By Fiona Wakelin


Sometimes when we feel there is only a faint glimmer of light at the end of the COVID tunnel, it helps with the malaise that constant anxiety and stress bring with them, to remind ourselves of how rich we are as a country in terms of natural and cultural heritage.

This article looks at our 8 World Heritage Sites –  and hopefully provides some armchair travel.



On 1 December 1999 the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park – now known as the iSimangaliso Wetland Park – was declared South Africa’s first Natural World Heritage Site.  “iSimangaliso” means “miracles” and this, South Africa’s third largest park, stretches from Mapelane (Cape St. Lucia) in the South, to Kosi Bay Nature Reserve in the North.

A Ramsar Site is a wetland which is considered to be of international importance; South Africa currently has 27 Ramsar sites and iSimangaliso contains four of them:

  • Turtle Beaches/Coral Reefs of Tongaland (Ramsar Site # 344)
  • St. Lucia Lake System (Ramsar Site # 345)
  • Kosi Bay Lake System (Ramsar Site #527)
  • Lake Sibaya (Ramsar Site # 528)


The Park comprises 8 interlinking ecosystems with a 220 km coastline and ancient 25 000-year-old coastal forests. The interlinking ecosystems of grasslands, swamps, lakes, beaches, coral reefs, woodlands, wetlands, and coastal forests, results in a myriad of flora and fauna which people travel from all over the world to enjoy. These include hippopotami, elephant, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, kudu, hyena and water buck on land – and Nile crocodiles, whales, dolphins, turtles and a plethora of fish species in the water. It is also a bird watchers’ haven with over 520 bird species to tweet home about. Lake St Lucia is one of the most important breeding areas for water birds in South Africa

 The six settlements in the Park are in the Kosi Bay Coastal Forest Reserve and management at the provincial level is by KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation, working with the provincial administration in accordance with national and provincial legislation. The Park is also protected by the World Heritage Convention Act, 1999.



The uKhahlamba (Barrier of Spears) Drakensberg National Park in South Africa and the Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho make up the transnational Maloti-Drakensberg Park. Covering an area of 249 313 ha and stretching along most of KwaZulu-Natal’s south-western border with Lesotho it is the largest protected area along the Great Escarpment and is home to a number of endangered species –  both flora and fauna. The flora includes most of what is left of the subalpine and alpine vegetation in KZN as well as a Ramsar high altitude wetland. The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park is recognised globally as an important bird area and refuge for a number of endangered species such as the Yellow-breasted Pipit and Cape and bearded vultures.

Not only is the Park a place of physical beauty, it is rich in cultural heritage, with the 4 000-year-old rock art being the largest group of rock paintings in Africa south of the Sahara.

But the Park is not just a pretty face with extensive grasslands offset by basaltic buttresses, yellow sandstone cliffs and traversed by dramatic river gorges – due to its significant number and type of natural habitats and biological diversity, it has been acknowledged as a Global Centre of Plant Diversity and endemism, occurring in its very own floristic region – the Drakensberg Alpine Region of South Africa.



From 2 environmental heritage icons to one that is at the forefront of our cultural heritage – Robben Island – “the unique symbol of ‘the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, suffering and injustice’ with a rich 500-year-old multi-layered history, is visited every year by thousands of people eager to understand and honour the important aspects of South Africa’s history that the Island represents” – Robben Island Tours.

For a place that has had enormous impact on peoples’ lives – from lepers to political prisoners – Robben Island is quite small: 3.3 km long and 1.9 km wide, with an area of 5.08 km2.  Flat and only a few metres above sea level, its limestone quarry supplied the dressed stone for the foundations of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town and the prisoners who worked at the quarry over the centuries included Nelson Mandela.

“Robben” is a Dutch word which means seals – without the translation it is an appropriate name for an island and system which robbed Nelson Mandela and political prisoners of years of their lives.

“In the winter of 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island where he would spend 18 of his 27 prison years. Confined to a small cell, the floor of his bed, a bucket for a toilet, he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes.” – Frontline

The island was used as a prison from the late-seventeenth century until 1996, after the end of apartheid and now is a popular tourist destination.



“Around 40% of the world’s known hominid fossils were unearthed in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, earning it UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1999.” –Maropeng. 

The fossil sites Swartkrans, Sterkfontein and Kromdraai are situated in close proximity, not more than three kilometres apart, in the Sterkfontein valley near Krugersdorp and have been the centre of exciting archaeological hominid fossil finds – not least of which is that the African continent is the undisputed Cradle of Humankind.  They contain some of the most important Australopithecine specimens dating back more than 3.5 million years which provide a window to the origins and evolution of humankind. Think Mrs (Mr?) Ples. Think Little Foot. In the Sterkfontein Caves palaeontologists have unearthed some 500 hominids, making the dolomitic limestone site one of the richest fossil repositories in the world.

“The serially nominated sites are situated in unique natural settings that have created a suitable environment for the capture and preservation of human and animal remains that have allowed scientists a window into the past.  Thus, this site constitutes a vast reserve of scientific data of universal scope and considerable potential, linked to the history of the most ancient periods of humankind.” – UNESCO

Museums like the Maropeng Visitor Centre and the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History help us understand about our origins:

“South Africa is a country rich with heritage to be enjoyed by all. It has evidence that supports the belief that Africa is the cradle of humanity. Therefore, learning our origins should include a trip to the museum to learn more about these incredible collections.

“Palaeoanthropology being a complex discipline on its own, a visual interaction with the vast collections we have in our museums would contribute to the understanding of the topic,” – Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane, curator of Plio-Pleistocene fossils at the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History, Pretoria.



Keeping with the cultural heritage theme, let’s journey to the remains of one of Africa’s largest kingdoms – Mapungubwe – right up in the northern border of South Africa. Over the course of 400 years it developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before being abandoned in 1300 AD due to climate change. As a powerful state trading with Arabia and India via East African ports, the rise of Mapungubwe was a significant stage in the history of the continent.

The economy of the kingdom was based on agriculture, hunting and trade in ivory, hides and gold. The upper classes lived and were buried on Mapungubwe Hill which is where, in 1934, an archaeologist found the famous gold rhinoceros – a symbol of the wealth of the state and pre-settler history.  “In 1999 the gold rhinoceros was designated a National Treasure. In 2002 the ANC created the Order of Mapungubwe, the highest honour in South Africa, of which there are four classes: platinum, gold, silver and bronze. Nelson Mandela was the first to receive the highest of these awards, platinum. At the centre of the award is a representation of the gold rhinoceros.” – Sian Tiley-Nel, chief curator, University of Pretoria Museums.



Now here is a blast from the past – literally! Do you know what an astrobleme is? I didn’t until Dr Google came to my aid. An astrobleme is a crater left by a meteorite – and 120 kms south of Joburg in the Free State is the biggest, oldest and most clearly visible one in the world – and when I say old, I mean more than 2 000 million years old! Not only is it the oldest, but it is also the one that is the most intact, providing evidence of the huge impact the meteor (which scientists have calculated to have been 10 kms in diameter travelling at 20kms per second) had on landing – blasting a crater in the ground that was originally around 300 kms wide and which is now still around 190kms in diameter. The impact structure is estimated to have taken about 4 hours to create.

“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. It provides critical evidence of the Earth’s geological history and is crucial to understanding the evolution of the planet.” – UNESCO

On a side note, I was wondering why it is called a “dome” when actually a crater is underground, but then I discovered that the mighty rebound of rock – those which had not been vapourised on impact – had  resulted in the formation of a dome above ground and the  rounded hilltops and valleys which we see today, are its eroded remains. How amazing is that!



From the Free State we go to Western Cape and the Cape Floral Region – which made the World Heritage list in 2004. Of the six floral kingdoms in the world it is the smallest in size but is one of the ones that is home to the greatest diversity –  it boasts 9000 plant species, 69% of which are endemic –  and contains nearly 20% of Africa’s flora. 

“This extraordinary assemblage of plant life and its associated fauna is represented by a series of 13 protected area clusters covering an area of more than 1 million ha. These protected areas also conserve the outstanding ecological, biological and evolutionary processes associated with the beautiful and distinctive Fynbos vegetation, unique to the Cape Floral Region.” – UNESCO

On first glance Fynbos is a trifle unremarkable if you are looking for an immediate visual feast – low growing, bushy, scrubby plants -– but look closer and you will find a wealth of beauty –  Proteas, Cape reeds, Cape heathers, irises, daisies and orchids. Not to mention our national flower the King Protea!  The fauna associated with Fynbos are also quite modest at first sight but are all crucial in terms of ecological balance and wellbeing – they include the rare geometric tortoise, the endangered Table Mountain ghost frog and the endemic Cape sugarbird, as well as baboon, jackal, duiker and bontebok and grysbok antelopes. 

If this is not enough to convince you of the amazingness of Fynbos, it also has a complex dark side – it is pyrophilic and just loves to play with fire – true story! In fact, it loves fire so much the plants cannot germinate without it.  The leaves and stems of the vegetation have perfectly adapted to fire and smoulder at a rate and temperature which allows the fauna to get out of Dodge. Tragically the flammable oils in alien vegetation like wattle burn at a much higher intensity and wreak havoc with the rate of spread of conflagration –  devastating for animals, birds and insects, as well most of the Fynbos itself. The Cape South Easter and tinder dry conditions of a Cape Summer all add fuel to the flame – literally. 

The Cape Floral Region includes a wonderful mosaic of wilderness areas, forests, national parks, nature reserves, and mountain catchment areas – and if you are in Cape Town, visiting the Table Mountain National Park will bring you up close and personal with why it is a World Heritage Site.



Last, but not least, is the 160 000ha Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape in the north western part of South Africa which was declared a World Heritage Site in 2007. A hybrid of cultural and botanical heritage, the cultural aspect is based on the uniqueness of the pastoralism practised there:

“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 where the Nama still construct portable rush-mat houses (haru om) and includes seasonal migrations and grazing grounds, together with stock posts. The pastoralists collect medicinal and other plants and have a strong oral tradition associated with different places and attributes of the landscape.” – UNESCO.

The botanical side of things is actually intrinsically linked with the land management processes by the Nama in this mountainous desert region, which have ensured the protection of the Karoo vegetation and ensured a balance between people and the environment.  The seasonal, nomadic pastoralism is “ a practice that was once much more widespread over southern Africa, and which has persisted for at least two millennia; the Nama are now its last practitioners.” – UNESCO




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