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.

Bushveld lux­ury

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...

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