Only once have I actually stopped to look at the monument but every time I pass it, my thoughts wander to the events that started here over one and a half centuries ago.
In 1854, Hermanus Potgieter, one of the Voortrekker leaders, and his people made their laager (camp) here on the banks of the river. They had left the Cape Colony, more than a thousand kilometres to the South, when they could no longer tolerate the oppression of British rule and the violence of being forced to share land with the warring Xhosa people with whom they had nothing in common. After a year of trekking over arid land, grassy plains, many rivers and through the bush, they stopped here, maybe hoping that they have found a place to put down their roots in this beautiful and fertile land at the foot of the Waterberg Mountains.
On the other hand, Makapan, the Ndebele chief of the area, saw these strangers invading his domain and decided that they must be driven away. Makapan and his warriors attacked the laager of Hermanus and his people, as well as two other laagers nearby, and killed every man, woman and child. History has it that the babies and small children in the laager were killed by dashing their heads against the camel thorn trees and that Hermanus Potgieter himself was flayed alive. Twenty Eight trekkers were killed and the site became known as Moorddrift (Murder Ford).
Moorddrift Monument - Legend has it that this is the stump of one of two Camelthorn trees that was used to kill the six children in the laager.
(Photo by Peter A. Levey)
Other Voortrekkers on their way North came upon the carnage left by Makapan and his men. After burying their fellow trekkers, they banded together and rode against Makapan to avenge the killings. Makapan and his followers fled before them up a valley to the Northeast of what is today Mokopane, and took refuge in a gigantic cavern to escape the wrath of the avengers. This cavern was fronted by a rocky precipice and there was no way that the trekkers could get to Makapan and his people.
The beautiful Makapan's Valley where the cavern was located.
(Photo by A.B. Esterhuysen)
The trekkers then blockaded the entrance to the cavern over a period of 29 days and by the time they stormed the cavern, very few warriors were strong enough to resist the avenging trekkers. It is estimated that more than two thousand of Makapan's people died in that cavern from hunger and thirst. The skeletons and bones remained in the cave for many years and it is told that the local witchdoctors made good use of this easy source of human bones to brew strong muti (medicine)! Eventually the skeletons and bones were removed and the cavern was officially named Historic Cave, but it is still spoken of by its popular name, Makapansgat (Makapan's Cave). Some of the skulls even ended up in the Royal College of Surgeons' Museum in London.
The Moordrif monument is accessible to anybody who cares to stop along the road and visit it, but Makapansgat is not open to casual visitors and for a very good reason. In 1936 it was proclaimed a national monument, not only because of Makapan and the trekkers, but mostly because of its importance as an archaeological and paleontological site. Evidence has been found that this cave, and others in Makapan's Valley, had been inhabited for over three million years; that is from Ape-Man to Iron Age Man to Modern Man. Many skulls, fossils and artefacts of both human, animal and plant origin have been found and retrieved, and many more remain, waiting to be retrieved and investigated.
Of course, the history of Hermanus Potgieter and Makapan is very relevant and well known today, yet I cannot help but wonder what other dramas played out in this cave over the ages. After all, three million years is a long, long time.