by Will Edgcumbe

World Heritage Sites

South Africa has much to boast about and Unesco agrees

Robben Island
Robben Island
South Africa is blessed with an incredibly rich natural and cultural heritage. From the soaring peaks of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg mountain range to the biodiverse Cape floral region, the sun-baked desert of the Kalahari to the lush wetlands and coastal forest of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and the bushveld teeming with game to the arid Karoo dotted with succulents, it is a country with an incredible bounty to share with locals and visitors alike.

Celebrating the diversity of South Africa’s culture and natural beauty, the eight current World Heritage Sites areas are as follows:

Cradle of Humankind
Northwest of Johannesburg, Sterkfontein and its sister sites of Swartkrans and Kromdraai are caves famous for the numerous early hominid remains found here. Finds such as The Taung child, Mrs Ples and Little Foot, not to mention the remains of hundreds of hominids, make this the richest site of its kind in the world.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Unveiled by Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first Unesco-declared World Heritage Site in 1999 and set on the coastline of northern KwaZulu-Natal, iSimangaliso boasts pristine marine, coastal, wetland, estuarine and terrestrial environs covering a whopping 239 566 hectares. Home to the Big Five, teeming coral reefs and incredible bird life, it is one of the most carefully preserved areas in Africa.

Robben Island
A symbol of both oppression and the triumph of democracy, Robben Island holds an important place in South Africa’s modern history. Used between the 17th and 20th centuries as a prison, military base and hospital, it is best known for being a maximum security prison for political prisoners, most famously Nelson Mandela, who went on to become South Africa’s first democratically-elected president.

uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park
Arguably the most dramatic locale in the country, the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park is home to the highest mountain range in South Africa. High altitude grasslands, soaring peaks and steep river valleys are characteristic of the area, and the many caves and rock shelters are home to the largest concentration of rock paintings south of the Sahara Desert.

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
Found in the Limpopo province on the border with Zimbabwe and Botswana, Mapungubwe developed into the first and largest kingdom in southern Africa. Mapungubwe's position enabled it to control trade, through the East African ports to India and China, and throughout southern Africa. From its hinterland it also harvested gold and ivory - commodities in scarce supply elsewhere. This international trade created a society that was closely linked to ideological adjustments, changes in architecture and settlement planning. What remains are almost untouched palace sites, capital sites and an entire settlement area.

Cape Floral Region Protected Areas
Famous for its fynbos vegetation unique to the area, the Cape Floral Region covers 553 000 hectares in eight protected areas. Home to almost 20% of Africa’s flora, it has amongst the highest plant density, diversity and endemism in the world.

Vredefort Dome
It’s hard to reconcile the peacefulness of Vredefort Dome with the event that gave it its shape and significance – the biggest meteroite impact to ever occur on earth. Some 120km south of Johannesburg, the Vredefort Dome is a representative part of a larger meteorite impact structure, called an astrobleme. Estimated to be around 2 billion years old and with a radius of190km, it is the oldest and largest of its kind respectively.

Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape
One of the lesser known World Heritage Sites in South Africa, the Richtersveld sustains the semi-nomadic pastoral livelihood of the Nama people.
The extent of South Africa’s sites of natural and cultural significance doesn’t end here; there are thirteen more sites on a so-called Tentative List awaiting the possibility of being awarded World Heritage Site status, and some of these are places even South Africans may not know about.
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