One of the great things about our current location is its proximity to South Africa’s flagship national park, Kruger (or, as South Africans call it, “The” Kruger). But June 15 begins a month-long school break and I’ve heard the traffic jams at a lion sighting can put a Hong Kong pileup to shame, so it seemed like the perfect time to explore Mapungubwe (traditional pronunciation: “mah-POON-hoo-bway”), South Africa’s northernmost national park and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site . The drive is only about 45 minutes longer than getting to Kruger, so away we went.
While the park is home to four of the “Big Five” (no Cape Buffalo), its real attraction is the archaeological site of the Mapungubwe Kingdom (1000-1200 AD). (For comparison, this area was occupied at the same time as the Mesa Verde cultures in the Four Corners of the American Southwest.) It was the first indigenous kingdom in Southern Africa and, with royalty living on the top of Mapungubwe Hill and approximately 1,000 subjects living around the base of the hill, the first class-based social system in southern Africa. It was also situated at the trade crossroads of southern Africa (near a confluence of two major rivers) and had access to gold and ivory which it traded for imports as far away as China (porcelain) and Persia (glass beads).
The park is divided into east and west sections, with a large tract in the middle belonging to a private landholder who has never agreed to sell. Even though we arrived from the west and were camping in the west, we still had to check in at the main entrance in the east. Since it was 30 km back to the campground, we decided to visit the museum before leaving the main entrance gate.
The museum is a stunning natural-material building which only officially opened in 2012. It houses the repatriated artifacts from the excavation site, returned to the local area from the University of Pretoria – where they’d been stored since the 1930’s – at the request of local tribes. You won’t be disappointed in the museum’s collection: it’s well laid out and takes only perhaps an hour to visit. The walls of several of the circular exhibit areas are papered with 360-degree life-size photos of the surrounding region designed to make you forget you’re inside an air-conditioned museum.
The coup de grace of the visit is, of course, the famous golden rhinoceros , but the pottery and gold/glass/seashell beads and bangles are beautifully displayed as well. Security is discreet but I noted that we only entered and exited the museum with our own personal (but unobtrusive) security guard who must have had a remote control to open the doors because they are massive yet swung open smoothly once he took our tickets and again at the end of the tour.
While inside, and again on the walkway to the top of the small hill outside of the museum, stop to admire the award-winning building itself. The park hired over 200 local people and trained them in a specialized method of manufacturing and laying tile so that the 7 domes making up the exhibit rooms of the museum were created by “eyeballing” it – there were no guides for the archways! We sat and enjoyed a beer and a plate of chips (fries) on the rooftop deck of the attached restaurant and spent as much time admiring the building as the surrounding scenery. Here’s an excellent video from a recent award if you enjoy this sort of thing:
I cajoled KC into the 7 am morning walk to the archaeological site. It’s never pleasant to wake at 5 am when on holiday (especially with a 30-40 minute drive from the campground back to the main entrance gate), but we were rewarded with the company of an equally early riser, an elephant ambling down the highway outside of the park. (I asked a ranger about this, and she explained that the western section of the park is not fenced, so the animals come and go.)
Once we’d met up with our ranger and 6 other visitors for the 7 am start, it was a quick 15-minute drive to the base of the archaeological dig, then a walk with all of us on high alert, having parked on top of fresh rhino tracks and edged past the dung heap where the park’s sole male rhino marks his territory (he must think he’s doing a great job since no other males have shown up to challenge him). A stop at the archaeological dig, protected under a clever rolling lid, was enlightening, but the real fun is to be had on the top of Mapungubwe Hill where the royalty lived. While a herd of zebra and impala milled about on the plains below, we walked through royal kitchens, bedrooms, childrens’ game rooms, and water storage tanks. Not only was it a respite from being trapped inside a vehicle in this park with lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos, it was a truly special place to spend an hour.
After the heritage tour walk, we struck off on our own to find the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers. Overlooking the confluence are several well-placed decks allowing you to see into Botswana and Zimbabwe across the rivers. We enjoyed a picnic here (the only place in the park where you’re currently allowed out of your vehicle when not with a ranger – the park also has a treetop bird hide and a canopy walk but they were damaged in severe flooding in January 2013 and are not yet back online as of June 2013), then visited the Pinnacle, Sunrise, Sunset, Confluence, and Main decks (they ran out of creative names for the latter, I guess). At one point we heard cowbells, and sure enough, on the far side of the Shashe River, a Zimbabwean herder guided his cattle to the river for a drink and then drove them back across the dry riverbed, ignoring the crocodiles sunbathing on the South African side of the river.
We enjoyed a game drive around the rest of the eastern side of the park before heading back to our campsite in the west. The highlight was a herd of elephants coming back from the river, cool and wet, who stopped in the middle of the road for an hour to graze and powder themselves with dry dust. We turned off the car and just enjoyed them.
Another big (tiny, actually) sighting of the trip was the rare Pearl Spotted Owlet. After dinner, I lazily asked KC to get a flashlight so we could look for owls, never believing for a moment we’d see any. Not 2 minutes after he’d handed it over, he said, “hey… flash the light over here… a little to the left… down… there.” Sure enough, there sat the tiniest owl I’ve ever seen (about the size of a paperback). It flew away but came back a little later, and the next morning, a ranger confirmed the sighting based on our description, a second bird book, and the type of tree we’re camped under (their favorite, apparently). Her envy was obvious: “They only winter here and I’ve been out with a colleague on a few night outings looking for one of these and we haven’t seen one yet!”
Compared to the other South African national parks (SANParks) we’ve visited, Mazhou Campsite is relatively primitive. The kitchen is limited to two sinks and a hot plate; no boiling water dispensers or refrigerators here. There are only 10 campsites, but they are very spacious and, unlike other parks, we couldn’t even see our neighbors through the forest. Each stand has its own water spigot and a beautiful braii stand with both a grate for grilling and a griddle (scrubbed daily by a friendly African youth who admires the North American wolf but can’t believe we don’t have monkeys and jackals). There are only 3 toilets and 3 showers (1 for men, 1 for women, and a disabled stall). Even with the campground completely full, though, we only had minimal wait times for washing dishes and showering, so the facilities are adequate for the campground’s small size.
A note on the gate: again contravening the SANParks standard fenced camping, Mazhou Campground was fenced but the only “gate” was a waist-high electrified wire to be pulled across the drive-in entrance to keep elephants out. It was never used in the 3 days we were in the park, but I suppose anyone could walk over before going to bed and close it if they wanted. We heard lions nearby both nights, but didn’t see any elephants near the campground.