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.
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.
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.
We’re fresh back from our visits to two of the lesser known National Parks in South Africa’s Limpopo Province; Mapungubwe and Marakele. We had a wonderful time and have lots of stories and photos to share in the coming weeks. This is just a little teaser.
Mapungubwe National Park 25-29 June 2022
Marakele National Park 29 June to 3 July 2022
In the far north-west corner of South Africa’s Limpopo Province, on the border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, is a national park that protects not only a rich and diverse natural landscape, but also a fascinating cultural heritage.
Mapungubwe National Park was officially proclaimed only in 1995 (originally called Vhembe-Dongola National Park) and was conferred World Heritage Site status in 2003, but the area’s rich history dates back much further than that. Atop the inconspicuous Mapungubwe Hill, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a thriving and advanced African civilisation, dating back to between 900 and 1250AD, trading with countries as far away as Egypt, India and China. This rich cultural heritage is today showcased in an award-winning interpretive centre and guided tours are presented to the archaeological site on and around Mapungubwe Hill.
The Park however has much more to offer nature enthusiasts though. The Park is home to large predators like lion, leopard and spotted hyena, a large number of elephants, many antelope species, zebra and giraffe, a huge variety of birds, reptiles and invertebrates, and interesting plant life – not least of which is the impressive baobabs.
From a cliff-top viewpoint there are magnificent views over the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers where South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meets, with a well laid-out picnic site nearby.
In the same general vicinity a unique raised walkway – high enough for elephants to walk underneath with ease and almost a kilometre in length – leads through the riverine vegetation on the banks of the Limpopo. Here the fever trees, with their yellow trunks, are particularly beautiful – a notice board at the start of the trail calls into memory a quote from one of Rudyard Kipling’s’ Just So Stories, The Elephant’s Child: “…till at last he came to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees…”.
The Maloutswa Hide, in the western section of the Park, is another highlight not to be missed. Here, in a shaded, spacious wooden building overlooking a large pan one can easily while away hours watching the animals and birds come and go to slake their thirst at the water’s edge.
SANParks offer overnight accommodation in four camps (Leokwe Rest Camp, Limpopo Forest Tented Camp, Tshugulu Lodge and Vhembe Wilderness Camp) and camping at the Mazhou Campsite, and a variety of guided activities are also on offer.
Today grand plans are being implemented to establish a unified trans frontier conservation area centred on Mapungubwe by incorporating state and private land from the three neighbouring countries – a praise-worthy initiative well worth supporting.