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.
Category Archives: Mapungubwe National Park
Mapungubwe National 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.
Limpopo Ramble 2022: Yellow-spotted Rock Dassie
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.
With its distribution extending northwards well beyond Limpopo Province all the way to Sudan, the IUCN considers the Yellow-spotted Rock Hyrax to be of least concern.
Limpopo Ramble 2022: Mapungubwe Birding
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.
Limpopo Ramble 2022: Verreaux’s Eagle Nest in Mapungubwe
Limpopo Ramble 2022: Mapungubwe’s Treetop Walk
One of the real treats of a visit to Mapungubwe National Park is the Treetop Walk through the riverine forest on the South African bank of the Limpopo River (Botswana is on the opposite side). Sadly the length of the elevated boardwalk was trimmed significantly by recent floods, but it still offers a wonderful glimpse into life in the tree canopy and an amazing opportunity to watch elephants from above if you are lucky to be on the treetop walk when a herd moves through on their way to the water.
Limpopo Ramble 2022: The Kingdom of Mapungubwe
Mapungubwe Hill and the valleys around it, today part of the Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site, was the seat of a powerful African Kingdom that ruled between 1,100 and 700 years ago. Mapungubwe Hill is by far South Africa’s most important iron age archeological site and can be visited on guided tours.
The Interpretive Centre at Mapungubwe, itself an award-winning architectural marvel, provides a fascinating glimpse into the daily lives of the people who lived in the Kingdom of Mapungubwe. Royalty ruled from atop the hill, with their subjects living below. The Kingdom’s riches were based on gold and ivory, traded with cultures from as far afield as Persia and China through a trade route leading through the east coast of Africa. Mapungubwe means “Place where rock turns into liquid” in reference to the smelting of gold practiced by the country’s citizens.
The rich archeological treasures of Mapungubwe were re-discovered in 1933. Having been recognised formally as a National Monument in 1984, the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003.
Limpopo Ramble 2022: The Land of the Giants
In the Mapungubwe National Park, three aspects are truly iconic of this landscape: Elephants, baobabs, and rocky hills and cliffs. It’s as if the entire atmosphere of the Park hinges on these key natural attributes.
Mapungubwe, situated as it is at the place where the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet, has a high population of elephants and especially so when the dry season concentrate the behemoths along the banks of the Limpopo River. From families of cows and tiny calves to enormous bulls can all be expected along any of the roads traversing the Park, and sometimes waiting for these charismatic animals to clear the way can be a very entertaining delay. At other times, the dense mopane veld may lead to you inadvertently finding yourself in the personal space of one of the giants and they might react with more than a little agitation!
The Elephants even move through Mapungubwe’s unfenced main camp Leokwe, as we experienced one evening upon arriving at out cottage.
Baobabs are the undisputable rulers of Mapungubwe’s plant kingdom. With this part of the world now firmly in Winter’s grip, the trees are mostly leafless, lending more credence to the myth that the Creator tossed them to earth, planting them upside down. Elephants have a paticular liking for the pulpy wood of the baobab, and many of Mapungubwe’s trees show damage as a result, leading to the Park authorities protecting some prime specimens by using wire as wrapping around their trunks (those of the trees, not those of the elephants 😉 )
On the largest scale of all, it is the rocky, hilly landscapes that really forms the basis of Mapungubwe’s ancient atmosphere. The hills are composed mainly of dolerite – the remains of molten rock pushed up from deep inside the earth through sandstone that has long since weathered away to leave only the harder volcanic geology visible.
Limpopo Ramble 2022: Hungry Honeymooners
During our recent visit to Mapungubwe National Park we left the environs of Leokwe Camp early one morning to go and explore the western reaches of the Park around the Maloutswa Pan, near the Limpopo Forest Tented Camp and Mazhou Camping Site. We were already close to our destination when we came across a mating pair of lions enjoying the early morning sun.
The female especially was interested in (we thought) a herd of impala grazing nearby, and got up to sneak out of view followed by the male. Anticipating an impending attack on the impalas, we positioned our vehicle for a clear view of the antelope grazing entirely unaware of the danger lurking nearby.
What we didn’t see, but the lions did, was a family of warthogs. When next we saw the lions they were chasing the warthogs at speed across the road!
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on which team you support!, the warthogs were too quick for the lions, and the honeymoon pair had to continue searching for their next breakfast opportunity.
Limpopo Ramble 2022: Pel’s Fishing Owl
Now, searching for the Pel’s Fishing Owl can make you feel like Indiana Jones searching for some long lost artefact only to be thwarted at every turn. We have spent many, many hours over the years slowly driving through prime habitat in search of this elusive bird and have always come off second best.
Upon arrival at Mapungubwe National Park on the 25th of June, and while completing the usual formalities at the entrance gate, I enquired about whether there had been any recent sightings of Fishing Owls in the Park and whether we might book a special guided drive to search for them in case there was. Without hesitation the kind receptionist picked up the phone, and minutes later we were being escorted down to the banks of the Limpopo River by Leonard Luula, one of the excellent guides at Mapungubwe.
Leonard’s expert eye quickly picked out the bird that has eluded us for so long sitting in a tall riparian tree. We were ecstatic.
We went back to the same area early the following day and were very grateful to see the owl once again before it shuffled out of view along its perch to behind the screen of leaves.
As its name suggests, the Pel’s Fishing Owl subsists on a diet of fish (and the occasional frog, crab and even baby crocodile!) which it catches at night by swooping down over the water to snatch its prey from it. They live in riverine forests on the banks of large rivers and swamps.
Pel’s Fishing Owl usually nests in deep cavities or old hamerkop nests in tall trees near the water’s edge, mainly during the months of summer and autumn. The female incubates the clutch of two eggs for around 5 weeks while being provided food by the male. Both eggs usually hatch, but only one chick survives to fledging as the parents feed mainly the stronger chick and neglect the weaker, which dies of starvation within a few days of hatching. The chick remains in the nest for almost 10 weeks and is dependent on its parents for up to 9 months months after fledging. Due to it taking so long to raise a chick, pairs generally breed only every second year.
Pel’s Fishing Owl is the second largest owl on the African continent (after Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl). Adults have a wingspan of around 1.5m, sit about 60cm tall, and weigh approximately 2kg. Their call can be heard up to 3km away.
While overall Pel’s Fishing Owl is considered to be of least concern, it is listed as endangered in South Africa, with a population estimated at only between 70 and 100 mature individuals. Here, these enigmatic birds are found in the north of Kwazulu-Natal, along large Lowveld rivers – notably the Olifants and Luvuvhu – and along the course of the Limpopo on the border with Zimbabwe and Botswana. Thankfully, most of this restricted range is covered by formal protected areas, such as the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Kruger National Park and of course Mapungubwe National Park. They are very sensitive to human disturbance and threatened by habitat loss. Beyond our borders, Pel’s Fishing Owls are found widely, if somewhat patchily, over much of sub-Saharan Africa.