Mapungubwe National Park Offers Stunning Vistas, Abundant Wildlife, Glimpse Into Ancient Past
Updated: Apr 30
Note: This weblog details a one-day visit to South Africa’s Mapungubwe National Park. It includes nearly 60 images, some arrayed in galleries by topic. Check them out and enjoy!
Our 2021 safari to South Africa marked the second time we had the opportunity to visit this land of incredible history, vistas and wildlife. We were again hunting with Phillip Bronkhorst Safaris. Phillip offers a variety of side trips once the hunting part of the safari is completed. Our first trip in 2015 saw us make an incredible three-day visit to Kruger National Park. The 2021 expedition afforded the opportunity to head a couple of hours north, to the top of the country, where the Limpopo River meets the Shashe River, a two-river confluence marking the junction of three countries: Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Professional hunters Pieter Taylor and Ruan Geyser took my wife Maria and I to the park. Ruan is also a videographer and he shot many portions of the videos we produced related to the safari. Having a couple sharp-eyed PHs in the truck obviously helps when it comes to spotting and identifying wildlife.
Mapungubwe National Park, originally called Vhembe Dongola National Park, was created in 1998. The designated area, more than 68,000 acres, is of significant archeological and cultural significance. The park is renowned for its scenic landscape, with sandstone formations, woodlands, riverine forest and baobab trees. It is also near the Kolope River, which is south of the confluence, and it borders the large Mapesu Private Game Reserve to the south. Keeping large animals in check is an ongoing challenge as we observed many areas along the highway where large sections of fence had been flattened by elephants that refused to be constrained by man-made artificial barriers.
The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape was declared as a National Heritage Site in 2001 and it was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2003. According to UNESCO, the land is an “open, expansive savannah landscape at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. Mapungubwe developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century. What survives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area dependent upon them, as well as two earlier capital sites, the whole presenting an unrivaled picture of the development of social and political structures over some 400 years.”
Mapungubwe is said to mean, “Place of the stone of wisdom,” and it was the site of an early, if not the first, South African kingdom, which lasted some 400 years before being abandoned in the 14th century. The people of the kingdom were said to be sophisticated, trading gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt. Mapungubwe Hill, the site of the lost city, has foreboding cliffs surrounding it. It’s a beautiful park, with incredible vistas and rock formations. Some of the ancient baobab trees are likely well over 1,000 years old.
Evidence collected over the years shows this Iron Age kingdom was community was prosperous. Important artifacts found in the area include the legendary golden rhino and a golden scepter of an ancient ruler. Since the park's UNESCO designation, a building and interpretive center with domed buildings that fit harmoniously into the landscape have been constructed. A museum displays many artifacts uncovered in the park.
The park has several scenic vista spots on the available driving tours, some of which are advisable only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. There are confluence overlooks, a picnic area and a “treetop walk,” an elevated walkway at least 30 feet or higher above the riparian area leading to the river. Elephants are commonly sighted there. The one thing about any park in Africa is that people must beware when leaving their vehicles. Going for solo hikes or leisurely strolls or prolonged sits in a scenic spot might bring an unwanted encounter with creatures that could hurt you badly or kill you, especially in early morning or late afternoon. Signs typically advise visitors where to be particularly cautious. Still, a lone angler sat out on a sandy shoal along the Limpopo River, fishing its middle from the Zimbabwe side.
There are remnants of an old military outpost and training facility on the park, close to the Zimbabwe border.
The park, while appearing rugged, even austere from some of the high-ground vantage points looking down toward the river, actually supports most of Africa’s large wildlife species, among them elephant, hippo, lion, leopard, cheetah, Cape wild dog, hyena, elands, blue wildebeest, kudu, zebra, bushbuck, waterbuck, impala, klipspringer (we saw several klipspringer - see image gallery below), duiker, steenbok, red hartebeest, oryx, giraffe, warthog, bush pig, aardvark and baboon. There is also smaller species, such as vervet monkeys, badgers and caracals, plus a variety of birds. And we had fun photographing a yellow hornbill.
Hikers heading out on foot in warmer months need to not only look out for mammalian predators, but some reptiles, as well. The park is known to have rock monitor and water monitor lizards, smaller lizards and geckos and an estimated 30-plus species of snakes, including pythons, snouted cobras, black mambas, and horned and puff adders. The Limpopo River also has crocodiles.
Rocky peaks and outcroppings often hold colonies of hyrax, also called rock rabbit or dassie, small mammals that look a bit like some marmots or oversized guinea pigs. They have stumpy toes with hoof-like nails; and four toes on each front foot and three on each back foot. Some, with youngsters, seemed to display a bit of attitude. Another one appeared sickly, with blood-gorged ticks evident on his ears. The gallery below shows several of the little critters who were living in a large colony atop a large rocky bluff with a panoramic view of the valley below. The hyrax had what might be called a "million-dollar view."
The vegetation in South Africa, especially in the bush, is dominated with various thorny species. Several acacia species are found in the park along with shrubby mopane. One aspect that I found particularly interesting was how the riparian area down along the river has a forested feel, with large trees and a closed canopy, sort of like a jungle with a mix of thick understory. Considerable wildlife was hanging out in these protected, shadier areas - kudu, baboons, vervet monkeys, elephants and many more. In the main, more open areas of the park, ancient baobabs dot the landscape, with one tree sporting a reported girth of 102 feet!
I hope you get a chance to visit. If you can’t, maybe these photos will help you understand the landscape and inspire you to travel. Happy rambling!