Mapungubwe National Park: Jan van Riebeeck probably wouldn’t have been pleased to know that he wasn’t the first ‘civilised man’ to set foot in Africa in 1652. He definitely wouldn’t have been impressed to hear that not only did an African tribe beat him to it by hundreds of years, but that they were centuries ahead of him in many other areas too. Nevertheless, he was beaten to the punch all those years ago by the short-lived tribe that inhabited the unmistakable Mapungubwe Hill in Mapungubwe National Park from 1075 to 1220 – unmistakable because of its historically significant grassy green top.
Standing on the fertile soil at the top of Mapungubwe Hill surrounded by the remnants of a civilisation lost before it really gained momentum, you can’t help but feel moved. Even without much of an interest in cultural history, it’s hard to shrug off the awe of just how much the smallish community who called this place home over seven-hundred years ago achieved in just over a century.
Not only did they turn the barren top of a rocky koppie into a verdant field by lugging several tons of soil thirty-one metres up from the base, but remnants of their lives recovered from the area weave stories of complex lifestyles and perhaps the first class-based social system in Southern Africa. There’s even evidence of early international trade – most will have heard or seen pictures of the small gold-plated wooden rhinoceros found at a burial site, but less well-known artefacts include glass beads, ceramic figurines, and refined copper and iron.
Many of these artefacts can be found in the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre near the park’s entrance gate, but if you’re not up to a museum tour it’s worth popping in to the nearby restaurant for a drink just to admire the oddly suitable, award-winning architecture.
History keeps Mapungubwe’s heritage safe, but historical significance isn’t all it has to offer. Though not as steeped in historical artefacts as Mapungubwe Hill itself, the rest of the reserve is particularly beautiful and the park has done well to flaunt the best of its assets. In the eastern section of the park are the decks overlooking the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, arguably one of the most gorgeous views in Southern Africa, as well as the treetop walkway (if it hasn’t been washed away by floods), where visitors can wander just below the forest canopy beside the Limpopo River while elephants and other wildlife go about their business below.
The Tshugulu 4×4 ecotrail (also known as the Rhino 4×4 ecotrail) in the western section is one of four 4×4 routes in the park, and is especially scenic. Though quite challenging, visitors brave enough to take it on are treated to some impressive baobabs and incredible rock formations, and the possibility of bumping into (literally) large herds of elephants that occupy this area for most of the year.
Mapungubwe National Park has a lot going for it.
A large, tasty chunk of history, a bucket-load of natural beauty, and a decent splash of adventure – a decent recipe for a well-rounded park.
Although there’s more than enough wildlife to photograph, Mapungubwe is really a landscape photographer’s dream. With panoramic views over the Shashe-Limpopo confluence and equally dramatic scenes over sandstone-covered valleys it’s hard to find a more scenic place in South Africa’s Limpopo Province. If you want to utilise the early morning and late afternoon golden light at the viewing decks overlooking the confluence, you should ideally stay at Leokwe Camp, which is only about 20 minutes’ drive from the site. Don’t forget a wide-angle lens and tripod. If you’re really lucky, a Verreaux’s eagle might fly past at eye-level so bring your telephoto lens as well. One of the best places for bird photography is around the rock swimming pool in Leokwe Camp where blue waxbills, cinnamon-breasted buntings and a host of other small birds come to drink during the heat of the day.
If I want to go:
Where? From Pretoria: Take the N1 north to Polokwane and then follow the R521 past Mogwadi (previously known as Dendron) and Vivo, until you get to Alldays. From there drive north on the R572 and turn right towards Musina after ±47 km. Follow the road for 22.5 km to the entrance gate of the park, which is on your left. Total distance: approximately 480 km from Pretoria (5½ hours).
When? The Limpopo River attracts most game during the dry winter months (June to October), but Mapungubwe is at its most beautiful after the rains (Febuary to April) when the landscape turns bright green and is often covered with a carpet of yellow devil’s thorn flowers.
Self-catering chalets in an unfenced camp situated amongst scenic sandstone formations.
Cost: From R940/per two-sleeper chalet
Ten shady stands all with power, taps, dust bins, braai-places and lights, as well as a small communal ablution block and kitchen.
Cost: From R185/stand for two people (max six)
Contact: SANParks on (012) 428 9111 or e-mail [email protected]
Activities: Guided game drives – R200/adult (2-3 hours)
Heritage Tour to Mapungubwe Hill – R170/adult (2 hours)
You should know:
Mapungubwe is divided into two sections. The eastern section contains the main entrance gate, Leokwe Camp, Mapungubwe Hill and the viewing decks and treetop boardwalk. This is the most popular, and therefore busier, part of the park. The western section contains Mazhou Campsite, a tented camp as well as the Tshugulu 4×4 ecotrail. Stay here if you wish to avoid the crowds.