The haunting cry of a fish eagle breaks the early morning silence over the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers in the Mapungubwe National Park, a SANParks property tucked away in a far north-western corner of South Africa. Satisfied that all is well it settles on a baobab tree that stands guard over the confluence.
It is as if the creatures of the African bush, both great and small, have been waiting for this “all clear” from the fish eagle. A cacophony of bird song breaks out. A baboon barks a thank you, and heedless of the border formed by the confluence that separates Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, a Zimbabwean cowherd guides his cows across the shallow Shashe river to graze on the green grass of Botswana.
The daily routine of the African bush unfolds.
From our vantage point on the Confluence Viewing Deck, set into the red sandstone cliffs high above the confluence, we sip our coffee and watch the daily routine in this corner of the African bush unfold. We are not the only watchers, a dassie or rock hyrax lazes on a sun lit rock nearby, soaking up the warming rays of the sun while keeping a beady eye on us.
Below us, a dainty kudu steps out of the bushes and a warthog family, with their antennae like tails held stiff above their butts, trot in single file to the water’s edge. There is a sense of serenity, even though we know that the African bush is a harsh environment, it is a perfect start to our first day in Mapungubwe.
We while away a couple of glorious hours in blissful solitude, the only humans on the deck, contemplating the magnificent vista below us. Our conversation is sporadic and only to point out the black eagle soaring high above us, or to point out the giraffe, or the impala, or the elephants emerging every so often from the bushes and onto the Limpopo flood plain below us.
But it is starting to heat up and it’s time to escape the harsh African sun and find our own patch of water to enjoy.
Baobabs, (Cream of Tartar Trees) Everywhere.
It is the green season and the ground is a thick carpet of tiny bright yellow flowers. We follow a road that twists and turns around the enormous, sandstone formations, dipping in and out of small valleys, and at almost every corner a new baobab reveals itself. Some stand sentry atop the sandstone outcrops and others are silent sentinels in the valleys. Some are mighty, thousand-year, old giants and others are gangly whippersnapper teenagers, only a couple of hundred years old.
There appears to be a network of baobabs, each one is in view of another baobab, and it’s easy to see how one would navigate the African interior in this part of the world – from baobab tree to baobab tree – and I wonder if they communicate?
I imagine that if I laid my ear to the ground I would hear a soft bass murmur rumbling through the earth as they tell each other tales: Of the rise and fall of the mysterious kingdom of Mapungubwe. Of ivory hunters, in days gone by, lurking in their branches waiting for an elephant to pass by, and heartless slave traders resting their slaves in the shade of a baobab before they continue to mercilessly herd their catch to the Indian Ocean.
Or maybe it would be a tale of a long-dead South African prime minister, Jan Smuts in the early 1900s and his botanist who despite plenty of opposition, insisted on protecting this unique wonderland of fauna and flora.
And possibly, a tale of a mad tourist who doesn’t speak baobab, lying at the base of one of them with her ear to the ground, listening intently.
Mapungubwe’s Venda Village styled Leokwe Camp.
Our home for the next couple of days is Leokwe Camp which lies sprawled across a stunning sandstone valley filled with red, eroded rocks and above us, high on the cliffs a couple of sentinel baobabs watch over us.
Leokwe Camp is a delight! Designed and built according to the traditional Venda village style, the ochre walls of the two rondavel, thatched cottages blend seamlessly into the surrounding valley of red sandstone. Each unit is quite private with a partially walled patio and built-in braai area, and a very welcome and much needed air conditioner. I am a little disappointed by our unit with patio views of a wall of red sandstone, but the outdoor shower is more than compensation for that, as a shiver of excitement courses down my back when I take my nightly shower – Did I mention that the camp is unfenced?
But it is the swimming pool that simply takes our breath away, not only because it is refreshing, but because of its setting. Built in between two large rock formations with a fresh-water trough cunning hidden at one end for the wildlife to come and drink from, it must be one of the most beautifully set swimming pools that we have ever had the pleasure of wallowing in.
As we arrive for our swim an elephant casually strolls away from the pool. We while away the worst of the African heat wallowing in blissful solitude, the only humans around and observed by our distant cousins, the baboons, who keep a wary eye on us from the cliff tops.
An unexpected dinner-guest.
The full moon peeks down at us over the top of the cliff face as we lounge around the dying embers of our fire, replete after our delicious braai, we finish our bottle of wine. In the distance a nightjar begins its evening prayer that sounds very much like the words, “lord deliver us.”
Something small peers over the top of the patio wall. It is a fleeting glimpse that disappears only to re-emerge for a brief moment on another part of the wall. Puzzled, we wonder if maybe we have had too much wine and are imagining small African creatures that might go munch in the night.
There it is again. This time, a large pair of ears appear slowly above the patio wall. We are both still as statues, barely breathing, as the ears are followed by the aquiline cat face of a spotted genet. It gives us one look and disappears only to re-emerge in another spot. But the tantalising aroma of meat grease on the cooling braai grid proves to be simply irresistible for this genet, and human threat be damned, it makes a rapid beeline for the joy of our braai grid.
A Walk in the Tree-Tops of Mapungubwe.
There is an air of stillness when we awake the following morning. A sky heavy with clouds carries the promise of rain and the colours appear muted, the green-season flower carpet that covers the bushveld is not quite as bright today. Even the birdsong and the constant African insect chorus feels subdued.
A signboard at the entrance to the Tree Top Walkway greets us with Kipling’s immortal words from The Elephants Child, “… At last he came to the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees…”
A ground squirrel guides us up a ramp, pausing to look back every so often to make sure that we are following. He leads us up into a world of big, green leaves that opens up to reveal the Limpopo River.
The river is surprisingly narrow and not so “great” at this point in its long journey to the Indian Ocean. Neither is it “grey-green”. It is the rainy season, and the river is the red-brick colour of the soil of Africa, but it is set about with the distinctive lime green bark of an occasional fever-tree.
The expectant stillness of the African bush continues, we quietly make our way along the zigzagging walkway. We pause often for a moment or two, in contemplation of this new perspective that the tree top walkway offers us. An eagle settles on the branch of a dead tree and surveys his kingdom. We are almost at the same height as him, but of course as I raise my camera, he flies away.
Big, fat raindrops begin to plop down upon us, the promised rain has arrived. We beat a hasty retreat to the shelter of our car and our next destination, the Confluence Picnic Spot.
A magic circle of baobabs.
A small plateau awaits us at the top of the hill. It is covered with the ever-present yellow green-season carpet, and in the middle, a magical circle of baobabs congregate, their rootlike branches touching almost in communion. A couple of picnic tables and benches are set inside the circle, an invitation to enter this almost sacred space. And once again, we are the only people there.
It’s the perfect spot for our planned bush cook-up brunch. According to the SANParks website, you can rent a skottel, from the picnic site kiosk or tuck shop as they call it.
Now, a skottel, (pronounced Skaw-til) is a lightweight, South African outdoor cooking contraption. It looks a bit like a wok on a stick. A very shallow wok with a gas bottle or propane burner attached to the other end of the stick. Anything that you can cook on a pan or a skillet can be cooked on a skottel.
By this time, it’s mid-morning and we are ravenous, but the kiosk is locked up tighter than a bank vault and there is not a single person in sight, we really are the only people there. Bitterly disappointed, and rather hangry we have a coffee from our trusty thermos flask and a sandwich made out goodies that don’t need cooking from our picnic basket. But it feels like the perfection of the morning has been ruined.
But there is more disappointment ahead.
It takes us forever to drive the twenty kilometres from the picnic site to the Mapungubwe Interpretative Centre. So much longer than planned, but stopping for game sightings, and large baobab trees along the way (there are lots), and also stopping to simply breathe in this remarkable landscape, does take time.
We are both so very hangry by the time we arrive at the Interpretative Centre. So much so, that we hardly notice the remarkable and organic nature of this incredible piece of award-winning architecture that fits seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.
Our hangriness is easily cured. We sit on the restaurant patio and order a bite. A breeze wafts through the open sided Timbrel vaulted roof, fanning away our temporary woes. Timbrel vaulting, is a medieval building technique where several overlapping tiles are woven together using a quick setting mortar or adhesive. Each tile was hand-made using local labour and soil from the surrounding area.
With our spirits restored and our stomachs quiet, we pay our entrance fee and set off to find out more about mysterious Mapungubwe and explore the interior of what we now realise is an incredible space. Thoughtful and beautifully designed walkways, each with its own organic theme and a cunning use of lighting, invite us to enter into the next space, eventually culminating at the highest point with a magnificent view of nearby Mapungubwe Hill.
Our experience of this lovingly designed and crafted space is marred by the repetitive, almost dumbed down displays and texts, and then, it is ruined by the disinterested staff that couldn’t be bothered to turn on any of the audio-visual displays for us. I know that we were the only people there, but hells teeth, I paid my money, I want to see the audio visuals.
To book or not to book?
We are in two minds, after the lacklustre displays and the disinterested staff in the centre, should we still book ourselves onto an early morning guided walk to the Mapungubwe archaeological site? The guided walk is the only way to visit the archaeological site and it is one of the main reasons why we have come to Mapungubwe so we should do it.
We head off to the reception area to make our booking. There is a French couple with hardly any English ahead of us at the counter. The staff are impatient and completely unhelpful, so much so that I am deeply embarrassed that these people, the custodians of this beautiful land of the baobab tree, are my fellow South Africans.
Our turn arrives, and I start by questioning the incorrect information about the picnic site on their website. “Oh, we don’t do that?” was the response, nothing further to add, conversation closed! And that was when we decided not to spend our hard-earned money on the guided walk. Did we make a mistake? Judging from our few interactions with the custodians of Mapungubwe, would the guide on our walk have been any better? I don’t think so.
Instead, we spend our last morning in the same way as our first, from the elevated viewing deck over the confluence in quiet contemplation of the beauty that surrounds us. Our new friend the dassie keeps an eye on us and the fish eagle gives the all clear for the daily rhythm of the African bush to unfold before us once again.
Mapungubwe National Park Good to Know:
Would I recommend Mapungubwe?
Hell yes! I would, despite the disinterested attitude of the staff. The beauty of the landscape and of course, the game and the hundreds of baobab trees make it worthwhile, but only if you have time to get up to this far north-western part of South Africa.
How to get to Mapungubwe?
- Mapungubwe is a self-drive destination that can easily be done in a sedan just make sure that you have air conditioning.
- It is approximately 580 km from Johannesburg via Musina. We would strongly recommend this route despite what google maps may tell you. Have a look at our Limpopo Forest Tented Camp adventure and you will see why.
- Or you could fly into Polokwane, 270 km away, and rent a car there.
Weather and Climate.
- Contrary to my mainly overcast photos, it was hot, really hot!
- The green season in Mapungubwe is very brief – the rest of the year it is dry and arid, and still quite warm during the day.
Leokwe Rest Camp.
- The camp is unfenced so don’t go roaming around by yourself, especially at night.
- Check-in is at the Mapungubwe Main gate.
- Do allow for plenty of time, at least an hour, to drive the twelve kilometres to Leokwe Camp.
- Take everything that you will need including firewood or charcoal as there are no shops nearby. The nearest towns are Alldays and Musina, both of them are seventy-odd kilometres away from the main gate.
Fuel and Money Matters.
- There is no fuel available so don’t forget to refuel in either the town of Alldays or Musina, depending on the route that you choose to Mapungubwe.
- There are no ATM’s so do take some cash with you just in case, although Credit Cards are accepted at the Main Gate Reception.
Mobile phone reception at Mapungubwe.
- Mapungubwe is blissfully off the grid with absolutely no reception in the camp and only intermittent signal at the main gate.
- There is a restaurant at the Mapungubwe Interpretative Centre that serves light meals but it is only open during the day.
How to book?
- Book directly on the SANParks website; online bookings receive a 5% discount.
Conservation Fees at Mapungubwe National Park.
All visitors to Mapungubwe National Park must pay a conservation fee for every day spent inside the Park. The funds raised help protect and conserve the park’s natural and cultural heritage.
Conservation fees can be paid at the gate, don’t forget to take your ID or passport with you.
From 1 November 2023 to 31 October 2024, the daily conservation fees are as follows:
- R67 per adult and R33.00 per child per day for South African residents.
- R 133 per adult and R67 per child per day for SADC residents and
- R266.00 per adult and R133.00 per child per day for International Residents.
Alternatively, think about buying a Wild Card instead. It’s worth it.