from the adventure-action the area holds, the cultural significance is also a must-see. Though the inhabitants have largely disappeared from the area, they have left their mark in the form of fascinating rock art. Some 30 000 paintings in 600 caves and overhangs have been recorded in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park.
The best option to see these is to take a guided tour to the famous rock art sites of Didima Gorge or the Kamberg. Permits are required to access areas that fall under Parks Board protection. The fee is nominal and is used for maintenance costs.
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
- declared a Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003
If you've ever wondered about the history of Africa's trade practices and influences globally, this is the place to visit.
About the time of the Dark Ages of Europe, the royal court at Mapungubwe in Limpopo welcomed traders and men of influence from Arabia and the Far East... but it was only in recent decades that we have uncovered the fascinating details of this ancient city.
Archaeologists have been picking over the ruins for decades, revealing that the rule of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe extended from about 1050 AD to 1270 AD. They have found human skeletons lying in seated or foetal positions, often with artefacts like beads, ivory, animal bones and pots. Burials on the hill were obviously those of royalty, and vast quantities of gold were found with their remains.
It was drastic climatic changes that ultimately led to this rich kingdom's demise.
Stay in Mapungubwe
Since Mapungubwe falls under South African National Parks, you can literally stay within the Park at the SANParks chalets or campsites.
Leokwe Camp is Mapungubwe’s main camp, located in the eastern section of the Park, 11km from the Main Gate, in the spectacular sandstone hills. The camp itself has a swimming pool and sundeck, as well as a central braai area.
The Limpopo Forest Tented Camp again, is situated in the Limpopo riverine forest which offers excellent birding, is located in the western section of the Park, approximately 40km from the Main Gate.
If you're looking for a little more luxury, Tshugulu Lodge is able to accommodate up to 12 people, and has it's own exclusive eco-trail.
For camping, the Mazhou Camping Site is situated approximately 40km from the Main Gate, close to the Limpopo Forest Tented Camp.
What to do?
South African National Park (SANParks) will be opening its doors for free from Monday, 12 September until Friday, 16 September as part of the annual South African National Parks Week.
This campaign under the established theme ‘Know Your National Parks’ will allow locals with valid identity documents an opportunity to spend a day at a national park of their choice free of charge - it's the perfect excuse to explore this incredible World Heritage Site.
The best way to get an in-depth experience into the Park's history, is to book for a walking tour of Mapungubwe Hill at the central office within the park.
Cape Floral Region Protected Areas
- declared a Natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004
This is one of the world’s great centres of terrestrial biodiversity, and despite being the smallest of the global floral kingdoms, it boasts with extraordinarily high diversity and endemism.
The extended property includes national parks, nature reserves, wilderness areas, State forests and mountain catchment areas. In some cases, people also live within these Cape Floral Regions, in the urban park that is Table Mountain National Park.
The Fynbos vegetation, that fine-leaved sclerophyllic shrubland adapted to both a Mediterranean climate and periodic fires we know so well, make the Cape Floral Region the unique area it is.
Stay in the Cape Floral Region
Because the Cape Floral Region covers such a wide area, staying right within its midsts is very easy to do.
Cape Town has one of the largest Airbnb communities in Africa, making it one of the best value-for-money options to book a spot in the very popular Mother City.
What to do?
A mere drive-by to see this incredible floral region is criminal. You need to go hiking in the Cape Floral Region to truly experience the true fynbos feel, scent and sound.
One of our favourite, relatively easy hikes to experience the Cape Floral Kingdom is the stroll up Chapman’s Peak.
The hike starts at the green SANParks signpost on Chapman’s Peak Drive, and takes about 2 hours to the beacon – an easy stroll with lots of stops to enjoy the spectacular views overlooking the Indian Ocean to one side, and the Atlantic Ocean to the other.
It is advised you hike with an experienced guide, or at least let friends and family know of your hiking plans and ETA.
You can follow one of the many self-guided trails in and around Cape Town to see this, or you can rope in the help of an expert. Tim Lundy is a renowned Cape Town hiker and guide, and can be contacted on Facebook.
- declared a Natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005
The Vredefort Dome marks the biggest meteorite impact site that geologists have found on Earth to date, a crater with a radius of 190km-wide. Dating back 2 023 million years, it is also the oldest impact crater that has been found on Earth.
Judging by its magnitude, Vredefort Dome bears witness to the world’s greatest known single energy release event, which had devastating global effects including, according to some scientists, major evolutionary changes.
Stay at Vredefort Dome
If you're visiting the area, you need to focus all your attention on the incredible landscape, that's why we love Thabela Thabeng, which means, "Be Happy in the Mountains".
Their Rockhaven chalet is a private, romantic haven for two is built around a natural rock overlooking the incredible landscape.
What to do?
Since the area is quite large and difficult to digest for a beginning, it's good to rope in an expert. Choose from the following official tours:
Geological tour - This tour is for people, mostly geologists & geology students, who want to see & study the unique rock types & rock formations in this impact crater.
General tour - The general tour is the one that most visitors prefer. This one gives an overall insight into the outstanding features of the unique landscape (the natural scenery of the hills and valleys and the Vaal River), the geology as well as the history and culture.
History and culture tour - Many visitors are particularly interested in the rich history and culture of the area, as we have evidence of human habitation dating from Late Stone Age, Iron Age, and early European Settlers, Anglo-Boer War as well as the mining for gold, to the present day.
Birding tour - Imagine how much excitement and pleasure birders can have in an area with 330+ indigenous species of water birds, grassveld birds and forest birds in a radius of 50km. Indeed an area which should be on the wish list of every serious bird watcher.
Educational tour - Local as well as international geology students are brought to the Dome by their tutors to come and study the unique geology of the Vredefort Dome. We also cater for school groups, primary and secondary school learners and their teachers.
Vredefort Dome is also one of the best places in the country for stargazing, so be sure to look up at the night sky when you're there.
Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape
- declared a Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007
This is South Africa's most recent World Heritage Site, declared in 2007. This site sustains the semi-nomadic pastoral livelihood of the Nama people, reflecting seasonal patterns that may have persisted for as much as two millennia in southern Africa.
It is the only area in the world where the Nama still construct portable rush-mat houses (haru om) and includes seasonal migrations and grazing grounds, together with stock posts.
The cultural landscape comprises all the elements linked to the transhumance lifestyle of the Nama pastoralists. The authenticity of the traditional domed houses is mainly intact, despite the incorporation of some new materials along with the finely braided traditional mats.
Interestingly, there are increasing numbers of young people interested in continuing the traditions.
Stay in the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape
The |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park falls under SANParks, so there are plenty accommodation options available in the park.
The best place to stay, however, is at Potjiespram Rest Camp. There are 18 Campsites and an Environmental Education Centre where school groups can stay over in traditional Nama huts!
What to do?
The Ai /Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park features the world's second largest canyon, the Fish River Canyon, which meanders between the spectacular cliffs characteristic of the desert landscape.
A hiking trip in this region is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience to tackle. If you prefer something a little less strenuous, you can opt for the other guided trails in the area.
If you're not into hiking, the landscape makes for the perfect spot to kick up some dust with your motorbike...
And apart from hiking and biking, the park is also known for its flower spectacle every year in spring. Check out: Spring Guide: Best routes to follow this spring!
What to read next on Traveller24:
- #TourismForAll: Affordability of local travel highlighted ahead of Heritage Month
- New iSimangaliso holiday home development stopped in its tracks
- Golden Gate to host African spirituality weekend