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South Africa’s 10 World Heritage Sites – and why they’re worth a visit

Updated Tuesday, 24 September 2019

South Africa has 10 World Heritage Sites – sites of ‘outstanding universal value to humanity’, each of them protected for the future of our children thanks to a collective international community (UNESCO) that functions to keep these World Heritage Sites safe from harm.

For a full list (starting with the most recent first) of South Africa’s World Heritage Sites, keep scrolling.

There are just short of 1100 UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world:

The Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Grand Canyon in the USA …

We’re in good company, in other words.

South Africa’s World Heritage Sites range from places of historical and cultural importance like Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his prison sentence, to valuable natural locations like the Vredefort Dome, the Cape Floral Region (which protects the country’s small but vital fynbos) and, most recently, the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains.

To make it on to the UNESCO 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 five of our ten sites are cultural, four are natural, and one – the Maloti-Drakensberg Park – is mixed (cultural and natural). For your next holiday why not include one of them?

South Africa’s 10 World Heritage Sites – and why they’re worth a visit

Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains

The Makhonjwa Mountains are a greenstone belt just outside Barberton, a range of mountains and hills that cover 120 km by 60 km, most of it lying in Mpumalanga, but 20% in the neighbouring Swaziland. The area became a World Heritage Site in 2018.

Its geological value lies in its protection of some of the best preserved ancient rocks on Earth, for it is the place of one of the world’s oldest structures, with volcanic and sedimentary rock that dates back 3.6 to 3.25 billion years. Small wonder that the area’s been mined for gold and is often referred to as the ‘Genesis of Life’.

It’s believed by scientists who have worked in the area that an impact crater could still be uncovered based on evidence of meteor shock.

Why go? To drive the beautifully scenic and extremely interesting Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail, a 38 km self-drive route.

Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains

ǂ Khomani Cultural Landscape

You’ll find this World Heritage Site on the borders with Botswana and Namibia corresponding, more or less, with the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, which forms part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. It’s the only landscape to protect what remains of the once-nomadic San people, whom UNESCO recognise as having ‘developed a specific ethnobotanical knowledge, cultural practices and a worldview related to the geographical features of their environment.’

They’re one of the only groups of San still practising their traditional hunter-gatherer way of life.

Why visit? The Saasi, as this group of San call themselves, have a lifestyle more akin to the Hadza people of Tanzania; their ability to commune with nature is fascinating, and the landscape is beautiful.

ǂ Khomani Cultural Landscape

Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical 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

The Richtersveld

iSimangaliso Wetland 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

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

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

Most Visited Tourist Attractions in South Africa - Robben Island

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

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

Wonder Cave at Cradle of Humankind

uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park

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

uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

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

Secrets of Mapungubwe National Park

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 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

Vredefort Dome

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