Mapungubwe National Park - September 2007

Wah-hoo … Wah-hoo … Wah-hoo. Again and again. The sun is not up yet, but the sky is bright as we are woken by the echoing calls of baboons in the surrounding sandstone hills. Something is upsetting them seriously.  Many are clambering up the steep cliffs, and hiding in small cracks and caves. Perhaps a leopard is prowling around, or a fight with another troop of baboons?

Last night on a guided drive we saw how a group of baboons sleep, hanging on almost vertical cliffs, their solution to avoid the ever-present leopards looking for an easy meal. But three hours of searching did not bring us to any sign of the elusive leopard!

We are in the Mapungubwe National Park for a week of R-n-R. Winter is at last over, and back home the temperatures are climbing, with blossoms and bulbs coming out all over.

Here in the northern-most part of South Africa it is already hot, with days reaching 35° C. Mapungubwe (Hill of the jackal) is the site of a stone age settlement which was populated from about 900 to 1270 AD, and abandoned probably because of a shift in the rain patterns.

It is estimated to have had 5000-9000 inhabitants at its peak. Declared a World Heritage site in 2003, Mapungubwe forms the core of one of South African National Parks’ newest parks, the Mapungubwe National Park.

Leokwe Camp

We stayed at Leokwe (pronounced Lock-Wee), which is set amongst sandstone hills. A small stream runs between the camp and surrounding hills, but in the dry season this has all but dried up. There is some water running under the sand, and shrubs and trees along the stream are doing well.

Each cottage is made up of two rondawels, one the bedroom and the other an open plan dining room and kitchen. The cottages are new and well designed, and the roofs reflect the shapes of the surrounding hills.


The camp is not fenced, so wild animals including elephant come and go as they please, as one can tell from the droppings - See the view from our front door!
Each cottage has a nice braai area, enclosed by a solid wall - good enough to keep small animals and snakes out, bearing in mind that the camp is unfenced.
Leokwe is at a latitude of just over 22° South, making the southern pole quite a lot lower than we are used to at home in Johannesburg. This time exposure of about an hour shows the Southern celestial pole from our camp.

The camp has no cell phone reception, no TV and no shop.  This last is a nuisance as one cannot even get milk or bread within the park.  The nearest small shop is at Pontdrift border post, and otherwise one has to drive to Alldays or Musina.

There is a small swimming pool next to the camp office, filled with nice cold spring water.


Other camps

The Vhembe Wilderness camp consists of four log cabins set high above a sandy plain.  More expensive than Leokwe, it would be well worth staying there.

The Limpopo Forest Tented Camp is located in the western part of the park, and is set amongst lovely Mashatu trees.

Also available are the luxury Tshugulu Lodge, and camp sites at Limpopo Forest.


There is a lovely hide right over the edge of the Limpopo, just upstream of the confluence.  It is reached by a long suspended walkway over the flood plain. In the dry season this allows views of various animals coming down to the water, and foraging in the grass, while in the wet season it provides access  right to the edge of the raging waters. 

On our visit we had good views across the confluence, which is mostly sand at this time of the year.

This passage was in the western part of the park, leading to a nice hide overlooking a waterhole.



Here we saw fever trees, and a family of warthogs really enjoying themselves in the mud!



Animals and birds seen

We were surprised by the large variety of animals and birds in the park. Here is a short list of the ones we noted.  There were many, many birds - not our speciality.

Animals - Day   Animals - night Birds
Blue Wildebeest
Ground squirrels
Vervet monkeys
Water buck
Baboons sleeping
Bush baby
Scrub hare
Spring hare
Black Eagle
Fish Eagle
Freckled nightjar
Grey Lourie
King fishers
Red-billed Hoopoe
Yellow-billed stork
and of course Hadedas!
Ground squirrels were common, but difficult to photograph as they are always dashing around, up and down trees, and over the roofs of the cottages.
We saw porcupines on four separate occasions.  They usually try to get away from you, so the regular view one gets is from behind.  Here you can just see the side of his head and one ear.


Spring Hares are very common, but they are difficult to photograph.  One advantage of getting a back view is you can see the large, furry tail. This tail makes their tracks fairly easy to identify.
It was real treat to see Black Eagles.  They are fairly common in the area, and live mostly off the Dassies and other small animals.  We saw a pair flying around over Mapungubwe hill, and also caught this pair surveying the world from a Baobab tree on top of a hill.



This Yellow-billed Stork on the right was wading in what was left of the mighty Limpopo river in the dry season.



We didn't specifically go looking for elephants, but there are large numbers if you really want to see them.  Many elephants wander back and forth between South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe during the dry season. We found a few in the dense bush along the Limpopo river. 

The signs of elephant were all around - Elephant dung even in our camp, right outside the front door, and we often found their spoor and fresh dung on the roads.

The elephants have an enormous impact on the trees.  They love to strip the bark from acacia thorn bush as shown here.   The Mopani trees in elephant-free areas look like real trees, but where the elephants are frequent visitors all the trees are stunted from continual stripping of the leaves.

Lala palms are also seriously damaged.


A couple of good-looking ladies watching us very suspiciously!

Impala are very common, and in this park they are very skittish, not allowing one to get too close.



A young zebra with a lovely coat.


This is the place to go if you want to see Baobab trees!   In the Mopani veld these trees are very noticeable, sticking out much higher than the general undergrowth.  In many cases they seem to occur in wavy lines, almost as though someone had walked through the veld, planting one here and there as he went. 

They live to a great age, and many in this park are somewhere between 1000 - 2000 years old. But they do not have rings like most other trees, so their age has to be estimated by other means.


They only propagate when conditions are really suitable, which may only happen every 50 years or so. The weather and rainfall needs to be just right, and in the years following germination conditions must allow them to grow, without risk of being eaten! 

We looked for young specimens - there is one near the main gate, which is about 5 years old - just a baby! 

This tree on the left is probably about 20 - 50 years old.


Two Baobabs growing well on top of a granite intrusion.
The Fever Tree was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in The Elephant's Child (" I am going to the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, to find out what the Crocodile has for dinner"). 

These acacias grow well in wet and humid locations, and were thought to be the cause of 'fever' or malaria. The deduction was incorrect but the correlation with malaria-carrying mosquitoes, which thrive in the same conditions, was spot on.


On the left is a Jackalberry tree (African Ebony; Diospyros mespiliformus).  Each of these trees seems to grow on a termite mound, and they seem have a symbiotic relationship, with no evidence of the tree being attacked. 

Does the tree germinate from seeds brought in by the termites, or do the termites colonise the tree once it is established?

Mapungubwe hill

The area was settled in around 900 AD, and thrived for about 370 years.  At its peak it is thought that the population was between 5000 - 9000. The chief and his closest family made their home at the top of this hill, keeping a good distance from the general people. 

There are various web sites with interesting information on the Mapungubwe civilisation, so I will not repeat it all here.

This shows the view to the North from the top of the hill.



Originally the top of the hill was only accessible via a narrow cleft, and required some climbing.  Sanparks has now constructed a nice wooden staircase, making access much easier - but it can still be quite a climb in the hot weather.

 Visits to the site are only allowed under supervision of park guides. 

At the top of the hill one can see the remains of sites where huts were built, and grinding stones. Unfortunately much of the interesting archeological material was removed by various people, and the provenance was lost.  More recent work has preserved what remained, and some of the finds are held by the University of Pretoria.

Skeletons from graves found on top of the hill are due to be returned to the site, probably in 2008

The indentations on this stone were for an early version of the game Marabaraba, in which stones are moved around according to well defined rules.

The Shashe - Limpopo confluence

Both the Limpopo and Shashe rivers appear to be very seasonal.  In the wet season they are raging torrents, carrying trees and everything else downstream, and making the river all but impassable. 

At Pontdrift there is no longer a pont, and a small aerial cableway is used to ferry people to and fro between South Africa and Botswana. 

However, in the dry season the rivers are mostly sand, and you can easily walk across.  The Elephants and Baboons cross freely, and so do many of the local population. 

Border fences

Currently there is also a large influx of refugees from Zimbabwe - There is some attempt at control, but it is a hopeless task, as can be seen from these pictures.

Here is part of the old fence built by South Africa to keep out incursions in the 1970's.  Between the two outer fences is a mess of sharp barbed wire, which encloses some rather dangerous electric fencing.  However, it is not in good repair, and although in some places it appears to be operational, in others it is clearly not.


In some parts there is virtually no fence at all.  We met some park employees who were working on the fences, and it was clear that the 'electric' fences were not switched on.

Northernmost point of South Africa

We travelled along the small road which runs along the river, outside the Mapungubwe Park, and with the help of our GPS located the most northern point of South Africa. 

It all looks very much the same along this stretch, with the border fence keeping one away from the river.  Once again the 'river' consists entirely of sand.  (But see below...)


Pumping stations

Although there appears to be no water in the dry season, this is clearly not so.  The river bed in fact consists of a deep cleft in the rock, filled with sand ... And water runs through this sand throughout the year.

The Venetia mine has an extensive system of pumps all along the river, with pipes which go out under the sand into the true river bed.  There is a power line which takes electricity along the river, and every few hundred metres there is an underground pumping station, remotely controlled by a radio system. If you stop next to the pumps you can hear some of them running.

The same system is used outside the park for large-scale irrigation farming.  You can clearly see the large circular irrigated fields on Google Earth.

Voortrekker monument

This hill is reputed to have inspired Gerard Moerdijk, the architect who designed the Voortrekker monument.  He wanted to design a "monument that would stand a thousand years to describe the history and the meaning of the Great Trek to its descendants".

Pontdrift border post

In the dry season you can walk across the Limpopo - It's hot, dry and dusty! As soon as the water stops running, a fairly good road is built across the sand linking South Africa with Botswana.

This is the view as you come out of the river bed.







Don't worry too much about crocodiles, but keep a sharp lookout for elephants! This photo was taken from the middle of the river.
There is a small shop next to the border post, at which you can buy a few staples.

No ice cream or colddrinks, but you can get the real essentials.  This photo shows the power of branding - All the brands shown are well-known in South Africa.

A couple of Limpopo sunsets


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