“We just wish we had arranged to stay longer. This is the best secret we have ever unearthed.” The departing couple walked, disconsolate, down the boardwalk towards us, binoculars still in hand, but on their reluctant way to the exit gate. “Look, there’s a pair of broad-billed rollers right here on that branch.”
We could see the birds clearly, only metres away. What a sighting!
The desire to stay longer was common to every visitor we met. Mapungubwe shows the fastest-growing visitor-numbers of any South African National Park and everyone has a favourite aspect to recommend. It is that kind of place. It engenders the enthusiasm to share discoveries; not to allow fellow visitors to miss out.
“Have you seen the Limpopo Valley View yet?” The river sweeps in a great arc from west to east and, beyond it, long views stretch across Botswana’s Tuli Block and deep into Zimbabwe beyond the Shashe.
“You mustn’t forget to walk the length of the boardwalk.” Especially at sunset, we discovered. There is something perfectly apt about the clanging bells of the cattle in the riverbed, accompanied by the overhead whistle of the African Harrier-Hawk (Gymnogene) and the ubiquitous trill of the Woodland Kingfisher, while elephants galumph, oblivious, through the distant mopane.
“Walk the loop from deck to deck at the Confluence Lookout.” Skinks scurry, finches chirrup and hand-sized grasshoppers lurch through the dried-twig bush. Way below, the openness is broken by scampering baboons and dozens of waterbuck in small laagered herds.
The Botswana flag flies from a distant pole, a single reminder of man’s often-absurd imposition of himself on Africa’s open spaces.
Mapungubwe is a glorious place. It offers a combination of impressive beauty, enrapturing history, good wildlife viewing and excellent birding. There are over 400 bird species here, one of a very few places where you can easily see three pairs of broad-billed rollers on one walk – and purple, European and lilac-breasted rollers as well.
The park was established in 1995 and covers an area of 28 000 hectares. Statistically, it may not compare very favourably with its nearest South African neighbour, the Kruger National Park, but size is measured differently in the face of such unspoilt isolation. The elephants on the Khongoni Loop look bigger than most of their Kruger counterparts. Even the temperature reached a whopping 46 degrees when we were there.
And here’s a statistic. One of their baobabs has a 31 metre circumference. That’s 10 old-shape Minis, nose-to-tail.
The statistics tell us nothing, however, about the sheer dramatic beauty of the place; about its dramatic desolation and the stress-numbing stillness.
Mapungubwe is more than a celebration of the wildlife and birds that live there. It is more than a great place to take photographs. It is more than peace and tranquillity in hot windless bush. It is greater than the camps in their extraordinary settings under red, brown and green kloofs and on forest-fringed riverbanks.
To the local people, Mapungubwe has a relevance which transcends all of this, arising from the ruins of Mapungubwe’s own ancient civilisation. Our guide was the charming and erudite Johannes Masalesa, but the enthusiasm of the entire team is enthralling. Most of them are directly descended from a people who reputedly built a significant settlement on this site nearly a thousand years ago. Before Great Zimbabwe. Even before Thulamela.
Mapungubwe Hill is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason and Johannes’s tour begins with a riveting talk at an excavation of several layers, showing the different periods of the rise and fall of the kingdom.
“I am not scared now”, Johannes explains before we head up the path to the summit, “but there was a time when I would not even dare to look at this hill, let alone climb onto it.”
And climb onto it we did, the tales ringing in our ears of sharded clay pots, of giant walls and exotic glass beads, of buried chiefs in gold-wired bangles.
Like so many successful new projects, the enthusiasm of the team is contagious, so everyone who visits feels lucky to be part of the driving force that brings an exciting find like this to light.
Mapungubwe’s signature discovery was the golden rhino, which was discovered on Mapungubwe Hill in 1933 and which led to the excavation of the surrounding mountains and the villages in the valley below. The rhino was supposed to symbolise the isolation of the king’s hilltop residence and the solitary nature of his position.
Today, the isolated solitude of Mapungubwe belongs to all of us. And it is magnificent.
Where it is – Right at the top of our country, where we meet Botswana and Zimbabwe on the banks of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees’ albeit that the said river is barely running at the moment.
Why go there – For birds, beasts and borderless beauty. And for Kipling’s Elephant’s Child itself.
What it has – Day visitor facilities and five camps. Leokwe is the most accessible camp, set under sandstone hills and offering 14 fully-equipped self-catering huts, a central braai area and swimming pool. Vhembe, Mazhou and the Limpopo Forest Camp are situated further from the main gate and offer varying levels of more rustic facilities. Tshugulu is a luxury lodge sleeping twelve. A restaurant at the Interpretive Centre offers meals from 8am to 8pm.
What to take – Stock up on everything right down to firewood and ice in Musina or Alldays. There is a ‘tuck shop’ but it can be short of things to tuck into unless, of course, Fizzers are your thing. There is no fuel in the park.
Rates – Seasonal rates apply. See the website for details. Campsites at Mazhou start from R225 and Leokwe’s cottages come in at R1090 for 1-2 people in low season, rising to R1275 in high season. Vhembe’s cabins fall in between, cost-wise. Conservation Fees apply from R40 per adult. Wild Card accepted.
Getting there – Take the occasionally spectacularly-potholed R572 just North of Messina. The main gate is 75km from Musina and 75km from Alldays.