Moorddrift and Makapansgat

Every time I visit my son in Mokopane (Potgietersrus), I travel past the dead stump of an old camel thorn tree and a small monument. This site is about 40 kilometres North of Mookgophong (Naboomspruit), situated just where the water of the Nylsvlei floodplain drains off into the Mokgalakwena River on its way to the Limpopo River much further North.

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.


Gaelyn said...

Nice slice of history. I'd be very curious about the ancient evidence of inhabitants. Sure is pretty yet rugged country.

Jo said...

Anna, omigosh, what an interesting post...! South Africa and its history absolutely fascinates me. I would give anything to visit there one day. One of my co-workers was there for the World Cup Soccer Games, and I wish I could have tagged along with her. I am not interested in soccer, but I would LOVE to visit that county.

My mother was born in a little town called Senekal in the Orange Free State. She loved South Africa, and her heart was always there. When I read some of the names you talk about, I can remember how she would talk about them too.

Jocelyn said...

My first visit here, and look at you teaching me things! Thank you for this. And thank you for leaving me with the thought of medicine made out of human bones...oy.

janis said...

Oh mmy Goodness! I was literally on the edge of my seat reading this! How sad & yet fasinating! i must go google to get more info on the Voortrekkers and Moordrift.
Thanks Anne!

A human kind of human said...

Thank you all for commenting on this post. I have always thought that there are definite similarities between the history of our Voortrekkers and what movies portray of the Americans who also trekked across America to find new lands on which to settle. I am not very familiar with American history except for impressions formed from the said movies, but I am sure that if we look closely, it would basically be the same story just on another continent at another time. The big difference of course is that there were so many more native Africans here than native Americans (Indian??)over there. If I am wrong, please correct me.

Thomas Easton said...

Great Blog

I've been living in Polokwane for almost a year now. Going back to the eastern cape end of April and decided to explore surrounding places before I go. Being a descendant of the trekkers I just had to visit Makapan's cave so I went there yesterday. It blew my mind. It was a great experience. I went into the cave/cavern and it is HUGE (don't try to go into the cave alone. It is relatively dangerous, dark and damp). The fortifying walls the trekkers build is still visible. I truly was amazed standing were my fore-fathers stood.

Thomas Easton said...

Great blog and it's great to see that it fires up so much comments.
I've been living in polokwane for a year now. I'm going back to Jeffrey's bay end of april and decided to explore some sites before I go. Your blog inspired me and I went to makapan's cave yesterday. It truly was a great experience. My relatives being descendants of the trekkers I was amazed to stand were they stood. I went into the cave and my mind was blown at the size of the cavern. Various places to hide. The fortifying walls the trekkers build is still there in relative condition.

Anonymous said...

What must be done to get to see this place as casual visitors are not allowed ?

A human kind of human said...

Anonomys: I am not sure how to go about getting permission to visit the cave, but maybe Thomas Easton can help us here. I would also love to actually visit the cave in person.
Thomas Easton: I am glad you enjoyed my post and were inspired to actually visit the cave. Going back to the Eastern Cape? Why? I lived in Port Elizabeth for almost three years and I much prefer Limpopo... been here now for 21 years.

Thomas Easton said...

Hi there, I had an unfair advantage. The company I work for has a wireless network distribution point on the mountain so when I got there I told security that I'm going to do some maintenance on the tower. I went with a colleague from work. It is rather tricky inside the cave and fairly dangerous so I won't advise anyone to go inside. You can check out the pics on my facebook.

john stroebel said...

Hi there, as a kid me and my mother use to visit the cave before t
all the red tapesage, i was very intereted as a hild in our history, we mostly went up the creek to the pools to go and swim there, to visit oday go or phone the local info office at the arend diperik museum(very interesting) in "mokopane". Enjoy John Stroebel

Anonymous said...

Mr Johan Willemse wrote a book about Moorddrift and the history of that monument.

Anonymous said...

Please read the book 'The Mask' Stuart Cloete.

Unknown said...

We visit Moorddrift farm for the annual Church service over Easter weekend, held on t farm for watching the sun rises while listen to the Godly music and voices. It was a beautiful service! Did found the name of the farm odd due to me googling it. What a sad story but what war is not? Thanx you for sharing t truth of t monument, and so much more. Next time we will take our fishing gear and spent some time to plonder over the rich history that is left behind for us to find.

Aphane Matsatsela said...

Hermanus Potgieter dedicated his life to bring back the liebenberg daughters.unfortunately Mahula (Smugglers union) defeated him at Marapong ( Mokerong1) & Springbokvlakte (mokerong2)