Tent Travels: An ancient place where three countries meet

The Treetop Walk, leading to the Limpopo River bank.

MAPUNGUBWE, alongside Kipling’s grey green greasy Limpopo River in a northern corner of our wonderful country, is another strikingly beautiful South African National Park, so let’s pop in there on our virtual travels to see what makes this wild place so special. It is a place of vivid contrast, of chunky domed hills and harsh rocky vistas, of magical riverine forests and well watered flood plains, but what really makes it unique is its mysterious atmosphere.

It really does feel like an ancient, sacred place and the brooding Mapungubwe Hill that towers over the reserve enhances its mystical character.

The Limpopo, Shashe confluence where three countries meet. From the South African side you can look into Botswana on the left and Zimbabwe.

It is thus not surprising to discover that for many centuries, man has left his footprints here. An Iron Age community prospered in this well-watered rocky place as far back as 900 AD. The hill was once the capital city of the complex African Mapungubwe civilisation, which had trade links with places as far flung as China, India and Egypt. Fascinating archeologial treasures have been unearthed there, including the famous golden rhino. They demonstrate the wealth and skills of these long-ago inhabitants, the ancestors of the Venda people who live in the area today.

Not surprisingly, Mapungubwe is not only a national park but because of its cultural and archeological significance, a World Heritage Site as well.

There is always something interesting to see at the Maloutswa bird hide.

The reserve’s attractively designed reception area, offices, information centre and the magnificent self-catering cottages reflect so cleverly the artistry of the ancient Venda people. The imaginative architecture that celebrates the Venda culture also adds to the pleasure of visiting the park, as do the excellent tourist facilities. The campsite at the reserve is a cool and shady place set beneath towering riverine trees in the smaller, western section of the park where there is also an attractive tented camp.

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The only drawback is that this section of the park and the main, eastern section are separate entities, divided by a sizeable slab of privately owned land. When we stayed there it took us about half an hour, mostly along a rather nasty gravel road, to travel from one section to the other.

For this reason it is a good idea to pack a picnic and make a visit to the eastern section a whole day’s outing.

Mapungubwe offers excellent tourist facilities like this attractive wooden deck.

All the same, the smaller western side has many charms. A network of game viewing roads winds its way through the magnificent riverine trees, providing many pleasant encounters with the elephants and shy forest creatures that glide so silently through this green haven. The Maloutswa bird hide, overlooking a water hole, is one of the western section’s special little gems.


Birding there is particularly rewarding, but plenty of animal come down to the water, too. One of the most interesting spots in the main, eastern section is the viewsite overlooking the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. Three countries meet here and from wooden viewing decks on South African soil visitors can look down into Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Nearby is a pleasant and much-appreciated picnic site, as spotlessly clean and well-maintained as we have come to expect when visiting a national park.

Camping under the magnificent riverine trees.

The eastern section also has a good network of game viewing roads offering the opportunity to see most of South Africa’s big mammals and plenty of interesting smaller creatures. However, it is the ever-changing scenery and the varied birdlife – there are more than 400 avian species in the park – that make a game drive so impressive. There are also two well-maintained and scenic 4X4 routes in the eastern section of the park. The kanniedood Loop wanders through some rocky, harsh terrain over dry river courses and through pretty sections of mixed woodland, including the mini-forest of commiphora trees that give the route its name.

As their Afrikaans name – kanniedood (can’t die) – implies, these eye-catching trees with their strange peeling bark are incredibly hardy.

Sign at the Maloutswa bird hide gate.

The Khongani Plains route follows a passage through strange rock formations onto an extensive river plain where we encountered plenty of wildebeest, various antelope and five magnificent eland that trotted right past our vehicle. It then wanders through a pretty little wetland section, past Poachers Corner on the Limpopo, to end at the picnic site. One of the most impressive features of the park, however, is the Treetop Walk, an extensive boardwalks set out high up in the giant riverine giant trees that flourish on the banks of the Limpopo River.

It is a cool green tunnel, filled with birdsong that eventually leads to a lovely little hide, overlooking the river where white-fronted bee-eaters play in the early morning sunlight.

Harsh rocky outcrops are softened by the pretty vegetation.

In places, the great Limpopo River is indeed, as Kipling asserted, grey-green, greasy and set about with fever trees. Here, though, it is deep and shiny and blue, effortlessly cutting its way through extensive sandbanks. Its famous fever trees are not the only magnificent riverine species that make up the verdant swath marking its long passage to the sea. Along this stretch gigantic nyala trees, apple leafs, sycamore figs, leadwoods and ana trees jostle for river-frontage.

Here, it is a beautiful river, set about with some of the loveliest riverine forest I have seen and this tree-lined river is yet another reason why Mapungubwe is such special place.

The not so grey-green greasy Limpopo River.


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Judi Davis

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