Go on a cultural journey in one of our most alluring national parks.
In Mapungubwe National Park, three countries come together against a backdrop of sandstone koppies and baobabs. It’s the perfect place to slow down, to watch game and to learn more about the first kingdom in South Africa.
It’s late afternoon and I’m standing on a viewing platform in Mapungubwe, waiting for the sun to set over South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The platform – one of four – is high on a hill, above a floodplain dotted with mopane trees, acacias and several baobabs. On the other side of the floodplain is the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers – the place where South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet. I can see a blue flag demarcating Botswana on an island in the river. A few years ago, photojournalist Scott Ramsay was standing on this very platform when a herd of more than 200 elephants appeared below and crossed the Limpopo in a long line. His photograph of the scene is timeless – as timeless as the event itself, which has been occurring here for centuries. I’m not as lucky as Scott was. There isn’t a single elephant, eland or impala on the floodplain below. No matter: I’ve learnt over the years that you should appreciate nature in the moment and not hope to experience what you’ve seen in photos or on Facebook. The view is magnificent enough on its own, with or without wildlife. I meet a family from Centurion also watching the sunset from the platforms. They’re staying at Vhembe Wilderness Trail Camp in the park. “We’ve seen a lot of game, maybe even more than we saw in the Kruger Park a few months ago,” says Robert Kieser. “Elephants, wildebeest, impala, zebra, giraffe, duiker, klipspringer and so many birds.” They also tell me about the interesting Heritage Tour they did at Mapungubwe Hill. “You’re not just visiting a park when you come here,” Robert says. “You get something more out of the experience.” Indeed, there is a powerful human presence in Mapungubwe that goes deeper than manmade borders between nations – borders that the animals and rivers ignore in any event…
A golden history
Mapungubwe is 280 km² in size and consists of an eastern and a western section separated by private farms. The confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo is in the eastern section. I’ve booked three nights’ accommodation and my plan is to spend each of those nights in a different part of the park to ensure I explore it in its entirety. There are plans in the pipeline for the development of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area, where parts of Mapungubwe will merge with conservation areas in Zimbabwe and Botswana. The word “Mapungubwe” is derived from Sotho and Shona and means “hill of the jackal”. In Venda it means “place of the sacred stones”. The national park opened in 2004 to
preserve the area’s significant archaeological and cultural history and soon was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. About a thousand years ago, this was the site of the first kingdom in southern Africa. It was a thriving community that hosted traders from as far away as China and India. (Fragments of Chinese celadon were found on Mapungubwe Hill.) But it’s also a history that has been long overlooked, especially during apartheid. I can’t recall reading about the pre-colonial Kingdom of Mapungubwe and its riches in my school textbooks. I did know about the golden rhino of Mapungubwe, though. It’s the best-known artefact from this era, circa 1220 – 1290, when up to 9 000 people lived among the koppies. The rhino has been described as the southern African equivalent of Tutankhamun’s mask. It was carved from wood almost a thousand years ago and covered in sheets of gold foil. These days it’s exhibited at the University of Pretoria; there’s also a replica at the Interpretation Centre in the park. In 2016, the 42,8 g statue travelled to the UK as part of a British Museum exhibition celebrating a thousand years of South African art. Of course, Mapungubwe is also known for its wildlife and you can see four of the Big Five within the park boundaries. (Buffalo have been kept out to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.) There are also many species of antelope and about 400 bird species, including specials like African broadbill and red-billed helmet-shrike.
I can’t linger on the platform for too long because I’m staying at Tshugulu Lodge tonight, which is in the western section of the park. I have to go back to the main gate, exit the park and drive 18 km to the Tshugulu gate. Most of the roads in the park are traversable in a sedan. On the way to the main gate I come across a herd of elephants grazing in the last light. I arrive at Tshugulu Lodge at nightfall, the dark silhouette of a sandstone hill looming behind my spacious stone cottage that sleeps four people. There’s an electric fence at the entrance to prevent elephants and lions from entering the front garden at night. About 200 m away, there’s an eight-sleeper guesthouse with a swimming pool. I can see the light of a campfire and hear the laughter of fellow guests. Tshugulu used to be a luxury hunting lodge and as such, the self-catering units are very different from other SANParks accommodation. Each one even has air conditioning and DStv. I braai some boerewors and chops from the butchery in Alldays and go to bed early, lulled to sleep by crickets. It’s only the following morning that I realise just how scenic it is here, especially the contrast between the swimming pool, the green lawns and the sandstone cliffs. I chat to one of the other guests, Anton Reiche. He’s from Somerset West but works as a project manager in Kuwait. “This park is a real gem,” he says. “I like that it’s so quiet. Yesterday we spent four hours at the Maloutswa bird hide and only saw two other people. A herd of elephants came to drink and the matriarch was so close I could have touched her. We were too close for my 100 mm lens. It was very special.” He also tells me about leopard spoor he saw near the lodge, and about how Tshugulu is his favourite place to stay in the park. “I wouldn’t mind staying another week!” he says. He points out a trail that leads to the top of the highest cliff behind the lodge. I climb up and spend a while admiring the view of mopane and nyala trees, also wishing that I could stay a little longer…
Kipling and fever trees
I return to the eastern section of the park to do the Treetop Walk about 11 km from the main entrance. This elevated walkway is one of the most popular activities in the park: It’s about 6 m above the ground and 500 m long. Mapungubwe surprises yet again because the scenery on the walkway is entirely different to what I saw at the confluence of the rivers and at Tshugulu Lodge. I stroll past big ana and fever trees in the Limpopo riverine forest, with the river just a few metres away. I see a heron in the grass, and a waterbuck. At the start of the walkway there’s a quote by Rudyard Kipling from Just So Stories (1902), a book he wrote for children: “At last he came to the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees.” I don’t know if Kipling ever visited this exact spot during his travels in South Africa, but it’s easy to imagine the writer sitting here, surrounded by all those fever trees, trying to strike a deal with his muse.
The Interpretation Centre, also in the eastern section, is an impressive piece of architecture. The stone domes remind me of the ruins at Great Zimbabwe, where the people of Mapungubwe later settled. The centre was designed by South African architect Peter Rich and has won many international accolades. In 2009 it won World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, beating entries from 67 countries. Besides the Interpretation Centre and museum, the complex also houses a small restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch. The park doesn’t have a shop, but you can buy firewood here and order dinner to take back to your unit. My lunch is delicious: chicken with pap, pumpkin and beetroot.
A hill fit for a king
Later that afternoon, I set off on the Heritage Tour to Mapungubwe Hill, which the Kiesers from Centurion had raved about. We drive from the main entrance to the park in a gameviewing vehicle: me and two British tourists – Stuart and Rosemary Elliot – with guide Johannes Masalesa. Johannes is 50 years old and has worked in the park for 14 years. Some of the illustrious guests he’s taken on a tour include Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki and Hillary Clinton. “I was born here, I grew up here and I work here. I believe in many things… And I want you to enjoy the tour and feel at home,” he says. As we drive the 6 km to the hill, it strikes me once again how wild and pristine this landscape is. A big kudu bull eyes us from a ridge. Johannes parks the vehicle and we walk the last few metres. He’s carrying a rifle and reminds us to keep an eye out for lions, leopards, rhinos and elephants. As we walk, he points out shards of clay pots in the soil, evidence that people lived here centuries ago. Next we stop at the excavation site at the base of the hill, where Johannes tells us more about the history of the area: Although the kingdom existed in the 13th century, Mapungubwe was only “rediscovered” as recently as 1932. The story goes that a hunter called Van Graan heard rumours of buried riches and went searching. One day he was very thirsty and asked for water at the hut of an old man called Mabina Mokwena. The old man offered him water from a unique clay pot, which he said came from the “secret place” at Mapungubwe. But Mokwena refused to show Van Graan where this place was because his ancestors were buried on the hill and his people believed that if you disrespected your ancestors and went to the hill, you might not come back or you might go blind or deaf or lose your mind. Van Graan persisted, offering Mokwena alcohol and money to no avail. Eventually it was Mokwena’s son Chewana who took Van Graan to the hill. “Chewana stood with his back to the hill and pointed towards it with his finger,” says Johannes. “He told Van Graan to head to the ‘green tree’ if he wanted to find his way to the top.” On the hill, Van Graan discovered many artefacts including pottery and items made from copper, iron and gold. Thankfully, Van Graan’s son Jerry was a researcher at the University of Pretoria at the time and he convinced his father to declare what he had discovered. The university obtained permission to do excavation work in 1933. This was when the real riches of Mapungubwe were uncovered. More than 20 graves were found on the hill, three of which contained bodies buried in a sitting position in big clay pots. These people might have once been members of the royal family because they were buried with rare items like the golden rhino, a golden bowl, a golden sceptre and hundreds of golden beads. There was also evidence that the people of Mapungubwe had traded goods with Chinese and Arab merchants – the meeting point was presumably at Pafuri. The local residents also melted gold and iron in the area. Research and further excavations have shown that only the royals – fewer than 50 people in total – lived on top of the hill, with up to 9 000 people living on the plain below: an area of about 30 km². The Kingdom of Mapungubwe declined in 1300 when its people were driven north by a drought and the threat posed by tsetse flies. Most resettled in the area now known as Great Zimbabwe. We soon discover why Johannes is so knowledgeable: Chewana Mokwena, who showed Van Graan the hill, was his grandfather! “It’s said that he lost his sight soon afterwards,” Johannes says. “But he lived a long life. He passed away in 2010 at the age of 102. I learnt the history from him before I came to work here in the park. He sent me to a traditional healer in Botswana, where the
ancestors gave me permission to do this work.” One of Johannes’s previous clients – a man called Peter van Ryneveld – was so impressed with the tour that he gave Johannes a computer and a camera. This enabled Johannes to write the book Mapungubwe – Place of Ancestors, which is a record of the oral history of the area. I buy a copy from Johannes as soon as the tour is done, to add to my collection of Africana.
We carry on along the path to the top of the hill. Johannes points out the fig tree his grandfather described to Van Graan (the “green tree”) and the site where the graves were discovered. He describes how the women of the kingdom were forced to carry soil to the top of the hill to create arable land – about 20 000 tonnes in total – and tells us about the remains of millstones and storage pits for food and water that were also discovered. There is also a rock with manmade hollows that was possibly used as a type of board game by the royals. The sun is low in the sky when we start the walk down the hill. We walk in silence. Around me the sandstone begins to glow in the soft light. It’s mystical, almost sacred. The British tourists are also enamoured. “So many people from England prefer to stay in luxury lodges in big-name parks,” says Rosemary. “Not us. We’re very happy we’re here.” Johannes tells us how he was teased at school because he was interested in history. “Kids wanted to know why I didn’t like maths instead,” he says. “But what God gave me, no one can take away. Today I’m able to teach people history and I don’t even have a diploma. It makes me happy to share what I know.” And what a privilege it is to see history being kept alive by such a passionate custodian, whose grandfather was part of the story of Mapungubwe’s discovery.
Have some respect
Next stop, Limpopo Forest Tented Camp in the western section of the park. My home for the night is a self-catering tent under nyala trees. I drive the game routes and visit the Maloutswa bird hide about 3 km east of the camp, where I see a big herd of wildebeest drinking alongside warthogs and zebras. Mapungubwe is quiet compared to bigger reserves like the Kruger and Addo – and therein lies its charm. I spend my last night in the park in the eastern section at Leokwe Camp – Mapungubwe’s “main camp”, surrounded by sandstone hills. Before I leave the next day, I go back to the museum at the Interpretation Centre, which has a great collection of artefacts like beads and pots. I find a quote by professor Hannes Eloff, who led the excavations at Mapungubwe in the 1970s: “People leave many traces in the landscape – a shelter, a tool, a song. Even though they move on, these remain. I want people to remember Mapungubwe as the place where the old people lived, and to treat it with respect.”
UPSIDE-DOWN TREE. Baobabs, like this one near Leokwe Camp, are a common sight in Mapungubwe.
GOT YOUR TRUNKS? The De Beer family from Krugersdorp visited Mapungubwe in December 2017 when something unexpected happened. “We were only in the park for one night, staying at Leokwe Camp, when we noticed a herd of elephants walking towards the...