Mapungubwe – An ancient land of baobabs

Typical landscape in Mapungubwe National Park

South Africa is hiding a well-kept secret way up on her northern-most border, where three countries and two major rivers collide.

I speak of Mapungubwe National Park, a place steeped in ancient heritage, where the past and the present are melted into one, spectacularly beautiful place.

It’s one of the newest national parks in Southern Africa, having been proclaimed a World Heritage Site in July 2003 and launched as a National Park by South African National Parks (SANParks) on September 27, 2004.

However, not many people can pronounce the name, let alone tell you about it! It’s not exactly top of the list of places to go, and mention of it to the average South African leaves them asking “Where?”

All of which is a shame, because if there’s one thing that makes Mapungubwe truly unique is the location of the place!

On the southern banks of the Limpopo river at its confluence with the equally impressive Shashe, where South Africa kisses its neighbours Botswana and Zimbabwe, this is a place where legends abound.

It was here, in 1932, on an impressive hill, that the lost city of Mapungubwe was rediscovered. Excavators found 23 graves on top of the rocky outcrop, three of which belonged to members of an ancient royal family.

The royal remains were found bedecked in gold and buried alongside incredible artefacts, among them a fantastic golden rhino which has since become the symbol of Mapungubwe and one of the best known pieces of ancient African art ever.

Researchers believe the ancient city was at its height in 900 AD, before the rise of Great Zimbabwe, and gathered its wealth by trading with the east. Evidence of trade with Arabia and China has been uncovered.

The viewpoint at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers.

This was a time when the Limpopo and Shashe rivers were permanently full and Mapungubwe was home to between 5000 and 9000 people, making it the largest known settlement in Southern Africa at that time.

By 1270 this incredible civilisation was nothing but a memory. No one knows for sure what happened, but the people scattered and the power base in the area shifted to Great Zimbabwe.

My theory is that all those years ago the Limpopo was navigable from the sea, enabling Arab dhows to sail inland to the great citadel and trade openly, moving inland up the Shashe – the natural border between Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Again, this is just my theory, but I think that a change in climate reduced the rivers to their current, seasonal flow, stopping trade immediately.

Whatever the cause of the demise of this great African city, visitors to Mapungubwe can explore its wonders and stand atop the hill, marveling at the beauty of the land which surrounds it.

It’s certainly an interesting land too, and home to an impressive array of African inhabitants, including elephant, leopard, lion and rhino.

But it is the magnificent baobab tree which really captures the imagination.

Mapungubwe is in the heart of the baobab belt and these amazing trees, along with some incredible hills (one of which is supposed to have inspired the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria) dominate the landscape.

There’s a lot on offer for those staying in the park, not the least of which is an excellent heritage tour, which departs from the main gate at 7 am and 10 am each day.

At R298 per person, this is excellent value for money, combining a fascinating ascent of Mapungubwe Hill and exploration of the history of the area with a game drive.

Guided walks and morning, sunset and night game drives are also available.

Accommodation is for the most part great too. With the park being so new, the camps are relatively pristine and well-equipped.

The largest, and perhaps prettiest camp is Leokwe, set among impressive rocky outcrops with an inviting rock-hewn swimming pool and wooden viewing deck complete with deck chairs.

Leokwe offers 15 cottages with twin beds and a double sleeper couch and two four-bed family cottages, all with their own kitchenette, sitting area and bathroom facilities.

The Valley of the Baobabs, seen from the top of Mapungubwe Hill.

Limpopo Forest Camp is a tented camp close to the Limpopo river in the shade of a riverine forest. It has eight tents, each sleeping two people.

Tshugulu Lodge is great for groups with space for 14 people in six bedrooms. It has its own swimming pool and an exclusive eco-trail.

However, when I stayed there it was not in the best condition, and the 4×4 routes were mostly impassable.

The Vhembe Wilderness Camp offers four cabins, each sleeping two.

There is also the Mazhou camping site which has 10 pitches for caravans or tents, each with a powerpoint.

Accommodation aside, it’s the area which is the big drawcard, especially for birders, with more than 400 recorded species making the tick-list rather impressive.

One of the best spots for birding, and game viewing in general, is a hide on the Limpopo reached by a long and winding tree-top boardwalk.

Elevated literally to canopy level, the boardwalk offers excellent opportunities to view game from above, especially elephant, and gives visitors a bird’s eye view of the surrounding forest and its inhabitants.

Sadly, this hide is regularly swept away during the Limpopo’s seasonal flooding, so check first to make sure it’s open.

The confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo is perhaps the most awe-inspiring of viewing spots, with a 180-degree view of three countries as well as the rivers. It’s a great spot for a picnic too.

The park is approximately a 5-hour drive from Johannesburg, being some 200 km from Polokwane, close to the towns of Alldays and Musina.

All accommodation is self-catering, and the nearest place for decent shopping is Musina.

There is no shop in the park, so all food and necessities need to be brought in.

But it’s worth the isolation and remains one of my favourite spots in South Africa.

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