[This account was written in 2015 and is the first of a series of travelogues first circulated as emails. Pictures by the author except for the Great Zimbabwe ruins and exterior of the museum.]

Mapungubwe is an historic site in the far north of South Africa bordering the Limpopo River, now included in a national park. In particular it refers to a flat topped hill which was the centre of an early civilisation. Early Stone Age people appeared here around 300,000 years ago but it was only in the first century CE that early farmers entered the area. Three hundred years later early iron age people brought domesticated animals, pottery and improved tools. Early in the second millennium clearing of land for crops took place and initially K2, another flat topped hill close to Mapungubwe, was settled, followed by Mapungubwe itself. This area around the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers was particularly favoured by virtue of the annual flooding depositing fertile alluvial soils in the manner of the Nile in Egypt. The peak of civilisation was reached in the early 13th century when it became the centre of Southern Africa’s first indigenous kingdom, incorporating a large population and entering into trade within an Indian Ocean network.

However this period was of short duration as drought apparently caused a movement to the north where the Great Zimbabwe city was established with its better known Zimbabwe ruins. The photo below of the Tower in the Great Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe (per Wikipedia) appears typical of the mortarless walls associated with these civilisations (Great Zimbabwe differentiates the main ruins from countless smaller ‘zimbabwes’- large houses of stones –  in the area).


The area attracted interest from the early days of white settlement with Paul Kruger and Jan Smuts both actively involved in the area. Nature reserves have been a feature of the region for many years and De Beers, whose Venetia diamond mine is close by, is prominent. Approximately 12 years ago it became a world heritage site. The mining controversy started around 2010 when Coal of Africa (CoAL) received opencast mining rights to an area 7km to the north east. Being downriver of Mapungubwe I’m not sure of the exact concerns of the coalition of environmental groups. However the Dept of Environmental Affairs, together with the Dept of Water Affairs, did oppose the development initially but later capitulated to the Dept of Mineral Resources decision to grant mining rights. The latest situation seems to be that CoAL paid R9 million in fines for failure to comply with certain requirements and has entered into a biodiversity agreement valued at R55 million. Unesco visited the site twice with views as reported in the Sunday Independent thus::  “The mine would not only destroy the cultural heritage which happened to be in its way, but also modify the cultural landscape. Unesco did not agree with an assessment which found the impact of mining at Vele would be minimal. The site had “seriously deteriorated” and Mapungubwe risked being placed on the list of world heritage sites in danger.”

For a University of the Witwatersrand study entitled Changing Corporate Behaviour. The Mapungubwe Case Study. A Research Report please see:

The national park known as Mapungubwe has only been in existence about 11 years. The confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers is the meeting of borders between Botswana to the north west, Zimbabwe to the north and north east and South Africa to the south. The park is currently in two sections separated by private farms with access between the two by a linking road in the past but we were told the bridges had been washed away and we had to trek round on the public road almost to the border post at Pontdrift to access the western section. A trans-frontier park is the ultimate aim. See map below (which may have been replaced by a URL).

We stayed in the Leokwe camp which is a group of eleven or so double-rondavels (traditional round dwellings) at the end of a small valley surrounded on three sides by low sandstone cliffs. The accommodation is very comfortable. They had quite a few satellite tv channels and there was air conditioning which we didn’t need but may not have been completely effective as the output vent was situated low down in the bedroom under a shelf. There is no fence around the camp so any animals that want to wander in can do so but not many seem to. We just saw squirrels running around and one night there had been an elephant in the camp. It’s not cheap, as with everything else here. Even though it is not a large reserve there was one driving route which involved an extra charge, the museum / interpretation centre was extra and the drives and walks not cheap.

Quite a few of the roads are notionally 4×4 only and the track we went on, which wasn’t marked on their map, had extreme turns through dense bush – real full lock to full lock stuff with no chance to reverse at any speed at all if you came upon an elephant, which we did. Most of the roads though were OK especially for good clearance vehicles.

On our first full day we took the opportunity to go on the drive to Mapungubwe Hill – no access except on their tour. We stopped to look at the odd interesting thing on the way. We thought this also applied to the elephants in the picture below until the guide told us to get out and start walking. The hill is a flat topped koppie (hill) bordered on all sides by cliffs. The royalty lived on top of the hill and the commoners below. As we approached the foot of the hill we came to a metal cover which was pulled back to reveal steps leading down to an excavation. Here we could see a profile of the excavations with various layers of hut floors, pottery and bones going back through the centuries.

Once past this the path goes towards the cliffs and up the gully used by the inhabitants. We could probably have climbed up the fig tree roots but steps had been installed. The inhabitants anchored steps into the sandstone. This is the only route up the cliffs and was continually guarded at the top. The local women were charged with carrying both soil and water up onto the hill. The water was stored in a large excavated pit on top. The male royalty meanwhile were able to play games involving small stones placed in hollows in the rocks as if part of some medieval skittles. There was an excellent view from the top all round. Royalty were buried on the hill along with ornaments, pots and including the golden rhino now in the University of Pretoria (gold plated in fact).

Included in the tour we went on was a visit to the museum / interpretation centre. This was built in the traditional  Mapungubwe manner giving it a unique appearance and winning a world building of the year award in 2009. Included are numerous relics relating to the Mapungubwe cultural period.

The website describes the building thus:

In this surreal setting Peter Rich has designed a 1,500m2 visitor’s center which includes spaces to tell the stories of the place and house artifacts, along with tourist facilities and SANParks offices. The complex is a collection of stone cladded vaults balancing on the sloped site, against the backdrop of Sandstone formations and mopane woodlands. 
The vaults have been designed in collaboration with John Ochsendorf from MIT and Michael Ramage, Univ. of Cambridge, using a 600 years old construction system to achieve a low economical and environmental impact. The traditional timbrel vaulting, using locally made pressed soil cement tiles, allows the design to be materialized with minimal formwork and no steel reinforcement. In addition, the ambition was to also integrate local unskilled labor into a poverty relief program by training them to produce the over 200,000 tiles necessary in the construction of the domes.

Animals are quite scarce in the park but the scenery is interesting by virtue of the predominance of broken rocky country interspersed by a few plains. I don’t have a picture which really does justice to it though some idea can be obtained from the sunset picture taken from the confluence viewpoint, where the large baobabs on the plain lend some scale, and by the other one taken from nearby but on a later occasion looking towards Mapungubwe Hill. The flattish top can be seen where the royals lived.

The park is roughly 1500m above sea level. This combined with its position north of the Tropic of Capricorn meant that the mid winter days (the last week of June) varied from cool in the early morning to quite hot at midday, especially with the very calm cloudless days that prevailed while we were there. Temperatures ranged from 9 to 29°C. Despite it being the coolest part of the year the animals seemed to keep to the routine of laying up in the shade of trees during the hottest part of the day (walking in the sun at midday gave the impression of it being much hotter than 29). The animals seen most often were groups of impala and elephant. My good wife was of the opinion that the park was overstocked with elephant in view of the damage to the trees (but there again she thinks our house is overstocked with men) and there were zones identified as elephant exclusion zones to measure the differential effect. The baobabs were the only trees which could make the elephant seem small. Though the elephant was in deep shade in the following photos it can be seen how he almost seemed to be climbing the tree in his efforts to get his tusks under the bark to break it off to eat. Whereas other trees were dying because they had been pushed over or ring barked the baobabs all appeared in good shape helped no doubt by their size but also by their (unique?) ability to regenerate bark directly from the inner wood rather than by the surrounding bark spreading back over the wound.

Animals seen included warthog, kudu, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest but not that many buck. An interesting sight was of klipspringer (rock jumper). We are so used to seeing these standing on rocky outcrops at a distance that we could not immediately recognise the ones we saw on more than one occasion in a grassy area by the road, as below. Birds were also surprisingly scarce given that over 400 species have been identified here. The most common is the lilac breasted roller, as seen below, while in some areas the long tailed glossy starling was very common. [I took a tripod but didn’t use it as the places where it would have been useful were generally places you weren’t allowed out of the car.]

The picnic area near the confluence viewpoint is the best place to get out and walk a little (say a kilometre or so between the various viewpoints). On asking the Park employee on duty about animals in the vicinity, the first time we were there, he said there were a couple of elephant and pointed very vaguely in the direction we were taking. I resisted the temptation to feign tiredness from driving while my passenger took the walk. There are though two other places where you can get out of the car. One is the treetop walk which goes to a viewing platform close to the river. On more than one occasion we saw elephant crossing over between SA and Zimbabwe, together with a number of people, emphasising how porous is the border. The river is little more than a series of pools at this time of year though the electrical transmission infrastructure and equipment gave the impression that large volumes of water were being, or could be, extracted from the water table.

On the western portion there is a bird hide on a waterhole approached by a long fenced walkway. This provided a view of water birds, quite few zebra drinking and a rather sleepy crocodile (the guard on the gate didn’t believe a crocodile would be there, away from the river, until we showed him the photo).

The Park is to be recommended as providing a somewhat different experience to other South African national parks. As always with such parks we missed being able to potter in the veld to look at the trees and flowers or undertake longer walks. The view from a car does not provide the experience gained by walking through the bush. For this we can recommend the multi-day walks with two rangers in the Kruger Park (and others; we have only been on a Kruger Park one) where you can come across all the larger animals and appreciate the smaller ones in the company of guys who amaze by their powers of observation and tracking, and confidence in approaching animals, by understanding their habits. The Kruger Park walks are renowned (or were when we did one) for their popularity, with participation being gained by lottery. But that still deprives one of the pleasures of exploring on your own. Otherwise unaccompanied walks can be undertaken in reserves which lack the larger animals, providing the pleasure of mingling with the animals. On mountain bikes there can be even more interaction.

© J R B Livesey 2017


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