Bulky masses soldiered forward through the bushes grazing on the lush vegetation. Looking from the Confluence viewing decks at Mapungubwe National Park, they could easily be mistaken for buffalo. But these were cattle, and weren’t technically in the park itself. It’s strange to see domestic animals that close to a national park, but Mapungubwe’s position makes it unique. Bordered by Zimbabwe and Botswana, this transfrontier park is a haven for wildlife, blessed with beautiful landscapes and rich in its cultural history.
Grey clouds pierced the horizon and dulled the otherwise impressive vista when we visited a few weeks ago. A series of timber decks afforded views down to the wide expanse of the Limpopo River where it converges with the Shashe River. It’s the meeting point of three countries and a remarkable example of breaking man made barriers for the benefit of conservation. Unlike the cattle that are restricted to the other side of the invisible border, Botswana’s Tuli elephants are free to wander in and out of South Africa.
We only saw a few elephants on the trip, but it was evident that they had trailed through the unfenced Leokwe camp a few days earlier. Driving to Leokwe is like descending into another world. The camp is surrounded by a landscape of rocky sandstone hills dotted by giant baobabs. Kudu and bushbuck browsed through the valley and klipspringer acted as sentinels on the cliff tops. At times the peace in the valley was broken by the echoing barks of baboons as they scaled the rocky cliffs.
Situated in the far north of the Limpopo province, summers are balmy at Mapungubwe National Park, and I expected hot conditions with the present drought. But, the rain followed me from Johannesburg (as it did in KwaZulu Natal and Kruger on the weekends that followed). I didn’t get the rich golden sunsets of the bushveld, and didn’t quite get to splash about in the perfectly positioned pool at Leokwe. And sadly, I didn’t get to walk to the top of Mapungubwe Hill. It’s the hill that brought to the fore the grandeur of this 13th century civilisation.
In the early 1930s, archaeologists uncovered burial grounds filled with gold necklaces, pottery and glass beads. The civilisation was the precursor to the Great Kingdom of Zimbabwe, and had trading links far and wide, judging by the materials found on site. One of the most prized finds is that of a gold sculptured rhino. The real one is housed at the University of Pretoria, but there’s a remarkable replica on display in an informative museum in the park, along with other jewellery and everyday items that were excavated. We took shelter from the rain at the award winning, domed interpretation centre and got to learn why this site is now a protected World Heritage Site.
But having that Unesco status is not enough to protect it. Mapungubwe was officially declared a national park in 1995 after decades of agricultural use. Efforts have been made in establishing it as a pivotal part of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area together with Botswana and Zimbabwe. Rehabilitation of the land is slowly fixing the agricultural overuse of the past, but the presence of man is still an eyesore in some parts of the park. But the biggest threat is that of coal mining on the fringes of the park. The possible expansion of their mining rights threatens the sensitive nature of the park, especially considering the large volumes of water required for mining operations.
The future of Mapungubwe National Park is uncertain; its landscape subject not only to changes in the natural environment, but also to the exploits of man. I’ll be sure to visit again while the beauty lasts, perhaps when there are fewer rain clouds and more golden sunsets.
- Mapungubwe National Park has two distinct sections. Leokwe is in the eastern section and is suitable for sedan vehicles.
- The easiest way to access it (from Johannesburg), is to take the N1 highway to Polokwane (300km), then take the R521 to Alldays (150km), and then a further 70km to Mapungubwe’s main gate on the R521 and R572.
- There is a short stretch of badly potholed roads after Alldays, but other than this the road was in a decent condition as at November 2015.
- Fill up with fuel in Alldays, as there’s no fuel in the park.
- Alldays has a few small convenience stores, with a limited selection of groceries.
Where I stayed
- I stayed at Leokwe camp, the main camp in the eastern section of the park. It’s a small, unfenced camp with no shop.
- It has a lovely pool, but no other facilities.
- The chalets are fully equipped.
- There is a restaurant at the interpretation centre. The food was adequate, if not basic.
- There’s almost no cellphone reception in the park. There was a small amount of signal at the Confluence view point.