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When visiting Pafuri take advantage of the opportunity to visit Thulamela, the ruins of an ancient stone citadel recently nominated for national heritage status.

After a 20-minute game drive from Pafuri Camp we arrive at a turning circle below a rocky outcrop on the south bank of the Luvuvhu river. This is the starting point for the short hike up to Thulamela. There’s an array of information boards which convey a brief history of the site, including photos of some of the artifacts that have been uncovered there.

We’ve arrived in the late afternoon, just as the sun’s glare is softening to that magical glow which intensifies colours and momentarily silences the insects.

Our field guides, with beaded belts and shouldered rifles lead us up a stony pathway between leadwoods and baobabs. A honeyguide insistently begs us to follow, but we continue climbing the path until a grove of huge baobabs looms massively over an extensive series of packed stone walls.

We pause to appreciate the atmosphere of this place which was first established in the 13th Century and then, for a period of four centuries coexisted with the nearby states of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Khami. Although it was excavated and partially reconstructed in the 1990’s there is much more to be discovered and learnt from Thulamela. The site is much bigger than the reconstructed walls would suggest. Estimates put the population of Thulamela at several thousand, flourishing on the bounty of fertile alluvial soils, the meat and skins of plentiful wild animals, and fish and crustaceans harvested from the perennial Luvuvhu river.

But very significantly recent research portrays Thulamela as a central production node, sourcing valuable materials such as ivory, gold, copper, iron and cotton from the interior and converting them to jewellery and tools. Ostrich shell beads were manufactured and ivory bangles were carved, most likely for export to India where brides would wear them from their shoulders to their wrists. Thulamela’s goods were transported via the Save and Limpopo rivers to Muslim controlled trading posts on the coastline, some 400km away, where traders from China, Indonesia and India would exchange the goods for glass beads, ceramics and most probably textiles.

This sophisticated trading network was established and remained active for centuries before the first European explorers arrived on the East African coast. Historical evidence suggests that it eventually collapsed due to the influence of Portuguese traders whose desire to take control of regional trade led to localised conflicts for power and wealth which culminated in the overthrow of the Torwa dynasty at Khami in the middle of the 17th century. It is thought that Khami was a vital link in the flow of raw goods from the interior to Thulamela, and following its sacking Thulamela became isolated and was eventually abandoned.

Our guides then lead us up through the maze of stone walls, where we explore enclosures which probably housed the most important members of society. As evidence of this, two graves were excavated in the 1990’s … in the first a female skeleton was found wearing a triple stranded gold bangle on one wrist and a gold beaded bracelet on the other, whilst the second belonged to a male who was buried with a collection of gold bracelets, iron bangles and thousands of ostrich shell beads. These people must have been important members of society, perhaps a chief, perhaps a spiritual leader.

We walk out, beyond the walls of the citadel onto a promontory overlooking the Luvuvhu river and the baobab studded valley far below. A breeding herd of elephants is making its way between the giant trees towards the river. The sun is setting over the Soutpansberg mountains to the West. It is exquisitely beautiful.

We are lost in contemplation. We imagine the generations of humans who have sat in the same place, admired the very same baobabs, watched the same sun setting and dreamt the same dreams.

We are wrenched from our thoughts and chivvied back down the path to the vehicle below. Dusk becomes dark as we make our way back to Pafuri Camp. The sweep of the spotlight picks up a pair of yellow-white eyes. They are motionless, watching us from the undergrowth alongside the track. “Leopard!” our guide whispers. We watch silently as the cat, sensing that it’s been seen slinks away into the blackness of the bush.

My thoughts return to Thulamela, and the grave of the buried man who became known as “Chief Ingwe” (meaning leopard) after a large male leopard which was seen in broad daylight at Thulamela on the morning of the site’s rediscovery.