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Posted on: Thursday, 21 June 2012

South Africa’s 8 World Heritage Sites – and why they’re worth a visit

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UNESCO World Heritage Sites

UNESCO Heritage Sites

It’s incredible to think that South Africa has eight sites that have ‘outstanding universal value to humanity’.

These places form part of a World Heritage List that is protected for the future of our children.

Around the world there are about 936 of them that include the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, the Taj Mahal in India, the Grand Canyon in the USA…we’re in good company.

Those countries involved form part of an international community that have come together, in a sense, to make sure that these sites are kept safe from harm. They collectively form part of man’s common heritage.

Today 187 countries are part of the Convention, making it an almost universally accepted set of principles and framework of action. To make it to the list, sites must be of ‘outstanding universal value’ and meet at least one of ten selection criteria that include:

  • Representing a masterpiece of human creative genius
  • Bearing testimony to a cultural tradition or civilization which is living or has disappeared
  • Areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance
  • Significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity

In South Africa four of our eight sites are cultural, three natural and one mixed (cultural and natural). When next planning a holiday, why not include one of them? I don’t know about you, but I’m proud that we can boast these places.

South Africa’s 8 World Heritage Sites – and why they’re worth a visit

Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape

Richtersveld Landscape

Richtersveld Landscape

Inscribed only in 2007, this site lies in the Northern Cape, covering some 160 000 hectares of mountainous desert and succulent Karoo vegetation. The Richtersveld Landscape is owned and managed by the local Nama people, descendents of the Khoisan people (a combination of Khoi and the San – two different groups of physically similar people) and helps sustain their semi-nomadic livelihood. It’s also the only area in which the Nama still live in portable homes known as haru oms. Theirs is a life of seasonal migration to grazing grounds, the collection of medicinal and other plants, and a strong oral tradition associated with the places and features of the landscape – one of few places in which one can still evidence a gentle relationship between people and nature.

Why go? Beautiful, barren landscape, the chance to see Nama homes, stockposts (bases for herders with their sheep and cattle) and lifestyle, and the fact that is only in the last few years that the Nama have ‘re-inherited’ the area

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

St Lucia Wetlands Park

St Lucia Wetlands Park

Considered one of the outstanding natural wetland and coastal sites in Africa the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, is an incredible merging of marine, coastal wetland, estuarine and terrestrial environments that is not only beautiful but largely unmarred by people. Geographically it spans 234 kilometres of the KwaZulu Natal coast and includes the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, wide undeveloped beaches, a mosaic of wetlands, grasslands, forests, lakes and savannah. It claims three natural phenomena: the shifting states of salinity within Lake St Lucia, nesting turtles on the beaches and an abundance of dolphins and whales, and huge numbers of breeding waterfowl – pelicans, storks, herons and terns.

Why go? Swathes of untouched coastline, coral reefs, long sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lakes and the chance to see elephant, buffalo, rhino, zebra, eland, kudu, and over 521 species of bird

Robben Island

Robben Island

Robben Island

Famous as the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 jail years, the island lies 11 km off the shore of Cape Town – a small rather windswept island where most visitors to the city visit the Robben Island Museum. Originally connected to the mainland of Cape town by a spit of land, the island has served as a prison, a hospital for ‘socially unacceptable groups’ and a military base. What survives is the tomb of Hadije Kramat, a village of administrative buildings that include a chapel and parsonage, and a lighthouse, a church that is all that remains of the leper colony, and the stark security prison of the Apartheid period. Its cultural value rests in the buildings’ tribute to history, and its symbolism as a triumph of the human spirit  of freedom over oppression.

Why go? To experience what it must have been like to be incarcerated here, to walk in the footsteps of Mandela

The fossil hominid sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans,
Kromdraai and Environs

Cradle of Humankind

Cradle of Humankind

Known as the Cradle of Humankind this region straddles parts of Gauteng and the North West Province. It has one of the richest concentrations of hominid fossils that provide evidence of human evolution over the last 3.5 million years. In the 47 000 hectare area there have been excavations of ancient forms of animals, plants and hominids – our early ancestors and their relatives. More than 950 hominid fossil have been uncovered here. The landscape is filled with limestone ridges, rock formations and valley grasslands and most of the sites are in caves, rocky outcrops or along water sources.

Why go? The fossil evidence in these sites has proven conclusively that Africa is the Cradle of Humankind

uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park

Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park

Ukhahlamba Drakensberg

The combination of Africa’s highest mountain range south of Kilimanjaro, high altitude grasslands, river valley and rocky gorges makes this a place of incredible beauty. The diversity of natural habitats protect many endemic and threatened species, especially birds and plants, as well as a series of caves and rock shelters with the most concentrated group of San rock art paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. This series of inland mountains along the eastern border of Lesotho in the west of KwaZulu Natal is divided in to the Little Berg and the main escarpment, which rises to well over 3 400 metres – an incredible view. The region is the best watered and least drought-prone areas in southern Africa.

Why go? The towering ramparts of the mountains, hiking, mountain streams and incredible peace and quiet

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

Mapungubwe National Park

Mapungubwe National Park

Limpopo‘s ‘place of the stone of wisdom’ was South Africa’s very first kingdom. It was to become the subcontinent’s largest realm, said to hold a highly sophisticated people who traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt. It lies where the Limpopo and Shashe rivers meet – at South Africa’s northern border with Zimbabwe, an open plain of savannah where today you can still visit the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and dependent settlements. In the 13th century Mapungubwe was considered the most important inland settlement in the African subcontinent. It ended as a result of climatic change with a decrease in rainfall that could no longer sustain the population’s traditional farming methods.

Why go? To experience the history of this wealthy, first kingdom – the property and buffer zone have not seen any human intervention since the remains were abandoned

Cape Floral Region

Cape Floral Region

Cape Floral Region

This is one of the richest areas in the world for plants. It covers 553 000 hectares of eight areas that stretch from the Cape Peninsula to the Eastern Cape, representing less than 0.5% of the area of Africa yet claiming nearly 20% of the continent’s flora. The incredible diversity, density and examples of endemic plants is among the highest in the world. The area includes Table Mountain, De Hoop Nature Reserve, the Boland mountain complex, the Groot Winterhoek wilderness area, the Swartberg mountains, the Boosmansbos wilderness area, the Cederberg wilderness area and Baviaanskloof. Not only does this region have a remarkable plant diversity, but 31.9% of the plants are endemic to the area – the highest on the planet.

Why go? To experience the diversity of fynbos; to visit Kirstenbosch, the first botanical garden ever included in a World Heritage site

Vredefort Dome

Vredefort Dome

Vredefort Dome

Vredefort Dome lies 120 km south west of Johannesburg, a unique geological phenomenon that formed as a result of a meteorite impact 2 023 million years ago. It is the oldest and largest known meteorite impact structure on Earth. It is also the most deeply eroded complex meteorite impact structure in the world and the site of the greatest single known energy release event. It is the only example on Earth that provides a full geological profile of an astrobleme below the crater floor

Why go? To visit the oldest and biggest meteorite impact site in the world

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Wanda Coustas

About 

Wanda Coustas has written in one form or another for 10 years, seven of them as a copyblogger. She has travelled the Western Cape extensively and the rest of the country in protracted road trips that have given her both joy and an ongoing relish for experiencing what she writes about first-hand. She is a trained opera singer, poet, eurythmy dancer, philosopher, and bee whisperer.

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