Makapan Valley World Heritage Site (Makapansgat) is a archeological site in Limpopo, northern South Africa. Here’s how you can visit Makapan’s Caves from Mokopane.

The Cradle of Humankind is the most famous hominid fossil site of South Africa. Located only 50 kilometers from Johannesburg, the site is relatively easy to visit on a tour or with your own vehicle.

However, this guide post is not about the Cradle of Humankind.

Instead I’m telling how to visit Makapan’s Caves (Makapansgat) near Mokopane, another paleontological site that gets very few visitors in comparison. Despite their obscurity, Makapan’s Caves boast very impressive fossil records.

What is the Makapan Valley World Heritage Site and how can you visit Makapan’s Caves near Mokopane? There’s very little information available about visiting Makapansgat, so I wrote this post to help other travellers experience the relatively unknown tourist site.

Historic Cave or Cave of Gwasa and its old defence wall in Makapansgat.

The Historic Cave (Cave of Gwasa) was a key location in a conflict between white Voortrekkers and local Ndebele people. In 1854, Chief Makapan and over a thousand of his followers were besieged in the cave for nearly a month.

Makapansgat Historic Cave memorial monument near Mokopane, South Africa. An empty pedestal with a missing statue on top of a hill.

A monument was built to commemorate the besiege at the Historic Cave. The statue was quickly salvaged for valuable metals, so only the pedestal remains.

The History of Makapan Valley World Heritage Site

Before Makapan Valley was a World Heritage site, the caves had other uses.

In the early 20th century, a limestone mine operated in the area. Only interested in limestone, the miners of Makapansgat Limeworks tossed other rock material aside in massive waste dumps.

Visitng Makapan's Caves. Limestone mining cart in the caves near Mokopane, Limpopo, South Africa

Old mining carts used to collect limestone.

In 1925, a mathematics teacher called Wilfred Eitzman visited the mines and found fossilized bone in the dump sites. Full excavations began in late 1940s and led to incredible discoveries.

The caves boast fossils from a time period of over two millions years. These include remains of Homo sapiens and our hominin predecessors such as Australopithecus africanus. Bone and stone tools and other artefacts have also been discovered in Makapansgat.

Fossil layer markers in the Cave of Hearths, Makapansgat, Mokopane.

Markings on the wall of the Cave of Hearths show the timeline of the fossil layers. The oldest animal fossils of Makapansgat are about 3 million years old.

Limeworks Caves in Makapansgat Valley World Heritage site, Limpopo. Prehistoric fossil sites in South Africa.

Access to most of the caves is restricted. The caves are quite unstable and there’s a risk some of them might collapse.

How to Visit Makapan’s Caves (Makapansgat)

Some parts of Makapan Valley World Heritage Site are available for the public. However, getting to Makapansgat is a bit more complicated than one might expect.

Makapan’s Caves are located a 15-20 minute drive northeast from Mokopane. There are no tour companies that would arrange visits to Makapan’s Caves, so you need your own vehicle to get there. The entrance and an obligatory guided tour costs 25 rand (1.7 €) per person or 15 rands (1 €) for students.

It’s not possible to visit Makapan’s Caves without an advance booking. To book your visit to Makapan Valley World Heritage Site, go to the entrance gate of Mokopane Game Breeding Center first. They will call the site for you to make sure a guide is available. Pay for your visit at the Game Breeding Center (in cash) and take your receipt with you.

In other words, you cannot arrive at the entrance of Makapan Valley World Heritage site without getting your ticket at Mokopane Game Breeding Center first. If you try to do this, the guards will turn you back at the gate.

These places are over 20 kilometers away from each other, so getting turned back might be very frustrating!

Guided tour of Makapan's Caves. Getting to Makapansgat from Mokopane, South Africa.

Besides explaining the history of the cave, our guide Peter also pointed out the local plants and their features.

Our guided tour of Makapan’s Caves took around 3 hours. Our guide Peter did an excellent job, although I’ve heard that some of the other guides haven’t been as good. Peter’s tour combined local biology, geology and history in a very interesting way.

Paying less than 2 euros (+ tips) for a tour of several hours is a real bargain.

Makapansgat tourism site development. Small buildings meant as shops.

These buildings were built as shops for local artisans before the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Now they’re only used as guard’s accommodations.

Burnt farm building in Makapansgat Valley World Heritage Site. Political issues hindering tourism in South Africa.

The old farm building on the right was renovated some years ago. However, the guards allegedly burnt it down when they were put out of work.

Why Is Visiting Makapan’s Caves So Difficult?

On average, Makapansgat gets less than a hundred visitors each month – and that’s a very positive way to put it. I believe it has to be one of the least visited UNESCO World Heritage sites in South Africa.

But why is visiting Makapansgat so challenging?

One of the biggest reasons is the resistance of the local community. Makapan’s Caves are located on their land, and they are not happy to have visitors in the area. Most of the caves remain unexcavated because of this.

Besides, Makapan Valley World Heritage Site is not considered fully operational. The South African government tried to develop the site before the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but a great deal of the funding disappeared somewhere on the way, leaving the site almost unchanged.

(Yes, corruption is a massive problem in South Africa.)

Makapan Valley World Heritage site landscape.

Makapan Valley gives its name to the World Heritage site. A camping ground in the valley has been planned, but the plans are not progressing.

Right now the site has been stuck in a bureaucratic development hell for several years. There are early plans for new developments such as a campsite and a museum at the Makapan Valley World Heritage site, but nobody knows who’s in charge and where the money is supposed to come from.

Makapansgat UNESCO World Heritage site. Pieces of fossil rich stones collected from limeworks dump.

See these massive piles of rocks? All of them include pieces of fossilized bone!

Fossilized bone sticking from a rock in Makapansgat, South Africa

Fossilized bone sticking out from a rock. The pieces were collected from the old limestone mine’s dumb sites.

Is Visiting Makapansgat Worth It?

Visiting Makapan’s Caves in South Africa was a very fascinating experience for me. Then again, I’m a science geek who’s spent the last 9 months studying biology on his spare time. Not everybody will get as excited about fossils, plants and rock sediments as I do.

Makapan Valley World Heritage site’s undeveloped status makes it a very interesting and unique tourist sight. There will be no other visitors. Fossil rich rocks simply lay in big piles as no-one’s had the time, motivation or resources to extract all the pieces.

Piles of sorted rocks with fossils from Makapansgat Limeworks waiting to be excavated.

Over 250,000 fossilized bones or pieces of bones have been found in Makapansgat World Heritage site.

After all the polished tourist sights, experiencing something so rudimentary can feel very nice for a change.

In a sense, seeing the current state of Makapan Valley World Heritage site is a cultural experience in itself. Visiting Makapan’s Caves lets travellers experience the contemporary issues of South African society in a very tangible way.

Do I recommend others to visit Makapan Valley World Heritage site? Absolutely, because I’d love to see Makapansgat gain the recognition it deserves. Makapan’s Caves and Mokopane are located on the way between Pretoria and Zimbabwe, making them a convenient stop in between.

Makapansgat Caves exhibition in Arend Dieperink Museum, Mokopane. Fossils on display.

Some of the fossils from Makapansgat are kept in Arend Dieperink Museum, Mokopane. Visiting the small museum will give a lot more information about Makapan’s Caves and their history.