Join us for a look back at the wonderfully wild South African destinations we visited during 2022. May 2023 be a blessed year for you and your family, memorable for all the best reasons.
Marakele National Park – the Setswana name meaning “Place of Sanctuary” – traces its existence to the proclamation of a 150km² tract of the Waterberg as the Kransberg National Park in 1986. Over the years, more land was added and today the expanded protected area known as the Marakele National Park covers 670km² of bushveld plains and soaring mountains.
Without a doubt the highlight of a visit to Marakele is the vista from Lenong Viewpoint high up on the mountain.
Marakele’s name is well deserved, considering that it is home to 91 kinds of mammals (including the famed “Big 5“), 363 kinds of birds (including an important colony of Cape Vultures), at least 62 species of reptiles, 27 amphibians and as many as 20 species of fish.
The South African National Parks provides a range of overnight options to suit almost every taste and budget in the malaria-free Marakele National Park. Bontle Rest Camp is located just a kilometre into the Park, very near the main gate and reception office. Here guests can camp in their own tents and caravans or rent one of the fully self-contained safari tents that sleep either 2 or 4 people. The camp is unfenced and regularly visited by various kinds of animals and birds. Guided drives and walks can be arranged through the reception office.
Motswere Cottage, in a remote woodland corner of the Park, is the most secluded option available to overnight guests. It is a revamped farmhouse that can accommodate groups of up to 8 guests.
Tlopi Tented Camp is Marakele’s most popular accommodation option, with the ten two-bed tents (an additional stretcher is available for kids) situated beautifully on the bank of a dam that attracts a constant parade of wildlife day and night.
The Thutong Environmental Centre provides dormitory-style accommodation for up to 128 people and is ideal for big organised groups from family reunions to schools and church groups.
Marakele National Park is within easy reach of Gauteng’s major urban centres, lying just 220km north of Pretoria along good tarred roads. The town of Thabazimbi, just 10km from Marakele’s gate, provides all the necessary amenities one might need, from shops and fuel stations to medical facilities. Inside the Park guests are able to explore along a network of rough gravel roads, with the route up to Lenong viewpoint being the only stretch of tarred road in the Park.
The treasure we know today as the Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site has a troubled recent history. In 1918 already the corner of our country where the borders of South Africa, Botswana (then the British protectorate of Bechuanaland) and Zimbabwe (then still the British colony of South Rhodesia) met was set aside as a botanical reserve due to the area’s unique plant communities. It soon became known as the Dongola Botanical Reserve. In March 1947, with its size much reduced to placate the local farming community, the South African government proclaimed the Dongola Game Reserve at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. A change in government the following year however resulted in the fledgling conservation area being deproclaimed in its entirety almost immediately. A tiny portion of it, surrounding the Mapungubwe Hill, became a provincial nature reserve, Vhembe, in 1967. Then, in 1995, with South Africa now a multiracial democracy and Botswana and Zimbabwe independent countries in their own right, and after many years of a strict military presence on the border, this arid corner of our country was once again afforded the highest level of protection as the Vhembe-Dongola National Park. In September 2004, the park was opened to visitors and renamed the Mapungubwe National Park, in recognition of the fact that this area and its rich cultural heritage centred on Mapungubwe Hill was inscribed as a World Heritage Site the year before.
Mapungubwe’s human history dates back to hundreds of years before the colonial period however and is extremely fascinating. Visits to the interpretive centre near the gate and the archeological site on Mapunguwe Hill are not to be missed. Read more about it here.
Today, Mapungubwe covers 28,000 hectares and consists of two distinct parts, with private farming land isolating the two sections. Both sections adjoin the Limpopo River; the eastern portion is rugged and hilly – with beautiful baobab trees – while the western section is flat and dominated by a very different community of plants. Mapungubwe’s an arid place, with average annual rainfall below 400mm and summer temperatures that easily soar above 40°C.
Poacher’s Corner is an especially beautiful stretch of road through the riverine forest on the southern bank of the Limpopo.
Near Poacher’s Corner is Zebra Pan, itself a delightful place to park your vehicle and gawk at the constant stream of wildlife
The Maloutswa Pan and Hide in the west of the Park is yet another great spot to spend a few peaceful hours waiting for the birds and animals to come quench their thirst within easy reach of your lens.
Set atop a hill several lookout decks have been constructed from which to view the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers where the borders of the three countries meet. Near the car park there are also a few picnic tables and braai (barbeque) stands which are very popular with visitors to Mapungubwe.
The Treetop Walk on the bank of the Limpopo River is another place visitors to Mapungubwe National Park should not miss.
Mapunbuwe is home to a rich variety of wildlife, with records indicating a tally of 34 fish species, as many as 36 kinds of frogs, up to 75 species of reptiles, 460+ species of birds and 94 species of mammals, including the famed “Big 5“.
The South African National Parks provides an assortment of self-catering accommodation options in Mapunguwe National Park, ranging from camping sites at Mazhou in the riverine forest along the Limpopo River to the top-of-the-range Tshugulu Lodge. Guided drives and walks, including visits to the Mapungubwe archeological site, can be booked at reception, while there are several gravel roads available for exploration in your own vehicle (even more if you have a 4×4). Simple meals and firewood is available from the interpretive centre, but the nearest available fuel, and other services, to the Park is in the towns of Alldays or Musina, both about 70km from the gate.
Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site lies right at South Africa’s northernmost corner, roughly 470km north of our capital Pretoria.
A fact that is not well-known, even among South Africans, is that our country is home to two different kinds of Dassie, or Hyrax, that live mainly in rocky terrain. We’ve already featured the species most people are acquainted with, the Rock Dassie (Procavia capensis), which is widely distributed throughout all our provinces. By contrast, in this country the Yellow-spotted Rock Dassie occurs only in our northernmost province, Limpopo, and often in mixed communities of both species numbering from a few to more than a hundred. The rugged Mapungubwe National Park is an excellent place to see them.
Like their better known relatives, Yellow-spotted Rock Dassies are herbivores that feed on a wide variety of plant material, with leaves forming the bulk of their diet. They are fairly independent of drinking water. Yellow-spotted Rock Dassies are also diurnal and love basking in the sun. They’re excellent at climbing around in trees, which they do mostly for feeding as they’d usually take cover among the rocks in case of danger. One of the group is always on sentry duty while the rest feed.
The basic social unit of a colony of Yellow-spotted Rock Dassies consist of a dominant, territorial male with a harem of adult females and their young. They breed throughout the year, females usually giving birth to 2 babies. Adult Yellow-spotted Rock Dassies weigh between 1.5kg and 3.5kg and measure between 30cm and 50cm in length. They seldom live to older than 11 years in the wild, and usually much shorter.
During our recent visit to Marakele National Park, while enjoying the magnificent view from the Lenong Viewpoint, we spied a little Eastern Rock Sengi basking in the early morning sun – a habit they are particularly fond of – behind a fence surrounding one of the communication towers also built atop the mountain. While the fence is a rather irritating obtrusion in these photo’s of ours, it is probably because of it that the Sengi felt comfortable enough to be out and about, safe in the knowledge that neither us humans nor any other predator could reach it!
The Sengis, or Elephant Shrews, (order Macroscelidea) are a family of 20 small, insectivorous mammal species occurring only in Africa. While they’re superficially very shrew-like they are in fact not related to shrews at all (and they are in fact more closely related to elephants, even if their “trunks” aren’t nearly as long and prehensile), which is why the scientific community is trying to move away from the old moniker in favour of Sengi, a name based in indigenous African languages.
The Eastern Rock Elephant Shrew, or Sengi then, occurs widely in South Africa’s northern and eastern provinces and throughout Zimbabwe, extending into portions of Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana and Mozambique south of the Zambezi. The IUCN considers it to be of least concern.
As suggested by its name, the Eastern Rock Sengi is always found in close association with rocky areas where they hide in cracks and tiny caves among the boulders. Here they subsist on a diet that consist of insects (mainly ants and termites) and other invertebrates, though they will also eat seeds. They are diurnal, very rarely venturing out in the dark. They are also very alert and nervous, usually dashing for cover at the slightest disturbance.
Eastern Rock Sengi’s are mainly solitary and seen in pairs only while they breed during spring and summer. Females usually give birth to twins after a two-month long gestation. The young are very well developed and can move around with their mother soon after birth. Fully grown, Eastern Rock Sengi’s measure about 26cm long (of which the tail is more than half) and weigh approximately 60g. They have a very short lifespan and may live to only around 18 months of age in the wild.
Scarcely half-an-hour after arriving at Marakele National Park on the 29th of June, while making our way between reception and our allocated tent at Tlopi Tented Camp, we were met by this beautiful male lion, out patrolling and marking his territory. It really is nice to have your arrival acknowledged by the local royalty, don’t you think?
Late one evening as we were slowly heading back to Marakele National Park’s Tlopi Camp with a few minutes left before gate closing time, we found our way blocked by a big herd of elephants, and I parked our vehicle a good distance away so that we could enjoy the sighting. While the herd were peacefully going about their business up ahead, suddenly a young elephant cow came charging at full tilt out of the bush right next to us!
I immediately turned the car around and drove off. After a few hundred metres I slowed down so that we could resume our more leisurely game-viewing pace, only to have the raging cow appear in the rear-view mirror again. This being repeated several times, it was startling to realise that she would not relent and in the end she chased us for over a kilometre – with Joubert snapping away these photographs – before she turned around.
One afternoon during our recent visit to Marakele National Park, while relaxing on the deck of our safari tent and enjoying the serenity of Tlopi Camp, this sizable herd of buffaloes visited their local waterhole for a drink. Joubert is responsible for all these pictures.
Including the Pel’s Fishing Owl and the Verreaux’s Eagles at their nest, we managed to identify exactly 100 bird species during our 4 night visit to the Mapungubwe National Park in June 2022. With over 460 species recorded in the Park, many of which are summer visitors, we’ll just have to return again to build on our list. These are some that played along for a photo or two during our latest visit to Mapungubwe.