MAPUNGUBWE NATIONAL PARK
The ancient kingdom
Mapungubwe is one of South Africa's least visited national parks. it is remote and its wildlife is less prolific as places like Kruger National Park or Addo Elephant National Park and therein lies the park's attraction. Its rugged landscape is the main attraction with the wildlife playing the second vidle. That is not to say that the wildlife is not spectacular but one has to learn to appreciate the smaller things in Mapungubwe National Park. The park is named after the kingdom that once had its capital here. You can actually visit the site where the settlement was found. You'll have to book that at the park's receoption, but more on that later.
How to get there
The park is divided in two parts: the western and eastern part. The park was established quite recently in 2007 and Sanparks has since tried to unify it into one park. This unfortunately has been completed yet so you'll have to exit the park to visit the western section, if youre coming from the eastern section and vice versa. The middle of the park belongs to a private lodge and requires reservations beforehand in order to visit that part. The National Park's reception, where you check in, is next to the eastern section's entrance so bear that in mind when you have booked a campsite in the western section. Its about half an hour's drive and the gates close around 18:00. More information on the actual gate opening and closing times can be found on the official SANPARKS website. A link to that website can be found in the Resources below. Also bear in mind that the road you''ll drive on to get to the other section is riddled with potholes so do be careful and plan accordlingly. Most of the park requires you to drive a 4x4.
The closest town is Alldays and is south of the park. It takes about an hour to reach the city from the park and is also the place where you need to stock up on fuel, food, drinks and charcoal. To the east is the town of Musina, which is the last place before the Zimbabwean border. You can get supplies there as well.
Camping in Mapungubwe
The park has multiple places where you can spend the night. I can reccommend the Mazhou campsite in the western section. This section is quite and only fenced to keep out elephants other animals roam the camp freely. When we arrived we were told by a frequent visitor that there is one camp spot where the resident leopard could be heard at night. So be careful at night. The campsite is equipped with toilets and showers and is neat and tidy. Every camp spot comes with a water tap, light, electrical outlet and a braai.
As i've mentioned earlier the main sight in Mapungubwe is the scenery: A landscape filled with koppies and baobab trees. A landscape that was filled with activity when it was the capital of southern africa's first indigenous kingdoms. The people of Mapungubwe hill controlled parts of Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. The hill itself was house to the royal family whilst the servants lived on the plains around the hill. From the hill the royal family had a view of a large part of the domain and the nearby confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. The primary source of water for the capital and to this day for all the animals and people in the park. In order to visit Mapungubwe hill you have to book a tour with the park's reception. In most of the National parks I wouldn't reccommend a guided tour but in this case I will recommend it. Firstly because the tour is led by Johannes who is very knowledgeable about the natural and cultural history of the park and secondly there is no other way to visit this part of the park as it is off limits.
Wildlife isnt the major attraction in this park. However there are some spectacular sightings to be had, if you're willing to admire and appreciate the smaller animals. The park borders the Limpopo river and water attracts wildlife in such an arid environment. Around water you will find elephants that love to drink and take a bath in the river water. Out of the big five the elephants are the most common with the others only rarely being seen. However the park is a renowned for its birdlife. Alongside the Limpopo river, in the eastern section, the park's management built a wooden boardwalk raised above the ground. You can exit the car there and walk between the branches of the majestic trees you can go eye to eye with the vividly coloured bee-eaters and kingfishers.
From afar the green trees that line the Limpopo river attracts wildlife avian and mammalian. However you needn't go to the park in search of animals. You go there for the endless rolling hills dotted with baobab trees. At night the stars come out and illuminate the sky. However as fencing is only targeted at elephants there might be the occasional leopard roaming around the campsite, so be careful when going out at night to photograph the stars. During the morning and evening hours the light has that ephereal quality most photographers seek in their landscape photo's so no worry about that. Sunset isn't cut short by a mountain range so you can really get the best of the light that there is.
As mentioned earlier the wildlife is mostly found near water so go there to find your elephants. In the western section the loop around the Maloutswa hide takes you alongside the river and offers great sightings of the bee eaters and zebras, whilst theMaloutswa hide itself has an uninterrupted view of the coming and going of animals at the waterhole. In the eastern section the boardwalk is a must for birders and the Khongoni loop has proven worthwhile with views of elephant herds in the riverbed.