Set right up against the northern border of South Africa, uniting Botswana and Zimbabwe, lies Mapungubwe National Park – an extensive savannah landscape situated at the meeting place of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. This is the land of sandstone formations, mopane woodlands, brooding baobabs, ancient floodplains and unique riverine forests that form a dramatic backcloth for the wealth of animal life – elephant, giraffe, buffalo, white rhino, gemsbok and other antelope, extensive bird life, and the more elusive mammal-like hyenas, leopards and lions.
Mapungubwe is South Africa’s first kingdom, a highly complex society that marked the heart of a pre-Shona kingdom between 1050 AD and 1270 AD, only to be abandoned in the 14th century. The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape – the virtually untouched remains of the palace sites, the settlement area dependent upon them, and two capital sites that remain – was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003 and forms part of the Mapungubwe National Park.
The Golden Rhino: The rhino is thought to symbolize power because of its ferocious temperament and is still a leadership symbol among the Shona of Zimbabwe today. The little golden rhino is not only evidence of these peoples’ metalworking skills and trade with the East – the rhino has a single horn like the Asian variety – but it also symbolizes to the world that South Africa’s cultural heritage is far richer and goes back further than realized.
Klipspringer is particularly at home in the dramatic landscape with rocky outcrops. They can be seen standing in pairs resembling little statues on top of a boulder. Chacma baboon also loves to keep guard on top of the sandstone cliffs. Eland and red hartebeest can be found on the grassy plains while greater kudu keeps to the thickets.
Wildlife: Mapungubwe is not primarily a typical safari destination. Its cultural and historical attractions are what it is known for. It is, however, a place with real wilderness appeal. A drive around the small wildlife viewing circuit will offer good sightings of a variety of species. Elephant, blue wildebeest, Burchell’s zebra, blue duiker and warthog are all quite common.
Getting There: Mapungubwe National Park is located about 520km/323mi north of Johannesburg near the border with Botswana. Mapungubwe is a self-drive destination. Only 35km/21mi of the road network in the park is accessible to normal 2WD vehicles, and a further 100km/62mi is accessible to all-terrain 4WD vehicles.
If you plan on continuing on to Botswana after visiting Mapungubwe, you could rent a 4WD at O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB) in Johannesburg and drive from there. O.R. Tambo is where most visitors enter South Africa.
The closest airport is in Polokwane and is 200km/124mi from the park. It is possible to take a connecting domestic flight from Johannesburg to Polokwane, but car rentals will be more expensive from here.
Where To Stay: Leokwe is Mapungubwe’s main camp, located in the eastern section of the Park, 11km from the Main Gate, in the spectacular sandstone hills. Close to the camp guests can enjoy the Treetop Hide and the Confluence View Site & Picnic Area. The camp itself has a swimming pool and sundeck, as well as a central braai area.